The Enigma and Glory of Giannis Antetokounmpo


Mar 29, 2014; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard

Giannis Antetokounmpo

(34) runs into Miami Heat center

Chris Bosh

(1) during the second quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

This is the offseason of discovery.  New owners, new coach, fresh rookies dripping with potential.  With so many exciting new acquisitions, it could be easy for fans to forget the potential of those who soldiered through the lost 2013-14 season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo will not be forgotten.  In Las Vegas, he showcased the hybrid package of skills that make him one of the most intriguing young prospects in the NBA.  Even if no one can figure him out.

Wait, what?

That’s right.  Even after a full year in the NBA and smattering of Summer League – 81 games in –  Giannis remains a mystery. Experts don’t know to which position he’s best suited, let alone how tall he’ll end up being. Ask two scouts about him and you’ll get five opinions. One will see flashes of Kevin Durant.  Another will suggest that he can become the next Magic.

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Those are daunting comparisons, but the Greek Freak is such a mold breaker that people have to dig deep for references.

Qualities that keep coming up are his passing, shocking quickness, athleticism and versatility.  Rarely is such a complete package seen in a player so admittedly raw. Regarding his work ethic, John Hammond said, “he lives in this gym, literally lives in this gym.” Giannis has the potential and mindset to flourish in nearly any role the Bucks throw at him.

So where do the Bucks see Giannis?

That’s the $550 million dollar question.  With the Filathlitikos U-20 team in Greece, Giannis covered all positions, 1 through 5. Entering the draft, scouts saw him as a swingman, maybe a combo forward.  Fans based their speculation on YouTube highlights with bizarre soundtracks cobbled together from VHS tapes.  For the most part he just looked years away, another foreign player with insane dimensions that might never make it to the NBA.

From the moment he was selected with the 15th overall pick in the 2013 draft, you could tell the Bucks saw something different. John Hammond could barely contain his excitement, stating openly that he saw a future for Giannis at the point. Then Bucks head coach Larry Drew erred to a more traditional role:

"I think you would classify him more like a point forward, with his size and ability … He’s a very unselfish passer, which is what makes him so unique."

The Bucks were the only ones who didn’t see Giannis as a draft and stash. It didn’t take long for others to recognize how close he might be to greatness.

The Bucks played it safe with Giannis in his rookie season. Drew decided not to tempt the basketball gods with a 6’9″ point guard. Antetokounmpo spent most of his time slotted at the 3, his apparent natural position. As the season slowly slid away, Giannis emerged as a beacon of hope, offering excitement in garbage time.

Then the bomb dropped. Giannis is still growing. He was up to 6’10” in December, 6’11” by the end of the season. He will likely be a seven footer when all is said and done. It looked like Giannis might be destined to join the Bucks everflowing stable of tube men. His stats through 77 games – 6.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.9 apg, .518 TS% – bely the energy that overtook the Bradley Center when he stepped on the court.

Over the season, fans forgot silly summer speculation as they tried to understand our fresh faced phenomenon.  The dream of the seven-foot Point God slowly faded away.

Mar 20, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) dunks the ball against the Golden State Warriors during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Golden State Warriors defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 115-110. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

 That Was Then, This Is Now

A lot has changed since the Bucks clinched the worst record in franchise history. Herb Kohl sold to outside investors, who promptly fired Larry Drew and installed Jason Kidd. Kidd is as much a mystery as a coach as Giannis is as a player. Their respective rookie seasons paralleled one another as they grew into their roles.

So far Kidd has said the right things. He knows this is a rebuild. He is focused on developing the youth and wants to run and gun. What’s most exciting, though, is he’s willing to experiment with the Greek Freak:

"“If you have Giannis, Knight,  Parker, Ilyasova and Sanders, it’s a pretty big team,” Kidd said. “Most people would say Knight is the point guard.“But if you have Giannis with the ball directing traffic, he would be the point guard, or the shooting guard, or the 3 or the 4.”"

Kidd doesn’t compare Giannis to past players. He embraces his alien hybrid superstar as a true original. At the Las Vegas Summer League, Giannis put together four of the strongest performances of his career, averaging 17.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.8 apg, a steal and a block to go with .462 FG% and .375 3PT%. For much of his time on court, he was the team’s primary ball handler. In games featuring the league’s best young players, Antetokounmpo stood out.

There he is, burying a three in Anthony Bennett‘s face one moment, outrunning everyone on the court in two bounces the next.  You can see him trying to strike that balance between when he should be looking for teammates and when he should take over.  Some players spend their whole careers figuring that out, but Giannis looked confident, composed.  His natural feel for the game cannot be overstated.

Eye of the beholder: Do you see an NBA point guard? Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s be real though, Giannis is 19.  He has plenty to work on.

His 0.4 assist-to-turnover ratio is completely unacceptable for anyone in the NBA, much less a point guard.  He was clearly adapting to a new role, but learning quickly.

Sometimes his teammates weren’t ready for a pass, a bouncer down low coming at an angle that could only come from his arms.

Sometimes he flat overshot his target, possibly the result of years coming up in the game against his similarly long, athletic brethren.

Sometimes, the conflict between setting up teammates and attacking the basket caused a second too much hesitation that broke the play before it could begin.

The point is that Giannis’ flaws are all part of learning how to be an NBA player. He’s immensely coachable and downright precocious. In time, we’ll forget these dog day losses just as last season washed away.

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  • His strengths combine to form a player who defies basketball logic. Is he a point guard? A small forward?  The next Kevin Durant? The next Magic?  Will Giannis Antetokounmpo break the game of basketball?!

    We won’t know until the regular season, but Giannis’ summer is far from over. On Friday, as summer league came to a close for a finally victorious Bucks squad, Giannis, still winless, made his way to Europe to begin preparations for the FIBA World Cup. We’ll keep you updated when play starts, but until then we can all dream of large point guards.

    The one thing we can be sure of when it comes to Giannis Antetokounmpo as he reaches towards the limits of the sport?

    He’s ours.