When Jon Horst signed Thanasis Antetokounmpo to a two-year minimum contract in 2019, Milwaukee Bucks fans (rightfully, at the time) assumed the move had more to do with his last name than his 4.9 points per game in the Greek Basket League.
It’s an assumption that made sense at the time. Decision time was looming closer for his little brother Giannis, and a Bucks squad that had just lost four straight to the Toronto Raptors was desperate to keep its first franchise cornerstone in decades happy.
We’re all eating our words today.
Nobody saw it coming, but Thanasis Antetokounmpo is becoming an NBA-caliber role player before our very eyes. He’s firmly carved out a place for himself in the Bucks rotation by way of his strident energy on the court. Today, he’s even a fan favorite to some, and his ten minutes per game are among the most entertaining in the Milwaukee Bucks’ games.
Here’s a quick look at how Thanasis has progressed this season so far, and what he’s doing to prove his doubters wrong.
He hustles hard every time he steps on the floor
On paper, the elder Antetokounmpo’s season averages of 3.6 points and 2.5 rebounds hardly jump out at the uninformed fan. His 29.2% shooting clip from three-point range and 46.2% free-throw shooting should also turn off the uninitiated. So what gives?
To put it bluntly, the eye test should say it all in this case. Not only is Thanasis an absolute ball of energy, but he’s fun to watch too. Early on in the season, his unbridled hustle looked way too clumsy and unrestrained to result in any real contribution. These days, it keeps opposing teams on their toes in a way that box score statistics simply will not capture.
But it’s not just the eye test. Among forwards less than 6-foot-7, Thanasis actually leads the league in loose balls recovered per 36 minutes. In that group, he’s also top ten in screen assists, deflections, and contested shots per 36.
With Thanasis on the floor, the opposition’s turnover percentage increases by +3.7%. Antetokounmpo is in the 98th percentile in this category, per Cleaning the Glass. In the 792 possessions that the Bucks fielded lineups including Thanasis, the team also rebounded 29.2% of their misses, good for the 92nd percentile.
When playing next to a similarly energetic Pat Connaughton and Bobby Portis, a lineup with whom Thanasis has spent his second-most minutes, the Bucks are outscoring teams by +11.0 per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 2, 2021
He’s a competent defender
Even with all this, Thanasis is more than his barrel-chested hustle. You don’t get to ten minutes per game in the National Basketball Association on energy alone. You need to produce when it comes to the basketball side of things.
As a defender, Thanasis’ blend of size and athleticism affords him the versatility to be plugged into numerous roles. He’s spent 64% of his on-court minutes at the small forward position but has also spent 30% of them at the four spot. We’ve already seen highlights of Thanasis hounding players like Luka Doncic, making his typically crafty and controlled scoring a near impossibility.
For Thanasis, that has come in his defense. Here’s a look at his defense by matchup position, according to NBA.com’s matchup data:
Centers defended by Thanasis: 4-of-14 FG (28.6%)
Forwards: 40-of-98 FG (40.8%)
Guards: 21-of-60 FG (35.0%)
The individual numbers also show in the team stats. Per PBP Stats, opponents have an offensive rating of 108.2 points per 100 possessions with Thanasis on the floor versus 111.8 when he is off.
THANASTY REJECTION. pic.twitter.com/1nUInpUs82
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 26, 2021
It’s time to respect Thanasis
In hindsight, the sudden development of Thanasis may be the only silver lining in the botched and needless trading of Torrey Craig for cash considerations. It remains to be seen if this level of play can afford Thanasis minutes in the playoffs. If it does happen, it’s coming to a point where this writer would not be surprised.
There were definitely birth pains in the beginning. But where Thanasis’ inexperience in the league once made him a liability on both ends of the court, Thanasis is now a +2.5 in his on-court minutes, ahead of Bryn Forbes, Jeff Teague, and P.J. Tucker.
This is all simply to say that his development was unexpected for a player many wrote off as a bargaining chip to serve as leverage to keep the reigning MVP in Milwaukee. And for all his growth so far, Thanasis still has a ways to go to become a playoff contributor.
He’s still very limited offensively. His perimeter game is nonexistent, and his free-throws hardly fall with any regularity. It isn’t likely that he earns more playing time than he does now moving forward. But for someone playing 10.8 minutes per game, Thanasis’ 1.1 deflections, 2.7 contested shots, and 70.8% of offensive loose balls recovered per game make the investment very much worth it.
But anyone who’s been paying attention understands: It’s absolutely time to get on the Thanasty train, if you aren’t there already. He is absolutely an NBA role player today.
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