Giannis Antetokounmpo: Greece’s MVP

The last time we saw Giannis Antetokounmpo wear his Greek national team jersey, his team was competing to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. That mission wasn’t accomplished, as Croatia was the only team able to punch its ticket to Rio in the final qualifying tournament, held in Turin in July.

Giannis took full responsibility for the shortcoming, backing up the leadership he showed on the court with words. His commitment, and his genuine disappointment, was clear to everyone watching. If not, he would have comfortably stayed in Milwaukee, where his NBA franchise eagerly waited for him to sign a new contract. If, by any chance, Giannis had injured himself playing for his national team, he would probably have lost himself a few digits from his bank account.

Instead, he showed in that tournament that he was the team’s catalyst, even if he missed out on the happy ending that might have preemptively skyrocketed his career into a new stage. Two and a half years later, Giannis has evolved dramatically as a basketball player. Not only for the contract he eventually signed (100 million dollars for four years) that bonds him to both the franchise and the city of Milwaukee, but also for the 50 pounds of muscle he’s put on, through hard work in the gym, to bulk up his previously thin frame.

In early 2019 Giannis Antetokounmpo is the most valuable player for the team boasting the best record in the league. He’s been selected as the Eastern Conference captain for the next All Star Game (as the most voted-for player in the conference), he earned a spot as the cover athlete – alongside LeBron James – in the latest installment of popular video game franchise NBA 2K, he’s widely regarded as a top 5 player, in the NBA. Ultimately, he’s one of the early runner ups for the MVP award this season too.

After that Olympic qualifier his personal career and the Greek national team took parallel paths, so to speak, but both have been blessed with similar success. Greece was quick to earn a spot in the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, staying unbeaten in group L until last December’s face off with Serbia. Missing Spanoulis and Diamantidis for some years now, coach Thanasis Skourtopoulos still seeks help from veterans, like the evergreen Ioannis Bourousis (he’s the top scorer among centers in this qualifying round with 16 points per game) and Nick Calathes, while also relying on a core of athletes in their prime, like Konstantinos Papanikolaou and Ioannis Papapetrou. They’ve shown some solid chemistry on the floor, on both sides on the court.

In this qualifying round, Greece has the best field goal percentage (51%) among European teams, and boasts one of the two most prolific offenses (83.6 points per game). Glancing through the boxscores of Greece’s games in last year’s qualifying windows, it’s easy to note how coach Skourtopoulos involved a large number of players in his rotations, with very different playing times. This goes to show how Greece, in spite of its recent success, is still searching for its identity.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the grail needed to complete that quest, a man capable of launching Greece atop the power rankings by his sheer presence. But in terms of seeing him back wearing the blue and white jersey next summer, are the chances looking good or bad?

The two parties have recently come to terms with each other. For a time, coach Skourtopoulos says the relationship was cold. Giannis was willing to listen to his plans for the national team, but the Bucks were adamant on not letting him go. They’d just elected The Greek Freak as their cornerstone for the immediate future, and were hard at work to morph him into one of the world’s best players.

When Giannis didn’t participate in 2017’s Eurobasket, claiming a knee injury, Greek Federation president George Vasilakopoulos ranted about a “well-staged plan” by the NBA franchise.

“The matter of Antetokounmpo is complicated. I hope that he will understand that thanks to this country he is in the States and he became the player he is today. Of course, we want him in China, but the matter of Antetokounmpo is a matter of agents”.

This harsh statement turned into a quarrel with Giannis’ agent, Giorgos Panou, a Greek himself. “Giannis wants to be part of the Greek national team. And there’s no person in the world that can make him change his mind”, he said. Eventually, the protagonist of the story cleared the air.

Giannis was predicting a national team comeback as early as last September’s qualifying window, but he was already committed to his NBA training camp, and was forced to withdraw and postpone the date. For the FIBA basketball World Cup 2019, in China, he promised, he will do everything in his powers to be part of the squad.

What kind of contribution should Greece expect out of its newfound star? Giannis is capable of turning a team head over heels. No one compares to him in combining a unique skillset, physicality and wingspan. In FIBA basketball, where athletic prowess is less widespread than in the NBA, his physical features will become even more valuable, as we saw – in amazement – in 2016.

Skourtopoulos can afford the luxury of starting Antetokounmpo at the 5 spot, perfectly capable of occupying the paint while protecting the basket – and still being able to chase smaller forwards on the outside, thanks to his quick feet in pick ‘n roll switches. Then, when Greece has possession of the ball, Giannis can turn into a playmaker – and a veritable matchup nightmare, launching the fastbreak right after grabbing the rebound. He collects twelve of them per game, this NBA season. Just a few seconds into one of his highlight mixtapes and we’re able to realize how quickly, and with how few strides he can cover the floor from one side to the other.

However, the last two NBA seasons have also hinted at how tightly Giannis’ accomplishments are linked to the right team chemistry, and the right guidelines from his coach. Under Jason Kidd as head coach, Giannis looked somewhat like an unfinished masterpiece, although his stats were always on the rise, Milwaukee failed to fully reap the benefits, fighting for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference among mediocre competition.

When Joe Prunty took over in place of Jason Kidd, during last season, nothing major changed. Opposing defenses succeeded in crafting a strategy to contain Giannis and to point him towards his weak links: outside shooting, for instance (he’s shooting just 19% from three-point range this season, a decline from last year’s 30%), or pressuring him when he handles the ball. Giannis is an exquisite ball handler for his size, but he’s the most comfortable when given time and space to think and run sets (his Usage rate, 31.9, stands among the league’s highest marks).

His new coach though, Mike Budenholzer, came out with something new, and the trick worked. He honed his craft under Gregg Popovich, in San Antonio, then moved on to a head coach job in Atlanta where he led the Hawks to a 60 wins season in 2015. Budenholzer promptly realized how much Giannis craves space on the floor, in order to keep his long frame in motion and gather the power needed to take off. The best way to achieve this is stretching the floor with three-point shooting. Coach Budenzholzer makes sure to always employ four capable shooters alongside Antetokounmpo, alternating between sharpshooters Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova at the center spot.

They usually run a simple five-out set to start the offense, not so different from the isolation game Mike D’Antoni has engineered for his Houston Rockets led by James Harden. Antetokounmpo is free to play one on one without worrying about defenders coming to help from the weak side: he’ll always be tall enough, quick enough and skillful enough to throw a pass over the defense to find a teammate for an open shot outside the arc (he’s dishing 5.8 assists per game, a career high, good for the 30% of his team’s total assists). Milwaukee’s offense, though, doesn’t by any means live and die by Giannis’ isolation plays: instead, they usually trigger a wide set of cuts and curls away from the ball, in order to soften the defense’s grip. To act as Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast, coach Bud has chosen a bunch of smart, all-around players.

He values their ability to improvise more than the position they usually occupy on the floor. Hence, it’s not that uncommon to witness big man Brook Lopez shaking free from his defender and launching a three-point step back shot:

Brook Lopez really went 4-4 from 3 in the first quarter.

(via @NBA)

Meanwhile Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon, the smallest of the band, run full throttle on the baseline for a drive to the basket. Milwaukee plays with a high motor (they’re sixth in the league for Pace) and they’re encouraged to let fly the first good shot that becomes available; often, it’s a three-point attempt (they’re second in the league for three-pointers attempted).

It’s not just a measure to emulate the NBA current trend, leading towards one of the highest scoring seasons in the history of the league. Coach Budenholzer thinks of the Bucks’ style as a “dodge play” to help Antetokounmpo shine to his fullest: his physical attributes excel at high speed, and given his basketball IQ he’ll be in control of what happens on the court more often than not. He doesn’t let his mind run faster than the ball.

Putting all this together, we have the best season of Giannis’ career so far, stats-wise, effectively solidifying his place as one of the top performers in the world’s most famous basketball league. He’s shooting with extreme precision from the field (57%) and he’s impressively accurate in the painted area (76%). ESPN analyst Doris Burke called him “the most dominant player, close to the basket, since Shaquille O’Neal”. Antetokounmpo is obviously not a “true” center and is hugely different from Shaq in both frame and abilities: but then again, basketball is changing under our own eyes.

We’re still a few months away from the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China, and coach Skourtopoulos will have plenty of time to study his colleague Budenholzer’s playbook and meditate on how to apply those ideas to his scenario. European players are known to be well-rounded, and Greece can tap into a roster of intelligent, quick-minded athletes. It won’t be hard to support Giannis with four spot-up shooters, even among big men, who would also create their own shots when called upon.

To come up with the same brand of fluid, high-speed basketball that Milwaukee showcases, though, won’t be easy. On the one side FIBA rules favour a more ‘regulation’ approach, starting from the court which is smaller compared to the NBA one. Secondly, European teams put great emphasis on defense: adding to the equation the specific weight that elimination games bear, it’s easy to envision how Giannis will struggle to rely on the same “freedom of movement” he enjoys in the NBA.

At this stage in his career, Giannis Antetokounmpo is almost a completely different athlete from the one who came up from nowhere, from the playgrounds of Athens’ suburb Sepolia, first starring in third-division team Filathlitikos. FIBA games will always require a bit of an adjustment period from him.

However, his loyalty to his national team should not be doubted. Alongside his brothers, like Thanasis who recently played for Greece under coach Skourtopoulos, he treasures the fond memories of the country that accepted his parents on their way from Nigeria, accompanying them through the early years of hardship.

In August, the two Antetokounmpo’s could very well both be suiting up for their country’s national team in China’s FIBA Basketball World Cup, fighting and running up and down the court. Their basketball is a beautiful fusion. It speaks the language of Greek heritage, has a bit of North America in it; and there’s African roots too.

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