The NBA is evolving as bigger players like Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo have more ability to show that they can run an offense.
While neither player is expected to play point for their squad, their coaches can mix things up and will often entrust them to find open teammates for an assist as well. Antetokounmpo (5.9 assists per game) and Davis (3.9 apg) both averaged career-high marks as distributors during the 2018-19 season.
Both players have the ability to make guys on their team better and while it’s usually their scoring and defensive metrics are put side-by-side, it was an interesting study to research their passing numbers as well.
The case for Anthony Davis
Davis, a former point guard in high school, has both the natural vision and the ballhandling ability to take over an offense when necessary.
Perhaps most important is that the advanced statistical measure pure point rating (PPR) favored Davis by a large margin last season. PPR, invented by former ESPN statistician John Hollinger, was created to measure a player’s passing and ballhandling ability.
Another argument in favor of Davis is that he bragged a much better assist-to-turnover ratio than Antetokounmpo had in 2018-19.
The main reason for this difference is that Antetokounmpo has had a below-average turnover percentage relative to his position since his first pro season in the NBA. Davis, meanwhile, has always had one of the best turnover rates among big men, per Cleaning the Glass.
Before the playoffs began, Leo Sepkowitz wrote about what may be the root of this problem for the Bucks (via Bleacher Report):
“There is one odd outlier: the team’s performance against zone defense. When teams forced Milwaukee out of its swift rhythm, its offense ranked 10th in the league. Its turnover percentage against the zone, 13.4, was the worst mark in the NBA. Antetokounmpo, who typically makes professional basketball appear comically easy, turned the ball over nearly a quarter of the time against the zone, nearly doubling his usual rate. It’s no wonder the Bucks faced more zone than all but two teams, per Synergy.”
Antetokounmpo averaged 3.7 turnovers per game last season, recording more than all but just four players in the league. His turnover ratio (12.0 percent) was approximately twice as high as what Davis recorded (7.3 percent) during their most recent campaign.
The case for Giannis Antetokounmpo
He is not just a good passer for someone his size or at his position. In fact, per Synergy Sports Tech, only two players in the Eastern Conference (Ben Simmons and Kyle Lowry) had more transition assists than Antetokounmpo did (118) last season.
But the biggest difference between the two players is that Antetokounmpo was able to dish significantly more dimes than Davis when operating in half-court sets.
Antetokounmpo averaged more assists per game than Davis did on post-up possessions, though the former Kentucky star was not too shabby in this regard. Antetokounmpo also averaged more assists when passing out of isolation when matched up one-on-one against defenders.
His secret weapon, though, is that he can help his teammates score when he is running the pick-and-roll as the ballhandler. Brian Sampson made a video about this trend back in January 2019 (via Bucks Film Room):
“The attention that he receives on these types of plays is unbelievable and only given to a few other players across the NBA’s landscape … He continues to improve his ballhandling and playmaking … The NBA nearly has a compete pick-and-roll monster on its hands and he’s just getting started.”
Meanwhile, one of the most intriguing aspects to the Bucks is how many open three-pointers the 2019 MVP created for their offense. Defenders have to account for his impact on the interior, as we explained in December, which leaves unguarded shooters on the perimeter for him to feed.
Antetokounmpo averaged the highest points per assist (2.6) among the 76 NBA players with the most possessions last season, per Synergy.
The Milwaukee superstar was also a more prolific distributor, averaging notably more passes per game (54.3) than Davis (48.7) did. Still, a higher rate of those passes turned into assists (10.8 percent) for Antetokounmpo than they did for Davis (8.0 percent) in 2018-19.
Davis may have some advantages but Antetokounmpo has a far more diverse distribution portfolio as an NBA passer.