Just five minutes into one of the most hotly anticipated regular season contests in recent memory, Giannis Antetokounmpo took one rhythm dribble into the space Anthony Davis rolled out in front of him, rose up over the Lakers big man and ripped the nylon.
He would go on to hit two more 3-point bombs on the night against Davis’ backpedaling (five in total) and in the process not only scare the living shit out of the rest of league — but model the exact next step the Lakers will need Davis to take in his own unicorn evolution.
Let’s preface this by making it clear that Davis did the right thing. Ask any coach, player, even Antetokounmpo himself, and they would all likely tell you that him taking an off the dribble three should be chalked up as absolute win for the defense. If they make it, you tip your cap.
That one weak link for Antetokounmpo has seen noticeable improvement, however. He’s letting threes fly a career-high 5.2 times a game, and converting them at a near 34% clip. That’s obviously just sniffing league-average efficiency, but the sheer volume in conjunction with Antetokounmpo’s god-tier ability everywhere else has resulted in a monstrous rampage through the league.
There were obvious parallels when watching Antetokounmpo and Davis check each other all night in the Bucks’ 111-104 win over the Lakers. Both players are huge, extremely agile and capable of doing just about everything and anything they want to on the floor.
Both scored over 30 points, pulled in double-digit rebounds and had at least five assists each. The glaring difference however, was the aforementioned discrepancy from the perimeter.
Davis would end the night 0-6 from the 3-point line, compared to Antetokounmpo’s 5-8 shooting. And in his last five games, the Laker big has made just five of his last 25 shots from behind the arc, encapsulating what has been an inconsistent shooting stroke in an otherwise impeccable start to the year.
Playing his preferred role at power forward, Davis has often been tasked with providing the spacing from the frontcourt this season, as the team’s centers are both non-shooting threats and predominately glued to the paint whenever not directly involved in pick-and-roll situations.
Early on in the year, Davis did not fill these duties particularly well, as he seemed hesitant letting it fly whenever the ball got swung his way. A tepidness that eventually would be alleviated when the team’s head coach Frank Vogel, challenged his star big man to shoot five threes a game during last month’s road trip.
In terms of volume, the 26-year-old has seen a noticeable uptick in his 3-point frequency this season compared to his overall career numbers.
According to Cleaning the Glass, 3-pointers have accounted for 16% of Davis’ shots since coming to Los Angeles. While still on the low side compared to what the site classifies as “bigs” (the 37th percentile), it has qualified as a career high for him. As have his 3.7 attempts per game.
Unfortunately, his efficiency on these attempts has not seen the leap many had hoped for and envisioned with him playing beside LeBron James. Among seasons in which Davis has attempted at least one 3-point attempt a game, his 30% conversion rate this year is his second-worst percentage, behind only a 2016-17 campaign during which he shot 29.9% from distance.
Despite clanking far more than he has swished, these misses seem to have not interfered with Davis’ confidence in taking them. Which is important, and Davis laid out why to reporters on Spectrum SportsNet following the loss to the Bucks:
“I’m gonna keep shooting. I don’t care how many I miss. I’m gonna keep shooting to make the defense respect it. They’re closing out, which allows me to get to the drive as well. If I’m open and I feel like I’m in a good rhythm to shoot it, I’m going to let it fly.”
Davis’ postgame comments do ring true in terms of his value in merely taking the open threes when they present themselves. Even if he is not making them as of now.
For one, opposing bigs do have to leave the paint to get a hand up on his attempts, which allows his teammates more room in the interior to navigate. But that only continues if Davis not only keeps shooting. If he can prove he can consistently make them, those hard close-outs and corresponding drives off them will become much more effective.
In terms of finding reasons for optimism that Davis’ shooting stroke can at least reach the near-league-average efficiency Antetokounmpo has found sooner rather than later, one needs to look no further than the quality of looks he has received.
Of Davis’ 100 attempts from behind the arc this season, 90 have been classified as either “open” or “wide open,” according to the league’s tracking data. A good sign in terms of both the types of shots the team is consistently generating for Davis, and when considering he has made just one of his ten “tightly” contested attempts on the year.
This, coupled with his unreal free-throw percentage (85.6%) and touch around the rim — two commonly associated indicators of 3-point shooting ability — means there are enough valid reasons to believe a positive regression is coming for Davis’ shot, as long as he keeps taking good ones.
When it comes to finding areas where Davis could stand to improve, it does feel nit-picky when taking into account how wonderful he has been this year for his team in a myriad of ways. But for as good as he’s been, an aspect like improving his outside game could ultimately be the deciding factor in winning a game against an elite team, a playoff series or whether or not Davis can reach an even higher ceiling than previously imagined.
The first step is letting it fly. It sounds like Davis is committed to doing so.
All stats and video per NBA.com unless otherwise noted. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.