Milwaukee Bucks: A deep analysis on sparkplug Thanasis Antetokounmpo

Feb 21, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA (Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports)
Feb 21, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA (Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports) /
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CLEVELAND, OHIO – FEBRUARY 06: (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OHIO – FEBRUARY 06: (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

Thanasis Antetokounmpo’s strong fundamentals fits the Milwaukee Bucks

Thanasis fits the Bucks’ defensive plans perfectly this 2020-21 season.

Milwaukee has devoted this regular season to defensive experimentation, which comes at a statistical price. Last year, the Bucks fielded a stout, but a one-dimensional defense that held teams to a league-best 102.5 points per 100 possessions last season, per

Under head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks implemented a drop coverage, instructing defenders to run opponents off the 3-point line and drop interior defenders near the rim. However, two consecutive playoff flameouts taught the Bucks a painful lesson and that postseason success requires defensive versatility. No matter its strength, one style of defense cannot sustain a deep playoff run.

In response, this year’s Bucks have adopted a more evenly-layered coverage. Instead of baiting teams inside, Milwaukee now pressures opponents all over the court, with special attention to outside shots. The success of this adjustment hinges on the defenders’ ability to switch assignments with one another and Bucks defenders must respond to screens by trading off assignments, instead of fighting through the screener. If each defender can handle their new assignment, the Bucks have beaten the screen.

For this reason, the Bucks need players capable of guarding multiple positions. Luckily, Thanasis can stick with anyone on the court.

The small forward’s intensity and raw athleticism make him very switchable on the defensive end. He uses his lateral quickness to front slashers, while being physical enough to battle a big man down low, if necessary. Add in an innate sense of positioning, and we have an ultimate pick and roll defender. Look at this defensive possession against the Sacramento Kings.

It may seem ordinary, but this play illustrates Thanasis’s strong defensive fundamentals and versatility. Pat Connaughton starts on the Kings’ Buddy Hield, but a screen by Hassan Whiteside immediately disrupts the coverage. This is a critical point, as Connaughton is too small to a handle a rolling Whiteside, but has also lost position to guard Hield.

The Sacramento guard has Milwaukee right where he wants them, and simply must read Thanasis’ positioning to either hit a rolling Whiteside, or attack the cup himself. Brilliantly, though, the Bucks’ wildcard removes both of these options. Immediately after the screen, Antetokounmpo slides to the foul line extended, clogging both Hield and Whiteside’s paths to the hoop.

Hield makes the right play, dishing it quickly as Connaughton begins to recover, but a quick pivot allows Thanasis to obstruct the powerful Whiteside. From here, he plays right out of the textbook, staying vertical to force a contested miss inside. Had he pressed Hield at the screen or dropped too far back, one of the Kings would’ve enjoyed a high-percentage look.

Once again, exceptional defenders shine brightest in ordinary plays. Good defense bores fans, but it also earns playing time. Thanasis executes these fundamental plays to perfection, and the coaching staff has rewarded him accordingly.

Of course, we cannot let textbook fundamentals overshadow his dynamic ability. Much like his brother, this Antetokounmpo can also put on a show.  Let’s take a look at this similar pick and roll from later that game.

Once again, a screen from center Marvin Bagley III puts Tyrese Haliburton two steps ahead of Bryn Forbes, passing the defensive responsibility to Thanasis. This is a tall order as he must address the threatening Haliburton, without forfeiting inside position to Bagley.  Thanasis responds appropriately, shifting his stance to face the imposing guard, while never relinquishing his spot in the passing lane.

Haliburton does find Bagley, but Antetokounmpo responds by taking away a right-handed layup.  A skilled finisher likely could’ve found an opening, but the obstruction was enough to force a young Bagley right into Khris Middleton. After Middleton stymies the big, Thanasis erases his second shot at the rim. With the play still not over, he then hustles to cover Middleton’s corner assignment.

In one play, Antetokounmpo covered all a guard, forward, and center. If the Bucks intend on fully committing to this switching defense, they’ll need personnel capable of doing just that. Proficient positional defenders are valuable, but can only carry a team so far – players must be prepared to help their teammates, or swap assignments with them outright.

Thanasis has what the Bucks need on this end. However, it is no accident that he plays just under nine minutes a game this season as he still has significant room to grow.