Sconnie Sports Talk

Despite hype, Antetokounmpo remains better centerpiece than Porzingis


Follow Isaac Bushnell on Twitter @IsaacBushnell.

Hey you. Yeah, you with the freshly styled white boy cornrows and the Latvian flag draped around your shoulders, could you do me a favor and hop down from your 7’3” high horse for a second so you can hear me out?

Now I know you have probably already joined the national movement and anointed this unicorn kid as the future king of the basketball world, but before you go hanging a crown from the horn on his forehead, allow me to make this one statement: You have something better than Kristaps Porzingis right here in Milwaukee.

While you have been drooling over the exploits of New York City’s new favorite son and lamenting the ostensible purgatory that the Milwaukee Bucks season has descended into, you have entirely forgotten what you yourselves have been blessed with. He’s public enemy number one for all autocorrect software out there, he’s the OG of skinny Europeans with crazy athleticism and alien wingspans, and he just dropped his first two career triple-doubles within a week of one another.

He is Giannis Antetokounmpo (or ‘Giannis Ante rekindling’ according to my iPhone). He is the reason that Bucks fans should still be dreaming of a contender, and he is a far better piece to build around in today’s NBA than the headline-grabbing rookie in New York. That’s right, give me the Greek Freak over the Latvian Unicorn to start my NBA franchise any day of the week.

Understanding this assertion starts with understanding one of the most misunderstood concepts in basketball—potential. My working definition of basketball potential is the distance between a player’s current level of production and the highest level of production he will reach in his career. This is an easy definition to accept, but is by no means an easy definition to apply on a case by case basis. It has become an unquestioned practice amongst NBA fans and media to attach the idea of potential to any player who ticks the boxes of being young and athletic. This practice may seem to make sense, but in reality is woefully misguided.

A perfect juxtaposition to illustrate its flaws are the NBA careers of guards Tyreke Evans and JJ Redick. Evans was a 19 year old rookie who was strong, quick, and could jump out of the gym, while Redick was a four-year college player who did not have the physical tools to be anything more than a spot-up shooter. Evans was dubbed a guy with immense potential, while Redick was given the label of “you know exactly what you’re going to get from him.” Evans averaged 20 points and 6 assists per game on his way to winning rookie of the year in his debut season with the Sacramento Kings, but currently in the meat of his career contributes slightly smaller point totals at a similar efficiency rate towards the floundering cause that is the New Orleans Pelicans. Redick’s 6 points a night on 41% shooting were an afterthought for the Orlando Magic in his rookie season, but he now pours in 17 per game with chart-topping efficiency in his peak years for the contending Los Angeles Clippers. Evans, the poster boy for false potential as a rookie, had none to speak of, while the mundane and limited Redick had enough about him to blossom from a poor man’s Steve Kerr into a top-3 option for a title challenger. Redick’s growth along with Evans’ stagnation illustrates that a player’s true potential is not found in the weapons they currently possess, but in the weapons that they can add over time to complement their current set and create a full arsenal. This is what differentiates Giannis and Pozingis.

Porzingis is taller than Shaq and has a 7’6” wingspan. He can put the ball on the floor, stroke it from distance, and go work in the post. He runs the floor like a gazelle and leaps like a salmon. He has a high basketball IQ along with incredible timing and instincts that allow him to block shots on the defensive end and throw down put-back dunks on the offensive end. He has it all and is unlike anything the NBA has ever seen before. These are facts that fanboys and haters like myself can universally agree upon, but the net interpretation of these facts is where I break away from the consensus. The average fan looks at them and interprets a potential the likes of which we have never seen before. I look at them and interpret a more-or-less fully polished player.

When I look at Antetokounmpo, I see something entirely different. I see a beautifully flawed basketball specimen. Yes, he possesses the same mind-boggling athletic package as Porzingis on a shorter and more dynamic scale, but he can’t shoot off the catch or the dribble, he has no consistent offensive repertoire in the half court, and his decision making with the basketball is inconsistent at best.

On the surface those look like a long list of the Greek Freak’s short-comings, but I view them as the untouched pieces of a halfway completed puzzle. From what I can make of the pieces already in place, I can distinguish a player who is among his team leaders in all five major statistical categories, and has a track-record of dominating NBA games in every facet of play imaginable. The incomplete image is impressive in its own right, but once the missing pieces are slipped into place, a clear, all-encompassing image of greatness will be the result.

KP’s puzzle, on the other hand, is already a relatively clear image. It shows a versatile scorer, a serviceable rebounder and a solid rim protector. It shows someone who causes matchup problems on the offensive end but has problems matching up on the defensive end, and effects games primarily with his ability to put the ball in the basket. In short, it shows a one-dimensional player.

Granted, the few pieces that could still be added to Porzingis’ puzzle could have significant effects. Once he is established as the focal point of the Knicks attack, his opportunities and minutes will increase significantly and he will get more of the shots that he wants in the offense. Once he bulks up he will be able to take more punishment down low and will improve his one-on-one post defense. He will be an All-Star, a 20-plus point per game scorer, and maybe even a league leader in blocks, but there are no pieces to add that could ever lead to an image of a ubiquitously dominant player who can single-handedly determine the outcome of a game, a series or a season. The fully completed image of Giannis’ puzzle, on the other hand, would show that, and much more.

If the pieces of a jump shot, more muscle, and a locked-in basketball mind are inserted in the next 5-7 years to complete the puzzle of the Bucks’ young star, it is by no means ridiculous to say that we could be looking at a player who fits into the unprecedented mold of LeBron James. The Greek Freak at his peak would be a player who can guard all five positions on the defensive end, collapse the defense off the dribble, score and distribute from the post, space the floor as a spot-up shooter, dictate his team’s entire flow on the offensive end. You could argue that it is unrealistic that Giannis could actually add all of the lacking elements to his game in that time, but all signs point to his ability to do just that. His natural ball handling ability, the deftness of his touch around the hoop and the accuracy of his passes, along with his aesthetically proper shooting mechanics show that the potential for a consistent long range jumper exists. The amount of muscle that he has added to his still quite slender frame in the years since he has been in the league shows that he is on his way to becoming a physical force as he matures. His decision making and mentality have already improved and surely will continue that trajectory. Adding these pieces will require a Kobe-like dedication to greatness from Giannis, but there is no arguing that pieces are indeed within his 7’4” reach. That is what real potential looks like. What we are seeing from Kristaps Porzingis now is a just a watered down version of exactly what we will be seeing in 10 years. What we are seeing from Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t even touch the new stratosphere that he could skyrocket into in that same time period.

The so-called potential of Porzingis is the same fallacy that was perpetuated around a young Tyreke Evans, while the incomplete talent that provided the foundation for J.J. Redick’s improvement will do the same for Giannis’. I am by no means comparing the two sets of drastically different players against each other for their skill sets, but rather using them as templates to foresee differing career paths of two young stars that most refuse to see.

You’re welcome Bucks fans, now go forth and enjoy what will be the most intriguing NBA maturation in the next decade, and for all you Porzingis worshipers, I am truly sorry, but someone had to let you down easy.

Photo courtesy of Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports.