Preseason basketball has never had any real meaning in the ever-fluctuating lore of the National Basketball Association. Whether you’re the champion Milwaukee Bucks or the hopeful Los Angeles Lakers, a losing skid in preseason simply does not carry long-term implications.
At the same time, the preseason offers an exciting glimpse at what’s to come for teams, particularly outside of their starters. The Bucks were no different, as their young guns acquired this past off-season were given their opportunities to shine. And shine they did.
Whether you were on the lookout for individual development or new schemes for the team, this year’s preseason run was chock full of highlights that prove there is no championship rust to shake off for the defending champs.
Let’s unpack them: here are a few takeaways from the Milwaukee Bucks’ now-concluded preseason games, which saw them take just one win from five contests. See what they might mean for the defending champions to repeat as kings of the league.
The Greek Freak 2.0?
For potentially the first time in his career, Giannis Antetokounmpo is unbound. On the basketball court, he now trots from coast to coast with the nimble freedom that only the vindication of a championship trophy can bring. No more weaknesses are as glaringly evident in his game as his jump shot (or lack thereof) once was.
In the very first possession against the Dallas Mavericks, he calmly walked down the floor and dribbled once into a pull-up from beyond the three-point line — a move typically reserved for Middleton and Middleton alone, and one whose grace and execution was reminiscent of the smooth-shooting swing man.
An offensive weapon
Though the sample size leaves much to be desired, Giannis’ shooting splits paint a glowing picture of his progress. Across three preseason showings, Giannis shot 5/7 from mid-range, 3/4 on above the break threes, and 4/4 on fade-aways. He finished the preseason shooting 66.7 percent from deep on two attempts per game.
None of this is new. Antetokounmpo routinely pulled out the same post pivot into a fadeaway counter over Jae Crowder in the series-clinching game of the NBA Finals. In the series before, he hit the Brooklyn Nets’ big men with a baseline turnaround whenever DeAndre Jordan or Blake Griffin were too stout to back into the paint. The final game of the season saw him sink jumper after jumper and go 17-19 from the free-throw line as part of a 50-point explosion to win the Bucks their first NBA title.
Seeing the same shots hit their mark with continued regularity months after the initial miracle means it’s a sustainable trend. It’s a sight to behold for anyone closely watching his development. His shoulder hitch is less prominent while his elbows flare out less with his shooting arm now tucked closer to his body. The man we call the Greek Freak put in serious work this past summer, and it shows.
Let’s hope Ben Simmons is paying attention.
Could another MVP season be in the works?
Discussions on Antetokounmpo’s gawky jumpshot mechanics usually come with the implication that range from the perimeter is the be-all and end-all for basketball superstars. (Hint: They are wrong. Looking at you, Bag Twitter.)
As it stands, Giannis is already one of the league’s most dominant two-way players. Seeing Giannis in the paint, whether high or low, does to a defense what Stephen Curry at the perimeter does. The impulse to panic sets in, and the communication is all out of sorts until the ball enters the basket care of any of the 5 Bucks on the court. Opposing defenses are left to wonder what happened as they trudge down the court.
A three-point threat
It’s just a fact: even without a jumper, Giannis was an excellent three-point threat — he just wasn’t the one taking them. Just take a look at how Antetokounmpo’s presence affected the team’s three-point-adjacent statistics in the 2020-21 regular season. Due to his inward gravity, simply being on the floor and in the paint makes his team better from beyond the arc.
|Statistic||Giannis On-Court||Giannis Off-Court|
|Shot Frequency: Corner Threes||0.093||0.084|
|Percentage Assisted: Arc Threes||0.754||0.708|
|Three-Point Attempt Rate||0.409||0.397|
|Shot Frequency: At Rim or 3PT||0.723||0.657|
That he can now be the one taking them only spells good things for the surging Bucks.
If this is truly Giannis’ next step — and possibly his final form as he enters his prime — then the best is certainly yet to come. For a dominant two-way threat to add three-level scoring to the resume only screams Most Value Player potential, and potentially another Larry O’Brien trophy.
If it wasn’t glaringly obvious yet, it should be now: the Giannis Wall cannot work the way it did in 2019 with the entire Bucks roster shooting at a league-average clip at the minimum.
This is only to say that it is not in any way hyperbolic to say that Antetokounmpo with a functioning jumper could be the best player in the league. The truth, after all, is that he could also be the best to ever play the game in the final analysis.
Coach Pop’s pupil
Speaking of individual development, another bright spot in the preseason games came from none other than head tactician Mike Budenholzer.
Any basketball fan who has paid attention to the association in the past decade knows that Budenholzer has always been the heir apparent to the Gregg Popovich Beautiful Game.
His 2015 Atlanta Hawks were aptly titled the “Spurs of the East” owing to their fundamental and motion-oriented scoring maelstrom that played out bigger than just the sum of its five moving parts.
Unfortunately, the Bucks were simply not as prolific on that end in the first few years of the Budenholzer era. Bud Ball opted to center the team’s entire offensive identity through Giannis Antetokounmpo.
And though the team’s chief interior minister delivered staggeringly dominant results, the simplistic five-out scheme was nowhere near as versatile and sustainable as needed for continued success.
If the past few contests dating back to the 2021 finals run are any indication, it’s clear that Mike Budenholzer has unlocked the secrets of middle penetration and is reaping the rewards of his recalibrated emphasis on the dunker area.
The two-pronged attack of Giannis’ inward pull coupled with the outward gravity of the team’s shooters has always presented a confounding task for opposing defenses.
In the team’s recently-concluded Finals run, for instance, Budenholzer has demonstrated a certain fondness for the dribble hand-off and reverse pick-and-roll.
To recall, it was a handoff that got sharpshooting swingman Khris Middleton the space he needed to sink what would turn out to be the championship-winning midrange jumper over the outstretched arms of Devin Booker.
Keep it moving
In these preseason matchups, the Bucks offense has looked consistently sharp. Players are moving the ball, setting screens, and decisively making plays. Where they once leaned heavily on isolation basketball — a play which made up 11.7 percent of their postseason plays on offense — they now swing the ball from side to side with more intent.
For any Bucks fan, this should be a welcome sight. The Bucks, after all, won on the backs of their hard-nosed defensive principles; the rings they’re set to put on certainly came despite and not because of their 11th-ranked 112.2 offensive rating.
Against the Brooklyn Nets, their ball and player movement dried up as quickly as it came to life. The Bucks would often relegate themselves to standing in the corner waiting for their three best players to make something happen.
They’re only exhibition games, but the infinitely more nuanced and fluid offense Milwaukee has demonstrated thus far should address one of the team’s fatal flaws moving forward, especially for a historic defensive unit that just lost the uber-switchable PJ Tucker.
Young Bucks are looking sharp
This writer would go as far as saying that Grayson Allen, who arrived at Milwaukee on the heels of a trade that sent 60th overall pick Sam Merrill and two future second-round picks to Memphis, might finally be the starting shooting guard of the future for the Giannis-led Bucks.
After five games, Grayson Allen has slid into the starting two-guard role seamlessly. He steps into the place of the injured Donte DiVincenzo and Bryn Forbes, who left the team for San Antonio.
It was never a secret that he’d wind up in the principal floor-spacing role to complement the Greek Freak’s relentless forays into the paint.
In the preseason, 70.6 percent of Allen’s shot attempts were threes, while 72.7 percent of his makes from distance were off assists. He finished the four-game run hoisting six three-point attempts per game, good for the second-most attempts per game, en route to a massive 45.8 percent shooting clip.
The difference at shooting guard this time around is that Allen also has deceptive athleticism . Unlike Forbes, it allows him to attack the paint and finish strong when the defense plays up on him.
His off-ball movement, shot creation, and consistency on the catch-and-shoot make for a fine addition to the growing lore of Antetokounmpo’s sharpshooting partners in the inverted pick-and-roll.
Jordan Nwora projects to be a solid option when Budenholzer needs competent shooting and perimeter scoring off the bench. His 17.8 points per game on 41.2 percent three-point shooting prove he has absolutely established himself as an automatic bucket-getter. The sophomore sharpshooter led the team in three-point attempts and finished third in scoring.
While his offense was again the star of the show, scoring was not at all what fans were paying attention to. Nwora has always been a promising scoring threat from the perimeter with his ability to create the space to get off his lightning-quick jumper. His defensive ability (again, or lack thereof) however has not shown significant improvements outside of effort.
Unfortunately at his position, hustle and effort may not be enough. His meager athleticism means he might be better suited to play the power forward slot behind Antetokounmpo and Semi Ojeleye.
In the grand scheme of things, Nwora’s improvement as a scorer may not be enough to eke out rotational minutes. The big question for him remains: can he bring it on offense enough to offset his limitations on the defensive end?
Despite going 1-4, the Milwaukee Bucks have shown they’re more than capable of another run at postseason greatness. From here on out, it’s all about building good habits. Fortunately for the Bucks fiefdom, it seems as though the team has already gotten started.