The best players in the NBA are elite for a reason. The Milwaukee Bucks’ two-time MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is one of the league’s leading two-way players. The Dallas Mavericks phenomenon Luka Doncic is among the most dangerous players in the world, only 22 years old.
Still, even the best could be better.
What if Giannis had a jump shot? How much better would the Bucks star be if he could consistently score beyond the paint?
What if Russell Westbrook embraced a floater? Can the Los Angeles Lakers star add the shot as his thumping frequency continues to drop?
And what if Luke’s already stellar offense was aided by reliable free throws? Would the young star already be an MVP?
Can Karl-Anthony Towns improve his defense and become an elite two-way player for the Minnesota Timberwolves? His offensive skill is already on par with Antetokounmpo and Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid, but Town’s play on the other side of the ball has kept him out of MVP talks.
Our experts break down what skills these four stars lack in their repertoire that can take them to the next level.
Antetokounmpo is not only a newly crowned NBA Finals MVP, but he is also without a doubt the most dominant player in the world right now. Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to the title with an incredible two-way virtuoso performance. He made huge plays at both ends. He owned the paint. He led all Finals players in scoring, rebounding and blocking.
The only thing he did not do was score away from the bar.
The missing piece in the bag is simple: shooting. In Milwaukee’s historic playoff run, Antetokounmpo made only 19% of his 3s and 59% of his free throws. If Antetokounmpo can develop a better feel for converting shots from these distances, he will emerge as one of the most dominant players this league has ever seen. It’s that simple. He already has the most dominant interior strength in pro basketball right now, but if he can develop even an average shooting arsenal, his prime will be downright intimidating.
As a 26-year-old, he has already logged a 50-point masterpiece to close out a final victory. That game demonstrated how good he could be if he became an elite penalty shooter. He made 17 of 19 free throws; as a team, the Phoenix Suns made 16 of 19. As one of the most physical players in the game, a reliable free throw could allow Antetokounmpo to seek contact, collect easy points on the streak and get opposing bigs in failing trouble.
On the flip side, a shaky free-kick not only hurts his own productivity, it becomes a responsibility in big moments. His fights on the line in the 2019 playoffs against the Toronto Raptors were costly. And during the Bucks’ run for the championship, he made just 8 of his 14 freebies in the epic Game 7 versus the Brooklyn Nets that came down to Kevin Durant’s toe.
In 2021, shooting is the most important skill in the game, but Antetokounmpo’s title race proves that other things – like owning the paint at both ends – are still pretty important. Still, if he can develop a consistent ability to score beyond the paint, the sky is the limit for Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee.
– Kirk Goldsberry
It was March 2011, year three of Westbrook’s career. He had just made his first All-Star team and was rapidly rising as one of the league’s brightest and coolest stars. His game, built on a combination of rage, power and tenacity, took him to heights no one had anticipated when he was selected as the fourth overall in the 2008 NBA Draft.
He led the league in turnovers as a rookie, was second to Steve Nash in that category in year two and was on his way to leading again in his third season. And many of those turnovers happened the same way: Westbrook drove down the field, starting at an absurd distance from the basket and barrels over a defender for a fee. So it looked like an adjustment could be beneficial, something to counter defenders waiting for his high-flying edge attack.
A reporter cautiously came up with the suggestion that a float could be a valuable development for Westbrook. With his skill set and ability to burn the defenders at the point of attack, he was able to live in the space between the restricted area and the free throw line. Because at the time, it was either a pull-up jumper or all the way downhill to the rim.
Westbrook absorbed the question and considered his answer.
“That’s not my focus,” he said. “Why should I shoot a float when I can thump on you?”
Then Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks was also asked about it. His answer elaborated on the truth.
“Have you seen his float?” Brooks lo. “I’ve seen it three times. It’s not beautiful.”
The float has become a powerful weapon in the modern NBA, with stars like Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and many more submitting it on a regular basis. As defenses try to force sliders into low-efficiency, two-tone, unpainted, the float has become a weapon to attack declining fall cover schemes.
Whatever his original response was, Westbrook has at times dubbed with a float, though he has never fully committed. His mindset is largely unchanged: Why compromise on a float when he can take two more dribbles and get all the way to the rim?
The reason was evident in his last two postseasons with the Thunder, when Rudy Gobert fell deep into the paint and forced mid-range jumpers, and the Portland Trail Blazers the following season literally shouted from the bench: “Let him shoot it!” when Westbrook had the ball at his elbows. Contrast that with the Utah Jazz’s next series against the Houston Rockets, as Harden put Gobert in a pretzel almost every possession and switched between floaters and lobs to Clint Capela as the Rockets won in five games.
As Westbrook ages, the dunk numbers drop. He dropped 69 in 2015-16, then 49 in 2016-17, then 57 in 2017-18. In 2018-19, he thumped 33 times, and then last season it was only 24. He is still a player who excels in space, capable of burning off any defender in an instant. But if he could hit a float and commit to it in a way he has long avoided, it could be the golden ticket to his game that ages more gracefully and effectively.
– Royce Young
Luka Doncic: A foul on the free-kick line
At the age of 22, Doncic has developed a remarkably deep bag of skills that allow the Mavericks’ point guard to establish himself as one of the NBA’s elite offensive forces. Doncic sees the floor as few who often make extremely difficult passes seem routine. He has the gravity and deception to manipulate defense, creating angles for late-developed lobs or crosscourt laser beams for an open-corner 3-point shooter. His passing is probably his best attribute – quite a statement for a superstar who averages 33.5 points per game. Match in the playoffs.
Doncic has phenomenal handles, especially considering his husky, 6-foot-7 frame. He amazes Mavs coaching development coach God Shammgod the man who gained a reputation as a toy in handling while growing up on the playground in New York — with how quickly he masters complicated combinations of dribbles.
It has helped Doncic emerge as an effective scorer on three levels. He’s not an explosive jumper, but he’s an effective finisher around the basket (66.2% within five feet last season) due to his combination of craftsmanship and strength. He can start his step-back 3 almost at will, the key to Doncic, who is number 10 in 3s, was made (192) last season despite a slow start behind the arc. And Doncic unveiled a deadly effective midrange play last season featuring a prominent character with a Dirk Nowitzki-like, one-legged turnaround jumper that he often shows up after stopping at a dime and spinning.
It’s hard to find fault with Doncic’s offensive play. Until he is wronged.
In terms of skills, the simplest one stands out Doncic’s biggest weakness: He’s a mediocre free-kick shooter who tends to go into funk.
This is a problem for the player who has the ball in his hands so often and constantly draws contact.
It’s the only area in Doncic’s game that he has not shown significant progress since arriving in the NBA. He is a 73.5% free throw shooter for his career and he shot 73.0% from the line last season. That should not be the case for a player who has such a soft midrange. Doncic was one of nine players who shot 48% or better from the middle class on at least 175 attempts last season. His free throw percentage was an extreme outlier among the group, with seven of the other eight shooting 85% or better from the line and the striker in that flock hitting 81.2%.
– Tim MacMahon
Towns have averaged 25.0 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Fighting over the last three seasons, numbers very comparable in this stretch with elite big men like Joel Embiid (26.4 PPG, 12.1 RPG) and Anthony Davis (26.1 PPG, 10.3 RPG). But while both of the latter two have ended up in the top three in the MVP poll at least once, Towns have never even received a vote. Why?
One word: defense.
Embiid and Davis are excellent defenders who are able to anchor their teams’ defenses and lead them to strong results. Defensive anchors are typically big men who excel at playing a strong off-ball defense, helping their teammates and protecting the paint from high-percentage shots. For a great man, while on-ball defense is a plus, the true effect is typically measured in off-ball defense.
And to put it mildly, Towns has struggled as an off-ball defender, especially when trying to defend in situations where he is involved in screens. According to Second Spectrum, the Towns have allowed 1,072 points per game over the last two seasons. Direct off-ball display when it is his husband who chooses. This is 335th out of 446 players who have defended at least 100 screens. And when the man Towns defender is screened off the ball, Towns has allowed 1,183 points per game. Chance and a full 1.5 points per. Direct choice. These both rank last in the NBA, 333. among 333 players who have been screened off-ball at least 100 times.
Town’s defensive off-ball matches are also captured in his impact on his team’s defense. The Timberwolves have ranked 28th and 20th in the team’s defensive rating over the last two campaigns, with the Towns releasing a negative defensive real plus-minus in both. In the 2019-20 season, the cities had by far the highest offensive RPM among centers in the NBA, with a 5.8 that dwarfed the then future MVP Nikola Jokics 2.5 and Embiid’s 1.81. However, Towns also finished last among centers with a minus-3.68 DRPM, so his net score was far behind the other elite greats.
If Towns were to improve as an off-ball defender and become a true anchor, it could also vault him into the MVP conversation. And with the young talent they have amassed in Minnesota, an MVP-caliber, defensive anchor in the Towns can be the difference between an exciting young Timberwolves team and one that can legitimately challenge for the playoffs and beyond.
– André Snellings