Basketball Bits Vol. 24: Giannis’ Next Step

Where Giannis still has room to grow, where Jokic is underappreciated and more

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If you’re new to the program, the idea of Basketball Bits is to provide short and quick but detailed analysis on NBA-related trends, sets, plays, concepts/strategies, players, sometimes larger thought points and basically just whatever comes to mind or catches my eye. Ideally, it will spotlight about 3–5 things that will offer a speedy but insightful read.

  1. Giannis’ next frontier

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s journey to super-duper stardom always comes back to his jumper (And whew boy, something may be brewing; he’s a hit a 3 in 8 of his last 12 games). Yes, even a workable pull-up midranger would alleviate some sticky, late-clock situations, while a mildly makeable catch-and-shoot 3-ball would be an influx of furthered dynamism to the Bucks’ spread system. But Antetokounmpo’s next frontier as a star is probably his playmaking, an element of his game that has progressed leaps and bounds, but hasn’t crested the authoritative, game-altering levels of the game’s greatest creators, such as LeBron James and James Harden. OK, asking Giannis to be LeBron or Harden — maybe two Top 10 passers in NBA history — is recklessly ambitious, but Antetokounmpo still has another plausible level he can reach as an all-around offensive commander considering the amount and type of defensive attention his bulldozing attacks draw.

Antetokounmpo’s passing is already more than an optimistic flash in the pan here and there; he’s an established threat as an every-possession passer who can whip the ball to shooters cross-court and drop it off to cutters and rim-loitering bigs looking to yam. His wrap-around, dump-off passes where one of his go-go gadget arms curls around a rim protector like a snake are truly stupefying at times.

Those finds are a testament to his understanding of NBA rotation patterns and how opponents gird help toward him, but the frequency and polish of those dimes leave room for upward trajectory. They don’t seem to unfold in a smoothly organic manner the way they do with top tier passers; sometimes it’s as if Giannis plans them out as opposed to natural reading and reacting based on what the defense shows.

Giannis’ absurd length allows him to transcend angles and closing windows on those finds even when he’s late to recognize them. He’ll zing a kickout pass all the way around a defender’s body or whiz one over everyone’s head like he’s shooting a Kareem sky hook. The accuracy and velocity suffer sometimes as a result.

Based on his strides in the art to this point and the all-hands-on-deck help he demands with a burly drive or backdown, there’s optimism he’ll reach truly elite status as a playmaker and floor commander. Even if he doesn’t….well, uh, the dude is probably the MVP favorite (Harden’s insane 30-plus streak and Paul George blazing on both ends have made that extremely debatable).

Another quick observation on Giannis — he’s spying opportunities to sneak behind big man dives in pick-and-roll with an imposing cut down the lane that has to leave defenses cowering. He’s an unimpeded freight train looking to do damage.

That specific slice to the rim is known as a “chop cut” in general basketball lexicon. Devin Harris is the dean of it. Giannis is the natural. He’s meant to wreak such havoc with this combination of savvy and force.

2. Nikola Jokic, beyond his passing

Despite being everybody’s favorite doughy star, Jokic’s offensive dexterity somehow constantly gets shortchanged. Viewers gawk at his passing and become so enthralled by it, it’s almost as if they can’t comprehend the rest of Jokic’s offensive package. His passing is transcendent, sure, a skill woven within analytics that further skews value by tapping into intangibles, such as teamwide chemistry amid basketball ecstasy. Even still, Jokic is so much more.

Jokic is a matchup nightmare who pummels defenses with a ground-bound scoring game that highlights his otherworldly touch and balance. He vaporizes guards, wings, heck even stout 5s, with blundering post ups, where he’ll dip a shoulder one moment and just as quickly twirl away for a soft finish, unaffected by the meaty contact just a second prior; he pivots and twists like a ballerina, his roly-poly frame slipping and sliding off defenders like he’s coated in baby oil. He drops in short-range deuces like he’s a giant 6th grader who doesn’t need to jump to be a foot taller than everyone…except Jokic is doing it against some of the world’s best vertical athletes. His pick-and-pop game and opportunistic trailer 3s are a pain in the ass for plodders who naturally gravitate to the paint. The dude is a full-blown scoring machine when he wants to be, while also keeping defenses on pins and needles as a once-in-a-generation passing center.

Jokic’s defense is still slipshod and has yet to face the playoff crucible, where opponents will seek Jokic out time and again. Mike Malone has tried to mitigate Jokic’s shortcomings with more aggressive pick-and-roll coverages, where he blitzes the ball handler. It takes any late switches out of play, and prevents ball handlers from surging downhill versus Jokic (Jokic is keen when it comes to playing the area in between ball handler and roller, and he has smart hands to occasionally escape from sticky situations. But he has virtually no margin for error. He can’t go up and challenge ball handlers at the rim nor shrink the target area of lob passes). He’s held up in the adapted scheme — though preventing ball handlers such as James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Donovan Mitchell from splitting those traps over a seven-game series will be an ordeal — but Jokic becomes more susceptible the longer a possession goes. He’s not a multiple-effort defender who can put out one fire and still scurry back to protect the rim; he’s slow and vertically challenged as is, and not being in shape only makes it worse.

Seeing how Jokic fares in the postseason will tell us a lot about his absolute ceiling. At the same time, matchups and this being the Nuggets’ first playoff rodeo should be considered in assessing Jokic as a franchise centerpiece long term regardless of the outcome.

3. Jayson Tatum and Ben Simmons not all there on defense

It feels icky so many mainstream media types harping on the holes in Simmons’ and Tatum’s games. “Simmons can’t shoot and makes Philly’s spacing stuffy when he has to chill in the dunker spot.” “Tatum’s too in love with midrangers and I’m not sure he can get to the basket consistently even against supposed mismatches.”

Please, these guys — kids rather — are already legit studs on Finals contenders. Both may be Top 10 superstars someday. In the here and now, though, for all the recent misgivings about each of their offensive palettes, the other end of the floor is where quibbles are truly warranted.

Tatum has been suspect defensively since entering the league. No one is asking him to be Paul George locking down the league’s best wings, but he has a difficult time sticking with even second and third bananas. He’s prone to becoming aloof off ball and falls way behind when tracking shooters; trailing shooters around single-doubles — essentially where shooters have the option of a double stagger pindown on one wing or a single pindown on the other — is an arduous task, especially in today’s league, but Tatum makes it even harder by so often falling behind even before screeners come into play.

Tatum is a little stiff moving laterally and getting skinny around screens, but he has good positional size and understands the contours of NBA defense. He can slot into a switching defense without much issue, and Boston’s defense has the structural backbone to mitigate some of his slip-ups. Still, the Celtics’ playoff fate may hinge on well how well Tatum can navigate the spacing and movement in Milwaukee’s offensive system, or whether he can hold his own defending the likes of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris.

Simmons’ defense is a full level — and maybe more — above Tatum’s. He can switch capably 1–5, and his instincts as an off-ball help defender are next level when he’s engaged. He can shrink the floor and still close out to deter a spot-up look, and trying to zing skip passes past him on the weak side is daredevil’s work.

That’s Simmons’ defensive ceiling, though, and for extended stretches this season, he’s come nowhere close to reaching it. The rumors of defensive apathy that surrounded his LSU tenure appear to have some merit. Simmons will lollygag through possessions now and again, where he just stands arm’s length from a so-so shooter instead of squeezing a driving lane or helping the helper. He’s a bit like LeBron in that vein — as well as his inability to get through screens — if LeBron cared a lick about help defense more than two minutes a game.

Lots of dudes in the NBA takes possessions off, though, and Simmons has shown an adroit, willing nature on that end in that past. The playoffs — like with Tatum — are when his contributions on that end will truly be tested.

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