Talk to people around the Milwaukee Bucks and they’ll tell you Giannis Antetokounmpo, the impossibly limbed point-center, is as diligent at studying film as young guys get.
Watch him hone his developing three-point shot and realize that he’s adamant about making it a part of his ever-growing arsenal.
Listen to him talk just months after signing a four-year $100 million dollar extension, and there’s no question the Bucks have a burgeoning superstar on their roster with none of the pomp.
“People say it, but for me, my life is all around basketball,” Antetokounmpo told USA TODAY Sports hours before being named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the second time in his career. “I try to avoid all the extra stuff. Try to spend time with my family and just play ball. … Yeah, and I have a girlfriend.”
This past week there was a different kind of buzz around the Bucks after they’d won four in a row to firmly announce themselves as early playoff contenders in the East. The most notable win of the stretch came against the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers where Antetokounmpo significantly outplayed LeBron James, long the standard-bearer of size and athletic prowess. Slowly, that mantle may be shifting.
Bucks coach Jason Kidd recently evoked names like James and Dirk Nowitzki when discussing the potential of his prodigious point guard.
“Wouldn’t it be cool to have those two combined as one player?” Kidd said. “Maybe that could happen.”
Bucks guard Matthew Dellavedova offered a more measured perspective given his familiarity with James.
“I don’t think you should be making comparisons between (Giannis) and LeBron. First it’s unfair to Giannis because he’s his own player,” he said. “He’s his own very, very special talent. I played with LeBron the finished product.”
While celebrating his 22nd birthday on Tuesday, Antetokounmpo was treated to a surprise visit from future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett. It seems everyone is taking notice. Through 19 games, he was averaging 22.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 2.2 blocks and steals, respectively, per game. The last player to average at least 22-8-5, while having that type of impact on the defensive end was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1978-79.
Antetokounmpo paused and chose his words carefully when asked about the lofty comparisons being made.
“I’ve got a long way to go to get into that level, but it’s a compliment,” he said, knowing full well his words have started to carry more weight.
Numerous national media outlets were getting an early-season read on the Bucks, and there was even a couple of guys from Greece working on an Antetokounmpo documentary. His ascendancy from adolescent soccer player – his father, Charles, was a professional soccer player in Nigeria – to an obscure first-round pick to the verge of havoc-wreaking superstar is nothing short of stunning.
“It takes people a while to emerge as what you just called an NBA star,” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s not just an athlete anymore, he’s not just a phenomenon with his length and athleticism. He’s learned how to play the game. He’s learned about time and score. He’s learned how to play with his teammates. All those things are what make you an NBA star as time goes on.”
As freakish as some of his coast-to-coast highlights are, Antetokounmpo, while poised to become the Bucks’ first All-Star since Michael Redd in 2004, still has his growing pains. He’ll occasionally get ahead of himself when attacking, spinning into traffic rather than laying it off to a cutting teammate. Or he’ll force offensive sequences solely because he’s become accustomed to overpowering his defender. But in his defense, there’s a lot of nuance to piloting an NBA offense, and he’s only been at it fulltime for a few months. It helps that he’s obsessed with improving.
“(He’s) someone who helps build the culture of a franchise,” Kidd said. “When you have someone like that it’s special, and you just hope it rubs off on everybody else.”
Early returns of the Antetokounmpo experiment are promising. He, Dellavedova and even Jabari Parker share point guard responsibilities in another example of the Bucks’ versatility.
The All-Star appearance is important to him, but it’s also not his priority.
“I don’t care about All-Star. I don’t care about stats,” Antetokounmpo said. “If the team wins, there’s no way to be honest with you to not make the All-Star.”
While he’s constantly tinkering his perimeter game or testing the limits of his ball-handling skills, there is an aspect that Antetokounmpo sheepishly admits he’s content with.
It’s his stink face, that ugly contortion conveying particular pleasure with a given play.
“I used to practice (it) my rookie year,” Antetokounmpo admitted, as the idea of practicing such a face in the mirror slowly conjured a smile.
“In my rookie year I just wanted to show tough, but now it just comes with instinct. I don’t really need to practice no more. I got it.”