Two of the NBA’s most up and coming young superstars faced off against one another in a Martin Luther King Jr. matinee when the Milwaukee Bucks hosted the Philadelphia Sixers. The Bucks’ best player is Giannis Antetokounmpo, a 6’11” shooting guard whose game has improved exponentially as the season has progressed. For the Sixers, it’s the third overall pick from 2014, Joel Embiid. Both players are expecting to participate in both of their first all-star games. On Monday, each player showed flashes of transcendent talent while simultaneously struggling at the same time.
Antetokounmpo’s improvement can be tracked throughout his career. This is his fourth season and each year his points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, blocks per game, and steals per game have increased. He’s accepted a leadership role on such a young ballclub and has grown into the role of being the offense’s focal point.
The Greek Freak started the night very strong. He had the game’s first seven points, combining both his improved jump shot and length to cause problems for the smaller defenders. His offensive game thrived, while also making his presence felt on the defensive end. By the end of the first half, Antekounmpo shot 7-9 from the field for 21 points in the first half alone, but he accumulated four personal fouls as well.
On the other side of the court, Joel Embiid suited up after sitting out the team’s most recent game against the Washington Wizards. He has had a string of good games. The Kansas grad has scored 20 or more points in each of the previous eight games he played in before this game. His rebounds per game for the season currently sits at 7.6, however he’s increased that total to 9.2. Embiid has averaged 11.3 rebounds over the last three games. Even more importantly though, the Sixers are 6-2 over their last eight games, and one of the losses came without the Cameroon native.
Unlike The Greek Freak, Embiid started the game off slow. He missed his first three shots and had three turnovers before scoring his first points of the game. The Sixers starting center only had 4 points at halftime, all of which came from the free throw line. He did however rebound the ball well, racking up 7 in the first half.
The second half was an entirely different Embiid. He appeared more energetic while also playing smarter basketball. He recognized his shot wasn’t falling, so he began trying to draw fouls. After making all four of the free throws he attempted, he went 9-14 in the second half. Embiid finished the game with 22 points and 12 rebounds, including a monstrous dunk to solidify the team’s victory.
Philadelphia ended up winning the game 113-104 after outscoring Milwaukee by seventeen points in the second half. Embiid led the charge but was assisted by Antetokounmpo picking up his fifth and sixth fouls in the fourth quarter. With him on the bench the offense stagnated.
The game signified exactly what each star player means to their team. When Embiid struggled in the first half, Philly only tallied 46 points. Then when the offense was run through him, they scored 67 points in the second half. The Bucks got fewer easy shots in the paint once Embiid returned. At the same time, Milwaukee’s offense was unable to generate any momentum.
Both teams clearly rely on their best player to run the offense and to be the defense’s best defender. When they were on the court, their team played significantly better than the other. It would’ve been interesting to see how the game would’ve ended if Antetokounmpo wasn’t in foul trouble. Antetokounmpo and Embiid are both 22 years old and could realistically be playing in their first all-star game next month (if Embiid gets in after narrowly missing being named a starter). This will be their first of their annual trips to the all-star game. They will dominate in the coming years as they’ve only been scratching the surface of their potential. With the number of high draft picks dedicated in recent years, it’s only fitting that these two franchises will battle it out for years to come in the playoffs.
Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports