Milwaukee, WI | Giannis Antetokounmpo has had an outstanding start to his 2017-18 campaign for the Milwaukee Bucks There has been talk nationally and locally about where he ranks among the NBA’s best.
The supremely talented 6’11” Filathlitikos, Greece native is working his way into the upper-echelon of basketball players. It’s not crazy to think that he will find himself in the thick of the NBA MVP conversation when voting commences next spring.
Friday night the world was reminded just how far he has to go to be the best in the world, and LeBron James reminded the world that he’s still on that throne.
Midway through the final period of Friday night’s 116-97 Cleveland victory over Milwaukee James put an exclamation mark on that thought. Antetokounmpo had a one-on-one fast break opportunity with only James standing between him and the basket. Antetokounmpo stretched his incredibly long legs in an effort to go to the left side of James and lay the ball up and in the hoop and cut the Cavs’ lead to 10. James seemingly let Antetokounmpo glide past him and elevate the ball up near the glass.
The sports world has seen the ending to this story many times. James pinned Antetokounmpo’s layup attempt off the glass, in a block that the star has been able to repeat time and time again, most famously in the 2016 NBA Finals.
The sequence continued as the Cavaliers were able to recover the ball after James’ block. They brought the ball up the court before and moved it gracefully around the floor. That created confusion amongst Milwaukee’s defense, leaving a wide-open Cavalier at the top of the three-point arc.
The Cavalier was, you guessed it, James.
The missing member of the Bucks was Antetokounmpo.
James knocked down the wide-open three to push Cleveland’s lead to 15 with less than 6:30 to play.
Looking at the stat sheet from Friday night’s game will tell you that Antetokounmpo outplayed the four-time MVP. The eye test will tell you a different story. Antetokounmpo finished with 34 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists on 15-of-22 shooting. James finished with 24 points, five rebounds, and eight assists on 10-of-16 from the floor.
The 22-year-old Antetokounmpo certainly can reach a level close to the one which James operates, however he isn’t there yet.
There’s no shame in that for Antetokounmpo, and there shouldn’t be. He knows he isn’t the player that James is at this point in his career, no one is.
“I am not on that level yet.” Antetokounmpo said following the loss. “LeBron James is one of the best players in the league and one of the best to ever play the game.”
Antetokounmpo’s statement does offer one key word, ‘yet’. If he can reach a level even slightly below James he will go down as one of the best players to ever touch a basketball. It’s a lofty goal, but it’s one that he should have.
Antetokounmpo has all the physical tools to be a legend in the NBA, the place where James is far past him is mentally. James has one of the highest basketball IQ’s to ever set foot on a basketball court, and that’s something Antetokounmpo needs to improve upon.
Moments where Antetokounmpo can be better include when he has mismatches on the offensive end and fails to take advantage of them. On Friday night there were multiple possessions in which he had Cavaliers’ center Tristan Thompson on him. Instead of attacking the less athletic big man, he deferred to his teammates. Those moments need to be where Antetokounmpo takes over, and eventually they will be.
Antetokounmpo has an extremely bright future, and one day can take the throne as the best basketball player alive from James, but Friday night reminded us how wide that gap still is.