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Giannis Antetokounmpo and Zion Williamson are inverting basketball reality

In the modern NBA, they are redefining what it means to be a ball handler in the pick-and-roll

Milwaukee Bucks v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The traditional manner of thinking when it comes to basketball just doesn’t cut it anymore. Categorizing players within well-defined roles does not do justice to what today’s NBA players can do.

Versatility is the name of the game. To stay in the league, you either have to do one thing at a near-elite level or do multiple things at a certain baseline level of competence. A jack-of-all-trades kind of player’s value has skyrocketed in recent years; “tweeners” are thriving in an environment where multiple roles are seen as highly indispensable.

Along with skill-set versatility comes positional versatility. The declared “death” or decline of the traditional big man has made it necessary for today’s frontcourt players to be more than just post-up behemoths or rim-running freight trains. The proliferation of the three-point shot has forced bigs to defend higher and closer to the perimeter, and that has necessitated the widening of their ability to defend in multiple coverages.

Flip that scenario around to the offensive end and it still rings true: To take advantage of frontcourt defenders having to defend more like perimeter wings or guards, offensive bigs also need to be able to play closer to perimeter wings or guards. The easiest solution — and the lowest-hanging fruit — is being able to stretch the floor and shoot against defenders who may not be accustomed to closing out on the perimeter.

While that statement rings true, it also happens to be the most unimaginative solution.

To be able to take advantage of slower feet more prone to be attacked off the dribble, frontcourt players don’t need to be above-average spacers (although that would be a nice bonus). The operative words are “attacked off the dribble” — and to be able to do that, one must possess the ball-handling chops, tight handle, and footwork to take their counterparts for one heck of a perimeter ride.

Only a few players in the league are capable of this, which makes them elite and part of an exclusive club: frontcourt players — defined in this instance as those playing the “four” or “five” position — who can shoulder on-ball responsibilities akin to point guards.

“Point forwards” are by no means a novel concept; rather, it’s how they’re being used in offensive sets that have “inverted” the conventional way of thinking. More specifically, it’s how they’re being used in the pick-and-roll — not as screeners, but as recipients of ball screens.

At the forefront of this inverted-ball-screen revolution are two prominent superstars who have one thing in common: they are two of the most dominant rim-attacking forces in the NBA.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Once given a lane to attack, Giannis Antetokounmpo is damn near impossible to stop, especially in fastbreak situations. A backpedaling defense frantically trying to get organized is fodder for someone like Antetokounmpo, whose long strides cover ground faster than most defenses’ ability to get back.

That is why the Bucks maximize Antetokounmpo’s gifts when they get out on the break more. Their degree of difficulty when things turn to a slower half-court scenario, however, is ramped up, to the tune of a half-court efficiency (95.3 offensive rating) that is ranked 18th in the league, per Cleaning the Glass.

That doesn’t mean they’ve failed to leverage Antetokounmpo’s unique ball-handling chops for a man of his size. Ball-screen possessions between him and fives such as Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis are more of a common sight – but once in a while, they buck convention (pun intended) by having a smaller guard or wing set the ball screen:

The reason why inverted ball screens for Antetokounmpo are so hard to defend is simple: defenses don’t want small defenders to have to switch onto someone with a massive size and strength advantage. The Golden State Warriors are fond of “hedging” their guards out to prevent switches, which is what Jordan Poole does above.

But Grayson Allen does something really smart: he flips the angle of the screen to change Antetokounmpo’s lane of attack. Kevon Looney, a frontcourt defender, isn’t used to navigating screens like a perimeter defender and falls behind — enough for Antetokounmpo to take advantage of the open lane for the layup. Even Draymond Green — an all-time help defender — can’t do much against Antetokounmpo.

The Bucks don’t employ much window dressing when it comes to setting inverted screens for Antetokounmpo — no second-side actions, no decoys, no progressions. There’s an element of “you can see it coming” — but even if teams know what to expect, having to process coverages in real time against an unconventional setup makes it no less difficult to stop.

Antetokounmpo is far from being a high-volume ball-handler in the pick-and-roll — he gets only 3.0 ball screens per game, which constitutes a mere 10.2% of his total offensive possessions, far from true pick-and-roll merchants. But the Bucks score 1.10 points per possessions on Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions — 93rd percentile, per Synergy.

It’s by no means a one-way action that benefits only Antetokounmpo. Defenders are reticent to switch inverted screens not only because of the fear of a mismatch, but also because they are reluctant with disassociating themselves from the screeners — who are usually shooters or cutters themselves.

This reluctance is used by the Bucks to their advantage. When screeners “ghost” screens, the attention Antetokounmpo garners often results in these ghosted screens generating open looks:

Zion Williamson

Besides Antetokounmpo, Zion Williamson is another notable frontcourt behemoth whose ball handling and downhill juice combine to give the New Orleans Pelicans one heck of a dynamic offensive attack.

Just like the Bucks with Antetokounmpo, the Pelicans don’t pass up the opportunity to leverage Williamson’s unique skills to place him in a position to attack the rim:

Again, the fear of Antetokounmpo in inverted setups is the same kind of fear Williamson — who shoots 73.8% in the restricted area — induces against a potential mismatch. Coupled with guard partners who are intelligent with their screening, defenses are left scrambling in terms of coverages, matchups, and rotations.

Much like the Bucks with Antetokounmpo, the Pelicans are fond of using Williamson’s pull as a pick-and-roll ball handler to “ghost” screeners and pop them out beyond the arc for open three-point looks.

Unlike the Bucks, the Pelicans like to use an additional layer of window dressing to disguise flare screens for their shooters coming off a ball screen — whether solidly set or “ghosted” — for Williamson. Using a primary action to disguise the actual meat and potatoes isn’t something groundbreaking or revolutionary, but when defenses are wired to defend a potential downhill excursion from Williamson, they’re put at an even bigger disadvantage when they’re forced to account for further progressions.

“HORNS Flare” (HORNS pertaining to the formation consisting of two players on the elbows and two spacers occupying both corners) is a common NBA set, but when Williamson is the ball handler, it takes away attention from who the set really is for:

Like Antetokounmpo, Williamson doesn’t run a heavy volume of pick-and-roll possessions as the ball handler — only 11.7% of his offensive possessions (2.6 per game) sees him running things around ball screens. But the Pelicans get fairly efficient offense (0.97 PPP, 74th percentile) on them.

Antetokounmpo and Williamson are arguably the league’s most dominant rim forces — and it is no coincidence that they happen to be two of its most dynamic offensive weapons. They can set screens themselves, roll to the rim, and put a boatload of pressure in the traditional frontcourt manner.

But with how they can handle the ball, use their physical gifts to blow past defenders at the point of attack, and self-create shots with the perimeter as their starting point, it’s well past time to think of them as traditional frontcourt players.

Inverted ball screens are the perfect visual representation of positionless basketball — and Antetokounmpo and Williamson are at the forefront of inverting the traditional view of roles and dynamics.