With a mix of veteran superstars, players on new teams and young players primed to break out, this year’s MVP race should be one of the best we’ve seen in recent years. LeBron James and Stephen Curry have won the award six times in the past decade. Other winners include prime Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City and an extra-motivated Russell Westbrook last season.
This year, it’ll be tough for players playing alongside other stars to boast a good enough stat line to win MVP. Curry averaged five fewer points per game once Durant joined him. Expect a similar dip for players like James Harden and Westbrook. Especially now that each of them are playing with guys like Chris Paul, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.
There is a great opportunity for a young player to emerge into the MVP conversation. And Giannis Antetokounmpo may be the best candidate. With Jabari Parker likely to miss most of the regular season, the Greek Freak has the chance to be an even bigger focal point of the offense in Jason Kidd’s system.
Based on Antetokounmpo’s yearly improvement, he’ll be filling the stat sheet like no one else can. Last year, he became the first player to finish top 20 in the league in all five major stat categories (points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks). He also led his team in all five categories, something only four other players have done in NBA history. If he can bump his scoring up to match some of the league’s best (let’s say around 28 points per game), his other contributions will give him a big edge over other MVP candidates.
The only thing missing from Antetokounmpo’s game is a solid jump shot. He’s a career 27 percent shooter from three. And, only a 32 percent shooter from 10-16 feet. His athleticism and incredible length makes up for his flaws, especially near the basket. He shot 70 percent from inside the paint last season, using a combination of finesse moves and pure force to punish any defender near him.
It looks as if he’s worked on his shot tirelessly this offseason. He’s already shown flashes of it in the preseason—just ask the Chicago Bulls. Giannis is already a monster in transition and recently showed his ability to pull up from three as well with a buzzer-beating shot from deep. Later in the game, he looked good shooting off the dribble as a pick-and-roll ball handler. Once he learns how to shoot consistently, the rest of the league is screwed.
According to NBA Math’s play type profile, Antetokounmpo’s two biggest weaknesses are as a P&R handler and in isolation situations. These both correlate to not being able to shoot well enough to create his own shot. Defenders can give him extra space in these situations, but Giannis often still finds a way to get to the hoop. Even if he became an average jump shooter, he’d have so many more opportunities to shred opposing defenses.
Above everything else, Antetokounmpo may be the most motivated player in the league heading into the season. When asked in early August if he could win Most Improved Player again, he set the bar even higher for himself. His coaches and teammates preach about his work ethic, and the numbers show his work pays off.
Giannis will be playing this season in memory of his father, who recently passed away at the age of 54 after suffering a heart attack. Coming from Greece, Giannis has always been extremely close to his family, who he recently helped move to Milwaukee. We’ve seen players step up after a tragedy, including an emotional playoff performance from Isaiah Thomas last year. Now in a similar situation, it’s pretty much impossible not to root for Giannis this season.
The Bucks will need to take a step forward for Antetokounmpo to win MVP. It’s not often that a player wins MVP on a sixth-seeded team like Westbrook did last year with the Thunder. In a weak Eastern Conference, Milwaukee has an outside chance at winning 50 games. Giannis has the talent to lead them to the promised land. Now it’s time to sit back and enjoy the ride.