When Lamar Jackson took the NFL by storm during the 2019 season, it appeared that there was no possible way anyone could stop the Baltimore Ravens. What fueled Jackson’s rise was the potent rushing attack that added an extra dimension to his running game. The Ravens’ power running game went hand in hand with an explosive passing game, too. However, the Tennessee Titans keyed in with a blueprint of their own: make the Ravens play from behind, then force the Ravens away from the run to passing the ball through tight windows. The Ravens faltered then and faltered a few weeks ago in the 2020-21 NFL playoffs. Jackson is still dynamic, but the showtime aspect is now null and void.
Jackson’s story sounds like the ongoing tale of Milwaukee Bucks star forward Giannis Antentekoumpo. The Greek Freak and the Milwaukee Bucks found a formula that powered them to the 2018-19 NBA season’s surprise team. Antetokounmpo would become the dominant ball-handler, driving to the hoop for a punishing inside score. If the defense collapsed, he would pass the ball to a set of shooters. Antetokounmpo told the league to pick their poison. That was when Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse imposed a wall around the lane, daring Giannis to shoot instead of driving or passing. Like Jackson and the Ravens, this forced Antetokounmpo and the Bucks to transform into a one-dimensional offense and play from behind.
So is Giannis the NBA version of Lamar Jackson? Their shared skillset says yes, and how both leagues have decided to gameplan against the two superstar athletes speaks volumes.
When you look at both players’ primary rivals, Patrick Mahomes for Jackson and LeBron James for Antetokounmpo, their skillsets and talents are something an organization and coach would love to build around. Mahomes’ creativity as a passer has allowed Chiefs head coach Andy Reid to dig deeper into his playbook. As for James, Frank Vogel can experiment with different sets, rotations, and play calls as James can dominate with any adjustment. Both players are royal chess pieces to the coaches, and both players enhance a coach’s philosophy. Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur, and Stephen Curry and Steve Kerr are also great examples of this dynamic, too.
But Jackson and Giannis are different athletes. Although unorthodox, their athletic gifts allow their teams to play ahead more due to coaches employing both players in quickstrike roles. For Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’s is to get him out in the open floor for transitions through good defense. Once Giannis sets the tone, he can dictate the halfcourt’s pace, with punishing drives to the basket or drowning defenses with 3-pointers from his teammates.
Jackson can do the same, with his legs always a threat in the run or passing sets. Jackson’s talents allow the Ravens to use the ground game to score and control the game quickly. It also opens the pathway to Jackson throwing the ball down the field with open passing lanes. Hence, why Lamar has thrown for 65.3 percent of his passes and 62 touchdowns the past two seasons.
But both leagues have garnered a blueprint against them, and the fascination with their athletic gifts is now an afterthought. The Bucks are currently tied for third in the East but have an 11-8 record to show for it. Giannis is now being called to task to become more of a basketball player; Jackson more of a quarterback.
But can they evolve? Or are these two fantastic players are who they are?
Time will tell if Giannis Antetokounmpo and Lamar Jackson can make the leap from superstar to champions. The good news is that they are apart of franchises that support them and will do whatever it takes to keep their stars happy. However, because of each player’s limitations in their respective fields, they may not ever take their teams to the next level. And that may be okay in the end.