How Giannis Antetokounmpo developed his post game to become even more effective

The Milwaukee Bucks have just entered clutch time against the feisty Houston Rockets on Dec. 17. They have led by double-digits for most of the game, but a three-pointer from Fred VanVleet cuts the lead to four points with just under four minutes remaining. Giannis Antetokounmpo takes center stage.

He seals his defender in the post but gives up his position to catch the ball near the three-point line. Then he turns his back and forces his way to the mid post. He sees the help coming from the nail and drives towards it, engages two defenders, then three. He loses the ball for a brief instant before gathering it and finishing his move, spinning back towards the baseline and away from the help, and finishing through contact to give Milwaukee a lead it will not relinquish.

That moment was a perfect encapsulation of Antetokounmpo’s entire post game. He made mistakes, was even sloppy at points, but was ultimately so overpowering that he engaged nearly Houston’s entire defense. And it worked.

For being perhaps the game’s most dominant big man since Shaquille O’Neal, Antetokounmpo has never been a premier post-up player. Sure, the game is going away from the post — at least when mismatches aren’t involved. But Antetokounmpo has long been a lower-usage post player among star bigs. His highest rate of post-up frequency came in 2019-20, when he ranked 15th in frequency across the league. And this year, he’s posting up less frequently than he has since 2016-17.

So what has changed this season? And is his post-up game a weapon this year that will change the texture of Milwaukee’s playoff outlook?

Perhaps the most significant point is that Antetokounmpo remains one of the best post scorers in the league. His previous best efficiency — including possessions that aren’t just ended in the post, but feature a post-up at any point — came in that 2019-20 season, when he ranked 10th in the league among players with at least 50 post-ups. He’s once again at 10th, albeit on a slightly lower points per chance. Still, possessions on which he posts up are statistically yielding more points than ones on which De’Aaron Fox is driving, or Tyrese Maxey is running a pick and roll,. This is signature-play-level stuff.

The context around Antetokounmpo has shifted. Outside of Antetokounmpo himself, there is no player with whom he plays that does not shoot triples. And he also plays more than half of his possessions next to both Malik Beasley, one of the most accurate shooters in the league this year, and Damian Lillard, whose shooting needs no introduction. Antetkounmpo has never played alongside such talented shooters; furthermore, more than three-quarters of his post-ups have come with those two on the floor beside him. Milwaukee is mostly limiting the play to such beneficial situations. When Lillard enters the ball to Antetokounmpo in the post from the strong side, it doesn’t take much to create an open shot.

But the improvement hasn’t just been in the context surrounding Antetokounmpo. He has also improved his own abilities with his back to the basket.

He’s attempting the second-highest rate of shots per post-up of his career, but he’s also averaging the highest rate of passes per post-up since 2018-19. How? Because his post-ups are more threatening, ending more possessions rather than resulting in resets. (Some of them — we’ll get to the ones that do result in resets in a moment.) His turnovers are down. In previous years, he would occasionally give up the ball too early, without drawing enough of an advantage, and ask his teammates to create on their own for the remainder of the possession. This season he is holding his post-ups an extra beat, getting deeper, drawing help further into the paint. He rarely turns it over against single coverage, which hasn’t been true previously.

He’s been incredibly flexible with his core, leveraging space not with his length but with his legs. His lower body is so strong that he can’t be bumped off his line, and he can take contact and push through in exactly the same direction he was moving before. For as long and strong as NBA players are, feet are truly the only way to actually move around the court, and Antetokounmpo’s footwork has improved. He takes enormous steps, able to cover more ground in the post than virtually anyone. His dropstep is becoming a signature move, but so too is his spin move away from the help yielding fruit. He can score with ease on those spins, or suck in the help under the rim and pass through tight windows for teammates’ easy layups.

That is gravity of another kind, not stretching the court outward but expanding it inward. And when you’re surrounded by shooters at every position, and especially by Beasley and Lillard, inward-facing gravity can be just as valuable as the outward-facing that those shooters provide. The post-up then is a complement to Milwaukee’s shooting, a means of both catalyzing it and being catalyzed by it.

As a result of his abilities, Antetokounmpo is drawing a high rate of double teams in the post, particularly in recent weeks. He’s drawing doubles on almost a quarter of his post-ups, the seventh-highest percentage in the league among those with at least 100 touches in the post. That is a situation in which he needs to improve; he records few assists after drawing a double team in the post, and those possessions aren’t yielding many points. His teammates have missed some open triples, but still, Antetokounpmo’s craft in those situations could use some work. There’s a balance to reach for aggression, and he often ends up either passing out before fully engaging both defenders — thus giving the defense a chance to reset — or forcing the issue and turning it over.

These doubles have hurt Antetokounmpo’s post-up numbers. He hovered right around the top of the league for post efficiency for much of the season, but as opposing doubles have risen recently, his post-up numbers have dwindled. Yet he is posting up more and more as the season is going on; there are fault lines here beneath the surface of the season that need resolution.

Attacking double teams is an area which Milwaukee should emphasize over the rest of the season. Attacking doubles in the post is hard, but there are options. Pascal Siakam often dribbles away from the double before facing up and attacking an outside corner and spinning back into the lane. Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets use 45 cuts to collapse the defense for Jokic to pass over the top to shooters filling in above the cuts. The Philadelphia 76ers this season have moved the location of Joel Embiid’s post-ups so that he sees doubles coming and has easier passing lanes. Milwaukee needs to identify what it wants to accomplish when Antetokounmpo is doubled. Success requires intentional goals.

If this has fallen on the backburner for a team integrating one of the highest-profile new additions in the league this year, it shouldn’t come as a surprise; even the most dedicated post-up players only run the play a small handful of times a game. Antetokounmpo post-ups only occur a few times a game. That also contributes to some of the additional success this year. There’s a selection bias at work, with lower frequency often meaning higher efficiency.

With all that in mind, then, what does that mean about Antetokounmpo’s post-ups going forward? Will they be relevant in the playoffs?

It’s clear that the post-up will never be a primary means of Antetokounmpo’s attack, even under Doc Rivers. The team under Adrian Griffin was prioritizing dynamism and motion on the offensive end, and the post-up is anathema to that. But towards the end of Griffin’s reign and the course of Joe Prunty’s, Antetokounmpo saw his post usage rise. It might jump further under Rivers, who prefers simpler offenses. Still, at most, he’ll only touch the ball in the post likely five or six times a game. Those few moments can still alter defensive choices.

If an opposing defense switches a pick with Antetokounmpo as a screener, he will bury the guard under the rim. If defenders top-lock cutters while Antetokounmpo holds the ball at the elbow, and options grind down, he can keep his back to the basket and bully his way to the rim. Such moments may only be worth a few points, occurring once or twice a game, but they can completely alter opposing defensive schemes. Schematic wins are worth more than points. In Milwaukee’s beatdown over the Boston Celtics on Jan. 11, when Jrue Holiday defended Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ big eventually won the matchup with an uncontested fadeaway jumper over the top, forcing Boston away from the matchup.

The Bucks need to compile as many of those schematic answers as they can. In past postseason losses, they have been mired in the mud when creating open 3-point shots and failing to hit them. Expected efficiency isn’t always the answer, and versatility can mean more. That’s why it’s so important the Bucks solve double teams against Antetokounmpo post-ups; if his posting up is a counter, it’s important teams can’t have a built-in counter to that counter. The dance always continues, with both teams trying to plan a step ahead of whatever the other might do in the future.

On the offensive end, that’s all the Bucks are looking for right now. In Lillard and Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have the foundation of offensive dominance. That’s good for maybe 80 percent of a game’s half-court possessions. When teams are in their base packages, the Bucks don’t need Antetokounmpo in the post. But once or twice a game, it helps that he’s just about the best the league has in the post. When it comes to beating the Rockets in mid-December or, if all goes to plan, the Boston Celtics in mid-May, Antetokounmpo’s success in the post will matter.

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