A star is built: Giannis is the best basketball player alive


At 24 years old, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best basketball player in the world. He is the best offensive player on a top-five NBA offense. He's the best defensive player on the No. 1 defense. As the catalyst of an incredible basketball system, Giannis has led the Milwaukee Bucks to the best record in the NBA and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
With respect to Houston's bearded prophet, Antetokounmpo isn't just this season's MVP. He is the perfect two-way superstar for where the NBA is right now -- and where it's going.
Let's start on offense -- specifically Giannis' favorite spot on the floor.
Owning the paint
Antetokounmpo has quickly surpassed some dude named LeBron James as the league's premier interior force. He also is doing things we haven't seen since Shaquille O'Neal was in his prime.
Check this out:
If the NBA analytics era has taught us anything, it's that the best shots in the game occur either beyond the arc or near the hoop. The Bucks bask in both zones. Giannis makes hay at the rim, yet he does it so much better than everyone else, partially because his team is woke to the spacing movement.
"If you don't knock down shots, then everybody's gonna be in the paint," Antetokounmpo told ESPN.com last week. "[My teammates have] been making shots all year, so it gives me a lot of space to make plays for them and myself."
Simply put, he has become the most self-sufficient dunker we've seen in decades. After dropping 19 unassisted dunks as a rookie in 2013-14, Giannis reached 116 this season -- the only guy to top 100 for as long as the league has been tallying play-by-play data.
But Giannis plays a completely different game than those other two supermen. He handles the ball, he faces up, he drives. Those guys played in the low post.
"I think the thing that's so unique and different about how Giannis is dominating in the paint is that lots of times he's starting with the ball outside the 3-point line -- and still finishing in the paint," Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said.
And there's just something especially satisfying about an unassisted driving dunk. It's such a dramatic display of dominance. It's why in many of his best highlights, Giannis looks like a man among boys.
But then you remember this is the best basketball league on Earth.
Every NBA player would love to dribble up the court and slam it home at will. They can't. Yes, that unassisted dunk stat is a little esoteric, and it might not translate directly to wins, but it does reveal just how unprecedented this kid's dominance is right now.
Coaches design entire defensive philosophies around protecting the paint. Antetokounmpo doesn't care. With only a dribble or two and some crafty footwork, he can transport the ball from the perimeter to the hoop and hammer it home. Basketball rarely looks so easy:
By surrounding Antetokounmpo with a fleet of long-range shooters and stationing them on remote perimeter outposts, Budenholzer has unleashed the NBA's most dominant interior scorer.
"We have so much spacing," Antetokounmpo said. "I've got stronger and I'm able to get in there, play through contact now, and go up and finish the play."
In the NBA, stars aren't born, they're built, and Giannis has built himself in the weight room. All that extra strength is important. Remember this guy?
Yeah, he's not creating 100 dunks at the NBA level. But this guy is:
Spacing starts at the rim, and Milwaukee's ferocious interior minister is the most critical component of the most prolific 3-point offense in the Eastern Conference. Between Giannis' physical development, his accelerated skills and Budenholzer's offensive architecture, the Bucks went from 27th overall in made 3-pointers in 2017-18 to second in 2018-19.
Crucial playmaking
Sometimes finishing the play means dunking on some fool's head, but other times it means doing this:
"His ability as a passer and a playmaker has been so important to us," Budenholzer said. "And he's already ahead of where any of us envisioned.
"He takes a lot of pride in being a playmaker."
The passing highlights will never go as viral as the dunks, but they are more important. After creating only 8.4 assist opportunities per 100 possessions as a rookie, Antetokounmpo doubled that number this season (up to 17.0), per Second Spectrum tracking. He ranked fourth in the NBA in total 3-point assists.
Even if he is not great at knocking them down himself, Antetokounmpo has found a way to create easy treys. Milwaukee led the league in assisted 3s this season, but no player assisted on more of them than Giannis. It wasn't close:
Most assisted 3s | Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo: 245
  • Eric Bledsoe: 166

  • Khris Middleton: 106

  • Although the step-back 3 is quickly rising in popularity, more than 82 percent of NBA 3s are still assisted. The secret to increasing 3-point offense is finding players and actions that can generate clean looks on the perimeter. Giannis is one of those players, and Budenholzer's playbook is chock-full of those actions, but the front office helped too.