Giannis Antetokounmpo is usually a cool customer on the court. But during the 2020 NBA bubble, in a game against the Washington Wizards, his emotions got the best of him. Moe Wagner drew a charge call on the Milwaukee Bucks superstar, and he responded by headbutting Wagner — leading to just the second suspension of his career.
After that game, Wizards coach Scott Brooks admitted that a key part of Washington’s strategy was to frustrate Antetokounmpo by forcing him into charges. “That’s what you have to do,” Brooks said. “You’ve gotta drop off and force him to shoot. He can drive, [you] step up and take a charge.”
Charges have always been a part of Antetokounmpo’s game. He has led the league in charges committed three years in a row, and he’s on pace to make it a fourth. But though he’s still out-charging everyone else in the league, he’s been doing it differently: He’s committing the foul at his lowest rate since the 2016-17 season. His personal count of 15 through Tuesday is only one ahead of second-ranked Jusuf Nurkić of the Portland Trail Blazers; last year, he finished 12 charges ahead of the next-highest player.1 And Antetokounmpo has been charging less and less frequently since he won his first MVP, back in the 2018-19 season.
So what has changed for Antetokounmpo? He is still aggressive: Antetokounmpo is driving at the second-highest rate of his career (17.252 drives per 100 possessions) and scoring a career-best rate on those drives (1.167 points per chance). But on those drives, he’s kicking it out with more success than ever before. And as he’s developed his jumper, teams can’t use the same playbook that the Wizards did in 2020; they respect Antetokounmpo more and more as a shooter.
Antetokounmpo is approaching the All-Star break on pace for his first career scoring title (29.4 points per game after the fourth 50-point game of his career2 Tuesday against the Pacers), and his jumper is a key component. He is shooting a career-high 6.6 jumpers per game while posting his best efficiency on pullups (37.8 percent). Once a shooter for defenses to “drop off,” as Brooks suggested, Antetokounmpo has grown comfortable with his opponents’ generosity. He’s knocking down 40.8 percent of his uncontested jumpers this season, currently a better rate than those of Stephen Curry (39.4), Duncan Robinson (39.6) and Tyrese Haliburton (32.8). It is on pace for his best such figure since 2016-17 (career-high 43.6 percent).
Antetokounmpo’s comfort as a jump shooter has even raised defenders’ stress levels when he attacks in transition. Though he’s shooting just under 30 percent overall on his nearly four 3-point attempts per game, his 36.9 percent mark on pullup threes is on pace for the best such figure of his career.3 The two-time MVP shot 26.7 percent on those attempts over his first eight seasons in the NBA.
“I work extremely hard to be in position to shoot the ball,” Antetokounmpo said after a recent run of success on threes. “If it goes in, it goes in. If it doesn’t go in, it doesn’t go in. … At the end of the day, I don’t want my narrative to change. I want to be still the guy that, you know, you dare to shoot, that is a non-shooter because I’m wide-open all the time. … I’m working hard. My teammates want me to shoot the ball when I’m open, and I have to try to do my best.”
Antetokounmpo’s dominance inside is well-established: He led the league in points per game from the paint each season from 2017-18 through 2019-20, becoming the first player to do so in at least three consecutive seasons since Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal. The threat of being dunked on at a moment’s notice keeps The Greek Freak’s defenders on their literal heels.
Here against the New York Knicks, Antetokounmpo capped a 13-point first quarter with a rhythmic dribble combo before pulling up over Nerlens Noel. He tied a season-high with six jumpers (tied for third-most in his career) en route to a game-high 38 points.
Another key factor in Antetokounmpo’s decreased rate of charges has been his willingness to kick out to open teammates. Among 143 qualified passers this season,4 Antetokounmpo ranks fourth in points per chance created when finishing a drive with a kickout pass (a career-best 1.275).5 And he’s found plenty of happy recipients on this Bucks squad that’s rich in stationary shooters ready at a moment’s notice, as evidenced by their NBA-leading 438 catch-and-shoot threes through Tuesday.
On the immediate Bucks possession following his rhythmic pullup, Antetokounmpo made Knicks rookie Quentin Grimes pay for expecting a drive to the basket and doubling off Jrue Holiday, leading to a clean look from deep.
“It’s trust,” Antetokounmpo said in early January about kicking out to his teammates. “I think that’s all. You know, going downhill, I gotta do my job, but I gotta trust my teammates. If I get stuck, they’re gonna be right there, and I trust them, I know they’re gonna be there. Now, if the ball goes in? Who knows. … At the end of the day, we [are] just trying to be in the right spot and just create open shots for our teammates.”
Since a 16-point loss at the rising Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 26, Milwaukee has won six of its nine outings while ranking fifth in offensive rating (118.6 points per 100 possessions), per NBA Advanced Stats. In that time, Antetokounmpo has averaged 33.6 points per game on 63.1 percent shooting while creating 16.5 points via assist per game. And he’s been called for only one charge.
That sounds like a “drop-off” the reigning Finals MVP can get behind.
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