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Like LeBron and Kobe before him, Giannis Antetokounmpo must improve his post-up game to get to the next level

You’ve surely already seen the hot takes pouring in. Giannis can’t win in the playoffs. Giannis chokes in the clutch. Giannis is a Scottie Pippen who needs a Michael Jordan.

Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t need to be fixed, because he isn’t broken. Anyone who is about to win back-to-back NBA MVPs and become only the third player to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season is doing just fine. Giannis can continue on his current trajectory and wind up a first-ballot Hall of Famer, potentially a top-15 player of all-time.

But facing a 3-0 deficit against the Miami Heat after an unceremonious exit last postseason, it’s only natural to wonder what adjustments the Greek Freak can make to get his team, and himself, over the hump. Yes, he’s only 25 years old, but those of us who closely follow this league know how quickly windows can disappear. Milwaukee has a supporting cast full of end-of-prime or post-prime veterans like Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and Wesley Matthews — how many truly effective years do those players have left?

With Antetokounmpo’s potential free agency hovering like an alien spacecraft over the city of Milwaukee, the time to strike is now. The question is, what can a player who’s already this great do to improve?

The glaring, ubiquitous answer is his jump shot. While steadily getting better, there’s nothing to indicate that Antetokounmpo will ever become an average 3-point shooter, let alone a proficient one. Even if he does, there’s no reason to believe it will make defenses change their approach to guarding him.

“If we are going to run out there on those [3-pointers] and let him get to the rim, that is a 100 percent shot,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of Giannis before a January game against the Bucks. “So we will live with the 33 percent for now and see where that goes.”

In the 28 games after Kerr’s comment, Antetokounmpo shot 27 percent from 3-point range, and saw his season percentage decline from 33 to 30. This postseason he’s shooting 31 percent, including 2-for-13 in the three losses to the Heat. Essentially, teams will continue backing off and daring him to shoot 3-pointers for the foreseeable future.

So an improved jump shot probably isn’t the most likely way that Giannis takes the next step. A more realistic and tenable approach, however, is to take a cue from LeBron James and Kobe Bryant before him and work on his post-up game.

Antetokounmpo initiates a lot of his half-court offense by trying to get a head of steam from beyond the 3-point line and powering his way into the lane. As we’ve seen, however, those avenues tend to shrink and disappear in the playoffs as teams create a wall and load up the paint to prevent penetration. Currently lacking a go-to move like a pull-up mid-range jumper or a step-back, a lot of Giannis’ strengths have been rendered futile in the postseason.

That’s why going to the post more makes sense. This postseason he’s posted up on just 7.8 percent of possessions, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Last postseason it was 5.7 percent. Maybe instead of trying to initiate offense from the 3-point line, he should live on the block and in the high post.

Maybe instead of trying to be LeBron or Kawhi in the halfcourt, he should be Shaq.

In order to do that, though, he needs to enhance his post-up game. As dominant as Antetokounmpo is in the paint (in the 92nd percentile at 1.415 points per possession around the rim, per Synergy), he generally gets there in transition or by attacking from the perimeter. His post-up efficiency has been much less impressive. During the 2019-20 regular season, he was in the 52nd percentile on post-up scoring opportunities at 0.921 points per possession, per Synergy.

In this playoff run, which is rapidly nearing an end, that has dropped to an abysmal 0.471 points per possession — literally the worst efficiency of any player with at least 10 post-up possessions this postseason. It’s a jarring discrepancy compared to other star players who have a similar percentage of post-ups per game: Kawhi Leonard (1.231 PPP), Anthony Davis (1.067 PPP), James (1 PPP) and Bam Adebayo (1 PPP).

LeBron lost the 2011 NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, and sought out Hall of Famer and inventor of the “Dream Shake,” Hakeem Olajuwon, to work on his post game later that summer. While that’s not the only reason he won his first NBA title the following year, it added another dimension to his game that he could summon when he needed to make a play. Similarly, Bryant worked with Olajuwon in 2009 to shore up his post arsenal, which allowed him to be an effective scorer deep into his career.

“My first 30 minutes working together, he knew I understood what he was saying,” Bryant said of working with Olajuwon. “It was the smallest details of things. From that, I got a lot out of it.”  

When you watch Antetokounmpo work in the post, it’s clear that he could benefit from focusing on those small details.

Predictability

Giannis has a couple of pet moves, but the problem is the defense starts to catch onto them pretty quickly. We’ve all seen his devastating spin move, but he generally pulls that out in transition or on drives. In the post, he’s developed a baseline fadeaway spinning away from the double-team. It looks great when it goes in, but defenses quickly read it and contest it well.

With his size and high release, this shot will be unstoppable if he ever perfects it, and there’s reason to believe he’ll get better at it. But there are also a few relatively simple things that he can do to keep defenders from reading his moves so easily, ultimately making the shot more effective.

Pump fakes

When you go through his film, it’s pretty remarkable how infrequently Giannis uses pump fakes. Particularly on that baseline fadeaway, he could keep his defender off balance and draw a lot more fouls by simply throwing up a fake every once in a while. Here’s an example of how LeBron, who became proficient at the fadeaway, used pump fakes to diversify his post game.

It requires solid footwork to avoid traveling, but it seems like something Antetokounmpo could utilize with relative ease if he puts in the work.

Head and shoulder fakes

When Giannis makes his mind up to go to the basket out of the post, it’s generally a straight line with little misdirection. Defenses tend to beat him to the spot, which leads to a lot of offensive fouls.

Now, look at LeBron from that 2012 postseason. He rarely makes a move without giving at least one head and shoulder fake to freeze the defender for a split second.

It’s subtle, but just a quick fake to get Danny Granger leaning to his right opens up the driving lane for James. Olajuwon dedicated a large chunk of his lesson with Bryant to a similar type of fake, this one with his back to the basket rather than facing up, starting at the 30-second mark of this video.

This became a staple of Bryant’s post-up game, and you can still see LeBron doing it on a near-nightly basis. Giannis possesses the strength, quickness and agility to get to the basket, but a basic head and shoulder fake before venturing into the lane or going into his fadeaway could do wonders for him.

Jump hooks

You rarely see Antetokounmpo shoot a jump hook, and given his height and length it could be an extremely effective shot for him. Here, when Giannis gets into the paint against the smaller Dorian Finney-Smith, he swings his arms through for a regular jump shot and gets fouled (no guarantee of points given the way he shoots from the line). Had he gone with a jump hook, he would have gotten it off cleanly and perhaps drawn an and-one.

Again we contrast with 2012 LeBron, who used the jump hook to his advantage quite often in the lane. It helps him create space to get the shot off even when the defender is right in front of him.

These are all techniques Antetekounmpo can work on in the offseason, and we certainly know he’s willing to work. Once he’s more comfortable with post scoring, his post passing should follow suit. When you include passes, Antetokounmpo is last among playoff performers this postseason with at least 20 post-up possessions at 0.759 points per possession, according to Synergy. It’s a tiny sample size, but last postseason he had similar struggles, averaging 0.857 points per possession in the post, including passes, in 15 games.

We can’t ask Giannis to be LeBron in terms of his playmaking from the post — nobody is — but an improved scoring package combined with more reps should lead to more confidence, quicker decisions and fewer turnovers when attempting to pass out of double teams.

We obviously don’t know their personal situations, but it seems that Olajuwon would be a great place for Antetokounmpo to start. Not only has The Dream previously worked with James and Bryant, but he also has expressed a significant interest in the career of Antetokounmpo, a fellow Nigerian. He even spent time with Giannis on a trip to Africa in 2015.

“I know from his last name that we are from the same tribe, the Yoruba tribe,” Olajuwon told The Undefeated. “His last name, which in Yoruba is spelled Adetokunbo, means ‘the crown has returned from overseas.’ “

The last two postseasons have proven that Antetekounmpo still has work to do if he’s going to lead the Bucks to a title. The crown he hopes to one day wear as the NBA’s best player is within his reach, and working on his post game might be the best way for him to snatch it.



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