Early in the 2012-13 season, 18-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo landed on the radar of NBA scouts, shrouded in mystery. He didn’t attend the combine or team workouts, so he had never been extensively measured. He had played mostly in Greece’s youth system and second-tier pro league, so no one could agree on how he’d best be used in the NBA. There was only one consensus: His body was among the best scouts had ever seen.
The Bucks drafted Antetokounmpo 15th overall that year, feeling he combined big-man length with the agility of an elite guard. Their instincts were quickly proved right: Thanks to his unique biomechanical and physiological qualities, he is one of just three players in the past decade to average 15 points, 7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1 block per game in his age-21 season.
To understand how Antetokounmpo’s form gives way to function, we recently spent a day measuring the 6-foot-11 forward, then asked Marcus Elliott, M.D., the founder of P3 Applied Sports Science, a training center that specializes in advanced athlete assessment, to help break him down.
WINGSPAN: Basketball is a game of angles; a defender isn’t so much guarding his man as he is reducing the size of his angle to drive to the basket or pass to teammates. That’s where wingspan factors in for Antetokounmpo, whose outstretched arms measure 7-foot-3, 4 inches more than his height.
LATERAL MOVEMENT: “To be a great lateral mover in the NBA, you’ve got to have great hips,” Elliott says. But Antetokounmpo isn’t a typical big man. He displays great hip extension and high abduction and adduction velocities, which means he’s able to handle lateral motion faster than other athletes his size.
HEIGHT: “When we first drafted Giannis, we measured him at 6-foot-8½,” Bucks GM John Hammond says. But at midseason, the Bucks’ strength and conditioning coach walked into Hammond’s office. “He told me, ‘The kid is still growing and I don’t think he’s done.'” By season’s end, he was 6-11.
LEAN MUSCLE: Over the past 18 months, Antetokounmpo has put on an impressive amount of muscle-his weight went from 196 pounds on draft day to 222 this season. But, crucially, he’s managed to do it without bulking up. All that lean muscle mass allows him to generate force quickly, which gives him the agility and explosiveness that the NBA game demands.
CORE: Typically, in players of Antetokounmpo’s length and power, sports scientists see core instability, but this is yet another area in which the big Greek resembles more compact players.
HANDS: The length of the average adult male hand, measured from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the pinkie, is 7.4 inches. For Antetokounmpo, it’s 12 inches. The breadth of Antetokounmpo’s hands enables him to get a strong “pinch grip” on a 29.5-inch basketball (what’s commonly known as palming). Not only does palming the ball allow Antetokounmpo to gain maximum control, but by virtue of making the ball an extension of his arm, he effectively gains 2 more inches in height.
ACHILLES: The Bucks measured Antetokounmpo’s Achilles tendon from the back of the heel to the belly of the calf at 13.5 inches (almost double the length of the average adult male’s). Many sports scientists believe a long Achilles means more efficient storage and release of elastic energy. That translates to acceleration and explosive movement.
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 29 Analytics Issue.