The festivities at the BMO Harris Bradley Center began with a tribute to one legend's career, but the night concluded with a budding star stealing his spotlight.
On Feb. 22, Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour took a backseat to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s first career triple double, as the third–year forward tallied 27 points on 12–of–17 shooting, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in the Bucks’ victory. Granted, he torched the Lakers’ league-worst defense, but the Greek Freak’s flash of tantalizing potential was enough for Bryant to seek out Antetokounmpo following the game, an honor he only bestows upon youngsters he views a part of the next generation of NBA superstars.
“It means a lot,” Antetokounmpo says. “I was talking with him and Jason Kidd in the locker room. I was like, oh s–––! Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant? I’m having a conversation with them? [A] five–time champion and coach J-Kidd is second in assists and and second in steals of all time. Having a conversation with them is a dream come true for me.”
Bryant told reporters that Kidd said Antetokounmpo’s biggest hurdle is simply deciding if he wants to be a truly great player.
“I said, ‘Listen, that’s just a choice you’re going to have to make,’” Bryant said. “‘If you want to be that great player you have to make certain sacrifices and you’ve got to go after it.’ He has the physical tools, the intelligence. Now it’s just a matter of him believing in himself and going after it. He has the talent to be a great player.”
Of course, in today’s ever-changing NBA, Antetokounmpo’s most important sacrifice remains locking himself in a gym to iron out the wrinkles in his jump shot.
“The first time I played him I backed off him. Today, I backed off him again. I didn’t see any improvement,” Bryant said. “I like testing young guys like that. I said the summer time’s the time when you have to make that leap. I was making 1,000 shots a day, so that’s what it takes.”
It’s a simple and accurate assessment. Last April, Kidd told reporters at a morning shootaround in Boston that he had constricted Antetokounmpo to only shooting inside 15 feet, essentially putting training wheels back on the eccentric rising star. This season, he’s still shooting below 38% outside of five feet from the rim.
“Develop my game, just not mess around with basketball,” Antetokounmpo says on how he’ll improve that jumper. “Because at the end of the day, it’s work.”
While his jumper continues to prove streaky, Antetokounmpo has unlocked a new element to his game. Kidd has unleashed Antetokounmpo as the Bucks’ lead playmaker, relegating starting point guard Michael Carter-Williams (who the team announced Monday will miss the rest of the season with a hip injury) to the bench and placing the ball in the hands of his 21-year-old forward.
“We’re not calling him the point guard, but he’s dictating the offense and he’s doing quite well with it,” Kidd says. “He wants that. He has the skillset to do that. He has the IQ to do it and he’s doing it well. Being consistent with that at 6’11" causes a problem. And you look at some of the passes that he’s able to throw from half court, a bounce-pass to Jabari [Parker] on the run. Those are things that you can’t teach and he has it in him and he’s displayed it.”
It’s passes like this one to Parker that hint at the tantalizing talent Antetokounmpo might truly realize one day. When he’s leading a break, Antetokounmpo looks like a gazelle wearing a jetpack, galloping past two, sometimes three defenders before making an intrinsic read on the defense. “Before the half court in transition, when I get the ball, I can make easier play from there,” Antetokounmpo says.
A few possessions later in that third quarter against the Lakers, Antetokounmpo slung a one-handed, cross-court dime directly into O.J. Mayo’s shooting pocket all the way in the opposite corner.
“It’s crazy. He’s getting better and better every day, each year,” Mayo says.
Kidd first experimented with Antetokounmpo as a de facto point guard in Las Vegas during the 2014 Summer League. In the overheated, overflowing Cox Pavilion, Antetokounmpo’s maniacal, coast-to-coast sprints from rim to rim stole the show that was initially billed as Parker vs. Andrew Wiggins.
“I definitely knew one day we’d come back to it, once you know that I can do it,” Antetokounmpo says. “It’s different in the game, especially when Mike was starting. I couldn’t handle the ball more than Mike, because he’s our point guard. He’s in charge. And now, coach gave me the opportunity I could handle it. It feels great.”
In nine games since the All-Star break, Antetokounmpo is posting numbers that would be worthy of the annual midseason classic: 19.9 points, 10.9 rebounds and 7.6 assists per outing.
In those games, Milwaukee's starting lineup with Antetokounmpo at the "point" has posted an offensive efficiency of of 109.1, per NBA.com/stats, which would rank third in the NBA on the season. Those lineups also feature a 63% assist rate, which would third in the league this year.
“The ball is moving, our pace is up, all the stats are up,” Kidd says. “(Giannis's) skillset is like no other. He has the ability to put it on the floor, he’s working hard on his jump shot, he can post up, he can pass. Giannis is just going through the process, understanding things don’t happen overnight.”
Antetokounmpo at the point also provides ample opportunity for him to post up smaller guards. Mayo has been instrumental in advising Antetokounmpo as a scorer—aside from challenging him to grab six rebounds per game this season—helping the phenom find spots on the floor most comfortable to attack from. Mayo, Antetokounmpo, Carter-Williams and Khris Middleton rotate playing one-on-one after practice, mostly in post-up situations.
“We’re big guards. We have fun playing post after practice,” Mayo says. “Sometimes we’ll play top, wing, other wing, two posts, two elbows, where we catch the ball at.”
While Antetokounmpo’s future most likely won’t be best served as a nominal point guard, participating in a timeshare, like the system that has helped DeMar DeRozan blossom alongside Kyle Lowry this season, should ultimately prove wonders for the Bucks and their young star. Antetokounmpo has three triple doubles in his last seven games and won’t turn 22 until December.
Jason Kidd might be onto something.