It’s not like everybody and the guy sitting next to them at the bar couldn’t have predicted it—the guy at the bar actually did; he got hired by The Athletic—but Giannis Antetokounmpo took a huge, gangly-limbed step forward last season. He averaged nearly 27 points per game, grabbed 10 rebounds a night, and managed to transcend some antediluvian coaching in order to position himself as a bona fide MVP candidate this year. The Bucks—here we take a moment to single out Eric Bledsoe—inevitably let him down in the playoffs, but it was the sort of failure a 23-year-old can easily absorb. At this still-early point in Giannis’s career, it’s all about hitting benchmarks, accumulating experience. He ate his first corndog over the offseason. He’s on the right track.
In the 2017 edition of Thirty Futures, I wrote about how we were getting ahead of ourselves with him, projecting what we should be appreciating in real time. That’s still happening this year because hype never sleeps, but the most swirly-eyed element of it has been tempered somewhat by the fact that Giannis isn’t an abstraction anymore. He’s five seasons into his career and his tools are defined, if not totally fixed. He’s got an ugly, intermittently effective mid-range jumper, an array of spins and dives around the rim, a touch of LeBron’s point forward instincts, a mean streak that makes him a great defender when he wants to be, and incomparable athleticism. There are things he needs to tighten up. His handle could be better, though it’s still impressive for a near-seven-footer with pool noodle arms. He has a tendency to push harder rather than think his way through tough moments, and that can result in the odd turnover spree. He still has yet to add a reliable three-point shot.
But this is all refinement. Giannis is no longer constructing his basketball self from the bottom up as he was during his first few years in the league, when neither we nor he had any idea what he would become, not just in terms of ability but style. (What would he do? What would it look like?) As with most great players, he contributes to pretty much every aspect of the game and thus is improving in several areas at once all the time. His development isn’t described well by a line on a chart so much as an ever-expanding ink blot—the outline of which doesn’t look like anything we’ve ever seen before, but we all agree, when we glance at it: it’s Giannis-shaped.
For the first time in his career, he’s likely to get some help in the form of direction. Jason Kidd was a good first coach for Giannis to have in that he empowered the young Freak and was willing to employ his unique skills in unorthodox ways. (You’ll remember Kidd more or less invented Point Giannis.) But Kidd was a lousy strategist with outdated ideas, and Giannis outgrew him as the rest of the Bucks got sick of him. Mike Budenholzer is a persnickety guy, and it’ll be interesting to see how he and Giannis connect on a person-to-person basis, but he’s also an astute Xs and Os type who’s going to get his star player a few easy buckets every game and help advance his understanding of the game. Coach Bud never had anybody nearly as gifted as Giannis on one of his Hawks rosters, and Giannis has never had a coach who could devise an honest-to-god NBA offense. If they get along, they’ll be able to do spectacular things together.
Budenholzer is showing up at exactly the right time. We’ve seen, over the past decade or so, the league’s best young players, in their mid-20s, grow restless on the teams that drafted them. LeBron is the obvious example, but it’s also happened with Chris Paul, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, and Kevin Love. It might be on the verge of happening with Anthony Davis. The Bucks have been a decent-enough squad for three out of the past four years, and that’s a fine thing to be as your pupating superstar finds his way. But once he’s established himself, as Giannis now has, an organization-deep anxiety sets in if the team doesn’t start to the player’s his ambition The NBA still belongs to the Warriors, if not the Rockets, and the Celtics and Sixers are going to do battle to figure out who owns the Eastern Conference, but Giannis is likely looking to at least make some noise this year. With some luck, Budenholzer has the smarts to take a not-untalented squad and get them playing up to a standard that won’t take the East by storm but will at least give Giannis some encouragement, demonstrate that things are going in a positive direction.
No matter how that plan shakes out, whether he’s energized by what changes around him or bravely dragging dead weight as far as he can take them, we at least get to watch Giannis come into a fuller possession of his powers. That alone is something to behold. But there’s a sense in Milwaukee, unlike last year, that this could be a season in which it isn’t just Giannis putting it together but a team coming together around him, lifting him to new heights and the collective to yet-unseen relevance. That’s the idea, anyway—the preseason optimist’s take. And maybe you’re more inclined to believe it, because Giannis is involved. Maybe more accurately, you’re hoping for it a smidgen harder than you otherwise would, because we like to see the league’s stars fulfilling their potential in good situations. Giannis’s emerging greatness gives us something to root for. His team might, too.
More 2018 Futures: Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Marcus Smart, John Wall, Devin Booker, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Kenneth Faried, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Kawhi Leonard, Aaron Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Wayne Ellington, Frank Kaminsky, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap, Kris Dunn, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic