That's Pretty Interesting: Giannis Antetokounmpo has new tricks; Spencer Dinwiddie inspired by player before his time
Dinwiddie is blown away by Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Jahlil Okafor gets another shot and a look at what's spurring Spurs' success
Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn't need a lot of moves. His strides and arms are so long that, even when defenders dare him to shoot jumpers, he can get past them. Often, a simple straight-line drive will suffice -- once the Milwaukee Bucks star forward gets in the paint, he's usually stronger and more agile than anyone trying to stop him from scoring. Against the New York Knicks last week, teammate George Hill gave him a little advantage with a screen and he did the rest:
That Eurostep is his signature move, and it has been a part of Antetokounmpo's game for years. This behind-the-back dribble, used to split a pick-and-roll against the Brooklyn Nets a couple of days later, has not:
That play stunned Brooklyn, and it even stunned the Bucks' home crowd. As much as Antetokounmpo's game has expanded, he is still not known for pulling out tricks like that. This tends to be the domain of less physically imposing stars, like Kyrie Irving or Kemba Walker, who are forced to rely on deception in order to create something out of nothing. Increasingly, though, Antetokounmpo is wading into their territory.
Here he is going behind-the-back in Boston before dunking on Semi Ojeleye:
Now watch him shake Jayson Tatum with a slick crossover later in that same game:
Antetokounmpo is not about to turn into a gigantic version of Irving, but there is no reason he can't continue to make progress as a ballhandler the way Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant have. The above plays should serve as a reminder that he turned 24 less than a month ago and his development isn't just about his jump shot. In fact, if you made any New Year's resolutions this week and are trying to change your habits, it would be wise to think of Antetokounmpo: While everybody waits for him to make the massive change that will force defenses to treat him differently, he is quietly, incrementally improving in other areas. Small stuff adds up.
The rare MVP candidate who is nowhere near his peak, Antetokounmpo knows how to take advantage of mismatches and can generally get where he needs to go. He is not yet, however, the kind of player who manipulates the defense at an elite level. While the Raptors' Pascal Siakam recently told ESPN's Zach Lowe that he studies how Antetokounmpo uses open space to get a running start, it is worth remembering that Antetokounmpo himself is . His upside, still ridiculous, is a product of his work ethic as much as the fact that he can credibly play point-center.
In this respect, that behind-the-back move against Brooklyn was notable not because it looked cool, but because it offered a glimpse of what is possible. Over the next few years, Antetokounmpo will only become more comfortable trying things like that. It is not even a particularly hot take to suggest that the Bucks will eventually revisit the experiment they tested pre-Mike Budenholzer, asking their franchise player to initiate the offense every trip down the floor.
A few months from now, Antetokounmpo's playoff opponents will sag off him and try to keep him out of the paint. Defenders do that every time he steps on the court, but postseason preparation brings a different kind of discipline. Milwaukee's new offense, installed by Budenholzer and powered by floor-spacing big men, is the biggest reason to believe Antetokounmpo can navigate this situation and take the team further than it has gone before. An improved handle, though, would help.
At the NBA level, ballhandling is not all about highlights. It is about being in control. If you're a playmaker, you need to be so confident with the ball in your hands that you welcome ball pressure, don't worry about your primary defender and can come up with creative ways to dictate what the defense does. For Antetokounmpo, who already has fantastic footwork and an advanced understanding of angles, a full arsenal of dribble moves would get him closer to having complete command of the game.
The Irvings and Walkers of the world are special because they can seemingly do whatever they want with the ball in their hands despite looking like regular people. Leonard and Durant are nightmares to defend because they have the ball on a string and can shoot from anywhere. Imagine what Antetokounmpo -- 6-foot-11 with a 7-3 wingspan, faster than almost any forward and more powerful than most centers -- would be capable of if he looked at every possession from a similar point of view.
Dinwiddie draws inspiration from a player before his time
Last summer, Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie worked out with a man who will turn 50 years old in March. Dinwiddie's agent, Raymond Brothers, thought it would be a good idea. Dinwiddie was aware of his workout partner's accomplishments -- the Most Improved Player award, the Division I record 30.2 points per game as a freshman -- but, when they got on the court, his mind was blown: Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf still has it.
"He's still really, like, good," Dinwiddie told CBS Sports. "Obviously he can't move as well as he could, but he's still in great shape, especially for 50. And, like, shoot, he'd still be probably one of the best shooters in the league right now. If you put him on a team and were like, 'Hey, stand in the corner and shoot,' he's a bucket."
Abdul-Rauf is the oldest player in the BIG3, and anyone who has watched him in that league knows that he's also one of the best. The shape he was in, though, and the detail-oriented approach he brought to a summer workout -- Dinwiddie couldn't believe it.
As part of an 82-game project, every time Dinwiddie has taken the court this season, he has worn a different pair of customized shoes. When Brooklyn visited New Orleans early in the season, Dinwiddie wore one with an image of Abdul-Rauf in prayer on the side. It was his way of saying thank you, and if that meant some of Dinwiddie's fans would go back and watch Abdul-Rauf's highlights, that would be a nice bonus. Dinwiddie appreciated that Abdul-Rauf was willing to sit down and dispense advice.
"He talked to me about life, a lot about the league and the way it works," Dinwiddie said. "And staying the course, being true to your craft, all that stuff. We're both religious. Obviously he's Muslim and I'm not, but we're both religious in general, so just staying the course and believing that if you treat the game the right way, that God will reward you."
In the caption of above Instagram post, Dinwiddie referred to Abdul-Rauf as Steph before Steph and Kaepernick before Kaepernick, adding that there is "no denying this man was ahead of his time both on and off the court." Abdul-Rauf famously chose not to stand for the American national anthem and wound up exiled from the league in what should have been the prime of his career. He also played like a modern, attacking point guard -- launching 3s off the dribble, attacking the rim with force and fearlessness -- long before it was fashionable.
"After working with him, I definitely went back and watched him a little bit more, just seeing how much he really was one of a kind," Dinwiddie said. "He really was, obviously, one of the greatest shooters of all-time, and he also had a bounce to his game that other great shooters haven't really had. So it's special."
Abdul-Rauf is a hero to many because of his activism, because he took a stand and because he is a role model to those with Tourette's Syndrome. Dinwiddie has put many cultural figures on his shoes this year, from Nelson Mandela to Harriet Tubman, but he said you get a different idea of what people are about when you're able to be around them and feel their energy rather than just read about them. And for a player who went from the scrap heap to signing a $34 million contract extension, he can relate to Abdul-Rauf's faith and sense of self on and off the court.
"Obviously he's somebody I look up to in a confidence sense," Dinwiddie said. "Because that's all this league really is. We're all talented. We can all play. The difference usually is that confidence."
Okafor gets a shot
Before his DNP on Wednesday in Brooklyn, Jahlil Okafor had been in the New Orleans Pelicans' rotation for seven straight games. This might not sound like much, especially for a former No. 2 pick, but it was his longest stretch of consistent minutes as a Pelican and, if you're looking for encouraging signs for his future, you could find them. He scored 17 points in 13 minutes in Milwaukee a couple of weeks ago, and he had seven points and seven boards in 14 minutes on Monday against Minnesota.
"I still think he's going to have a good career in this league," New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said. "I really do. He's helped us. He's played some very valuable minutes for us. [On Monday], he started and I thought he set the tone early by taking the ball and getting it to the basket. I think he's going to continue to get better and expand his game. We like him."
Gentry credited him for putting in extra work and not getting discouraged, adding that it's easy to forget Okafor just turned 23. This is his fourth year in the league, and he is on his third team, playing on a minimum, non-guaranteed contract. It would be natural for anyone in his position to have issues with confidence, and he told The Athletic's Shams Charania in October that he has dealt with depression and anxiety. The version of Okafor the Pelicans signed has a reworked jumper and is in much better condition than ever before, thanks to offseason training with "The Hoops Whisperer" Idan Ravin and trainer David Alexander, and when he gets the ball and goes one-on-one, he can still show off how skilled he is:
New Orleans, back in action on Saturday against the Cavaliers (8 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), seemed like a weird fit for Okafor because it is one of the fastest teams in the league. Here he is, though, going coast to coast in Sacramento and getting a bucket in transition:
I don't know if Okafor will ever defend at a high enough level for a coach to give him major minutes and tell him to go to work. His footwork and touch remain impressive, though, and I'd love to see him find his place.
What's spurring San Antonio's success?
On Wednesday, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said that defense is the reason his team has turned things around, going 11-5 in December and winning 10 of its last 13 games.
"When you're more solid defensively, it creates a lot of other things," Popovich told reporters, via The Athletic's Jabari Young. "It helps your offense, it gives you more pace offensively, you take pride in what you're doing and players understand that defense keeps you in games. Some nights, especially in this league, with everybody shooting 3s all the time, some nights they just don't fall. You've got to depend on something, and defense is the part of the game that can keep you in the game if the shots are not falling."
My initial reaction: Popovich is just talking about defense because that's what coaches like to do. The Spurs have been routinely eclipsing the 120-point mark, and they have the No. 1 offensive rating in the entire league since the start of December. I have been skeptical of San Antonio's defense since the summer, and they are still a below-average defensive team on the season.
A deeper dig into the numbers, though, reveals that Popovich is not totally off-base here. From opening night until the end of November, the Spurs gave up 112.1 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 26th in the league. Since then, they have surrendered only 106.4 points per 100 possessions, which ranks seventh. In that same span, their offensive rating went from 108.7 points per 100 possessions (13th in the league) to 116.6 points per 100 possessions, a (slightly) bigger jump.
What's more impressive, going from awful to good or average to awesome? I'm not sure, but I'll bet I know what Popovich was more concerned about when San Antonio had a losing record. The more interesting question, anyway, is whether or not either of these gains will turn out to be sustainable. I trust the offense much more than the defense, but hey, let's see if the Spurs can slow down their former friend Kawhi and the Raptors on Thursday.
Still in on Ingram
Sometimes I wish Brandon Ingram was on a normal team instead of the Los Angeles Lakers. The 21-year-old forward is far too divisive considering how talented he is, and his production without LeBron James on the court has been fantastic. It is not shocking that he has had trouble fitting in with LeBron right away, and it would be silly to assume that they can't work together over the next few years.
On Sunday against Sacramento, Ingram had 21 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, two blocks and a steal, maybe the most complete game of his career. I would like to draw your attention to two plays he made in transition; first, this ball fake and finish:
And second, this spin and lefty layup:
Be patient with him!
10 other stray thoughts: Keep an eye on D.J. Wilson … Trae Young is quietly figuring a lot of things out … This has been quite a week for Jonah Bolden … I can't believe this is happening to Wendell Carter, one of the more mature rookies I've ever seen … Rodions Kurucs should have been picked way higher … The Lakers should have kept Thomas Bryant … Weird how none of the stories about Mike Budenholzer leading up to the season predicted his Bucks would become a defensive rebounding juggernaut … James Harden has the most fun job in the world …New Orleans' 4-16 road record is mind-boggling … Free Enes Kanter?
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