Over the last couple of weeks, the motley group of individuals who collectively market, report on and create the narrative of the NBA have become aware of the fact that there’s a young player playing in a small market who is quite good. Calling him good does him a disservice, because he’s more than that. This player, who turned 22-years-old on Tuesday and is averaging 22 points, nine rebounds, six assists, two blocks and two steals per game, isn’t just good. He is already elite. He is, arguably, already the best player in the Eastern Conference not named LeBron James. The fact that he stands at 6’11” and has a 7’3” wingspan only makes his ability to dribble, run and pass like a guard while posting up and defending like a center even more impressive. Sadly for Giannis Antetokounmpo, playing for the Milwaukee Bucks means that until now, he has been largely ignored.
Nonetheless, what Antetokounmpo has been doing this season means that the league can no longer ignore him. Folks began to sit up and take notice after Bucks head coach Jason Kidd made a lineup change and installed Antetokounmpo at point guard. He proceeded to have five triple-doubles within the space of six weeks late in the 2015-16 season alongside no shortage of gif-worthy moments which exploded over Twitter. That still was not enough for the young star to receive much press in the lead-up to the 2016-17 season.
In some respects, that was fair. When the Bucks drafted Antetokounmpo as an 18-year-old directly out of the Greek Basket League in the first round, many were skeptical of the pick. Could a body like that with a game like that sustain itself in the NBA and remain injury-free? Would he ever be able to translate his widely-acknowledged potential into genuine talent and become the player Milwaukee thought he could? Like all young players, there were growing pains; he missed his parents and siblings who were living in Greece; he had to deal with Wisconsin winters; and he handle the hopes and expectations of a city which had grown used to losing.
He didn’t look like a world beater as a rookie, averaging just shy of seven points, four rebounds and two assists per game. However, there were flashes of the ability he is now showcasing on a nightly basis. That ability began to show up more frequently over his next two seasons in the league, when he became a regular starter and his production increased to nearly 13 points, seven rebounds and three assists as a second-year and 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists as a third-year. The moment in the early spring of 2016 when Kidd moved him to point guard was when things started coming together.
Still, the league didn’t want to pay attention, but fans and media members have had no other option after the way Antetokounmpo has performed in Milwaukee’s first 19 games this season. While the Bucks may be only 10-9 thus far, their 97-96 loss at home to the San Antonio Spurs on Monday ended a four-game win-streak which included a 17-point victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. When LeBron James walked off the Bradley Center floor, he had been thoroughly outplayed by Giannis. Antetokounmpo finished that game with 34 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, five steals and two blocks to James’ 22 points, four rebounds, four assists and seven turnovers. Giannis is the most recent recipient of the Eastern Conference Player of the Week award, and is well on his way to becoming the Bucks’ first All-Star since Michael Redd in 2004.
He isn’t the complete package yet. He struggles with both his jump shot and his self-confidence. Those can both come with time. He has a desire to learn, and to improve, as video of him talking to Kevin Garnett at Bucks practice on Tuesday illustrates. His head coach has declared that the main reason people don’t talk about him is that they can’t pronounce his last name, and that he could prove to be a hybrid combination of Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron. While that depiction could prove to be a bridge too far, two things about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s future are certain: it will be bright, and it will be fun to watch.