Teammate Jerryd Bayless said he has “a chance to be really special.” Greg Monroe described his skill set as “pretty rare.” Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg already dubbed him “truly one of the superstars in this league.” And now, 21-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo is showing off yet another facet of his ever-expanding game as the Bucks’ point guard.
The 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo is hardly a point guard in stature. For the first two-and-a-half seasons of his NBA career his incomparable blend of size, length and quickness allowed him time at shooting guard and both forward positions. But the Bucks’ most versatile player – on a team full of them – the “Greek Freak,” as he’s been aptly nicknamed, is now showcasing his abilities as the team’s main distributor.
And it’s more than just a gimmick, or a desperate move from head coach Jason Kidd to shake up a roster that has fallen short on preseason expectations. Antetokounmpo, the prized jewel of the 2013 Draft, is thriving in his new role, which began two weeks ago. It’s given life to an offense ranked among the league’s worst, freed up shooters on the wings and given Kidd more options to use at his disposal. And the rising star looked the part in Monday’s 100-90 loss to the Bulls, scoring 12 points and handing out 10 assists in 37 minutes.
“Playmaking,” he said when asked what he liked most about running the offense. “Making the right play. Sometimes it’s going to be a shot for me, sometimes it’s a pass for my teammates. That’s what brought me in this league when I was younger. Finding the open guys. I love doing it right now.”
Prior to the All-Star break Kidd moved point guard Michael Carter-Williams and center Greg Monroe to the bench. With natural shooting guard O.J. Mayo taking Carter-Williams’ spot in the lineup, it left the Bucks offense without a true point guard. And while Antetokounmpo doesn’t fit that bill, his role as the team’s main facilitator has been pronounced.
From Feb. 22, the night Antetokounmpo logged his first career triple-double, Antetokounmpo has touched the ball an average of 95.4 times per game. That’s fifth in the NBA, and a considerable amount higher than the 59.0 touches per game he received up until that point.
His 70.1 passes per game are 7th in the NBA in that span, up nearly 30 passes since before he took over point duties. He’s averaged 8.9 assists per game as the team’s main distributor, and only the league’s four leading assisters have averaged more in that frame (Rondo, Wall, Westbrook, Paul).
“He has intangibles you can’t teach. As big as he is, the things that he can do, nobody else can really do,” Bayless said. “It’s very rare. You don’t see guys do what he can do. It’s a rare skill set and we’re lucky to have him here.”
The Bucks are just 3-5 since Antetokounmpo’s first triple-double – he’s added two more since then – and are now 12 games under .500 following Monday’s loss. But progress on Antetokounmpo’s part has also yielded dividends for the players around him.
Chicago native Jabari Parker is averaging 20.5 points over his last eight games, including a career-best 36 points on a night where Antetokounmpo logged 11 assists. Khris Middleton, the Bucks’ leading scorer, has averaged 23.5 points. The Bucks’ offense has been more than four points per 100 possessions better since then, a considerable jump for the league’s eighth lowest scoring teams.
"I'm noticing it. Especially Jabari, he's getting more open shots, more open looks. He's getting more open lanes and that's what I'm trying to do. Trying to get other guys to be better (and) have more open looks."
The on-the-fly transition for a kid who celebrated his 21st birthday three months ago Sunday has been aided by one of best tutors he could have asked for. Kidd spent 19 seasons in the NBA as a point guard, ranking second all-time in assists. And the future Hall of Famer has been a major factor in Antetokounmpo’s growth in such a short time.
“Having J-Kidd talking to me at practice, before the game, after the game, it’s great. He’s one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game,” he said. “I don’t feel really comfortable but he talks to me, he gives me tips every day, to improve in spots. Having him is great. It’s like having a cheat code.”
Antetokounmpo’s presence has become a cheat code of sorts for the Bucks. He handed out four assists in the first half to four different Bucks. He finished a pair of highlight reel dunks and, despite the cold shooting night, knew when to distribute, tallying six more assists in the second half. In addition to his new role at the point, he spent his 37 minutes on the other end of the floor guarding just about everyone, from Taj Gibson to Derrick Rose. He finished with three steals and a block.
“I think he’s doing a good job of making the right decisions,” Monroe said. “Knowing when to attack, knowing when to find people. It’s a big adjustment for him probably more than anybody, asked to play a new position, probably the toughest position in the sport.”
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It's a position he'll remain in likely for the remainder of the season. Earlier Monday the Bucks announced that Carter-Williams would miss the rest of the season following left hip surgery. Bayless is more of a shoot-first player, a point guard in position only, and Tyler Ennis has appeared in 28 games. That leaves Antetokounmpo to continue running the Bucks offense, which has ranked 15th in efficiency since Kidd gave the reins to his young forward.
He’s still adjusting to the way defenses are playing time – Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio guarded him on Friday, while Thunder forwards Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka drew his assignment Sunday night in Milwaukee – and is still ironing out the jump shot aspect of his game – he went 1-for-5 on shots not at the rim. And while he still doesn’t feel comfortable in the new role, a role he’s been in for two short weeks, he looks every bit the part for a Bucks team getting a spark from its budding star.
“My teammates and coaches help me every day and show me the right things, talk to me on the court,” he said. “I think it’s coming day by day more naturally and as I move forward I’ll get more comfortable.”