Giannis Antetokounmpo: A name worth remembering
BOSTON -- You can sell championships, or you can sell hope. The Milwaukee Bucks haven't won a championship since 1971, the second season of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But they do have hope.
That hope will turn 19 on Friday, he's still growing and his name is Giannis Antetokounmpo. People around the Bucks believe the response to their rookie Antetokounmpo has been muted somewhat by the reluctance of TV broadcasters to pronounce his name (YAHN-iss Ah-deh-toh-KOON-boh). "It's not so hard," he said with a smile. "See? Antetokounmpo."
The Greek Freak (his nickname is much easier to pronounce) was averaging an unspectacular 5.3 points and 3.0 rebounds while shooting 50 percent in his 15.2 minutes per game in his first 11 NBA games. Antetokounmpo must be seen in order to be believed. He is listed as a 6-foot-9 swingman, but in the half-year since that measurement was taken he has already grown an inch. A thorough medical exam determined that he has the growth plates of a 16 year old -- meaning (1) there is little reason to fear that he's older than his birth certificate claims, and (2) he could become a unique 7-foot ballhandling playmaker with the skills to run pick and roll.
The reason the Bucks were able to land him with the No. 15 pick last June was because Antetokounmpo spent his lone professional season with the small club Filathlitikos in the Greek second division, where he played in rec-sized gyms of a few hundred seats. One year ago the larger Spanish club CAI Zaragoza signed him to a three-year contract, but his stats -- 9.5 points and 5.0 rebounds as a starter -- were viewed to be unworthy of a pick in the lottery.
Five weeks into his first season it is not inconceivable that Antetokounmpo could become the best player in this unusually unproductive draft class. Last weekend in Milwaukee he played 28 minutes in a win against the Celtics while contributing 10 points, seven rebounds, four assists and the game-changing sequence. It began with a turnover committed by Antetokounmpo, which horrified him.
"I make the mistake," he said in a high-pitched Greek accent. "The only thing that I can do to help my teammates is take the ball back. So I try: I run towards my friend, and I try to block the shot, and I get the ball back."
His "friend" was Boston guard Jordan Crawford, who assumed he had broken away for a layup when Antetokounmpo ran him down like a stretched-out Usain Bolt. "Some guys will give up on a play like that - they'll turn the ball over and then it's a woe-is-me type of body language," said Bucks coach Larry Drew. "I didn't think he had a chance, to be honest with you."
Then Antetokounmpo was turning back the other way, outsprinting all his friends to finish an alley-oop lob violently in transition. "That was my goal," he said. "That was my mistake: I try to correct immediately."
Antetokounmpo's parents emigrated from Nigeria to Greece before he was born in Athens. He would try to help make ends meet by selling watches and other goods on the street. His family had little money, they often went hungry, and Antetokounmpo shared a bedroom with his three brothers. Now he has more money they he could have imagined -- a rookie salary of $1.8 million -- but he misses his family badly. They have been unable to obtain visas to join him in Milwaukee, where he has moved out of a hotel and into an apartment.
"I live alone," he said. "I go to the gym alone. Living alone is hard. I try to talk to them every day, especially to my father."
Antetokounmpo has an enormous wingspan and a fluid jump shot to go with excellent feel for the game and vision of the floor. In Greece he was a point guard, which enabled him to develop his unusual blend of skills. It also explains why he doesn't always run hard on the break, because he is still used to getting the ball in the backcourt in order to create the play instead of finishing it. In a 108-100 loss here Tuesday he finished an open floor alley-oop at full speed with a dunk to pull the Bucks within 4 points in the third quarter. Antetokounmpo didn't play the final eight minutes as the Bucks tried to steal a rare win.
The 3-14 Bucks have earned the worst record in the league, but things could be worse: They could be the 3-13 Knicks, who are spending twice as much on their roster with neither the Bucks' upside nor the silver-lining reward of a first-round pick in this talented draft. Imagine if the Bucks come out of the lottery with a future star: They could enter next season with Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker to go with a promising core of Antetokounmpo, Larry Sanders and John Henson.
Sooner than later it is going to make sense for the Bucks to start 25-year-old Sanders (upon his return from injury) alongside Henson, Antetokounmpo, Brandon Knight and rookie point guard Nate Wolters -- all 22 or younger. In doing so they will be giving their fans what they want from this team: Hope.
"When he steps on the floor, there is a little buzz in our arena, that people want to see him," Bucks GM John Hammond said of Antetokounmpo. "There is a mystique about him, maybe because of his age, and where he came from, and because we've talked about him. I'm hoping as the season progresses, he'll play more and more."
Hammond was introducing Antetokounmpo as a potential star on the night of the draft, and there has been no cause for argument. His promise was revealed with successive defensive rebounds in the second quarter Tuesday. With the first Antetokounmpo dribbled up three long steps before bouncing a hard pass ahead to Gary Neal in spite of Wallace's attempt to pick it off. He converted his next rebound into a gutsy three-quarter length pass to Zaza Pachulia behind coverage.
"When you go on the court for the first time and play, you realize, OK, you can play in this league," he said. "I walked in the arena, it was so big, I don't remember being in so big arena -- I was so excited to play. I'm not afraid. Every game makes me more excited."
Antetokounmpo is extremely confident. In three games against the Celtics he has shown no fear about leaning provocatively into Gerald Wallace; either he hasn't realized that Wallace may retaliate, or else he hasn't cared.
"LeBron James and Kevin Durant -- when I was in the court together with them I didn't believe it, I was playing against them, I was guarding them," he said. "It's hard to play against them. They try to intimidate you. They don't talk to you. They just look at you with anger, like they're angry with you."
Did it work?
"No, it doesn't work," he said. "Other guys it might, but with me, no."
When Antetokounmpo received his first pay stub, he turned to teammate Gary Neal and asked how he could receive a check that didn't include taxes. His teammates laughed, but in Europe those checks exist -- teams routinely offer "net" contracts in which they pay the taxes for players.
"Half the guys like having fun with him, and he likes having fun with them," said Drew, who has been astounded by Antetokounmpo's ability to pick up new concepts quickly. "Still, it has to be tough to come to a whole different country, basically alone, no family here. I couldn't even imagine being 18 years old, not having my mom, my dad, my brother, my sister, anybody. But he seems to take things in stride."
"I think that I have to work on everything -- my dribbling, how to shoot, how to pass the ball, how to learn the plays, everything," said Antetokounmpo. "Even my body, because my goal is to become the best."
Talk like that combined with a talent like his? It's the next best thing to winning.