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Hawks struggle to solve riddle that is Giannis Antetokounmpo

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Sunday posed a tough match-up for Atlanta.

Milwaukee Bucks v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Giannis Antetokounmpo is very good at basketball.

The Milwaukee Bucks forward is the (very early) leader for the 2017-2018 NBA MVP award and his numbers through six games of action are mind-boggling. In those contests, Antetokounmpo is averaging 34.7 points (on 63 percent shooting), 10.3 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.0 steals per game and, if anything, his production almost undersells the level of dominance displayed by the 22-year-old.

On Sunday afternoon, the Atlanta Hawks ran into the brick wall that the former No. 15 overall pick presents and, in short, they felt it.

“It’s a big challenge the way Antetokounmpo started the season,” Mike Budenholzer said. “A lot of credit to him, credit to his teammates. Rashad Vaughn in the first half, Middleton in the second half. I thought Henson was good at different spots, defensively, offensively. I liked the way our guys took the challenge, both individually on Antetokounmpo and collectively.”

Antetokounmpo’s production level against Atlanta was not out of the ordinary, as he finished with 33 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in a breezy victory for the road team. However, his immediate impact was certainly of note in a match-up that the Hawks encountered without starting power forward Ersan Ilyasova.

The early assignment was handled by Mike Muscala and while the lanky big man provided some length as a deterrent, it was a group effort throughout the day. Antetokounmpo began by knocking down back-to-back jump shots and, given that perimeter shooting is his one discernible weakness, that foretold a long afternoon.

Still, the Hawks did what they could to hold him in check and players like Khris Middleton and even Rashad Vaughn made the team pay as a result. Budenholzer was not deterred by the performance but it was clear that it was a mixture of credit for the visitors and issues for the home team.

“We just have to continue to take those challenges, continue to get better,” Budenholzer indicated. “I think our guys are competing. A couple of plays…a shot here, better passing here or there…but I like the way they’re playing for the most part and the way they’re competing. The start was a little…we buried ourselves early, we have to come out better. Some of it is what Milwaukee did, and credit to them.”

In some ways, Antetokounmpo’s singular dominance was not the only issue but it did present a reminder of what the Hawks do not have at the moment. For starters, Atlanta does not necessarily deploy an ideal match-up for a player of his stature. To be fair, Taurean Prince is that kind of player for any normal-sized human being but, well, Antetokounmpo isn’t that and the Hawks also have an issue in attempting to play more “small ball” given the continued absence of both Ilyasova and DeAndre’ Bembry.

That, combined with a ton of length and athleticism, makes Milwaukee a very difficult match-up for the Hawks and that would have been true even at full strength. Still, the other reminder was that Atlanta does not currently feature the kind of game-changing force that Antetokounmpo can and will be.

John Collins was very good in Sunday afternoon’s game, leading the team with seven rebounds, scoring 14 points and posting a positive net rating in his 24-plus minutes of action. In short, he has been tremendous this season and the future is obscenely bright for the No. 19 overall pick.

However, you have to squint very hard to see the type of No. 1 option upside in Collins that a top-tier team must have. The same goes for players like Prince, Dennis Schröder and Bembry, all of whom possess valuable traits that would make any team salivate while falling short of being captivating in the way of a leading option on a legitimate title contender.

There is a greater discussion to be had (and it is one that is already moving) about Atlanta’s decision to pivot to a rebuild, presumably in an effort to land elite talent through the NBA Draft. In the same breath, everything is interwoven when you see a player like Antetokounmpo on the other side of the floor and the helpless feeling arrives that the Hawks simply don’t have an answer.

Yes, Giannis Antetokounmpo was the No. 15 pick and it isn’t impossible to find elite talent (read: Paul George, Draymond Green, etc.) outside of the top five. Still, Sunday was something of a reminder that the Hawks have a method of their madness and, if things work out the way they are designed, the reality of not having the singular talent on the floor may not be as stark.

Collins described Antetokounmpo as “definitely a problem” for the opposition in the aftermath of Sunday’s contest. In the near future, there is hope that the Hawks will have a player like that but, in all likelihood, that figure isn’t currently on a roster that does feature several encouraging building blocks.