Giannis Antetokounmpo has been in Milwaukee for four seasons now, but he notes, “It was hard to get here. A lot of sacrifices, a lot of hard work.”
Antetokounmpo, the son of Nigerian migrants,was born inAthens. He spent part of last summer performing obligatory service with the Greek army, and spent part of the summer working out in Los Angeles. He’s had many addresses. But ask him where he feels home is, and he breaks out a big smile, spreads his hand and waves it around the Cousins Center in St. Francis, just south of Milwaukee.
“Here,” he said. “The practice facility.”
At 22, Antetokounmpo has established himself as the most intriguing young talent in the NBA, a 6-11 rarely-seen combination of lengthy limbs, fast-twitch athleticism and natural basketball sense. This season, he became the first All-Star for the Bucks since Michael Redd in 2004, the longest string in the league, and carries with him the future prospects of a team trying to emerge from a decade-and-a-half of mediocrity.
To do so, he must cash in on the vast potential he’s shown so early in his career. In 2013, he was plucked by the Bucks out of the obscurity of the Greek A2 league, a second-tier league that one scout termed, “the equivalent of Single-A baseball.” There was an air of over-hype around Antetokounmpo from the beginning—there wasn’t even agreement on how to spell his name, which showed up frequently as, “Adetokunbo”—as hazy reports of a point guard with Kevin Durant size trickled in from overseas.
For most, Antetokounmpo was too much a mystery, far more legend than reality. He would be a long-term project, scouts said, and it was assumed he would spend some time playing in Spain (he signed a contract with Zaragoza of the Spanish ACB League) before he made the jump to the NBA. One writer for a national website led off a story with the sentence, “Meet Giannis Adetokunbo, the next big European bust in this year’s NBA draft.”
But as far back as his debut as a wisp-thin 18-year-old with Milwaukee—he was quickly bought out of his Zaragoza contract and never played in Spain—it was clear that Antetokounmpo had the makings of a revolutionary player. Even at his height, he had point-guard quality ball skills, and natural court vision. His ability to gobble up yardage of hardwood with mere steps made his highlights required viewing. And that hasn’t changed.
“He’s unbelievable,” said All-Star Hornets guard Kemba Walker. “Every time you watch a highlight, he is doing something crazy. I saw him jumping and dunking from the free-throw line the other night. He is a special talent.”
Now comes the challenge for Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee gave him a four-year, $100 million contract last summer. He earned his first All-Star appearance this season, and is averaging 23.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists. He could become just the fifth player in NBA history to lead his team in those three categories, plus blocks (1.9) and steals (1.7). He would join Hall of Famers Dave Cowens and Scottie Pippen on that list, along with future HOFers Kevin Garnett and LeBron James.
Antetokounmpo is unquestionably a star. This season, he has shown that the legends that cropped up about him ahead of the draft were not hyperbole. But he will need work to join the ranks of the league’s elite. And he’s well aware of that.
“I just have to keep pushing myself,” Antetokounmpo said. “I am still trying to learn and mature and take in everything that is going on. But I have to do hard work, I have to be here every day. Work hard, let my teammates help me, let the Bucks help me, let the coaches help me.”
Bucks general manager John Hammond went to Greece early in the spring of 2013, taking along with him assistant Jeff Weltman (now with the Raptors). He’d like to be able to kick back and say he saw from the beginning that Antetokounmpo was destined for greatness, that there was some moment when it all became crystal clear. But instead, when asked if he suspected Antetokounmpo would become what he is now, he’s honest.
“No,” Hammond said. “When we first saw him, Jeff and I, we thought that he was a player who had a great feel for the game, with great size and length. He was playing point guard at that time for his team. You could see he could handle it, he was a good decision-maker, and he knew how to play. But I wish I could say we knew he was going to be an All-Star at 22 years old. I wish we had known he was going to be this, but I don’t proclaim to be that smart.”
Hammond watched Antetokounmpo in games, but was impressed by the way the gangly teenager handled himself in practices. He was on the floor with players much older, but had no trouble commanding the court, organizing his team as its point guard. Hammond felt that Antetokounmpo could handle himself with anyone, even NBA players. The notion that he would need years in Europe to develop before heading to the U.S. didn’t seem to hold up.
Back in Milwaukee for draft night three months later, the front-office staff had zeroed in on Antetokounmpo as their best-case scenario with the 15th pick. The mock drafts would call that a stretch. Sporting News had Antetokounmpo going 19th, as did Sports Illustrated. One ESPN mock draft had him slipping to 26th.
Hammond had no doubts. “We were sitting with the 15th pick,” he said. “How do you get value at 15? He was our guy. If there were risks, we felt he was worth it.”
Well worth it, it turns out. Now, we have Antetokounmpo coming on at just the right time, with coaches and executives around the league de-emphasizing traditional positions and finding ways to emphasize versatility. That’s Antetokounmpo’s strength. He is, at times, a pure point guard in Milwaukee’s slashing, cutting offense. He is also, at times, a power forward, and every position in between.
“I don’t think you should be able to say about someone, ‘He is a point guard, he is a power forward,’” Antetokounmpo said. “You have to be a basketball player. There are guards who are good rebounders and big guys who can make good passes. So, you know, the labels do not always fit.”
Of course, it is much easier for a player to defy traditional-position definition when he carries with him elite talent—guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant now, all the way back to the likes of Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor in the 1960s. Not everyone can be a point-forward, or an undersize stretch-center. You have to be good enough.
That’s where Antetokounmpo is still defining himself. His talent is obvious, and we’re seeing that his ability on both ends of the floor makes him, potentially, one of the best players in the league. He doesn’t shortchange his talent, and even this summer, when he went to Greece to train with the army and play for the national team, the Bucks sent with him strength and conditioning trainer Suki Hobson, as well as assistant coach Sean Sweeney, who has been instrumental in working on Antetokounmpo’s offseason development.
With his youth, though, Antetokounmpo is still prone to mental mistakes such asmissed passes,ill-advised drives,over-aggressiveness. Antetokounmpo harps on those shortcomings. He studies game films and keeps notes on the mistakes he made, the things he could have done better. He doesn’t spend much time reliving the things he did well. He can be tough on himself, maybe too much so. But that relentlessness might be the key to unlocking the rest of his potential.
“I do worry that he’s too hard on himself,” Hammond said. “Jason (Kidd) worries about that, too, at times. But, in my 26 years in the NBA, I have had a chance to observe a lot of different players, observe Hall of Fame-type players. You know, just being around those guys, I think that is what those guys have, too. They’re never satisfied. They want to make every shot, they want to make every big play, they want to win every game and they want to be great. I think that’s kind of who those guys are.”
Jason Kidd would like to see Antetokounmpo make the game a little easier forhimself. About half of Antetokounmpo’s shots come at the rim, and the numbers show there’s a pretty good reason for that. He shoots better than 70 percent from within three feet, according to BasketballReference, a testament to his combination of size and athleticism.
But there’s a physical price to be paid for every foray into the paint, and maybe, at 22, Antetokounmpo can handle that. As his career progresses, though, Kidd knows his young star will need to vary his game, starting by trusting his midrange jumper. Antetokounmpo is not much of a 3-point shooter just yet—he takes 2.3 3-pointers per game, and makes only 28.3 percent—but that can come later. For now, Kidd would like to see Antetokounmpo have more faith in his shot from the elbows, to limit the banging he takes.
“Stress is something we try to look at for him,” Kidd said. “Less stress for him, you know, he can get that free-throw jump shot, we think he can shoot that at a very high clip. He will get to where he can shoot the 3. But the less pounding I can help him with, the less pounding he takes, I think the longevity of him being able to continue what he is doing, that is going to help. The physical pounding teams are going to give, they’re going to touch him every time in the paint. They’re going to give him that jump shot.”
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That’s the consensus assessment of Antetokounmpo’s next step in his development. Most of the mistakes he makes now will be corrected over time with experience, but the jumper is going to require more and more repetition and a dose of confidence. Antetokounmpo worked on his shot with Sweeney this summer, and works on it daily at the Cousins Center (his “home”) before and after practices and shootarounds.
But he is taking about the same number of 10-16 footers (6.6 percent of his attempts, up from 5.8 percent) this year as last year, and about the same number of shots from 16 feet out to the 3-point line (14.4 percent, up from 14.3 percent). He’s been slightly better shooting from 10-16 feet (32.9 field-goal percentage compared with 28.8 percent) and slightly worse from 16 feet out (35.3 percent, down from 35.9 percent). Antetokounmpo is working on his shot, but the results have yet to show. He does not yet seem to trust it.
Last year, after watching Antetokounmpo notch a triple-double, Durant (then with the Thunder) noted to reporters that, “Giannis, once he starts to knock down that jumper consistently, he’s going to be a problem. I hope he doesn’t get it any time soon. He’s already a problem now, but once he starts knocking that jumper down, it’s going to be amazing to watch.”
That caused Antetokounmpo to perk up. He has studied Durant’s game closely. “When I watch KD,” Antetokounmpo said, “I think that’s what I want to play like. I want to be myself, but I love the way he plays.”
The midrange jumper is one of Durant’s best weapons. Bucks guard Jason Terry, who has played with the likes of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki and James Harden over his 18-year career, saidthe prospect of playing with Antetokounmpo this season was enough for him to put off retirement and sign with Milwaukee.
“The sky is the limit for him,” Terry said. “He will have a chance to be one of the greatest players who ever played when all is said and done. You can see it now, he is developing that. Driving into the paint and finishing at the rim, at his size, he is already one of the best in the league at that. Next is just working in that jump shot, and that is going to happen, it just takes time. When it comes, he is going to be very, very tough to deal with.”
For Antetokounmpo, in addition to honing his jumper, getting better as leader on the floor and in the locker room has been a goal. That means speaking up when teammates make mistakes, and it means keeping a level head amid turmoil. Back in the opening round of the 2015 playoffs, with Milwaukee at home against Chicago and the Bulls holding a 3-2 series lead, Bucks players were irked after Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy swiped Bucks guard Michael Carter-Williams in the face early in the game.
Later, with the Bulls crushing the Bucks by 30 near the end of the first half, Dunleavy lined up an open 3 from the left wing. Antetokounmpo bulled in from backcourt and gave Dunleavy a full-bore shoulder check, sending him sprawling out of bounds. Antetokounmpo was given a flagrant-2 foul and ejected.
Kidd was livid and laid into his young star after the game. That remains the last we’ve seen of Antetokounmpo in the playoffs.
Fast-forward to Wednesday night in Boston, in a big game for the Bucks’ current playoff push, Antetokounmpo got tangled up with Celtics guard Marcus Smart late in the fourth quarter. Smart went to the ground, lifting his foot between Antetokoumpo’s legs and nearly going full Draymond Green on him. Antetokounmpo was angry, but simply put his hands up and walked away from Smart, who was called for a flagrant. The Bucks went on to win.
“He has become more mature,” Hammond said. “Leadership is difficult. I am not sure it’s natural for anyone at 21, 22 years old. I think you have to develop into it. But I think what happens is, when a player becomes one of the best players on the team, that responsibility comes with that. Now you become a leader, because now it’s your responsibility to do what you have to do. Some nights it’s Giannis doing some extraordinary things for our team and making teammates better, some nights it’s carrying our team.”
He’s the anchor of what has become a dangerous postseason team for anyone in the top half of the East bracket. Milwaukee has moved into a tie for fifth in the conference, bolstered by the return of guard Khris Middleton from a hamstring injury. The Bucks have won 13 of their last 16 games, which includes a 7-2 mark on the road. Antetokounmpo is still rounding into form, still becoming what he’s going to be. But a strong finish and a good playoff showing would be another step forward.
“I am still growing, still trying to grow and mature,” Antetokounmpo said. “I want to help my team any way I can, and I think for us, getting in the playoffs, that would be most important, playing in important games is the best way. I just want to keep improving. I have a lot I need to learn.”