Note: This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 29 Analytics Issue. Subscribe today!
Early in the 2012-13 season, 18-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo landed on the radar of NBA scouts, shrouded in mystery. He didn't attend the combine or team workouts, so he had never been extensively measured. He had played mostly in Greece's youth system and second-tier pro league, so no one could agree on how he'd best be used in the NBA. There was only one consensus: His body was among the best scouts had ever seen.
The Bucks drafted Antetokounmpo 15th overall that year, feeling he combined big-man length with the agility of an elite guard. Their instincts were quickly proved right: Thanks to his unique biomechanical and physiological qualities, he is one of just three players in the past decade to average 15 points, 7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1 block per game in his age-21 season.
To understand how Antetokounmpo's form gives way to function, we recently spent a day measuring the 6-foot-11 forward, then asked Marcus Elliott, M.D., the founder of P3 Applied Sports Science, a training center that specializes in advanced athlete assessment, to help break him down. Welcome to our tour of the NBA's ideal body.
WINGSPAN: Basketball is a game of angles; a defender isn't so much guarding his man as he is reducing the size of his angle to drive to the basket or pass to teammates. That's where wingspan factors in for Antetokounmpo, whose outstretched arms measure 7-foot-3, 4 inches more than his height. "If you have long arms, it allows you to get places faster, without having to move your feet or your center of mass," Elliott says. Antetokounmpo ranks in the top 10 in rebound rate among small forwards. The leader? Quincy Acy, whose wingspan is 9 inches longer than his height.
LATERAL MOVEMENT: "To be a great lateral mover in the NBA, you've got to have great hips," Elliott says. "That means high force, very stable and flexible." That can be challenging for an NBA big man, who can rarely get his hips low enough to create the lateral force to move like a wing player. But Antetokounmpo isn't a typical big man. He displays great hip extension and high abduction and adduction velocities, which means he's able to handle lateral motion (say, sliding side to side while defending a ball handler) faster than other athletes his size.
HEIGHT: "When we first drafted Giannis, we measured him at 6-foot-8½," Bucks GM John Hammond says. But at midseason, the Bucks' strength and conditioning coach walked into Hammond's office. "He told me, 'The kid is still growing and I don't think he's done.'" By season's end, he was 6-11. Even more remarkable is that the basketball gods gifted Antetokounmpo those extra 2½ inches of height without exacting any payment. The 6-11 Giannis is every bit as stable and agile as the shorter version. If he remains at the small forward position, he'll do so as the tallest wing in the league.
LEAN MUSCLE: Over the past 18 months, Antetokounmpo has put on an impressive amount of muscle-his weight went from 196 pounds on draft day to 222 this season. But, crucially, he's managed to do it without bulking up. "To be big is one thing, but to have muscles that are tuned to their optimal characteristics is another," says Troy Flanagan, Ph.D., the Bucks' director of performance. All that lean muscle mass allows him to generate force quickly, which gives him the agility and explosiveness that the NBA game demands.
CORE: Typically, in players of Antetokounmpo's length and power, sports scientists see core instability, but this is yet another area in which the big Greek resembles more compact players. Other long players will have stability in the sagittal plane (which divides the trunk down the middle) but not in their frontal or horizontal planes. Antetokounmpo checks all boxes. The result? The aerobatic ability to dribble the length of the floor, elevate for a rebound, fly laterally through the air for an alley-oop-all complex movements that originate from the core.
HANDS: The length of the average adult male hand, measured from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the pinkie, is 7.4 inches. For Antetokounmpo, it's 12 inches. (For reference, Kawhi Leonard's hand is 11.25 inches, and LeBron James' is 9.25.) The breadth of Antetokounmpo's hands enables him to get a strong "pinch grip" on a 29.5-inch basketball (what's commonly known as palming). Not only does palming the ball allow Antetokounmpo to gain maximum control, but by virtue of making the ball an extension of his arm, he effectively gains 2 more inches in height.
LAUNCH POWER: Sports scientists obsess about an athlete's ability to transfer energy from his landing into his next liftoff. A typical athlete needs time to regather and unwind before his body can generate the energy to get off the ground again. "Giannis doesn't have that," Elliott says. "His system can handle those giant forces. He's coming down at high velocity, and he doesn't resist it ... he's able to [turn it into] an advantage." One of the hallmarks of athleticism, transferring energy is what allows Antetokounmpo to bounce around the floor like he's on a pogo stick.
ACHILLES: The Bucks measured Antetokounmpo's Achilles tendon from the back of the heel to the belly of the calf, and, at 13.5 inches (almost double the length of the average adult male's), well: "I have never seen an Achilles like his," Flanagan says. Many sports scientists believe a long Achilles means more efficient storage and release of elastic energy. That translates to acceleration and explosive movement-exactly the sort of traits that enable Antetokounmpo to, oh, say, burst almost the entire length of the floor in two dribbles. (Seriously. Google it.) So much for Antetokounmpo's having an Achilles' heel.