If Giannis Antetokounmpo needed to convince any member of the minority who still believes he’s not the most unstoppable player in the NBA, he dropped 47 points on Top 75 player Anthony Davis and the Lakers on Wednesday.
Antetokounmpo is coming off his first championship, and instead of hanging out during the summer and basking in the glory, he went to work on his game and has become an even better player.
Antetokounmpo is leading the Bucks in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks, and steals. That’s Wilt Chamberlain territory.
Whether Antetokounmpo is the best player in the league is debatable because of the stellar season being turned in by Stephen Curry. But there’s no question that Antetokounmpo has become the best all-around player in the game. That title belonged to LeBron James for the past 15 years, but injuries have taken their toll on James, who is just six weeks shy of his 37th birthday.
It’s not that James is no longer elite. He very much is, and the Lakers desperately need him to make a championship run. But Antetokounmpo’s durability and desire to improve set him apart.
Antetokounmpo remains a 30 percent 3-point shooter, and scouting reports insist he be allowed to take jumpers. But that isn’t always effective. Antetokounmpo is shooting 47.8 percent this season on shots between 15 and 19 feet, and 44.8 on shots between 10 and 14 feet. That means if teams allow Antetokounmpo to shoot jumpers, he’s going to burn them nearly 50 percent of the time.
Of course, that’s better than allowing this superior athlete to dunk on your head. He’s 73.2 percent on shots fewer than 5 feet. Antetokounmpo doesn’t have to become a deadly shooter, but the more he improves from the perimeter, the more difficult he is to stop inside.
Against the Lakers, Antetokounmpo was 18 of 23 from the floor, with 13 of those baskets coming at the rim. He also made 3 of 4 3-point shots.
“We want him shooting that 3-ball,” Davis said. “He’s gotten better in the midrange. But we want him shooting the three. He’s a hell of a player. A lot of his shots were in the paint, but he hit some big-time shots to keep us honest.”
Antetokounmpo obviously took his matchup with Davis personally. And James’s injury has shifted the pressure to Davis, who many believe can’t uplift his teammates as the No. 1 option. The Lakers are 4-6 without James this season, and Antetokounmpo exposed their defense and showed that he has assumed the mantle as the best big man in the NBA.
Antetokounmpo doesn’t turn 27 until next month and already has won two league MVP awards. He told GQ magazine that while he’s committed to playing in Milwaukee, his next “challenge” might not be in Milwaukee. That could perhaps serve as a warning to Bucks management never to get complacent in building a team around its franchise player.
There had been speculation that Antetokounmpo would bolt for Miami or another high-profile team when his contract came up two years ago. But he signed a five-year extension with the Bucks, emerging as one of the franchise’s greatest players of all time, in the same breath as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.
Moreover, Antetokounmpo brought Milwaukee its first crown since that duo won the title in 1971. Antetokounmpo was brilliant in the Finals, scoring at will, blocking shots that appeared impossible to block, running the floor with ease despite suffering what appeared to be a serious knee injury in the Eastern Conference finals against the Hawks.
Growing up poor with his brothers, selling trinkets on the streets of Athens, Antetokounmpo represents one of the most unlikely rises in NBA history. He fell to 15th overall in the 2014 draft, right into the laps of the Bucks, who took careful care of the skinny kid until he developed.
So the question is whether Antetokounmpo is the greatest player in the NBA. Curry remains brilliant. Kevin Durant can score at will. But both are over 30 and perhaps at the conclusion of their primes. James already appears past his prime.
Antetokounmpo is seemingly just getting started, a physical marvel who never takes a play off and improves every offseason. There is no right answer to this debate; the only wrong answer is if you don’t include Antetokounmpo in the best-player-in-the-game conversation.
He took a mid-November game as a personal challenge this past week, and he scored all A’s, sending a message to the league that he’s far from a finished product. His continues to ascend.
A GROWING CONCERN
Can Williamson avoid further injury?
The Pelicans said this past week that former No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson can resume contact drills and one-on-one play as he continues his recovery from offseason foot surgery. But there is growing concern that Williamson’s size and torque will cause further injury to his lower extremities.
Williamson has been limited by ailments for most of his young career. Meanwhile, Ja Morant, the second pick in the 2019 draft, continues to flourish with the Grizzlies. Morant has played in 60 more games than Williamson and helped Memphis reach the postseason.
Williamson’s weight and conditioning were a concern when he entered the draft, but his potential was too good for the Pelicans to pass on. What’s concerning is that he appears to have gained weight as his career has progressed.
The Celtics dealt with those issues in the past with Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Jared Sullinger. The Pelicans, with new coach Willie Green, are one of the worst teams in the NBA and again headed for the draft lottery. So how quickly do they bring back Williamson if the games aren’t meaningful?
Like Morant, Williamson is eligible for a five-year, $195 million extension. New Orleans is considered a small-market team and has the third-lowest payroll. The Pelicans are committed to swingman Brandon Ingram for the next four years and re-signing Williamson seems like a certainty. But is he worth the max with his injury history?
Williamson has proved to be a dominant player when on the floor, but the organization has not improved since his arrival. While the Pelicans would likely draft Williamson again if they had it to do over, you have to wonder where they would be if they had selected Morant instead.
Williams ready for a new challenge
Former All-Star and 2005 third overall draft pick Deron Williams is taking up a new sport at age 37, four years after his final NBA game. Williams is going to box former NFL running back Frank Gore, 38, in a four-round bout Dec. 18 in Tampa.
It appears to be another example of a professional athlete looking for a challenge after his playing days. Williams was a five-time All-Star with the Jazz and Nets but out of the league by 32.
That’s a young age for a career to be over. LeBron James is 36. Al Horford is 35. Chris Paul, taken one spot behind Williams, is playing at an elite level at 36. Williams is done playing but said he’s considered boxing for years.
Former Celtic Nate Robinson tried boxing following his playing career and was knocked cold by YouTube celebrity Jake Paul.
“I’ve always wrestled all the way until high school and always been a big boxing and MMA fan,” Williams said. “I’ve done a lot of training at my gym. I’ve always wanted to do an MMA fight. I had one that I was training for before COVID hit, but my opponent pulled out. It was always in the back of my mind and I’ve always stayed in shape and stayed training.”
Williams said he got a call saying that Gore, who is likely headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was seeking a boxing opponent and a match was born.
“I felt like it was a great opportunity,” Williams said. “I felt like if I didn’t take it I’d be kicking myself for the rest of my life.”
Whether this is a one-time thing or the start of a new career, Williams is the latest athlete to risk embarrassment in a different sport. Robinson was exposed for his lack of boxing skills and flattened quickly.
Gore, 38, who at 5 feet 9 inches is 6 inches shorter than Williams, was known for his brutal running style and toughness. He said he’s still seeking an NFL return.
“l have always loved boxing,” he said. “I’ve been training since 2005. I was doing it because it would save my legs since I play running back. I just fell in love with it, how hard it was, and I’m very competitive. I was just doing it for the cardio. My first time I didn’t think I could do it, but I kept getting better and better at it.
“I’m definitely not doing this for the money. I’m blessed. I’m good and blessed with football and off-the-field stuff.”
“Frank looks good,” Williams said. “If I’m going to do a fight I’d rather do it with someone who is capable and who has been training. The man is tough, there’s no doubt about that. Anyone who can take that many snaps in the NFL has to be tough. It’s a good challenge for me and something that I can check off the bucket list.”
Williams’s NBA career ended in disappointing fashion. He asked his way out of Utah, clashing with then-coach Jerry Sloan. He was traded to the Nets as the supposed final piece of a championship puzzle, but that didn’t work out. He then played for his hometown Mavericks before a 24-game stint with the Cavaliers.
“Most people are behind me,” he said. “I’ve had some people say, ‘You’re fighting Frank Gore. What are you doing?’ But that’s OK. There are a lot of unknowns in this game, so it makes it exciting. I’ve been training for years and doing a lot of MMA, and a lot of it has been boxing.”
Williams said he began wrestling as a kid, reluctantly because of the physicality. It became a sport he learned to love.
“I basically went out there crying, got pinned, walked off the mat, and then did it again for the whole year,” he said. “The next year [my mother] asked if I wanted to sign up again, expecting I would say no, but I actually said yes for some reason. I did that for about a half-year before I turned into a little animal. So I think that year and a half of getting pinned made me tougher. Wrestling is a tough sport, and it was a great base for me and I’m really glad I did it and was able to go to the state tournament in Texas as an 8-year-old and 12-year-old. And I would have loved to have kept going, but it was in the same season as basketball.
“Growing up in the ‘90s and watching [Mike] Tyson and all those wars they had,” Williams added. “And watching [Evander] Holyfield. It was just a special time in boxing and there were still other fighters, but those were the ones I was watching and who I was excited to see. I jogged 4 miles yesterday and that was the first time I’ve ever run 4 miles. It’s getting out of your comfort zone and it’s a different feeling. Basketball, and football for him, we’re comfortable with that work. It’s learning to get hit in the face and being OK with it. It’s just a new challenge. I’ve been retired for four years now. You just miss competing. You miss having something to train for.”
The Kings are struggling and the seat for coach Luke Walton is getting hotter after a 10-point loss at Minnesota that concluded a 1-3 road trip. There are playoff expectations after years of lottery picks and adding veterans, including former Celtic Tristan Thompson, who is coming off the bench and trying to bring leadership to a franchise that has not reached the playoffs since 2006. In a Western Conference with several teams in transition, the Kings were supposed to make a major move. That hasn’t happened yet … One of the most popular arenas will get a new name as the Staples Center, which opened in 1999, will be Crypto.com Arena for the next 20 years after the currency company paid $700 million for naming rights. For current players, the Staples Center is one of the more enjoyable arenas to play in. The Staples Center replaced the Forum as the Lakers’ home arena and the club has won six titles since moving into the building. The Clippers, who have shared the Staples Center, are scheduled to move into a new arena in Inglewood in 2023 … The WNBA finally changed its playoff format, eliminating the one-game first and second round. Eight teams will play best-of-three series followed by best-of-three semifinals and a best-of-five WNBA Finals. The one-game elimination style was considered unfair for the higher seeds. The WNBA implemented the system to shorten the playoffs and avoid bumping into the Major League Baseball playoffs and the start of the NBA season. The WNBA’s TV ratings and popularity have increased over the past few years and there has been demand to expand the playoffs. The league is considering expansion with Toronto and Oakland as possible locations … Former Celtics guard Carsen Edwards signed with the Salt Lake City Stars of the G-League and has averaged 7 points and 25.7 minutes in two games. Also on the Stars roster is Zaire Wade, son of recently retired All-Star Dwyane Wade, who is a part owner of the Jazz. Zaire, 19, has played limited minutes in three games. He attended Brewster Academy in New Hampshire after high school, then opted for the G-League despite college offers.