Giannis Antetokounmpo carries the expectation of a fanbase with him into the future, but his unique gifts won’t make the critics any more forgiving.
There’s no time in sport where the difference between the world’s great athletes and those who are in fact the very best gets put in to sharper focus than it does at the Olympic Games.
You could be the best swimmer in your country from an early age, and still find yourself finishing eighth in a final that someone like Michael Phelps had finished countless seconds before you. You could be running as if your life depends on it in an Olympic finals, while Usain Bolt runs ahead of you with time to slow down and effectively pose for the camera.
It’s no different to the NBA, really. You have the best of the best, and then everyone else trying to hold on to their coattails.
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More often than not, there’s something simply different about those who reach the pinnacle though. Something that sets them apart. As Usain Bolt clinched his third 100m Olympic Gold on Sunday, what was most striking was just how different he was to every other man in his field. That got me thinking about long-armed, Milwaukee Bucks point forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Moments after his own long-standing world record had been shattered in the 400m final, legendary US Olympian Michael Johnson shared his thoughts on Bolt and just how different he was, as a part of the BBC’s coverage of the 100m Final in the UK.
"Aug 14, 2016; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Usain Bolt (JAM) celebrates after winning the men“When he came on to the scene we saw that he was special. He’s 6’6” tall which ordinarily is not great for 100m sprinting because the start has become so important in that race.We train athletes at Michael Johnson Performance in all sports. After 2008 [Olympics] we started getting calls from people saying, ‘I’ve got a 6’6” sprinter’. But just because you’re 6’6” doesn’t mean you can sprint like Usain Bolt. He’s very, very unique. He’s in a unique position. He’s a unique individual.Those people come along every now and then. And there’ll be another who’ll be unique in some other way that calls into question what all of the historians of athletics, and all of the sport scientists thought they knew. And then we have to start all over again, just like Usain Bolt made us do.”"
Bolt was a game-changer for athletics, but with that undoubtedly came its own set of unique expectations. To suggest Giannis Antetokounmpo will reach the same heights as Bolt has done in his field of expertise would be ridiculous, but there is a common thread to connect the two; the need to manage ever-growing expectations.
When gifted athletes with unique physical traits appear they redefine what Michael Johnson described as what all of the experts “thought they knew”.
Even after an exceptional finish to last season while undertaking a point forward-style role with the Milwaukee Bucks, there’s still no shortage to sceptics who can’t see Antetokounmpo being a long-term success in that capacity.
That shouldn’t be a surprise either. A playmaker with Giannis’ size, physical measurements and ability turns what has been viewed as conventional wisdom for many years on its head. Magic Johnson and LeBron James may have been tall, imposing and athletic men who succeeded in that type of role in the past (and present), but if Antetokounmpo does so, the bar will have moved even further.
In bucking a long established trend, the markers for what represents success are different, particularly when the early signs are filled with promise.
In the space of three seasons, Giannis Antetokounmpo has gone from a player who was virtually unknown to a player who many now feel can someday deliver a championship for his team. A player who could make multiple All-Star appearances. A player who could be one of the league’s very best players for the next decade.
That’s a very steep adjustment for the Antetokounmpo to make, and one which, more often than not, sees the expectations of others run ahead of the player’s own tangible development. This creates an almost boom or bust reality.
Having already shown that he has what it takes to compete in the league, is it even possible for Antetokounmpo’s career to be considered a success if he doesn’t reach the peak of his sport? If he doesn’t claim the individual and team accolades believed to be within his reach?
Pundits will always be able to say he had the physical attributes that his peers couldn’t match and the talent to make an immeasurable impact, and therefore his yardstick for success is much more severe.
Bolt was blessed with honing his abilities and constantly improving in a sport thats schedule is far from packed with major international meetings, and so he could work on peaking a handful of times a year.
In the NBA, the spotlight shines bright 82 times a season and then even brighter in the playoffs. The demands are unlike those made in all but a handful of sports played around the world, and as such it takes more than just talent and unique physical gifts to reach the top. There’s a greater need for luck too.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s incredible ability means he has rightly earned the hype that has come his way. It makes him the future of a franchise, one of the most exciting athletes in his sport and a player who might just have what it takes to reach the top.
That doesn’t make the road to get there any easier though. Giannis Antetokounmpo will need his fair share of friendly bounces over the years, and he’ll need understanding voices around him to ensure they fall his way.
Usain Bolt is proof that when it all falls into place it looks easy, but it’s not easy being different, even in the world of sport.