Giannis Antetokounmpo wasn't supposed to be making any sort of impact at this early stage of his career.
The Milwaukee Bucks surely didn't expect the sushi-bar-raw Greek prospect to contribute during the beginning of his time in the NBA, but he's exceeded any and all expectations. Not only is he already an NBA starter, but his work this summer—paired with what he did as a rookie—has left little doubt that he's becoming one of the Association's most versatile stars.
He's not there yet but he's on a path the league simply hasn't seen.
After he was drafted by the Bucks, he was viewed as an incredibly raw talent, one who would require years—not weeks or months—of development before he could even hope to compete against NBA talent.
Here's what ESPN Insider's June 26 update (subscription required) said about him just before he was selected by Milwaukee:
Who knows? Really. Antetoukounmpo looks like Kevin Durant, both physically and, at times, even when he's playing on the court. The issue is that he's playing against such poor competition in Greece it's hard to tell whether anyone would look like Durant against those guys. He's years away from being a productive NBA player. Still, with that length, athleticism, shooting ability and floor vision, someone will take a shot on him in the first round. If someone says he knows Antetoukounmpo is going to be a star or a bust, he's lying.
"Years away" was quite a common phrase, as you'll see by the emphasis added to the following quotes.
"Antetokounmpo has no intention of returning to play in Greece next season. Instead, he wants to embrace a role on an NBA squad. Such an opportunity may, however, be a couple years away," penned Ridiculous Upside's Keith Schlosser.
"The son of Nigerian-born parents, Antetokounmpo is thought to be a couple of years away from becoming a contributor on an NBA team," wrote Fox Sports Wisconsin's Andrew Gruman. "He's believed to have signed a multi-year deal with the Spanish club CAI Zaragoza in December, but the Bucks plan on bringing him over right away and will negotiate a buyout."
"Antetokounmpo may stay in Greece, as is typical for Greek players, for a few years. He has a great wingspan and is a very smooth athlete...The Bucks could use help on the wings, but this pick is one for the future, possibly even three or four years down the road," explained Adi Joseph of USA Today while giving the Bucks a "B" for their selection.
Trust me when I say that's only a small sampling of the many opinions out there—mine included—claiming Antetokounmpo wouldn't be ready to compete for a least a few seasons, much less contribute at a high level.
And they were all wrong.
As a rookie, the young prospect didn't just sit on the bench or play in the D-League; he started 23 games for a reeling Milwaukee organization, and he played pretty well in those appearances. On the season, he averaged 6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game while shooting 41.4 percent from the field, 34.7 percent beyond the arc and 68.3 percent at the charity stripe.
His player efficiency rating, according to Basketball-Reference.com, was a below-average 10.8, but he did manage to contribute 1.2 win shares, the vast majority of which came on the defensive end of the court. It was abundantly clear defense was his speciality, especially when he matched up against Carmelo Anthony in his first start and showed absolutely no fear.
During that Dec. 18 contest against the New York Knicks, Antetokounmpo spent the entire game—save the time he was on the bench with foul trouble—in Melo's grill, hounding him at all times and contesting virtually every shot. Anthony did score 29 points, but he needed 29 shots from the field in order to reach that total, rendering the rookie's work rather successful.
After the game, Antetokounmpo, who claimed that all Anthony's points came against his teammates when he was either on the bench or guarding a different assignment, had the following to say about his experience, per Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
The reason was Carmelo. I respect him. He’s one of the best players, but he can’t come out and start bullying my teammates and me, like talking to me all the time. I tried to not react and you have to respect him. If he does it all night you can’t focus on your game so you have to respond and tell him something to stop. When I go out there I don’t care who you are, for me it’s just a jersey.
Sometimes you’ve got to respond because you can’t be like a chicken.
Using that mentality, his ridiculous physical tools and his surprising amount of basketball skill, he ended up making the All-Rookie Second Team. Not too shabby for a player who was supposed to be years away from contributing at an NBA level, even if that honor came against an incredibly lackluster rookie class.
Now, he's even better.
Standout at Summer League
Not many players were better during the Las Vegas action this summer.
Everything was clicking, as he averaged 17.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks per game, according to NBA.com's statistical databases. Even more impressively, he did that while hitting his field-goal attempts at a 46.2 percent clip and knocking down 37.5 percent of his looks from beyond the arc.
Among the many players who suited up for even a single game in Sin City, only 13 managed to record at least a block and a steal per game—Antetokounmpo, Jackie Carmichael, Gorgui Dieng, Bernard James, Bryan Davis, Miles Plumlee, Andrew Wiggins, Eric Griffin, Travis Hyman, Will Thomas, Alex Len, James Michael McAdoo and Nerlens Noel. Of those, Antetokounmpo, Noel, Griffin, Wiggins, James and Dieng were the only six to also put up double-digit points, and the Greek Freak was the high scorer of the bunch.
Basically, no one made contributions as well-rounded as his, and he did so while flashing an offensive arsenal that was just ridiculously advanced for a 19-year-old with only a year of NBA experience under his belt.
His physical tools were on display, especially when he managed to dribble nearly the length of the floor with the ball hitting the court only twice:
How about when he hit defenders with a between-the-legs step-back jumper that splashed through the net?
His handles don't look particularly smooth there, but he's so long that the move still works. Plus, they got smoother as the week in Vegas progressed, and he was routinely handling the ball with confidence.
Splitting the defense worked for him, too, as his length and quickness are just impossible for defenders to stay in front of:
Antetokounmpo has the defensive tools to stick in the NBA for a long time, but he's quickly becoming one of the more intriguing offensive prospects because of his rapidly developing skill set. The shooting stroke looks smoother, the handles are tighter, the plays are smarter and the overall product is just an eyebrow-raising one at this stage.
A 19-year-old isn't supposed to have a game that could develop into one with no true weaknesses, but that's what we're looking at. He's already comfortable spotting up or handling the ball for himself, and it's not inconceivable that he could develop a back-to-the-basket game as he continues adding strength and filling out his frame.
After the summer league experience, Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman, who also said that the Greek Freak looked like the top prospect in Vegas at times, wrote that Jabari Parker may not be stealing all the attention in Milwaukee:
He was consistent throughout his four games in Vegas, scoring at least 15 points in each. The Milwaukee Bucks should be excited about Jabari Parker, the No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft, but I wouldn't be shocked if Antetokounmpo steals the spotlight this year with more flashes of jaw-dropping upside.
There's no hyperbole there.
Antetokounmpo is already blowing away the expectations associated with his projected developmental curve, and he's putting up numbers that aren't easy to match. Every facet of his game looks improved—albeit against lessened competition—and he carried himself with the swagger of a superstar, a confident and mature player even if he's only 19 years old.
The best part?
The Bucks know just how versatile he can be, and they're actively trying to help facilitate that growth.
A 6'11" Point Guard?
"He could help me," Antetokounmpo told Sean Highkin of SportsonEarth.com, referring to his new coach, Jason Kidd. "He's one of the greatest point guards, so every practice is a lesson for me."
That's what makes the Greek forward's transition to point guard such an intriguing one.
Even though he's 6'11" and still growing, the 19-year-old lined up at the point during his experience in Vegas, and he actually looked fairly comfortable playing that position. He doesn't yet have the vision to generate assist after assist, but he can capably initiate the offense while racking up hockey assists by compressing the defenses with his athletic drives to the hoop.
As Highkin writes, it's led to a new nickname:
A new nickname has emerged during Summer League for Giannis Antetokounmpo. The 19-year-old Milwaukee Bucks forward who has been better known since his debut as the 'Greek Freak' unveiled a new point-forward playing style and earned a new moniker to go with his added length and playmaking: 'Magic Giannison.'
Let's not conflate the two.
Magic Johnson was the greatest point guard to lace up his sneakers on an NBA court, as he possessed nearly unmatched vision and passing skills while leading an incredible Los Angeles Lakers offense. Antetokounmpo is by no means on that level, nor will he be as a point guard. He's earning the comparison—and nickname—because of his ability to play the position with so many inches working in his advantage.
"Milwaukee is serious about this for the regular season, maybe even as the starter at the point," reports NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper. "Antetokounmpo is serious about this."
They should be.
Even if the experiment fails, the Greek Freak is learning a new set of skills, thus expanding his arsenal. There's literally no downside to this trial, especially during a season in which the Bucks aren't exactly hoping to compete at a particularly high level. Best-case scenario, Milwaukee has a truly unique commodity; worst-case scenario, Antetokounmpo learns a few things then goes back to a more natural position.
However, the scary thing is that it really could work.
Milwaukee is dedicated to the idea, and the young Greek prospect has so little experience that he can easily be molded in Kidd's vision. He absolutely has the skills necessary to handle the ball against NBA defenders, and he's been nothing if not a hard worker during his little time in the Association.
As Bryan Mears makes clear for NumberFire.com, this is just a player we haven't seen before:
We've lauded LeBron James for being able to play and defend all five positions, but we might be stretching it a bit with him playing and defending the five. But could Giannis be the guy to do that? At 6’11'', he certainly has the height. Could the Bucks figure out how to use him as a point guard on offense and a rim-protecting big on defense? Read that question again – a couple years ago, no one would have believed you if you had said we would ever see a guy like that.
We've seen versatile players before, as well as those who can function as point forwards while guarding multiple positions.
But we've literally never seen a player this big play point guard, especially with the coach insisting he be called that and not a point forward, per Howard-Cooper.
Antetokounmpo would make Dennis Green mad, because he really isn't who we thought he was. Coming into the NBA, he was viewed as an extremely raw prospect who was years away from making any sort of contributions. Even if his ceiling was ridiculously high, he was going to be a lanky contributor who stuck to the wing positions and thrived on defense.
Now? After just one season and the ensuing summer league, Antetokounmpo is a potential star, one who brings a set of skills and physical tools—I haven't even mentioned those hands—that haven't been seen in this league.
Greek Freak, indeed.
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