Last Friday, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Minnesota Timberwolves squared off in a matchup of inverted visions of the NBA's future. Karl-Anthony Towns, a stout, sweet-shooting seven-footer who can run the floor and guard five positions, deployed his full arsenal for Minnesota's first 11 points. Tip-in, righty hook, elbow turnaround jumper, face-up from 20 feet, stepping out for three: he performed the evolution of the contemporary big man from painted-area paperweight to agile terror in four minutes. Towns is the adjustment to end all adjustments, and he's also a 20-year-old rookie.
Which would make his foil on the Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the last bastion of hoops mythology. Running the point against the Wolves, Milwaukee's supremely stringy 6'11" Greek Freak dunked, dished, Dream-shaked, and spirit-dabbed his way to 27 points, 9 boards, 12 assists and 2 blocks. It's Antetokounmpo's third year in the NBA, but he's barely 21. Giannis' recent stratospheric spate of performances like this feels premature, but only because players cast in his mold have made us so used to waiting. Those numbers—incurred, during Milwaukee's lost season, like damages in a flood—are the reaffirming pinch demanded when a dream, long forgotten, suddenly comes true.
The early-2000s motif of the Gumbyish point forward never lived up to its hype as the future of the sport. Still, it's easy to see the idea's appeal. This tantalizing teenaged prospect could handle and see the floor like a guard, run and jump with forwards, and had the size to bang with centers; he was raw and irresistible, his potential unknowable and unknowably vast. No one is going to draft a polished back-to-the-basket college power forward over that dude, and with good reason. But, one after another, these prototypes collapsed along the same narrative parabola of idealism and disillusionment. Lamar Odom struggled with the inimitable pressures of life as a deity before selling out to the Triangle, then collapsed again; Josh Smith unreeled all the worst outcomes of his various basketball ambitions; Anthony Randolph simply disappeared; Darius Miles, we don't even talk about.
The NBA eventually hedged against those cautionary tales by making high-schoolers ineligible for the draft, and while the lanky polymaths still come along, their promise is now met with hearty, evidence-based skepticism. Without a superstar to represent the movement in the canon, its legends became ghosts of an irresponsibly speculative NBA futures market now past. Still, it was a beautiful idea, and it's difficult not to wonder what might have been.
The last two weeks have seen an answer to that question vigorously written on the fly. Since taking over primary ball-handling duties on February 22, Giannis has been a roaring font of playmaking intensity. Given the authority and space to articulate his vision, he has imposed it on all aspects of the game.
Just the way he initiates the offense is revolutionary. Chris Paul, a halfcourt magician, drags the ball past the timeline, then goes to work; the reason he dribbles the first fifty feet is either pedigree or to save a pass. When Giannis snatches a rebound, the possession begins then and there; towering over the floor, he sees the whole canvas. He rotates the court, and then he cuts it into shapes.
Every coast-to-coast slalom seeks to exhaust his spatial palette. He fakes threading the needle to freeze DeAngelo Russell, which creates the lane for his forty-foot backdoor bounce pass to Jabari Parker. He beams a sixty-foot diagonal baseball pass through time and space that arrives in the corner precisely as OJ Mayo does. Have you seen someone Eurostep into a dunk with the off-hand? Have you seen someone Eurostep on defense?
Giannis doesn't soothe our analytics malaise so much as he sears right through it. He spins off little Ricky Rubio as though Rubio were a tackling dummy, and you laugh—the Bucks announcers draw out the mischief, calling the futile defensive assignment "verrrry interesting ... " Giannis dunks from a step inside the free throw line, going Statue-of-Liberty, and leaves you holding your breath.
What's most miraculous about Giannis' torrent of success is that it has come on his own terms. He hasn't had to compromise his talent to fit a role, or truncate his loping strides to get in step with an evolving sport. He simply Does Giannis, and the world adjusts. It makes you wonder if his doomed point-forward forebears might have lived like this, too, if their teams had just given them the ball and gotten the hell out of the way. Or, more practically, it may help us empathize with his less-free contemporaries: can Perry Jones ever be unleashed if his handlers insist that he first learn a trade?
Giannis' brilliance helps us see more clearly the struggle of the Tremendous Upside era. In retrospect, its heroes were destined to suffocate under the weight of expectation and inside a system that knew only how to stifle them. But Giannis has somehow transcended those constraints. If early indications are to be believed—and the numbers make a pretty good case—he is the extant talent, come to redeem the promise of his gangly ancestors.
It's early in this experiment yet, and probably too early for redemption talk. But #FreeGiannis isn't an imperative anymore—it's a state of being, each possession a blank slate, the lanky guy with the chalk. The Greek Freak, The Human Vine, Young Epilogue, The Future. Yes, the future is written, and Giannis knows it. Now he's seizing the rare chance to deliver it.