Put the NBA on notice. The future is here, and outcries of “the sky is the limit” are ringing through the air. The six-foot-eleven-inch small forward/point guard/positionless wonder of Athens, Greece is on full display.
It doesn’t take statistics to see that Giannis Antetokounmpo (pronounced ah-deh-do-KUN-bo, if you’re still struggling with it) is a special basketball player. The eye test will do that much for you. How many basketball players can be swarmed by four NBA defenders in the paint and still manage to flush home a dunk? How many can leap to catch a ball two-handed over a six-foot-ten-inch and airborne Aron Baynes, absorb contact, and slam it down with one hand? How many can travel fifty seven feet in just two dribbles, simultaneously weaving through defenders in the paint for an easy layup? By my estimation, there’s only one who can do all three.
Amazingly, all of those anecdotes and accomplishments come from just two games: the two early season matchups between the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics. The Bucks have played five additional games through the end of October, and Antetokounmpo has been nothing short of phenomenal for them. His worst stat line of the young season (disclaimer: written before foul trouble stymied his impact in Charlotte on Nov. 1) came in the Celtics’ visit to Milwaukee, as he posted a pedestrian 28 points, 7 assists, 10 rebounds, 3 steals, and a block in just over forty minutes of work. The Greek Freak’s “off night” reads like a career night for most players.
Perhaps that’s to be expected from the man who became just the fifth player in NBA history to lead his team in those five categories last season. He joins an illustrious list of two Hall of Famers and two that will surely join them. 29 year-old Dave Cowens of the 1977-78 Celtics, 29 year-old Scottie Pippen of the 1994-95 Bulls, 26 year-old Kevin Garnett of the 2002-03 Timberwolves, and 24 year-old LeBron James of the 2008-09 Cavaliers. None of the four were able to repeat the feat. Cowens’ game slowed down at age 30, and he would fail to lead the Celtics in any category in 78-79. Pippen’s follow-up season was characterized by the return of a full season of Michael Jordan, as well as the addition of Dennis Rodman. This took a considerable load off Pippen, who still led the Bulls in assists on the way to a then-record 72 wins. Garnett was still the dominant force for Minnesota in 03-04, leading the team in four stats, but it was the newly acquired Sam Cassell who would lead the team in assists as the primary playmaker. LeBron was the closest to repeat, which should be unsurprising with his youth and considerable talents. James finished the 09-10 season trailing Anderson Varejao by just 24 rebounds, on a Cleveland team that struggled to build around their star.
Antetokounmpo’s 2016-17 numbers may be more impressive than the rest. On top of leading the Bucks in the five major categories, he also became the first player in NBA history to finish in the top twenty in the league in all five. He has already bested these aforementioned NBA legends by accomplishing these feats at just 22 years of age, and is set up extraordinarily well to be the first to do it again. Through seven games of the new season, he leads not only the team, but the league in scoring, on mind-blowing efficiency. Leading the team in rebounding is a foregone conclusion, as the Bucks continue to struggle in that category. Giannis has been their primary playmaker, leading a team without a true starting-caliber point guard in assists. He has the most steals, using his seven-foot-three-inch to bother ballhandlers and pick off passes. He trails only John Henson, the third-string center forced into action by an injury to Greg Monroe, in blocked shots with the lion’s share of games still to play. Coach Jason Kidd’s aggressive defensive scheme, though it has its faults, should allow plenty of opportunities to make that difference up.
It’s very possible you’ve heard that Antetokounmpo will be a superstar as soon as he figures out his jump shot. I’m here to present a different argument: Giannis is already a superstar. He doesn’t need a jump shot to make that leap. No, if he were to develop a reliable jump shot, it would solidify his chance to become the greatest player of all time. That’s a bold claim, to be sure, but the league has never seen anyone like this. Jordan wasn’t this unstoppable at 22. LeBron can only dream of a 6’11” frame and 7’3” wingspan. Giannis hasn’t shown a league average three point stroke to this point, and teams still can’t stop him from scoring in the paint at will. Look at it this way, Antetokounmpo is on a Hall of Fame trajectory without showing any kind of respectable range. If he adds that, it takes him from the Greek Freak to the Greek God of Basketball (my personal favorite nickname).
The sky is not the limit for Giannis Antetokounmpo. The stars, MVP, Hall of Fame, these aren’t the limits either. No, not when he’s already doing things that have never been done. Not when the entire NBA is floundering to find an answer to him. For Giannis Antetokounmpo, there is no limit to what he could be.