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Giannis — the Underrated Superstar

The Greek Freak is the clear favorite for MVP. Why isn’t he being treated as such?

Original image by AP Photo/Nick Wass

Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging nearly 30 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists this season for a 53–12 Milwaukee Bucks team. That he hasn’t already locked up his second straight MVP award speaks to the era of superstars and stat inflation that we’re currently living in.

Yet, that’s exactly the situation. Between an early-season challenge from James Harden who at the time was averaging near 40 points per game to the rise of LeBron James in MVP talks over the past few weeks, Giannis’s path to going back-to-back hasn’t been simple, and it’s not impossible to see a future where he doesn’t win the award.

This is crazy. For my money, not only has Giannis clearly been the league’s best player this season, but he is also producing one of the greatest individual seasons in league history. Despite this dominance, Giannis still isn’t receiving the level of respect he deserves. In fact, it’s not a stretch to call him an underrated player this season.

Why is that?

The MVP “Narrative”

Each NBA season, the media ascribes storylines to the season. Often, these are accurate representations of the basketball landscape, but sometimes, coverage was stretch and skew reality for the sake of our desire for narratives to follow. This season, Giannis doesn’t have a compelling narrative.

Last year, the rise of the Greek Freak was finally completed as the player who came from Greece as a 19-year old with unbelievable size and athleticism had reached — no, exceeded his potential and became the best player in the league. This time around, Giannis is still the league’s best player and the Bucks are still the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Steadiness limits story potential, no matter how high the bar is. Especially when the story takes place in a small market like Milwaukee.

On the other hand, LeBron has the luxury of playing in the epicenter of the basketball universe — Los Angeles. The Lakers are one of the two biggest teams in the history of the sport, yet are currently in the midst of the longest playoff drought in team history, having missed the playoffs in each of the last six seasons.

LeBron’s dominance is particularly impressive because at age 35 and in his 17th season in the league, we’ve never seen someone play this well this deep into their career. For the first time in his career, he’s even leading the league in assists this season. And of course, he’s played a significant role in leading the Lakers organization, the city of Los Angeles, and the sports world through the tragic death of Kobe Bryant earlier this season.

All of this is incredible and makes for an incredible story. However, aside from his assists numbers, what does it have to do with the MVP race? The only thing that should matter is how good a player is at basketball. Giannis is currently tied for the fifth-best PER season of all-time on the best team in the league, and one on pace for the fifth-best win differential of all-time.

LeBron has the narrative on his side, but he hasn’t been the best player. It’s the opposite side of a situation he’s found himself facing many times. LeBron has just four MVP awards despite being the best player in the league, I don’t know, ten seasons? But that’s just how the media treats the MVP award.

Minutes Per Game

One unique aspect of playing on a historically great basketball team is that frequently, you find yourself so far ahead of the opposing team that you can rest your star players at the ends of games, sometimes for the entire fourth quarter.

It’s something Steph Curry experienced during his first MVP run in 2014–15 when he averaged 32.7 minutes per game after averages of 38.2 and 36.5 the previous two seasons. This year, Giannis is playing even less — just 30.9 minutes per game, which makes his absurd stat line even more, well, absurd.

Comparing per-36 minute numbers, Giannis is actually outscoring even James Harden, 34.5–33.7. On a pure volume basis, Wilt Chamberlain’s 1961–62 season, where he averaged more than 50 points and 25 rebounds per game, is the greatest season in NBA history.

However, that year, Wilt sat on the bench for just eight minutes the entire season. Remarkably, this means that including overtimes, Chamberlain played 48.5 minutes per game that season. Let’s see how Wilt’s numbers that season compare to Giannis on a per-36 minute basis.

Astonishingly, Giannis has arguably better numbers. He gives up three points and rebounds per game in exchange for five more assists and much better scoring efficiency. Plus, Giannis’s Bucks are a much better team than Wilt’s Warriors were.

Not A Long-Range Threat

Rule changes and the three-point revolution have shifted the NBA from a big man’s game to one where the center position is practically going extinct. Over the league’s first four decades, almost every MVP was won by a center. Now, the last center to win the award was Shaquille O’Neal 20 years ago.

In today’s league, it seems that being a capable three-point shooter is a requirement for being an MVP. Giannis turned that idea on its head a season ago, but that doesn’t mean people don’t view his ineffectiveness from three-point territory as a major weakness. After last season’s Eastern Conference Finals against the Raptors where Giannis struggled driving to the rim, many still doubt his ability to hit big shots.

LeBron has never been a lethal three-point shooter, but he’s hit countless huge threes over his career, and that’s an unproven facet of Giannis’s game. To his credit, Giannis has improved from deep this year, up over 30%, but I’d still like to see that number get a little higher.

However, concerns over Giannis’s jump shooting neglect just how unstoppable he is on the interior. Shaq in his prime is generally considered the most dominant inside scorer of the modern era. In fact, O’Neal led the NBA in field goal percentage 10 times during his career.

Discounting his final season, in which he played just 37 games and attempted only five shots per, Shaq’s best field goal percentage on two-point shots was 61%. For his career, O’Neal was 58.3%. This year, Giannis is making 62.2% of his twos, which is even a step down from last season, when he shot 64.1%. The Greek Freak takes roughly half of his shots from inside of three feet (amazing by itself) and converts more than 76% of those opportunities. When Giannis gets inside, the battle is already over.

The Greek Freak has put together another magical season and somehow seems to still be getting better. At just 25 years old, he seems destined to be a force for many years to come. But that doesn't mean he should have to wait for a second MVP award.

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*Research done using basketball-reference.com

Connor Groel is a writer who studies sport management at the University of Texas at Austin. He also serves as editor of the Top Level Sports publication on Medium, and the host of the Connor Groel Sports podcast. His book, “Sports, Technology, and Madness,” is available now. You can follow Connor on Medium, Facebook, and Twitter, and view his archives at toplevelsports.net.

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