Giannis Antetokounmpo vs American Xenophobia
Despite all of his accolades the Greek Freak still finds himself painted with a broad brush of ignorance that exposes the flaws of the way we view international players in this country
It is truly remarkable to think of the accolades that Giannis Antetokounmpo has achieved in his NBA career. 6-time All-Star, 6-time All-NBA selection, 5-time All-Defense selection, 2-time league MVP, Most Improved Player, Defensive Player of the Year, Finals MVP, and of course NBA champion. This list of achievements is made even more impressive when you consider that he is only 27 years old. Many have correctly identified that Giannis is the most dominant player that this league has seen since Shaquille O’Neal. There is no game plan for Giannis, there is no easy way to account for his skill set. Yet it seems despite all of this many people are having a problem with accepting him as a top 3 player in this league.
In a recent episode of his podcast, former Washington Wizard guard Gilbert Arenas suggested that Giannis “doesn’t understand basketball” due to averaging about 32 minutes per game over the last few years. This is yet another attack on Giannis’ game and ability that highlights an issue that has been evident in the NBA in recent years: xenophobia. We have seen similar critiques of Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic as well, that they are not the same type of superstar as their American counterparts. In the case of Giannis, this has led to the downplaying of his greatness to levels of disrespect that would never befall an American-born player.
When people analyze Giannis, it seems that they will highlight his flaws and gloss over his strengths. The main two critiques that have been levied against him are a lack of efficient three-point shooting and the ability to guard all 5 positions. While Giannis is no Steph Curry, he can hit the three shooting roughly 30% over the last few years on 4 attempts per game. Not excellent, but certainly not terrible for a big man that is such a threat at the rim. And I would say that he has done well to hold his own against smaller guards when switched. Even elite big defenders like Rudy Gobert struggle with this and this critique is never levied against other elite bigs like Joel Embiid.
Then there are the strengths in Giannis’ game that many seem all too happy to gloss over. Due to the gravity that he commands as such a force inside, Giannis has turned into an excellent passer out of the double team. This has led to healthy assist totals, where Giannis has been in the top 25 in the category every year over the last 5 seasons. Giannis is undeniably a freight train coming down the league, an unstoppable force at putting his head down and getting to the basket. Yet this has been viewed as a bad thing by many pundits as if being unstoppable was a bad thing.
Then there are the hustle plays where Giannis has been in the top ten in rebounds in the league for the last four seasons, top 15 in blocked shots in 3 of the last 4 seasons, and has averaged a steal per game throughout his career. Giannis is doing all of this while playing 32-34 minutes per game in coach Mike Budenholzer's system. The dominance would be even greater if he were to play closer to 40 minutes per night. Yet this is all discounted, in large part to the aesthetic appeal, or lack thereof, in his game.
The Bag Argument
There is a term in talking about basketball that many refer to as “the bag”. Or in other words, the different ways can you score, the tricks that are in your move bag so to speak. The ultimate bag player in the league is probably Kyrie Irving. His ability to break down defenses, pull up from three, and finish under the rim make him an incredibly fascinating player to watch from an aesthetic point of view. Giannis does not have a bag per se, and many people as a result discount him for it.
Unlike players like Irving or James Harden, Antetokounmpo does not need extensive dribble moves to get to the basket. He can use his unique combination of strength and quickness to get to his spots and finish. And while his shooting from deep is still a work in progress, he has shown an ability to make shots from distance. The irony of this is that no one criticized Shaq for not having a bag. And while Giannis may not have fancy dribble moves to break down defenders on the perimeter, he has shown a decent amount of skill with his signature spin move in the post to have enough offensive variety to be virtually unguardable.
Yet due to many of us here in America being used to the flashiness of players we expect more it seems from a player like Giannis. It is for this reason that analysts like Stephen A Smith have questioned whether he would want Giannis in a playoff series over someone like Ja Morant even though Giannis closed out the Suns in the Finals a couple of years ago with a 50-point performance. This taps into the deeper issue that many Americans simply do not want to embrace a foreign-born player due to the simple fact that they are not American. Tim Duncan was never a flashy player either, but he still got the respect that he deserved from the masses, something that cannot easily be said when discussing Giannis.
There is an inherent need for Americans to feel that they are the best basketball-playing nation in the world. It is the whole reason that the Dream Team was assembled for the 1992 Olympics, to show the world that the best basketball players in the world are American. At the same time, the NBA has been adamant about expanding the game of basketball internationally and the league has seen a massive influx of foreign talent in the last couple of decades as a result, with 109 players in the league from 39 different countries. But the tide is starting to shift a bit three of the league's best players are foreign-born: Giannis, Luka Doncic, and Nikola Jokic.
The way that these players conduct themselves is not the same as the American superstars that people have grown accustomed to. These players are not master recruiters, having meetings in the summer to form super teams. They travel to their home countries to enjoy the off-season and oftentimes will play for their national teams in FIBA competition. They do not make demands or create nearly as many headlines as their American counterparts. Perhaps they lack the entrepreneurial spirit that has been deemed such an American ideal over the years. Or perhaps at an even simpler level, the fact that they speak with an accent makes some Americans uncomfortable, much like the American media bristles at baseball stars that chose to be interviewed in Spanish.
Giannis is a player that any team would love to have. He is a marketer’s dream and is a consistent producer of statistics and wins. He should be regarded as the best player in basketball without much debate. Yet, there is a debate because it seems that dominance isn’t enough when it comes to being a foreign-born player. I can’t help but wonder if Giannis was an American-born player how would he be received by many that make these criticisms? Because as it stands he has done enough at the age of 27 to be a Hall of Fame player if he retired tomorrow. When it is all said and done, he might be in the top-10 player conversation to ever play this game. And the people that dismissed him because he doesn’t have a bag, or that he speaks with an accent, or that he simply isn’t American will look even more foolish than they do right now. Giannis is the best player in basketball, regardless of how much patriotic insecurity you may have that has blinded you to this reality.
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