In short, Giannis Antetokounmpo alternates between making the plays that no NBA player should make and making the plays that no NBA player can make.
It’s the latter that has people that run inside NBA circles talking.
I promise you, no NBA player this preseason is generating more buzz than Giannis Antetokounmpo. If any player needed a nickname, it’s him.
— david b. thorpe (@coachthorpe) October 11, 2013
Really starting to feel bad for draft “experts” who staked their reputation on Antetokoumpo being a bust, despite never seeing him play…
— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) October 11, 2013
The buzz around the NBA from the Thorpes and Givonys of the world about Antetokounmpo is a rising chorus. Soon it will have more ‘z’s rattling in its hum than a screenplay based on the life of Olek Czyz. In three games, Antetokounmpo has amassed an astounding collection of highlight dunks, blocks, and passes. The 18-year-old shouldn’t be able to do the things that he does (1, 2). Not yet at least. He’s too young, too thin, too green, but he’s doing this stuff anyway.
The Bucks, more than ever, need the promise hiding behind his youth. For years — a seemingly endless stream of years — the team’s ceiling has hovered somewhere around “get into the playoffs and illogically hope for the best.” They must aim higher. Fans need to be convinced that the loop of slightly-below-.500 basketball might end soon, and the Bucks have to engender enough goodwill to make keeping the team in Milwaukee a priority.
Making a dawdling team relevant is a massive task to ask of a teenager. Consider the following:
When Andrew Bogut crashed to the Bradley Center floor and wrecked his elbow, Antetokounmpo sat on the other end of the teenage spectrum. Can you spot 15-year-old Giannis below?
When Ersan Ilyasova played his first game as a Buck, 10-year-old Antetokounmpo was just a boy who only two years earlier had touched a basketball for the first time. When Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson fell to the 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Giannis was a preschooler of all of five years.
Days before the 1995 draft, then-Detroit assistant coach John Hammond traveled to Chicago to run an individual workout for a budding high school prospect in front of an assembly of scouts. That high school star, Kevin Garnett, later played his first NBA game a month before Antetokounmpo was born.
Giannis is young, and with youth comes growth — literally. Giannis has only spent a few months in his body at its current length: 6’9″. He grew at least three inches in the past year. That’s the catch-22 for the moment. He has the one-in-a-billion combination of wide-ranging basketball skill in a unthinkably long basketball body, but to get that way he had to develop a sense for the game and then grow and grow and grow. He’s playing catch-up as far as pairing those skills with his body’s current iteration.
In the meantime, he mixes highlight-quality tip-ins and blocks with traveling violations and telegraphed passes. He often botches the footwork when defending a pick and roll, but then smacks the ball away from behind anyway. His attempts at jump shots have resulted in both swishes and air balls. He has also shown the knack to alter (and sometimes smother) an opponent’s jump shot.
It’s Larry Drew’s job — and really, it’s the most important job he has — to help Antetokounmpo cut down on the mistakes. In the first two preseason games, Giannis had 12 turnovers. About half of them were traveling violations where he moved both feet before starting his dribble. It’s a correctable mistake, and one that’s less likely to be called once the referees have ended their preseason display of making the call a point of emphasis this season. Fixing the other issues will be more difficult. In his third game, Antetokounmpo played fewer minutes than he did in his first two, but he survived without a turnover.
Antetokounmpo isn’t the first 18-year-old forward that the Bucks have drafted in recent years. They also drafted Tobias Harris. (Sorry.) Whether it was by design or accident, the Bucks had the Harris moving along the right path. They found him spare minutes when they could in his rookie season, then they slotted him as a starter as a sophomore (in part because Luc Mbah a Moute was hurt). Tobias wasn’t an overwhelming success — his defensive rebounding and rotations certainly left something to be desired — but he looked like a passable NBA starter at age 19. A month later, Scott Skiles buried him on the bench.
Minus the benching part, the Bucks need to put Antetokounmpo on a trajectory at least as steep. He appears to be at least as NBA-ready as Tobias was at the same age.
And to be clear, general manager John Hammond used the right strategy with his #15 draft choice no matter how Antetokounmpo pans out: Pick young. Pick big. Pick athletic. Pick a good kid and worry about the teaching part later. If it works out, great. If not, keep gambling for the superstar payoff.
The Bucks now have in place a Robert Indiana-inspired floor and designs on the Indiana model of team building. Like the Pacers, they keep adding pieces from the middle of the draft and hoping to assemble a deep and level roster without fully bottoming out. Larry Sanders promises to be their stopper in the middle a la Roy Hibbert. Now the trick will be to see if Giannis can be the Bucks’ Paul George, even if he projects more like an Andrei Kirilenko-type player.
If he can, the Bucks will be one puzzle piece closer to NBA relevancy.