By now, it is common knowledge among NBA fans that Milwaukee Bucks’ superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo struggles as a shooter, both behind the arc and at the free throw line. He is currently mired in the worst free throw shooting season of his career thus far, shooting a putrid 57.5 percent clip on 10 attempts per game. From the 3-point line, he has fared poorly as well, shooting 30.8 percent on five attempts per game, 5.7 percentage points below league average. During Monday night’s game against the Brooklyn Nets, he completely airballed an open 3-pointer, an occurrence that is becoming increasingly commonplace.
Antetokounmpo’s issues shooting the ball haven’t hurt the Bucks in the regular season so far. They’ve been the number one seed in the Eastern Conference for the last two seasons and have the most wins in the Eastern Conference so far this year, but it has been an issue in the playoffs when teams scheme for the individual weaknesses of opposing stars. In last year’s playoffs, the Miami Heat essentially created a wall in the paint and dared Antetokounmpo to beat them from the perimeter. To his credit, he did not completely refuse to take 3-pointers in this situation like some stars might have, such as Ben Simmons, but he made just 3/14 over four games before being injured. The Miami Heat ultimately knocked off the title favorite Bucks in just five games.
Antetokounmpo’s shooting issues are something of an enigma. His Bucks teammates and coaches have endlessly praised his work ethic, and it is hard to doubt their praise considering how far he has come in his short time in the league. He went from being a relatively unknown prospect from the Greek youth leagues to a two-time league MVP in just five seasons. However, a huge part of his ascension to dominance can be attributed to the physical transformation he underwent. When Antetokounmpo entered the league, he was noticeably undersized, and went from a 190 pound rookie to the 240 pound behemoth that he is today in just four years. It did not come without a price, however.
A Familiar Story
To fully comprehend Antetokounmpo’s shooting difficulties, it is important to understand that he did not similarly struggle early in his career. In fact, his jumper as a rookie was relatively fluid, and he shot a career high 34.7 percent on 3-pointers on 1.5 attempts a game, which is a solid sample size.
So what changed? He added 50 pounds of muscle. When looking at his jump shot now, he has a noticeable hitch in his shot as he brings the ball up from the shooter’s pocket, and it appears as though his large shoulders impede his ability to have a smooth release. This is also thought by many to be the reason that players such as Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond have never been able to develop a reliable jump shot despite hours of work and practice. Their chiseled upper bodies make them dominant forces in the paint, but also give them a limited range of motion in their arms that makes shooting difficult, especially when fatigued.
In short, Antetokounmpo’s radical physical transformation came at a price. His increased size and strength allow him to be the most physically dominant paint player since Shaquille O’Neal, but it has also prevented him from becoming an effective 3-point shooter, and now seems to be affecting his free throw shooting as well.
Antetokounmpo’s ability to get to the rim with ease is the engine that drives the Bucks’ offense. He is an elite finisher at the rim who shoots 74% within 0-4 feet, good for the 74th percentile among bigs. His prowess at getting to the rim makes him a great playmaker and initiator of offense as well. He is excellent at recognizing his gravity when driving to the basket and nearly always makes the right play by kicking it out to one of Milwaukee’s many shooters or another big man lingering near the rim. This has allowed Antetokounmpo to average over five assists per game for the last three seasons, excellent numbers for a power forward.
The trouble is, this premise is essentially the summary of the Bucks’ offense. One of the skills that makes up the difference between a really good NBA player and an elite one is the ability to close games. When all Antetokounmpo can do is drive to the rim, it makes it easy for opposing defenses to stop him when the game slows down. He can score at will for the first 45 minutes of a close game when possessions are occurring organically, but when everything inevitably devolves to each team’s best players trying to break a defender down off the dribble to hit a tough jumper, his non-shooting makes him a huge liability. In the past, he could sometimes save himself and his team by getting to the rim, getting fouled and making his free throws (he was a 72 percent free throw shooter before this year), but he has not even been able to do that well this season.
In short, Antetokounmpo is a complete non-factor at the end of games, and while he is still the reigning MVP and the foundation of one of the best teams in the NBA, a superstar player completely lacking the capability to be a closer is a tough problem for any team to overcome. Bucks’ shooting guard Khris Middleton is an excellent secondary scorer and off-ball playmaker, but any team asking him to take over at the end of games, like the Bucks did against the Nets, does not have a championship ceiling. This makes it especially puzzling that the Bucks traded for Jrue Holiday, a fantastic point guard and excellent defender, but someone who is not known for his skill as a shot creator. Pursuing a player such as Chris Paul or James Harden would have paired Antetokounmpo with an elite perimeter scorer, alleviating him of the burden of closing games without a reliable jumpshot.
Unfortunately for Bucks fans, Antetokounmpo’s shooting issues seem to be getting worse, not better, and have now begun to limit his effectiveness at the charity stripe. After going 1-10 from the free throw line against the Mavericks, he was asked what he would do to remedy his struggles, to which he responded “Just go back. Shoot more. Focus on your technique. Take it step by step. Just shoot more. That’s it. The more you shoot, the more you work on it, the better you get. There’s no secret in that.” While his commitment to improving is admirable, he has been working on improving his jumpshot for years to no avail. Perhaps there is a secret to it, and maybe it involves slimming down a bit. At the end of the day, he is still 6-foot-11 and absurdly athletic. Dropping some muscle on his arms might make him marginally less dominant in the paint, but could have a tremendous impact on his shooting ability.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the 4th player over the last 25 seasons to shoot 10% or worse on free throws in a game (min. 10 FTA), joining Andre Drummond (4x), Al Horford and Shaq (2x).
His 10% (1-10) mark was the worst in a game in Bucks history (min. 10 FTA).
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 16, 2021
It is hard not to root for Antetokounmpo, his rags to riches story is an inspiration, and demonstrates the value of hard work, but unless he becomes at least a serviceable 3-point shooter, it is unlikely that he will bring a championship banner to Milwaukee in his current role. With all the success he has had so early in his career, it is easy to forget he is just 26 and still has plenty of time to improve. LeBron James and Michael Jordan did not win their first championships until they were 27. Here’s to hoping Antetokounmpo figures it out.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference, ESPN, Cleaning the Glass and The Elias Sports Bureau
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