“First of all, let’s start with this, motherfuckers did not know I could pass.”
These are the words of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the most wholesome superstar in professional sports, days after winning his first NBA championship last summer. Antetokounmpo had just dropped a 50-point, 14-rebound masterpiece on the Phoenix Suns in a title-clinching Game 6 performance for the ages, one that saw him conquer perhaps his biggest weakness by going 17-of-19 from the free throw line in the biggest game of his career. Yet in the afterglow a championship that stamped him as an all-time great, Giannis still wanted to talk about his passing before anything else when he sat down with Eric Nehm of The Athletic for a one-on-one.
Motherf’ers probably should have known that Giannis could pass because it was basically the first thing on his scouting report when he emerged as an NBA prospect. Back in Feb. of 2013 at Draft Express, Jon Givony and Mike Schmitz described Antetokounmpo — then a lanky 18-year-old forward in the second division of the Greek league — as an “extremely smooth ball-handler and a surprisingly adept passer, looking extremely unselfish and very focused on getting his teammates involved. He’s capable of driving left or right and reads defenses far better than you’d expect considering his age and size, as he shows great sparks of creativity and smarts that make it easy to envision him developing into a point forward type as his career progresses.”
Nine years later, Antetokounmpo has fully blossomed as a passer. When defenses sell out in an attempt to stop the best player on the planet from his signature drives to to the rim, Giannis can now be fully trusted to read the defense and make the right play. Often times, that means throwing a spectacular pass like the kinds that dotted his effort in the Bucks’ Game 1 win over the Boston Celtics in the second round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs.
The prettiest of Antetokounmpo’s 12 assists on the night happened early in the first quarter, when he drove to the rim, jumped, and somehow found Bobby Portis standing alone at the three-point line while under the basket. Like, what?
This is an unbelievable pass from Giannis pic.twitter.com/br3iMtbMC2— Jake Reetz (@jajareetz) May 2, 2022
That’s a holy shit pass, the type that sticks with you for a long time when remembering what a player can do on the court. Not every pass has to be that striking, though. Antetokounmpo also did a good job of finding teammates when he didn’t need to contort in body mid-air.
When the double-team comes down in the post, Giannis can find the open shooter.
SMART BUCKS SPACING ALERT— Nekias (Nuh-KY-us) Duncan (@NekiasNBA) May 2, 2022
Early screen from Wes Matthews forces the Williams switch. But then Matthews clears, and Grayson Allen is one pass away from Giannis.
Boston sends the double when Giannis gathers, and look at what happens. pic.twitter.com/YeV8cBy1OB
When Boston committed to stopping Giannis in transition by leaving shooters to stop his drives, he made the right passes for open threes.
Of course, Antetokounmpo also dropped plenty of dimes that didn’t count as an assist. How the heck did he find Bobby Portis while trapped in the corner on this play? Portis was called for a charge here, but that’s a wild pass from Giannis to move the ball and give his team an advantage to score.
Giannis posting up here vs. Tatum. You see Boston going with a front and doubling on the catch. Milwaukee has to be smart with spacing to make them pay. Good cut by Pat to hold Smart but Jrue's cut helps the defense out. Skip to Portis who drives, good help from Smart. pic.twitter.com/saAgjNmOFL— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 1, 2022
Here’s another one that didn’t count for an assist, but still qualifies as a remarkable pass by Giannis. Three Celtics defenders collapse on the drive and he finds Bobby Portis wide open for a corner three.
Smart on Giannis here. Pat screens and Williams switches. You see Boston showing early help, the difference is Giannis can still get in the paint. Draws help from the defense and his improved passing gets the kick to Portis. Good sign for Milwaukee but have to make them pay. pic.twitter.com/y0kgWXhRS4— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 1, 2022
Giannis is averaging 7.2 assists per game in the playoffs, which is the fourth most of any player, behind three point guards in Chris Paul, Ja Morant, and James Harden. He’s also third in the playoffs in potential assists and fourth in points created off assists. The burden on his shoulders is bigger than ever as the Bucks adjust to life without Khris Middleton — out for the series with a sprained MCL — but Giannis keeps proving he’s up for the task with constantly improving creation ability.
He was throwing some electric passes in the first round of the playoffs against the Bulls, too. As Chicago committed multiple defenders to stopping Giannis every time he touched the ball, Antetokounmpo reliably hit his teammates to put them in position to score.
Some Giannis assists from round 1 pic.twitter.com/savZT5rwiK— (@IcyKso) April 28, 2022
Giannis Antetokounmpo has thrown some wild passes all season
What a damn laser.
My word, what a pass from Giannis pic.twitter.com/9i9RGbs4mF— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) January 27, 2022
Eyes in the back of his head on this one.
This pass from Giannis @Bucks in front on ESPN! pic.twitter.com/19oyBXWrgA— NBA (@NBA) January 29, 2022
It doesn’t matter how many defenders are on him, he always seems to find the open guy.
What an absurd no look pass from Giannis pic.twitter.com/dHA4HhC3u4— Jake Reetz (@jajareetz) January 14, 2022
Being the biggest and strongest player on the floor sure helps as a playmaker. Giannis can always see over the defense, and he’s able to get some significant velocity on his passes even when his body is in compromised positions.
So why do defenses leave Bucks shooters open so often? Well, if they don’t commit multiple defenders to stopping Giannis, he’s just going to do this.
Giannis left Serge Ibaka with no words after this coast-to-coast dunk!— NBA (@NBA) March 17, 2022
Watch Now on NBA League Pass: https://t.co/oz9UCQxdQa pic.twitter.com/JbM4E88Ewr
In Game 1 against Boston, Giannis’ best pass of the night might have been the one he threw off the backboard to himself.
Antetokounmpo has been a very good passer for several years now, so this isn’t totally new, but he did average the most assists of his career per-100 possessions this season. For a player whose game has been foolishly reduced to “running and dunking” by other stars in the league, it’s important to note how complete Giannis’ game now is.
Giannis is the best defensive player in the NBA for my money. He’s the most unstoppable rim attacker in the league, too, especially when he’s in transition but even in the halfcourt. And when multiple defenders commit to stopping his drives, Giannis can consistently be counted on to make the right pass, and oftentimes even the spectacular one.
This is the best player in the NBA, and it feels like he’s still getting better at 27 years old. We might be watching a top-10 basketball player ever right now in the prime of his career. He sure does a lot more than run and dunk.