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Prodigies: Evaluating Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo

In a new series, Jake Rauchbach evaluates rising stars. Today: Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Jake Rauchbach

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Over the next few weeks, as part of a new series called Prodigies, we will be breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of the NBA’s top up-and-coming players. This group of highly talented prospects (all age-25 or younger) have a chance to be superstars in the NBA over the next decade. Each of these players has their own specific skill-set, but they all share one very important thing in common: consistent improvement, which is required in order to reach their full potential. We will evaluate each of these players and pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses, determining the areas of development they can focus on to take the next step as a player and dominate even further.

The first two players we will be profiling are New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis and Milwaukee Bucks point-forward-center-everything Giannis Antetokounmpo. Both Porzingis and Antetokounmpo are extremely gifted and possess high-level foundational skill-sets.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

19.9 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 45% from field, 40% from three

The No. 4 overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft has improved immensely from last year to this year, upping his scoring average by about six points while shooting better from the field and from behind the arc. The Latvian has a dynamic, hybrid-stretch-four skill-set that allows him to operate both down low and on the perimeter. Standing 7’3 with a 7’6 wingspan, Porzingis uses his size, adept shooting touch and above-average ball-handling skills to create scoring opportunities. The kid has a ton of potential, and many believe he has the chance to become a perennial All-Star in the league.

STRENGTHS

Improving shooter: Porzingis ranks in the 71st percentile in the NBA in regards to jump-shot opportunities, per Synergy, and has a knack for relocating to openings around the perimeter for shots and drifting off of ball screens to find quality looks. He also does a good job getting his feet set into his jumper and he has a fairly quick release. Factor all of this in with his size, and not many players coming from the help side have the range to effectively contest him.

Scoring moving without the ball: The big man has also been effective creating scoring opportunities moving without the ball this season. He can score it relocating out of pick-and-rolls and he creates opportunities for himself by setting fade, wide and down screens for teammates, which usually frees him up for shots. Through his first 27 games of this season, Porzingis scored 68 points on 44 such possessions – ranking him in the 89th percentile in the NBA, according to Synergy. Additionally, Porzingis is highly effective when it comes to dribble-hand-off (DHO) opportunities, according to Synergy. DHOs only make up only about two percent of his overall offensive plays, but Porzingis has been a killer: He has scored 17 points on 11 such possessions, ranking him in the 99th percentile in the league in this type of play. Hand-offs allow Porzingis to create enough of a rub on his defender to either get to the rim off the dribble or create space for his jumper. Considering his high release, any space he creates makes it nearly impossible for most defenders to adequately guard his jumper.

Rim protection and rebounding: Porzingis is currently 10th in the league in blocks per game with 1.78. He also ranks 30th in double-doubles with six. Porzingis is long enough and moves well enough to deflect shots in the post as well as on drives to the basket. He also does a good job rotating out of help-side defense to disrupt shots or clog the middle on drives to the basket. As Porzingis gains more strength, he should be able to counteract the stronger players who attempt to negate this shot-blocking ability by getting into his body.

WEAKNESSES

Playmaking ability: Despite being a solid straight-line driver, Porzingis is not great when it comes to the changing of directions off the bounce. Opposing teams often force the big man off of the three-point line and off pick-and-pop opportunities, causing him to make plays off of the dribble. This is one part of his game that, if improved, could counteract many of the defensive schemes geared toward stopping him.

Physical strength: Throughout his NBA career, Porzingis has struggled with stronger, more mature players. Oftentimes, opposing teams will assign smaller, more physical wings to cover him, which at times has disrupted Porzingis’ playmaking ability. The smaller defender uses his leverage to keep the Knicks forward off balance. Porzingis also at times struggles to defend stronger players in the post. At 21 years old, Porzingis will gradually improve in this area as he continues to make this a focus and grows into his body.

Post play: Due in part to his lack of strength and a high center of gravity, Porzingis’ post-up effectiveness lags behind some of the better players in the league. As such, he is currently averaging .85 points per possessions in the post – ranking him in the 50th percentile in the NBA, according to Synergy. There’s no doubt that his inside-outside versatility makes him a dynamic talent, but as the numbers stand now, the bulk of Porzingis’ production is created off of the block or on the perimeter. Creating more balance between his plays in the post and on the perimeter play will only help to stymie defenders.

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

23.4 PPG, 9 RPG, 5.8 APG, 2.1 SPG, 1.9 BPG, 53% from field, 29% from three

The 22-year-old combines his 6’11 height and 7’3 wing span with great athleticism and an improving all-around game, which has placed him in the MVP conversation. Only five other players in NBA history have averaged at least 13 points, six rebounds, three assists and one block by the time they turned 22, according to Fox Sports. Antetokounmpo is among those five, along with the likes of greats like Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett and Chris Webber. The dynamic Antetokounmpo is currently leading the Bucks in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. Antetokounmpo could be a once-in-a-generation player if he can continue to develop.

STRENGTHS

Elite-level defense: Antetokounmpo is already one of the best defenders in the league. He is in fifth place in blocks and fourth in steals. He is also fifth in Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating, which is ESPN’s stat to measure estimated impact on team defensive points allowed per 100 defensive possessions. Basically, Antetokounmpo is a beast on defense. When he was drafted, he was 6’8.5. By the end of the season, he has grown to 6’11. The kid may have one of the best basketball bodies to ever come into the league, with a 7’3 wing span and huge hands that measured in at 12 inches (the average adult hand is 7.4 inches). Antetokounmpo combines these physical attributes with his elite athleticism to dominate the defensive end. His dominance on the defensive end should only improve, especially as he begins to master team defensive dynamics.

Versatile offensive skill-set: Antetokounmpo transitioned from the wing to point guard spot late last season after Michael Carter-Williams went down with an injury. The move gave he and the Bucks a boost by effectively positioning Antetokounmpo to do what he does best: attack the rim. According to NBA.com, the Bucks’ offense improved by about six points per 100 possessions when Antetokounmpo was running the show last season. This season, Antetokounmpo continues to flourish at the point and leverages his primary ball-handling duties to attack open driving lanes to the basket, which creates three-point opportunities for teammates. With Antetokounmpo on the floor, the Bucks’ three-point percentage is considerably higher, according to NBA.com. Antetokounmpo also ranks third in the league in points in the paint and has the fifth-best efficiency rating in the NBA. Antetokounmpo’s scoring is primarily comprised of layups, dunks and free throws.

Excels in transition: Antetokounmpo has been superb in transition this season, where he is averaging 1.19 points per possession. One reason for this is that he gets to unleash his explosive athleticism. Antetokounmpo only really needs two-to-three dribbles in order to go from rim to rim. Antetokounmpo relies on transition plays to generate a large portion of his offensive production. According to Synergy, transition scoring makes up 23 percent of Antetokounmpo’s total offense.

Strong rebounder: Averaging 9.1 rebounds per game this season, his rebounding numbers have continued to rise since he came into the league in 2013. His offensive rebounding (two per game) has improved as well. Antetokounmpo now seems to have a knack for hitting the offensive glass and already has 32 points off of put-backs this season. As he continues to put on weight, expect his rebounding numbers on both ends to increase.

WEAKNESSES

Shooting: Antetokounmpo struggles with shooting efficiency. Despite the stellar season he is having, he is shooting just 29.8 percent on jump-shooting opportunities, which ranks in the 16th percentile in the NBA, per Synergy. Antetokounmpo also struggles to make shots off of the dribble; he averages .53 points per possession. His 26 points on 49 possessions ranks him in the bottom five percent of the league. Antetokounmpo is in the 22nd percentile in the league in three-point shooting (27.4 percent, 17-62), according to Synergy. With so much upside, it is scary to think how good Antetokounmpo could be if he begins to improve his shooting efficiency.

Isolation action: Another area where Antetokounmpo could stand to improve is in isolation situations. Currently, Antetokounmpo is in the 34th percentile in the NBA in scoring efficiency out of ISOs with .783 points per possession, according to Synergy. He particularly struggles on pull-up jumpers in these situations, converting only 33 points on 44 attempts.

Pick-and-roll ball-handler: Antetokounmpo has not proven he can excel out of pick-and-roll situations as of yet. Considering he has recently made the move to point guard, it makes sense that he is still in the process of calibrating his PNR decision-making and efficiency. This season, Antetokounmpo is in the 40th percentile in PNR ball-handler offense, converting 65 points on 88 possessions, according to Synergy. As the 6’11 point acclimates even further to running the show, his passing and scoring efficiency out of PNR situations should continue to increase.

 

In the next part of the Prodigies series, we will evaluate the skill-sets of two bigs on the verge of becoming superstardom: Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.

Jake Rauchbach is an Integrated Player Development Coach, specializing in High-Performance Mindfulness. He has coached professional and Division-1 basketball. He is the founder of The MindRight Pro® Program and consults on the Olympic, collegiate and professional levels. Follow him on Instagram @mindright_pro and twitter @mindrightpro

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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