The NBA is buzzing right now with the high quality of play from the league's top players, in particular Russell Westbrook and James Harden. But another player may be vaulting faster into superstardom, and is only just getting the recognition he deserves. Because his name resides in the Mike Krzyzewski tier of spelling difficulty, let me just introduce the NBA's newest superstar as the Greek Freak.
Just a month after his 22nd birthday, Giannis Antetekounmpo is playing better basketball than every player in the Eastern Conference outside of Cleveland. As Bill Simmons put it, Giannis is part of the new class of NBA "unicorns": his game is unique in comparison to both the present and the past. Standing at 6-foot-11, he has the handles of a point guard, the athleticism of a wing, and the wingspan of a center. He covers ground like no other player in the league.
This lethal combination has led to rapid improvement that has shown no signs of slowing down. This season, he is averaging career highs in points (23.9), assists (5.8), rebounds (9.1), steals (1.9), and blocks (2.0) per game, each of which is at least an 18 percent increase over last year's respective numbers. He leads the Bucks in all five categories, and would become the first player to do so for any team since LeBron James during his first stint in Cleveland.
Giannis is far from just a stat stuffer, and the advanced metrics may arguably be even more impressive. As of Jan. 6, he has the second highest Player Efficiency Rating (28.27), third highest Value Added (328.9), and third highest Expected Wins Added (11.0), trailing only Westbrook and Harden in either of these categories. His impact was no more apparent than earlier this week, in which the Greek Freak drained his first career buzzer-beater in none other than Madison Square Garden.
One reason Giannis has not gotten more attention, besides the fact that he is playing in small-market Milwaukee and is subsequently not appearing on national television often, is that he is not playing for an elite team. Sitting at 18-16, the Bucks are only two games ahead of the ninth seed in the East.
However, their point differential of +2.5, third best in the East and eighth best in the league, signals that the team may be better than their record. The team ranks in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, a common trait among NBA title contenders.
This has all come despite the Bucks having been without Khris Middleton, their leading scorer from last season. His eventual return should give the Bucks a boost that could help make for a competitive playoff series against conference heavyweights Cleveland or Toronto.
As the NBA season nears its halfway point, the talk of this year's elite players will continue to be dominated by Harden, Westbrook, LeBron James, and the Golden State Warriors. But if he gets the respect he's due, the question should not be whether Giannis should be an All-Star and All-NBA, but what position he should be considered as on those teams.
Every player who reaches superstar status in the NBA has a nickname. There's King James. Russ. Steph. KD. The Beard. CP3. And then there's the Greek Freak.