Perhaps in hindsight, the most astounding aspect of any recent NBA Draft was how Giannis Antetokounmpo slipped to the 15th pick in 2013. It’s as if nobody saw this coming, nobody envisioned the skinny 6-foot-9-inch kid from Greece with the impossible last name would fill out, mature, hone his basketball skills, and turn into a star.
The Celtics were one of those teams which passed on Antetokounmpo, instead choosing to swap picks with the Dallas Mavericks and take Kelly Olynyk. The 2013 draft has ended up being so putrid, so awful that it’s mind-boggling that Antetokounmpo didn’t go higher.
Anthony Bennett went No.1. Cody Zeller went fourth. Alex Len was taken fifth. Ben McLemore was seventh. Trey Burke ninth. Michael Carter-Williams was 11th. Shabazz Muhammad was taken by the Utah Jazz with No. 14, one selection ahead of Antetokounmpo, and traded to Minnesota for Burke.
Of the 30 players taken in the first round, Victor Oladipo is the only player besides Antetokounmpo to play in an All-Star Game. Yet, the 14 teams that drafted before the Bucks all missed out on perhaps the most unique and freakishly athletic player of his generation.
Now a chiseled 6 feet 11 inches and 242 pounds, with the reach of Stretch Armstrong and the ability to soar to the rim with just two strides from the 3-point line, Antetokounmpo has become one of the NBA’s most unstoppable forces. Those NBA observers who watched Antetokounmpo struggle with his coordination and fundamentals as a rookie all said, “when he gets it” he’s going to be dynamic.
Well, by George, Antetokounmpo has got it.
The Greek Freak is a three-time All-Star, a 2019 MVP candidate, and the one player that separates the Celtics from a berth in the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics could face more prolific scorers, better 3-point shooters, and more pure shooters in the playoffs, but they won’t face a combination of athleticism, length, speed, and fierceness that Antetokounmpo possesses.
He is no longer an NBA nice guy, the gangly kid from Greece with the bright smile. The 24-year-old Antetokounmpo wants to be great, and he’s not trying to make any friends on his way to that quest.
“We know how talented Giannis is,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. “We know how aggressive and passionate he plays the game. He smells fear or any form of weakness; he’s going to seek it out. So we can’t show him anything.
“He’s up there with the best. He’s up there with the LeBron’s or anyone else you want to name. In terms of his tenacity and aggressiveness, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, how he comes and how he just forces his way to the basket, whether you stop him or not. I think he leads the league in charges committed and I think he’s happy that he does because that’s a form of aggressiveness.”
When told that he made Antetokounmpo seem like the Terminator, Brown said, “I didn’t say all that. He’s a basketball player. He’s a human being just like the rest of us. He is aggressive and he’s one of the best players in our league and we respect that, but we’ve got a job to do.”
Containing Antetokounmpo is not easy because he can compensate for his weakness with his athleticism, but he does have weaknesses that the Celtics will have to exploit.
1) Antetokounmpo lacks shooting touch, especially from long distance. He shot 57.8 percent from the field this season, but 72.6 percent inside of 5 feet. He shot just 31 percent from the field outside of 5 feet.
2) Antetokounmpo is not a good 3-point shooter, hitting just 25.6 percent of his attempts, making just 52 in 72 regular-season games.
The easy solution would appear to be allowing Antetokounmpo space to shoot from the perimeter, but if he gets any momentum on the fast break or too much space in halfcourt, he simply attacks the rim and tries to ram his defender into the rim along with the ball (just ask Aron Baynes).
If Antetokounmpo misses and there is contact, he generally gets the foul call. He was third in NBA in free throw attempts and his percentage (72.9) is good enough for him to pile up free points and put the Celtics at a major disadvantage.
“He’s so long, he’s got quickness, he’s got ball-handling skills, and he’s got power, which he has developed and worked on,” Hall of Famer Grant Hill said. “He’s like a 6-11 Russell Westbrook, different games, but just the constant mentality of attacking, almost playing with a rage.
“I thought Boston did a decent job in the playoffs last year against him. They played off of him. Al Horford is big enough and strong enough and savvy enough to keep him from dominating in the paint. The problem is the team around him is different now.”
What makes the Bucks so difficult to defend – they led the league in scoring this season – is the shooters that surround Antetokounmpo. Khris Middleton (37.8 percent from the 3-point line) almost single-handedly won the series for Milwaukee last year. Brook Lopez is a 7-footer who can shoot 30-footers with ease, bring his defender far away from the paint, allowing Antetokounmpo more room to work.
The Bucks didn’t have shooters in previous years and opposing teams clogged the paint and made Antetokounmpo shoot jumpers or take contested layups. Now he has the confidence and the regard from the officials to attack the paint to either score or get to the free throw line.
In three matchups with the Celtics this season, Antetokounmpo attempted 38 free throws. The entire Celtics team attempted 55.
“People understand his shortcomings and weaknesses, but they still can’t stop him,” Hill said.
Hill said that when teams would back off him during his early years with the Detroit Pistons, he welcomed that defense because it gave him space to take defenders off the dribble. Hill said defenders such as Derrick McKey and Scottie Pippen would pressure him to force him to turn his back, therefore taking away his ability to use his speed and ballhandling to attack the paint.
Horford and Semi Ojeleye in previous matchups have tried that method to mixed results.
“I think it will be interesting to see [the Celtics] getting in his space, making him uncomfortable out on the perimeter, so he doesn’t have one or two dribbles and he’s in the paint,” Hill said. “The problem is that is Giannis is crafty, he gets one stride length by you, he’s at the rim.”