It’s been the most talked about flaw in his game for years, but Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo is getting much closer to adding a consistent three-pointer to his game.
As Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo dominated the NBA’s showcase game, rolling off highlight after highlight, Kevin Durant, the game’s eventual MVP, condescendingly beckoned the young Greek into taking wide open three-pointers.
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This is not a new experience for Antetokounmpo, as he’s heard the noise for years at this point. Misguided analysis has long parroted the notion that without a consistent jump shot, opposing teams could create a gameplan to stop the 24-year-old. In the years since, even the most perfunctory analysis of his stats has proved that theory to be nonsense.
Antetokounmpo still hears the cries of laughter from opposing benches if he airballs a triple, but at that point, the Bucks are often already up by 20 points and the Greek is working on a 30-point triple-double.
Milwaukee’s phenomenal success as a team this season, and the stellar roster building around Antetokounmpo, points to something that the player himself has been adamant about for some time. Speaking about the larger focus on his jump shot during his exit interview at the end of last season, Antetokounmpo explained:
"“I can argue about the jump shot. We’ve been arguing about the jump shot since my rookie year. From, oh, he cannot score the ball, he cannot be an All-Star, he doesn’t have a jump shot, he cannot help his team go to the playoffs if he doesn’t have a jump shot. I still helped my team go to the playoffs, I still put up the stats I put up with no jump shot.I feel like I’ve got a jump shot. Do I shoot it every time? No, I don’t. You know, because I know that’s not what my team wants for me to do every time. I’m not going to come down and shoot 45 shots. That’s not what my team wants from me. I’m going to do whatever it takes for me and for my team to be successful.”"
At this point in the season, it would be impossible to suggest Antetokounmpo hasn’t done exactly what his team needs from him to be successful. Still, the signs are that he might be turning a corner with his jump shot, or at least with his confidence in that department.
Antetokounmpo’s season-long 22.3 percent hit rate from deep is not going to scare anyone, but his month-to-month progression should be drawing plenty of attention. Tracking Antetokounmpo’s three-point shooting from October through to February reveals a continuing uptick from 6.3 percent, to 14.3 percent, to 22.2 percent, to 30.6 percent, to 37.5 percent in his six games to date in February.
It could be argued that upward curve shouldn’t be a surprise either. One of the many exciting wrinkles that accompanied news of Mike Budenholzer’s hire as Bucks head coach back in May, was the prospect of his shooting-specialist assistant Ben Sullivan getting an opportunity to work with Antetokounmpo.
Sullivan worked wonders in Atlanta coaching wings such as Kent Bazemore, DeMarre Carroll, and Tim Hardaway Jr., and as a disciple of famed Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland, there was cause for optimism that Sullivan’s influence could rub off on Antetokounmpo too.
The early results may not have been all that encouraging, but all examinations of Sullivan’s process indicate a more diligent and gradual approach to improvement built upon constant film work and corresponding adjustments. Speaking to KL Chouinard of Hawks.com back in 2015, Sullivan explained:
"“You start with the offense and the player and break it all the way down into little bitty pieces that you’re working on. Then you build it back up so that by the time they get into the game, it looks like they’re not even thinking. They’re just stepping into things and just doing them naturally because they’ve worked on them.”"
That detail is particularly pertinent for Antetokounmpo, a player who at times in his career has looked to be paralyzed by overthinking when the opportunity arises to take a jump shot. Former Bucks coach Jason Kidd‘s well-documented restrictions on Antetokounmpo were undoubtedly damaging in that regard, too. As Antetokounmpo recalled to Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel back in October:
"“I think it was my second year he told me not to shoot the ball. Then my third year, at the end of the year, he told me to shoot the ball a little bit. In my fourth year, he let me shoot the ball and in my fifth year he told me, ‘You have the green light, do whatever you want,’ but I wasn’t comfortable enough. It’s hard. When you’re not shooting the ball, it’s hard to get back (to shooting).”"
Those years of confusion have left plenty of bad habits ingrained in the muscle memory and needing to be undone by Antetokounmpo, and Milwaukee’s current staff. Even beyond his track record, though, any assessment of Antetokounmpo’s three-point shooting must also consider how, and where, he plays on the floor, and what that means for his shot profile.
In short, Antetokounmpo is the focal point of the Bucks’ offense. He spends a lot of the time with the ball in his hands, is a staple of the pick-and-roll as both ball-handler and screener, and he’s always looking to find a path down the middle to the rim. The byproduct of that approach is Antetokounmpo doesn’t have the luxury of taking easier threes in the short corners.
Antetokounmpo does not spend his time tucked away on the periphery of Milwaukee’s offense, which is why only seven of his 130 three-point attempts this season have come from the corners. That leaves just 5.3 percent of Antetokounmpo’s long range attempts from the corners.
Comparing that number to the league’s top-five in terms of three-point percentage tells its own story. For Davis Bertans, 13.9 percent of his triple attempts come from the corners, it’s 15.7 percent for Joe Harris, 21.8 percent for Seth Curry, 21.8 percent for Buddy Hield, with Danilo Galinari acting as the only player in that grouping coming close to Giannis at 6.8 percent.
That’s certainly not to suggest Antetokounmpo should be working his way to the corner more frequently, as he’s best placed to cause the most damage operating from the middle of the floor. It should provide some important context for what above average three-point shooting would even mean for Antetokounmpo, though.
Seth Partnow, now the Bucks’ Director of Basketball Research, wrote about this very subject for the Washington Post back in 2014. Explaining how the shorter distance from the corner doesn’t make sense for high-usage players (it takes them away from the action) or big men (poor positioning for offensive rebounds and getting back down the floor quickly in transition), Partnow described Blake Griffin‘s desire to add the corner three, as follows:
"“It’s certainly laudable he’s looking to extend his range but, even if he becomes a consistent shooter from the corner, he’d be better off elsewhere on the court. As a primary cog in the Clippers’ offense, he should be spending most of his time in the middle of the floor.”"
The same sentiment undoubtedly applies for Antetokounmpo, and should act to re-align expectations of what the Greek becoming a more deadly shooter would actually look like in terms of percentage. Without a high volume of corner attempts, Antetokounmpo simply doesn’t need to strive for the 36-40 percent accuracy teams crave from more specialist shooters. Taking more difficult, above-the-break threes to keep his options open, a quiet but steady mark in the 33-35 percent range could prove to be game-changing for Antetokounmpo.
Since the turn of the year, and now over a 20-game span, that’s exactly what he’s achieved too. Antetokounmpo is 16-of-48 on his above-the-break attempts in 2019. Even more encouraging is Antetokounmpo’s increased comfort in varying his shot type. The Greek is 7-of-14 on pull-up three-point attempts during that time, a shot which promises to be particularly useful considering the threat he poses off the dribble.
It’s a long time since there’s been any credence to questioning the need for an improved jump shot for Antetokounmpo to be one of the NBA’s most dominant players. Having said that, if his recent progression holds up over a longer stretch of time, it will only open more doors for how the Greek phenomenon can become all-conquering in a longer-term, historical context.
Much like Durant did on Sunday, opposing teams may well continue to welcome Antetokounmpo’s long-ball attempts. He finished the All-Star Game having shot 2-of-6 from deep, though, and if that becomes a baseline of production for the one notable flaw remaining in his game, opponents will quickly begin to rue the day they dared Antetokounmpo to let fly from distance.