Is Giannis Antetokounmpo Ready for NBA Stardom Already?

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Is Giannis Antetokounmpo Ready for NBA Stardom Already?
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Of all the rookies and prospects that captured our collective attention during the 2013-14 season, perhaps none was more captivating than the Milwaukee Bucks' hyper-athletic first-round pick—a 6’9” beanpole from Athens, Greece with hands the size of Spaldings and a smile to match.

… We’ve just received word that Giannis Antetokounmpo has actually grown since that first paragraph. He is now 6’11”.

From the guard-like handle to the still-rising height, velvet smooth jumper to a triple IPA’s worth of hops, Antetokounmpo provides a tantalizing window into the evolution of basketball in the 21st century.

Jack Arent/Getty Images

Even if his name doesn’t grace the East All-Star roster this season, no one’s star stands to rise higher or hotter than the one belonging to the kid they call “The Greek Freak.”

Of course, after a quick glance at his rookie-year stats, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise:

Antetokounmpo
Points Rebounds Assists TS%
Base 6.8 4.4 1.9 .518
Per-36 10.0 6.4 2.8 .518

Basketball-Reference.com

Antetokounmpo’s age—he was the youngest player in the league a season ago and won't turn 20 until December 16—can’t alone explain away the mediocrity. Indeed, even the per-36 numbers could belong to any number of purely pedestrian players.

Then you find out Antetokounmpo didn’t actually start taking the game seriously until he was 12 years old, per OnMilwaukee.com’s Jim Owczarski, and suddenly the context becomes clear: If he can get this good after just seven years, where will he be seven years from now?

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

That, in essence, was the Bucks' thought process when they selected the Greek national with the 15th overall pick a year ago. From Milwaukee’s perspective, the fit—and the risk—made perfect sense, committed as it was to a long-term rebuilding plan predicated on imbuing the long-moribund franchise with cheap, high-upside talent.

The team scored another coup when, on June 26, they took Duke freshman phenom Jabari Parker with the No. 3 pick, rounding out what they hope to be the Bucks’ frontcourt tandem of the future.

In terms of pure NBA polish, Parker—a four-tool player whose only glaring weakness is his defense—may have the edge on his fellow forward.

Using two dribbles to lope 70 feet down the floor for an easy dunk? Not so much.

Lest you believe such feats are few and far between, YouTube begs to differ.

In fact, Antetokounmpo’s skills have blossomed so quickly and so impressively that, in an interview with NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper, Milwaukee head coach Jason Kidd hinted at the hardwood wunderkind—brace yourselves—playing point guard:

We’ve seen it in practice, and so when you see a player’s comfort level with the ball no matter what size, we want to see it in game action and we slowly have started letting him have the ball and running the offense. With the group we have right now, with [Brandon] Knight and Giannis, we have additional playmakers and when we have that on the floor, it makes the game easy. We’ll see how the roster shakes out, but we’re not afraid to play him at the point, as you see.

An absurd case of biased wishful thinking? Perhaps. Has Kidd now gotten the attention of every rival coach and general manager in the NBA? You bet he has.

Following a stellar showing at the Las Vegas Summer League, Antetokounmpo has his sights set on another offseason showcase: the FIBA World Cup, slated to get underway next Saturday in Spain.

Jeyhoun Allebaugh/Getty Images

As the team’s undisputed cornerstone, Antetokounmpo—joined by a cast that includes his brother, recent New York Knicks draft pick Thanasis Antetokounmpo—is sure to draw plenty of attention from the competition raring as it is to knock the world’s No. 5 ranked team off its pedestal.

After that, it’ll be back to the United States and the long-term task at hand: Transforming the Bucks from conference doormat into a beacon of basketball youth and potential.

Still, the process being what it is, Kidd is sure to keep his team’s expectation in perspective, as Grantland’s Danny Chau underscored in a piece penned back in July:

Results are irrelevant at this stage. It’s about seeing what you have. Antetokounmpo single-handedly served as the folk remedy for the Bucks’ ennui last season. With a new setup to play with, Kidd is looking to concoct a more sustainable salve for Milwaukee — something he might not have been able to produce for the Nets had he stayed in Brooklyn.

With so much youth and inexperience to orchestrate, Kidd can’t be expected to make Antetokounmpo his one and only pedagogical priority. Parker’s defense, Brandon Knight’s confidence, Larry Sanders’ offensive effectiveness and Ersan Ilyasova’s need for a bounce-back season: In terms of coaching checklists, Kidd certainly has his work cut out for him.

But if the first seven years of his basketball odyssey have proven anything, it’s that Antetokounmpo’s is a talent bound to blossom no matter the intensity of the tutelage. His natural ability is so impossible, his work ethic so steady and sound, that you could lock him up for five years in a gym with nothing but a ball, a hoop, five folding chairs and just enough oatmeal for baseline sustenance, he’d still emerge from the other end better, faster, stronger and—somehow, despite the misgivings of gravity—taller.

Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

To be sure, Antetokounmpo still has plenty to work on, his gaunt build and defensive rotations being chief among them. Despite his warplane wingspan, Antetokounmpo is still prone to being bullied on the block, particularly when slotted at the power-forward position.

All of which, ledger considered in full, amounts to so much nitpicking. If the 14 teams before them had to do it over again, the Bucks would be out one of the game’s most glittering gets: The reach of a rocket, the gait of a gazelle and a game wholly his own.

It might be a year or two before the Antetokounmpo train pulls into the All-Star station. When it does, though, rest assured you'll know it not by the sight of the stop itself but by the burn of the blur barreling furiously past, onward and outward down the tracks.

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