MILWAUKEE — All Marvin Williams could do was shake his head from the sideline.
The Hornets forward had been waiting impatiently at the scorer’s table to check back into the game against Milwaukee, hoping that Charlotte’s reserves could keep his Bucks counterpart, Giannis Antetokounmpo, relatively quiet until he subbed in to reclaim the unenviable defensive assignment.
Instead, Williams watched his teammates produce an ill-advised jumper that, seconds after clanking off the rim, turned into a coast-to-coast basket and foul for Antetokounmpo. It was the type of play that has made the NBA’s budding sensation an early-season candidate for MVP.
“Anyone who averages 30 points a night is averaging 30 points a night for a reason,” Williams told me after the game, a 103-94 Bucks win in which Antetokounmpo logged 32 points, 14 rebounds and six assists. “But we let him get loose too many times, before our defense was set. With a guy like Giannis, that’s like giving Popeye a can of spinach. If you’re not set, he’s gonna score. Period.”
Popeye is a fitting comparison given the cartoonish stat lines Antetokounmpo’s posted while leading the Bucks to a 3-1 start. The Greek Freak is averaging 36.8 points, 10.8 boards and 5.3 dimes per game heading into Thursday’s matchup with Boston. That’s nearly 14 points more than he was averaging last season, one in which he won the Most Improved Player award. There could be far more improvement to come, as Antetokounmpo is still just 22 years old.
A great deal of that scoring stems from his prowess in transition, where it’s become next to impossible to stop Antetokounmpo from getting two points each time down. Part of the reason for that: No one can realistically stay with him stride for stride in the open court, given how long he is.
Take this game-winning play against Portland, in which he forced a turnover and then converted on the other end. He catches the ball at halfcourt, then needs only one dribble to complete the dunk.
While these plays are common for him — he also had a total of 62 plays where he went coast-to-coast1 after grabbing a defensive board last year, per Big Data Ball — it’s worth putting his strides into context. Antetokounmpo covers an average distance of just over 15 feet when driving in for a layup or dunk off just one dribble, according to an analysis run by STATS SportVu at FiveThirtyEight’s request. The average player2, meanwhile, covers just 10.8 feet on similar plays.
Some people have compared Antetokounmpo’s breakout season to the moment in the “The Matrix” when Neo, Keanu Reeves’s character, realizes he can control everything and everyone around him.
Much like Neo halted a barrage of bullets in mid-air, the NBA’s latest Chosen One said he feels as if the game has slowed down for him considerably. This is particularly true on offense, where it took him a couple years to develop the skill and strength necessary to score consistently. Before he had those things, he played fast out of necessity. At 196 pounds when he was drafted — a far cry from his 233-pound frame, with more muscle, today — Antetokounmpo said he felt he had to beat opponents with his quickness since he wasn’t strong enough to go toe-to-toe with NBA defenders at that stage.3
“Now I know my sweet spots … and when guys can’t guard me one-on-one,” he told me, suggesting he feels most invincible in the middle of the floor, where defenders are forced to guard him with little to no help. “That’s what I’ve been noticing more: I know when I’m able to score, and when I’m able to make a play. My first two years, it was always a turnover. I was always getting fouls, because I was running fast, speeding myself up and racing with the ball. But it’s all slowed down a little bit.”
One enormous sign of that: Antetokounmpo’s vastly improved footwork, which — when combined with his Inspector Gadget-like extension — leaves defenders almost no room for error anymore.
In theory, the point forward should be easier to defend, given his well-chronicled struggles with perimeter jump-shooting. But even with that being the case, Antetokounmpo shreds defenses who can’t figure out exactly how much space to give him. Giving an abundance of room allows him to build momentum toward the basket, at which point he’s simply too tall, with arms too long, to be stopped at the rim.
Playing too far up on him is a bad idea, too, as it doesn’t leave a defender enough time to react.
And even playing Antetokounmpo perfectly often won’t yield the desired defensive result, as he’s developed a nasty side-step move that can basically teleport him from one spot to another.
While Antetokounmpo is the biggest reason Milwaukee is quietly a dangerous team this season, there are some things that have changed in the past few years that have made life a bit easier on him. Because of its length and versatility, the Bucks’ defense has the potential to be special, even in moments where Antetokounmpo is off the floor. Coach Jason Kidd (who basically barred the youngster from taking 3-pointers early on, in hopes of having him develop an inside game first) allowed Antetokounmpo to handle the ball more to develop his lead-guard skills, a low-risk gamble that paid huge dividends. And the organization recalibrated the roster last season to acquire far more shooting. The 2015-16 Bucks made and attempted the fewest 3s in the NBA. Last season’s team increased the 3-point attempts by more than half, finishing 10th in 3-point percentage — up from 21st the year before.
“He needs his teammates in order to have the space to do this,” Kidd said of Antetokounmpo, who ranked in the NBA’s bottom 1 percentile as a jump-shooter off screens his rookie season.4 “If he didn’t have the Tony [Snells], or the Khris [Middletons], or the Malcolm [Brogdons] to knock down 3s, he’d be looking at a wall of defenders each time he came into the lane. He wouldn’t be able to just get past it every time,” Kidd said.
Ask his teammates, though, and they’ll tell you that Antetokounmpo deserves every bit of the credit he’s receiving at the moment. His vision is improved — he’s cut his turnover rate in half when being aggressively double-teamed in the post over the past two seasons — and he’s developed an immense amount of physical strength despite his thin frame. In 2016-17, he drew 62 traditional 3-point play opportunities — a number rivaled only by arguably the NBA’s most physical players: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Russell Westbrook.
“He’s just gotten way stronger,” Middleton said. “He’s been trying to do these things for years, but now he’s finally able to put guys on his body and just push them backwards instead of it being the other way around.”
Neil Paine contributed research.
For more on Antetokounmpo and the future of the Bucks, subscribe to FiveThirtyEight’s new NBA podcast, The Lab! This week’s episode discusses whether the Bucks are ready to compete with the Warriors.