Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons Need Space, Not a Jumpshot

— November 2nd 2017

For Antetokounmpo and Simmons, it’s not their own shooting ability that is necessary for them to succeed.

By Dylan Hughes

Shooting is everything in the NBA.

If a team doesn’t have enough shooting, there is not enough space to operate, and the job of the defense gets a lot easier. It makes a player’s life a lot easier if they can shoot. Having a shot opens up the floor, making other types of shots more available for the ball-handler and his teammates. It causes defenses to scramble, and capable players will take advantage.

Sometimes, though, a player is just so good at everything else that their ability to shoot doesn’t matter as much.

LeBron James, the Original

LeBron James is a good example of that. James is elite at two things (at least): passing and getting to the rim. He has led all forwards (and wings in certain years) in assist percentage in 12 of his 14 seasons, according to Cleaning The Glass–and he’s at the top as a wing once again to start this season. In shots at the rim, James ranked in the 83rd percentile last season in frequency of attempts and in the 98th percentile in accuracy among forwards. This anchored James’s effective field goal percentage, ending last season at 59.4 percent—91st percentile.

LeBron developed a jumpshot fairly early in his career, but it isn’t as reliable as it once was. He hasn’t been a good midrange shooter since his Miami days, and has been largely below average from the three-point arc since returning to Cleveland in 2014.

James knows who he is at this point, and so does his front office. Former Cleveland general manager David Griffin did a phenomenal job forming a cast of shooters around James in his time. He was lucky enough to already have Kyrie Irving on board. He made the tough choice to give up Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love. He took on JR Smith and his Knicks baggage. Those four—James, Irving, Love, Smith—played more regular season minutes together than any other Cavalier foursome in their 2015-16 championship campaign, and recorded an offensive rating of 111.6. In the postseason, that group’s offensive rating rose to 118.5.

James surrounded by shooters produces lethal results. In this circumstance, though it was just one of many factors, it produced a championship.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Evolution

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons have that ceiling—an offensive focal point on a title team. While a jumper would help them create space, it is not necessary for them to shred defenses.

When looking at Antetokounmpo’s early-career numbers, he is trending toward LeBron’s territory. Per Cleaning The Glass, Giannis has ranked in the 90th percentile or better in assist percentage among forwards since his sophomore season. Unlike James, however, Giannis seems to have realized who he is earlier than LeBron did. In LeBron’s rookie season, he shot the majority of his shots—51 percent—in the midrange, and only 35 percent of his shots at the rim. Seeing as though he shot 34 percent in the midrange, James’s effective field goal percentage was just 44 percent—30th percentile.

Giannis has never shot below 52 percent of his shots at the rim. Giannis’s shooting numbers across the board were abysmal in his rookie season; he shot 55 percent at the rim and 18 percent in the midrange, equaling out to a 45.4 effective field goal percentage.

That was an outlier year for the Greek Freak, however. He has shot 61 percent or better at the rim in all seasons since, finishing last season at 69 percent.

Giannis—despite his length—isn’t as polished a finisher as LeBron yet, so James will have the numbers advantage there for possibly years to come. Seeing as though all Giannis does is drive, however, one could assume he’ll continue to ascend towards the top and eventually knock off LeBron as the league’s most efficient forward at the rim.

To start this season, Giannis and LeBron are tied in at-the-rim percentage at 79. LeBron is on an island of misfit toys, and has not had the proper spacing to produce these kinds of numbers. He’s the best player in the world, though, so it just kind of happens and it isn’t surprising.

Giannis, however, has the perfect team around him to make up for his lack of a jumpshot.

The absence of Jabari Parker has allowed Milwaukee to start a five-man group of Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, Khris Middleton, Giannis and Thon Maker. This lineup features Antetokounmpo as the point forward with four shooters spaced around him.

Giannis is blessed with freakish height, length and strength. If he is on one side of the floor by himself in man-to-man coverage, as seen below, it’s just too easy for him.

Here’s a similar play, this time with Matthew Dellavedova subbed in for Brogdon.

In this, Jae Crowder gets put into a double-screen, forcing Love onto Giannis. Free points.

Now here is a play where Giannis has a lot less room to navigate, yet he doesn’t have much of a problem scoring.

Hawks’ big man Mike Muscala doesn’t do a bad job here. He defends how you’re supposed to defend a non-shooter: play off, wait for them to come to you, challenge them at the rim. It’s really got to hurt when you do all of that and still get scored on so easily.

Giannis is nearly impossible to stop with three people defending him, let alone one. Few—if any—players in the league have the combination of height, length, strength and jumping ability to challenge Giannis at the rim. Play off him all you want; he’s going to take you to the rim and score on you.

He forces the issue sometimes and drives recklessly towards the rim. As he continues to mature and learns to pick and choose his spots, Giannis is going to take another step.

Ben Simmons, the Up-and-Comer

James and Antetokounmpo are light years ahead of pseudo-rookie Ben Simmons as a finisher—67 percent at the rim thus far, and lacking a ton of polish. As a passer, though, Simmons sits at that table. He’s leading forwards in assist percentage (Cleaning The Glass) and is looking like a wizard.

The spacing is not just useful for open driving lanes. If help defenders stray away from their man, LeBron, Giannis and Simmons can easily whip it out to the open shooter.

Defenders can anticipate all they want; these guys are better and smarter. Collapse the defense to prevent a straight-line drive, a reliable three-point shooter is open. Stay home on your man and just hope that your rim protector is one of the few capable players in the world that can challenge these guys.

Simmons is freakish enough athletically to finish relatively well near the basket, and his passing opens a ton of things up. But there is no question that he needs to work as a finisher.

He’s super strong and fast, and his quick feet allow him to scoot around almost any defender. But he often pulls up if he isn’t in a one-on-one situation, whether it be floating layups or finger rolls from a few feet out, instead of powering his way to the rim and taking the contact.

Simmons makes this shot in the end, but notice the first shot attempt.

He’s about the same size as Clint Capela, but Simmons opts for a fading hook shot instead of going right at Capela’s head.

Simmons tries as hard as possible to simply get around the defenders, when sometimes he needs to go through them. It’s not uncommon for young players to go for finesse over power, but as Simmons develops, he’s going to need to embrace his strength.

Even still, Simmons is pretty unstoppable as is. His talent is immense. He hasn’t looked like a rookie at all thus far, which is something Antetokounmpo can’t say about his first season. And he has the perfect crop of players around him to continue to succeed this year. Jerryd Bayless and JJ Redick are excellent floor spacers. Robert Covington is good, and while the numbers haven’t been great for Joel Embiid, he is very capable—and always seems to get open at the top of the key.

Basketball fans have been blessed with LeBron James for 15 seasons now. As he ages, the Basketball Gods have bestowed upon us two new models. They have the tools to follow in his footsteps, and time will tell whether they reach his pinnacle—but they won’t need a jumpshot to have a chance.

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