The Startling Parallels Between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Lamar Jackson
Getty Images. Pictured: Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens (8), Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) of the Milwaukee Bucks.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo and Lamar Jackson are absolute superstars in their respective sports who will each likely have MVP awards by the end of 2020.
- But that's not all these two have in common. Their exciting styles of play, meteoric rises and their struggles mirror each other remarkably.
He’s one of the most athletic human beings on the face of the planet. He’s young, he leads one of the best teams in his sport and will likely be the league’s Most Valuable Player.
He is able to dominate the opponent with his physicality and athleticism. Many say he’s the face of the league, while others wonder if a team led by him can ever really survive the postseason where weaknesses are magnified and schemed against.
I’m talking about Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens.
I’m also talking about Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Jackson led his team to the NFL’s best record at 14-2. The Ravens finished the regular season No. 1 in DVOA and their advanced metrics suggested they were one of the best teams in NFL history.
They’re at home now, after losing to the Tennessee Titans in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs. Jackson completed 31-of-59 passes for 365 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions and rushed 20 times for 143 yards. The numbers were productive, if inefficient.
There is an argument that Jackson did enough and it was simply the product of a handful of plays that doomed the Ravens’ seemingly blessed season. And yet, Jackson finished with just a 28.7 QBR, the third-worst single-game QBR during the 2020 Playoffs. More importantly, of course, the Ravens lost and went one-and-done in a season they were the presumptive favorites.
How did the Titans slow down the quarterback who was being discussed as game-changing?
Great breakdown from Logan Ryan on how the Titans shut down Lamar Jackson: "We had 8-, 9-man boxes all night. You play Madden and run Engage Eight all day, it’s hard to run the ball. We pretty much did that."
They also used Bills as a blueprint. Full quote here: pic.twitter.com/SzjQ206skw
— Tyler Dunne (@TyDunne) January 12, 2020
“We saw when he [Jackson] gained yards he was getting them between the hashes and the numbers. We defended from number to number and made him go laterally. There weren’t big plays,” coach Mike Vrabel said after the game.
Safety Kenny Vaccaro said the goal was to string Jackson out toward the sideline to keep him from making spin moves or sudden cuts to make defenders miss. In essence, they cut down the space Jackson had to work with and used the sideline as an extra defender. Pees dialed up stunts and twists up front, resulting in sacks by defensive lineman Jurrell Casey and former Raven Kamalei Correa.
Now, let’s talk Giannis.
(NOTE: I will endeavor to talk about the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2019 playoff run without discussing Fred VanVleet. Please support me through this arduous task.)
The reigning MVP exited last year’s NBA playoffs in the Eastern Conference Finals, analogous to a round further than Jackson made it. However, the Raptors were able to hold Antetokounmpo to 22.7 points, 13.5 boards and 5.5 assists per game on just 45% shooting. Toronto also forced Antetokounmpo into 25 turnovers through six games.
The Raptors’ layered their defense to force Giannis to go through multiple defenders in order to get to the rim, and then use their speed and athleticism to recover against the 3-point threats.
During the regular season last year, Milwaukee averaged 53.3 points in the paint per game, and Antetokounmpo averaged 17.5 himself. In the last four games of that series, the Bucks averaged just 39.5 points in the paint per game, and Antetokounmpo was held to just 14.1.
This is what Giannis saw when he tried to go middle.
Two guys in the paint, primary defender shading him away from the middle, another on the weak side if he Euro-steps back middle:
Two defenders in the paint , everyone forcing him away from the middle.
Now, here’s Lamar Jackson’s NFL NextGen chart from the AFC Division loss to the Titans:
Very little to the middle, forced him to the sidelines, made him rely on his throw, particularly to the outside.
Here’s Jackson’s passer rating by zone for the season:
And his passing chart for their playoff game against the Titans:
They effectively forced Jackson to be the equivalent of a midrange shooter.
Here’s Milwaukee’s shot chart in those last four games vs. Toronto:
So then, the question is this: when teams have the time and opportunity to scheme you as they do in a playoff game or series, can a player whose success is built on overwhelming athleticism overcome those defenses?
We saw last week vs. the Chiefs, the Titans faced the opposite problem with Patrick Mahomes. They knew the objective was to take away his deep threats and make him throw short. At the end of the first half, they doubled both Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill.
Mahomes did this:
PATRICK ARE YOU KIDDING ME pic.twitter.com/7eLNzj2R8Z
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) January 19, 2020
Few Chiefs/Titans thoughts before watching the film.
-unlike Pats and Ravens, felt like the Chiefs attempted to stop the run (and did) with defensive alignments. Clearly need to do the same vs Niners
-titans dropped a spy into coverage, same as they did against Lamar …
— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) January 20, 2020
However, Mahomes was often able to defeat the spy because they were concerned with his ability to throw. When Mahomes breaks the pocket, he looks to throw first. It slows defenders, as they don’t want to hit him late, and Mahomes will slow or move subtly to avoid.
— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) January 20, 2020
On the long TD run, he did that. He appeared like he was going to throw, and it got the defender to slow down just a enough to where he took off down the sidelines
— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) January 20, 2020
Counters. It’s all about counters. Jackson didn’t have the necessary counters against the Titans, Mahomes did. Giannis didn’t have the necessary counters against the Raptors.
So the answer, of course, lies with that jumpshot, just as with Jackson it will rely on the ability to run a balanced offense.
You’re not going to overwhelm teams with the quarterback rush in the playoffs, at least not unless you hit the perfect stretch of matchups. And you’re not going to dunk all over everyone in the playoffs, again, unless you hit the perfect series of matchups.
Now, I bounced these ideas off my Action Network colleague Chris Raybon and he provided some insight on the comparisons between the two, particularly in terms of the weapons both players hold:
I think the only difference, well 2 are 1) Media narrative: No one was talking about this until after it happened with Lamar, but this was part of the convo with Giannis to the point he worked on his 3 to where it’s now a few points below average, and 2) Margin for error. Titans had to do it for one game, 60 minutes. They benefitted from a couple of turnovers. He has been worse to the outside but also made a lot of nice throws outside…so if they play 7 times, Ravens don’t lose by 16 every time. Same with Giannis. If he goes 0-8 in game 1 but then 6-8 in game 2, 4-7 in game 3 and bucks go up 2-1, how long does opponent risk staying with it?
But it’s very similar even with the teammate aspect … part of why you want Lamar to throw outside is because the best WR is a rookie, the next two are Willie Snead and Seth Roberts.
Like Jackson, the Bucks’ success means that often times Giannis’ teammates are bumped up a little bit. Khris Middleton has been a really good player in the league for a long time and Eric Bledsoe — despite disappointing performances in the playoffs — is a great defender and a weapon.
Otherwise, the Bucks have a lot of systemic 3-point shooters but no actual legit star-level second guy the way the Clippers, Lakers and (to a degree) Sixers have.
That means they are much more at the mercy of cold streaks against tough defenses, much like a wide receiver corps that drops a lot of balls.
So then, the question is whether Jackson’s 2019 season mirrored Giannis’ 2018-19 season, and whether Giannis has evolved.
Now, the easy answer here is the 3-point shot. Giannis is shooting 32.2% from 3-point range this season, by far his best since his rookie season, on a whopping 5.2 attempts per game.
However, something to consider: vs. the Raptors, Antetokounmpo actually shot 33% from 3-point range on 3.2 attempts, including 36% in the last four games of that series. But there’s a more important number for the season than honing in specifically on the 3’s. It’s just his jumper.
Here are Giannis’ jumpshot percentages from last year, through the playoffs and then this season:
- 2018-19 regular season: 32% | 40.4% eFG
- 2019 Playoffs: 29% | 39.7% eFG
- 2019-20 regular season: 37% | 49.6% eFG
This is basically the equivalent to Jackson being able to throw to the numbers inside 15 yards. It forces the defense to respect him in a different way, which will open up more opportunities for fouls and cuts by his teammates.
Antetokounmpo is two years older than Jackson, and while the narrative around him kind of imagines last year as his first real playoff run, he had been to the postseason in the three seasons prior. He has more experience. He knows where he’s going and how to get there.
His shot profile this season shows an understanding of that. Here’s what he said before the season:
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) September 18, 2019
Transcription via CBS Sports:
“There’s a lot of people out there that said, ‘Oh, if Giannis don’t add the 3 he’s not gonna be one of the best players in the league.’ I just won the MVP? No 3, right?” Antetokounmpo said. “I can still win the championship not shooting the 3, but I want to shoot the 3. I shot the 3 a little bit better this year, as the season went along I was getting better. Shooting the 3 is gonna make it a lot easier for my game and a lot easier for my teammates, so I gotta add that element to my game.”
Jackson was presumably humbled by the Titans’ dominance of the seemingly unstoppable Ravens and will have a chance to return as a better player next season. Truth be told, much of the Titans’ ability to stun the Ravens came on signature moments like the two stops on fourth down.
As Raybon noted above, that’s one of the benefits of the NBA playoffs for players like Giannis: it’s not one-and-done. You can’t come in, shock a guy into a bad game, and advance. You have to do it four out of seven times.
Both Jackson and Antetokounmpo are transcendent athletes who dominate the game with their physical abilities. It’s the small edges, the ways to control the game through the short outside throws the defense gives, or adjusting to the multi-layer defense and being able to hit jumpers, that caused their downfalls after legendary seasons.
We see at the core a similarity between these two amazing players. This story is not about two overhyped machines who “can’t get it done” in the playoffs. It’s about the progression of two young players against defenses designed to stop them and how they learn from that.
The stories of their careers will only end one of two ways: disappointment as they are held to the limitations of these weaknesses, or in the triumph of their ability to adapt and overcome them.
That’s the great thing about having two stars with this much amazing ability at such a young age: There’s time.