The battle of the freaks
Giannis Antetokounmpo was picked 15th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2013 draft. He stood 6’9” tall, weighed 196 pounds and had a 7’3” wingspan. He was thought to have the potential to play the point-forward position — someone who could orchestrate the offence as a forward rather than a guard.
Antetokounmpo, since then, has grown even taller, topping out at 6’11”, added muscle (without putting on girth), and built on his potential. He could already shock the world with highlight plays, travelling the length of the floor in two or three dribbles to dunk the basketball. But soon, the ‘Greek Freak’, as he came to be known, shattered what many predicted was his ceiling — an athletic offensive force and a disruptive, defence-minded, high-vision player.
This year — his sixth — the 24-year-old is considered the presumptive Most Valuable Player in the NBA after powering the Milwaukee Bucks to the top spot in regular season. He led the team in scoring, assists, rebounds, and field goal percentage. He led the league in advanced statistics such as Player Efficiency Rating (PER), which distils a player’s contribution to one number, and was in the top five in Real Plus Minus (RPM), which measures a player’s impact. With his all-round, dominant play, Antetokounmpo willed his team to the Eastern Conference finals against the Toronto Raptors where he faces another freak of nature, Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard was featured in these pages two years ago as the best two-way player in the league when he was plying his trade with the San Antonio Spurs. The 27-year-old’s journey has parallels with the younger Greek Freak’s. He, too, was selected 15th on draft day, in 2011, and traded to the Spurs by the Indiana Pacers. He has monstrous hands for someone 6’7” tall and a massive wingspan (the same as Antetokounmpo’s). He was expected to be a colossal defensive presence for his team and someone who would play a secondary role on offence. Within five years, he improved to near-MVP level before injuries derailed his progress and accelerated his trade to the Raptors at the beginning of this season.
Leonard, nicknamed the ‘Klaw’ for his enormous hands, and the ‘Greek Freak’ have significant physical advantages that they have maximised in their years in the league. But they have also enhanced their play step by step, thanks to robust player development programmes, good mentoring and coaching.
Leonard was slowly shaped into a primary offensive option, in addition to being a defensive wrecker-in-chief, by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich before his trade. The Raptors’ Nick Nurse kept him out of back-to-back games to allow him to recover from his quad injury and played him conservatively in the regular season before unleashing his two-way potential in the Playoffs.
Leonard averages an impressive 31.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.3 steals in the post-season. His PER of 30.57 (12 games) is just behind Antetokounmpo’s 31.3 (nine games). Leonard has carried the Raptors on his back, upping his intensity when needed. He also wrote himself into Toronto lore with an immortal, rim-bounced buzzer-beater against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the second-round series.
As the Bucks face the Raptors in the ultimate battle of the freaks, we might not see the two guarding each other early in the game; coaches Mike Budenholzer and Nurse would want to conserve the energies of their superstars. But we could see them going at each other in the clutch. Antetokounmpo is virtually unguardable. He combines nimbleness and power in the paint to take on narrow defences. He also has the vision and pinpoint passing ability to empower teammates on the perimeter. The Bucks’ entire system revolves around the ‘Greek Freak’ on both offence and defence. The one man who can stand up to his marauding ways at the post and in the paint? The ‘Klaw’. And the converse is true as well.
Of course, if these two cancel each other out, the games will boil down to how the secondary cast lift their games when called upon. The Bucks have a slight advantage there. But the Playoffs, as the cliche goes, are all about superstars. The battle of the freaks could define the series — and possibly decide the NBA championship.