The Bucks opened January in strong fashion. Since the turn of the year they’ve gone 5-4. Although that’s just above .500, the fashion in which they’ve won is impressive.
Of those four losses, three were away and one was at home to San Antonio, easily the second best team in the NBA.
Of their five wins, three have come at home against Dallas, Chicago, and Atlanta, all three of which are playoff contending teams with records above .500. The other two were away, against a young and talented Minnesota team, and this Saturday against Charlotte.
Again, five out of nine is not bad, but it’s not overly impressive either. Considering the caliber of opponents they beat, it’s encouraging.
What’s more promising is the play of Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Middleton has been playing at an extremely high level for the last 15 games, while Antetokounmpo has had impressive double doubles in four straight games.
Middleton’s stat line for the last 15 games looks like this.
Middleton’s field goal percentage of 52.4% stands out the most. That is a highly efficient rate, especially for a guy that has been averaging about 16 shots per game. Furthermore, Middleton has scored between 24 and 26 points without making a three point shot in three straight games.
Middleton’s 4.9 assists per game over that stretch is another impressive statistic. It shows that he’s taken more creative responsibility on offense, decreasing Michael Carter-Williams’ offensive usage, while still scoring about six more points a game than his season average.
When the Bucks signed Middleton to a five-year $70 million dollar deal this offseason, they thought they had secured an elite 3-and-D player. Instead, they may have stumbled upon a player who could be a top-five shooting guard in the next few seasons to come.
Middleton’s play the past month has been well documented. In the meantime, Antetokounmpo has put in four excellent performances this past week, three of them coming in Milwaukee wins.
It started with a big win against Chicago where Antetokounmpo finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists, while shooting 10-for-14, and getting to the line 14 times, making 9 of those.
Antetokounmpo followed that up with a 19-11-6 stat line, while shooting 6-for-11 from the field and 7-for-9 at the line, in a 106-101 away loss to Washington. He recorded another double-double on Friday in an overtime win against Atlanta where he shot 10-for-18 from the field and 7-for-9 at the line, while grabbing a career-high 16 rebounds.
Antetokounmpo’s stat line this past four games looks like this.
Antetokounmpo is playing extremely aggressive but doing so in a controlled manner, which is why he has been so efficient this past week.
In the first two years of his career, Giannis would either be a bystander on offense who scored in transition or on second chance opportunities, or he would play aggressively but without a plan B. He often found himself crowded out in the paint, stalling the offense and wasting valuable shot clock time.
However, in this short four game stretch Giannis is taking about 13 shots a game, making 56.6% of those, and getting to the line about nine times per game, which is about six more than he’s averaging this year.
The fact that he’s getting to the line often is telling of his increased offensive aggression. His 56.6% field goal percentage reflects him getting and taking good shots.
Obviously, a four game sample size is small and not indicative of Antetokounmpo’s season. However, this stretch has given us a glimpse into the type of offensive player that Antetokounmpo could become. He now needs to maintain his aggressive play and prevent himself from fading in and out of games.
He still has his deficiencies of course. The most glaring of which is his jump shot. At 21-years old, he’s already a good defender but can’t find consistency in his shot. Teams do not respect him, especially beyond the arc. They often put a big man on him who stands about 10-feet away, preventing him from driving, which is his bread and butter, and daring him to shoot.
Poor jump shooting is a common problem 21-year olds face in the NBA. The key is developing concentration, rhythm, and trust in your shot. Antetokounmpo put a lot of work into his shot this summer, and will continue to do so for summers to come.
This season may not be a playoff year for the Bucks, but at least they can take solace in the fact that two of their young players are taking big steps towards playing to their potential.