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How good is Giannis Antetokounmpo going to be this season?
When I was on The Jump last month, Royce Young quoted me as saying that "Giannis is going to take over the world this year."
I had actually said that -- loudly -- the day before, during the ESPN NBA summit to a room featuring all of our major writers and reporters. I repeated that message last week during my fantasy basketball preview on CNN Phillipines, stating once again that I rank Giannis above every other player in the NBA this season. Giannis was No. 1 in my fantasy basketball draft rankings, and I put my money where my opinion was by ultra-max bidding to make sure that I got Giannis in both of the industry auctions that I did this season. He was the highest-priced player in both of those leagues, by the way, and the other fantasy basketball heads congratulated me on going to get him even though the price tag burned through the majority of my auction budget.
In the words of Billions' Bobby Axeldrod: "Worth it!"
Now, we're one week into the NBA season, and in this first update to my rest-of-season rankings for points leagues, the No. 1 one slot is still held by ... you guessed it, the man known as The Greek Freak.
The question is ... why?
During the first week of the season, we've already seen one young center in Denver post a 35-point perfect triple-double (zero missed field goals, zero turnovers) unseen since the heyday of Wilt Chamberlain. The reigning MVP (James Harden) has posted consecutive games totaling 67 points, 19 assists and 9 3-pointers. The MVP-before-last (Russell Westbrook) came straight off of knee surgery with an easy 32, 12 and 8 season debut, and Anthony Davis (highlighted here as a mix between peak David Robinson and peak Dirk Nowitzki) has suddenly added volume assists to his repertoire.
In the face of all of that, why am I still so irrationally confident that Giannis will be clearly the best player in the NBA this season?
While there are many reasons, this simple chart of the eight Bucks players besides Giannis who have averaged double-digit minutes early this season holds a lot of truth:
You'll note, all eight of them are knocking down the 3-pointer this season. Even backup center John Henson, who had made all of one 3-pointer total during his first six full NBA seasons, spanning 391 games, has already knocked down two treys during the first two games of this season.
Why? Because the Bucks finally got wise to what they have in Giannis, and put together a team and strategy that maximizes him.
Last season, Giannis averaged about 27 points and five assists on a team with essentially no spacing. The Bucks ranked 27th in the NBA with only 9.0 3PG and 22nd at a 35.5 3FG%. The team managed to shoot that poorly despite having the single most inevitable driving threat in the NBA to draw defenses in. Giannis took a whopping 45.4 percent of his shots from 0-3 feet away from the rim last season, making an absurd 75.6 percent of those attempts. That is such an insane outlier for a face-up ball-handling volume scorer who attacks from the perimeter.
Okay, let's put it in perspective.
James Harden, the reigning MVP who plays for a Houston Rockets squad that famously only allows for shots at the rim and 3-pointers, took only 38.2 percent of his shots from within three feet, and that was a huge career-high proportion for him. And he made only 53.8 percent of those shots.Russell Westbrook took 37.5 percent of his shots within three feet, making 61.1 percent of them. Ben Simmons operated on Giannis-like percentages near the rim but at a much lower volume.
The only player in the NBA remotely close to Giannis as a driving threat was LeBron James, and even he took only 42.3 percent of his shots from within three feet while making 76.6 percent of them. And LeBron's Cavs team was chock-full of 3-point shooters to force opponents to play them honest, thus opening up driving lanes for him. Giannis was driving into defenses that were packed into the lane like college teams, and they still couldn't really stop him.
The Bucks, seemingly noting how unnecessarily hard they were making life on their best player, brought in a new coach in Mike Budenholzer, who runs a fast-paced, 3-point friendly offense that had his former team, the Atlanta Hawks, top-10 in both pace and 3-pointers made last season.
The Bucks brought in volume 3-point shooting big men Lopez and Ilyasova to play the majority of the big man minutes and force opposing bigs to follow them to the 3-point line. They shored up their shooting guard slot with volume 3-point shooters, as former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon enters this season healthy (after last season's injuries held him to only 20 starts) and joins rookie and reigning NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player Donte DiVincenzo in providing a consistent 3-point shooting wing next to Middleton and Bledsoe.
In short, the best, most inevitable dribble-drive specialist in the NBA suddenly will have actual driving lanes to work with.
Oh, and this rampaging monster also happens to have very good court vision and an unselfish temperament, which means that when the defenses do collapse on him, he'll be more than ready to rack up assists to the now wide-open shooters on the perimeter.
In addition, one of the trade-offs to this team full of shooters is that neither Lopez nor Ilyasova are particularly impressive as rebounders. This leaves more caroms for Giannis to inhale, and though he may not maintain his current 16.5 RPG average, it wouldn't be surprising to see him hold a spot near the league lead in rebounds throughout the season.
Put it altogether, and Giannis is very capable of reaching the nearly 30 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists that I projected for him on his usual 52-plus percent from the field and free throw shooting in the upper 70s. In addition, he made four of 10 3-pointers in the preseason, as he clearly worked on his jumper over the summer, so he may deliver his own share of 3-pointers this season as a bonus. Oh, and Giannis has averaged 1.6 steals and 1.7 blocks during the past two seasons -- so there's that.
And then there's the capper: Giannis Antetokounmpo is still only 23 years old. He's still on the way up.
Yeah -- Giannis is taking over the basketball world, and this is the first season of what should be a very long reign on top.
Rest-of-season points-based rankings breakdown by position
Kemba Walker has started the season like a monster, averaging more than 35 PPG and leading the Hornets to a surprisingly strong start as a team. He seemingly has to slow down at some point, but at least for now, he seems to be letting his play respond to the ubiquitous trade rumors.
Kyrie Irving was the primary star on the Celtics last season when he got injured. This season, he returns with some rust to knock off and a team full of young stars who also need to be fed and could cut into his opportunities.
Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo are in an interesting dynamic. Ball was the incumbent young star, but Rondo was brought in to be a veteran leader. Ball's offseason knee surgery opened the door for Rondo to begin the season as the starting point guard, but Rondo's three-game fight suspension opens the door right back for Ball to retake the job. This will be a dynamic worth watching moving forward.
Trae Young was the lightning rod of this season's incoming draft class, with most either strongly in or strongly out on his upside. I've been 'in' since watching him in the Las Vegas summer league, as his court vision and team generalship are way underrated. It doesn't hurt that he can pop for 35 points with 30-foot 3-pointers every so often either.
Devin Booker returned early from the wrist injury that I projected to keep him out until early November, and he's returned in midseason form for a young player looking to take the next step towards stardom.
Tim Hardaway Jr. has firmly stepped up as the primary scoring option for the Knicks, a role that was open for the taking with Kristaps Porzingis on the shelf. If he stays healthy and motivated, Hardaway should be in for a career season.
Lou Williams is coming off two of the best seasons of his career, but the Clippers are healthy and deep on the perimeter, which seems to be eating into his opportunities to start the season. If this continues, he could slide further down the rankings moving forward.
Kawhi Leonard was a consistent top-10 fantasy producer for two seasons before the injury issues of last season. Question marks about his health and motivation in Toronto caused him to slide slightly, but he is playing like his old self and moves slightly up the ranks this week.
Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward are another pair of teammates whose values are seemingly tied together. Tatum seems to be growing into his immense potential already, showing that he's capable of being the top option on a nightly basis for a contending team. However, along with Kyrie, Hayward is another Celtics veteran star who is knocking the rust off after an (extremely) long injury layoff. Tatum has the juice now, but will his shots slow when Hayward (and Irving) get back to full speed?
Caris LeVert, much like cross-town rival and Michigan man Hardaway, has stepped forward to grab the open spot of a primary offensive role on a rebuilding team. That role was expected to be occupied by D'Angelo Russell, but right now, LeVert is the one who seems most motivated and that is playing the best ball for the Nets.
Will Barton (groin) and Kevin Knox (ankle) are both dealing with early-season injuries with the potential to keep them sidelined for multiple weeks. Neither has a firm return date, but the injuries do slide them down the rankings.
Blake Griffin has started the season like a man who expects to be considered a superstar again, with averages that round to 30 PPG, 10 RPG and 6 APG during his first two games. If he stays healthy (big 'if') and locked in, Griffin could move back up into the elite area of the rankings.
Aaron Gordon is healthy and flying around for the Magic, with three straight double-digit rebounding efforts and eight combined blocks and steals during his past two games. Gordon has Griffin-like potential, but also unfortunately has a Griffin-like injury history. Still, when healthy, he has immense upside.
John Collins is dealing with an ankle injury that has forestalled what is expected to be a breakout campaign. He slides a bit in the rankings, but if he returns to health, he should still be in line for a big season.
Bobby Portis has stepped up as the dominant interior presence for the Chicago Bulls with Lauri Markkanen out, outplaying both rookie Wendell Carter Jr. and new acquisition Jabari Parker. His future is uncertain once Markkanen returns, but if he's playing at this level, he should retain a large role this season.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is locked into a larger-than-expected role to start the season due to injuries to JaMychal Green, and he has responded with the kind of inside-out, balanced offensive and defensive contributions that gave him one of the highest ceilings of any rookie in this class.
Nikola Jokic was one of my favorites entering this season, and seeing him begin the season with a 35-point, perfect triple-double (no missed field goals, no turnovers) is enough to get him an early boost up the list.
Karl-Anthony Towns is not playing like himself. He finally had a big scoring effort in his third outing after managing only 10 PPG in his first two contests, but he still hasn't grabbed double-digit rebounds yet this season. The Jimmy Butler situation is the elephant in the room, but whatever the cause of his ailing game, Towns finds himself sliding down the rankings this week.
DeAndre Jordan had a strong double-double in the season opener, then followed that with a grown-man 22 points, 10 boards, 5 blocks and 2 steals against Karl-Anthony Towns in Game 2. His delayed stint with the Dallas Mavericks is off to a quick start.
Enes Kanter is averaging 21 points and 12 rebounds through three games, numbers that he actually has the ability to sustain for as long as Porzingis (knee) is out and the Knicks keep featuring him in the middle.
Jonas Valanciunas, Brook Lopez and Marcin Gortat are all giant starting centers on teams that haven't been giving them starter's minutes early this season. With the emphasis on positionless basketball in today's NBA, there's no guarantee that they do get the minutes to produce to the level that they otherwise could.