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Giannis Antetokounmpo building on his MVP-caliber playmaking ability: ‘His passing has become elite’

MILWAUKEE — When Tobias Harris converted a putback with 1.5 seconds remaining in the first half of the Milwaukee Bucks‘ win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Feb. 25, it seemed certain that would be the last action before the break. Giannis Antetokounmpo had other ideas. 

The two-time MVP quickly grabbed the ball out of the net, took a shuffle step to establish himself behind the baseline, planted his feet and flung an overhead pass the entire length of the court to Brook Lopez for a dunk just before the buzzer. 

“Actually, the previous game, he threw a very similar one at the last second, and I bailed out of it,” Lopez said. “I should have stuck with it, it was a great pass. That one was on target, too. He threw pretty much the exact same pass in Philly. It was just picture perfect, right where it was supposed to be. He set it where I had to go, I grabbed it out of the air and put it in the basket.”

The highlight-reel feed was perhaps the clearest example yet of a trend that has gone largely unnoticed outside of Milwaukee this season. Antetokounmpo, who has always taken pride in his vision and passing instincts, has leveled up as a playmaker. 

Antetokounmpo’s 6.3 assists per game are a career high, as were the 16 assists he dished out in a win over the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 19, and he’s already tied his career-high for triple-doubles in a season with seven. Furthermore, he’s well on his way to averaging at least 30 points and five assists for a second time. The only players who have done that more than twice are Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, James Harden, Allen Iverson and Jerry West. 

Here’s a look at some of his passing numbers compared to last season:

Category 2022-23 2023-24

Assists per game

5.7

6.3

Assist points created per game

15.1

17.4

Potential assists per game

11.4

12.7

Since the start of the new year, Antetokounmpo is up to 7.3 assists a night, which is tied for 11th in the league. The level of difficulty on some of his passes, particularly kick-outs to the perimeter, is what jumps off the screen. Those dimes show Antetokounmpo’s “feel” and “awareness,” according to AJ Green: “You don’t think about it, plan it, you’re just good at basketball and then you’re able to do those things.”

But as much fun as some of those moments are, the more important aspects of Antetokounmpo’s growth as a distributor are less exciting. Incremental improvements in his game processing speed, ability to exploit opponents, and an increased level of trust in his teammates have all added up. 

“I’ve been willing to pass the ball more and guys have been knocking down shots,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think it’s a combination of both. At the end of the day, in order for you to be successful, it’s gotta be a mixture of both. I feel like lately – I understand that we need everybody to be great in order for us to win and we need to knock down shots in order for us to win. I think I’ve been more willing lately to make the right pass, and they’ve been knocking down shots for sure.”

That’s evident when he has the ball on the block and is able to see all the action unfolding in front of him. Hornets coach Steve Clifford noted “he’s back dribbling a lot more” out of double teams to string the defense along and create space, while Bobby Portis praised him for “manipulating the game.” 

Watch here versus the Sixers as he calmly backs out to the 3-point line, pulls two defenders with him and finds Lopez for an easy bucket. 

On Antetokounmpo’s drives to the basket, whether out of isolation or pick-and-roll, he’s been much more composed, thanks in large part to Damian Lillard‘s presence, which has opened up more room for him to maneuver. That has not only helped him shoot a career-high 61.6% from the field and 82.4% within three feet but, in turn, made him a better creator for Lillard and Co. 

“You hear coaches out there saying ‘load up, wall up,’ when they want to show him bodies so he’s not just getting in the paint, dunking, laying the ball in,” Lillard said. In the past, Antetokounmpo may have been more apt to force the action himself anyway. Now, not as much. Case in point, he had 58 charges in 63 games last season. He has 37 through 58 games in this campaign.

“The plays that he’s been making – hitting guys in the corner, getting into the paint, drawing the defense and kicking it out for 3s – I think that’s great for our team and the best version of him,” Lillard said. “When he’s not just trying to get downhill, get downhill, but when they show that wall, he’s showing that trust and making those plays, I think that’s when we’re the most effective.”

This has been the most chaotic season of Antetokounmpo’s career. Still, despite it all, the Bucks have the seventh-best record in the league and the fourth-best offensive rating because of his leadership and unselfish approach. 

“A million coaches have said it, but you don’t know a player until you coach a player,” Doc Rivers said. “You can guess, you can say what you think you know, but he’s so different when you’re in the building with him and on his team. As good as he was visually from an opponent’s standpoint, he’s better live. His passing has become elite.”

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