The 2013-14 Bucks’ season reeks of an air of mangled feet and failure.
Zaza Pachulia and Carlos Delfino are both sidelined with broken feet. Gary Neal and Ersan Ilyasova flounder about while nobly trying to play through plantar fasciitis and a sprained ankle respectively. Vets Caron Butler and Luke Ridnour, a pair of free agents-to-be, boast two of the team’s worst on/off splits. At 5-20, the Bucks sit at the bottom of a historically weak Eastern Conference.
But despite the carnage, hope brims more brightly in the BMO Harris Bradley Center than it has in years.
The best Bucks to date have been the young ones, and the brightest star has been the youngest. It’s a role Giannis Antetokounmpo embraces. “I am proud of myself. And I like to be the youngest player in the NBA. That makes me even more excited for this league — to play with the big guys.”
Giannis will get even more opportunities to play against the NBA’s best now that he has landed solidly in Larry Drew’s playing rotation — including his first start against the Knicks and another looming against the Cavaliers. His minutes have jumped from 15.3 minutes per game in October/November to 24.5 in December.
Early in the season there are three things that leap to the eye about Antetokounmpo’s game.
1) He can finish at the rim.
The dunks are amazing and breathtaking and they should all make every every “Top 10 Plays of the Night” segment ever — even when he gets two or three in a game. But the reverse layups that sidestep dunk-stopping defenders are just as sweet.
Giannis gets bonus points for being the first Buck wing in forever with a knack for finishing and for compiling a ridiculous ratio of 0.552 free throws per field goal attempt.
2) His versatility of skill.
How many players in the NBA protect the rim like an extra center AND handle the ball like an extra point guard? To be clear: Antetokounmpo isn’t a center; he isn’t a point guard. But when he slides into the protected area as a help defender, he’s just as likely to swat away a shot as any of his teammates are. And when he pushes the tempo in transition, he is just as smooth as his own point guard.
3) He can rebound.
When he was playing in the Under-20 FIBA Championship last summer, Antetokounmpo had the look of a rebounder. But that was playing against 6’6″ and 6’7″ kids of modest athleticism. How was that going to translate to the NBA?
The surprising answer: very well. Despite his slight frame, Giannis’ 18.1% defensive rebounding rate ranks third-best on the team and it’s a mark on the rise: his four best rebounding games have been his most recent four. His length and oven-mitt hands help him get the ball, and once he does, he’s off to the races — which brings us back to strengths 1) and 2). Rinse and repeat.
At only 19 years old, Antetokounmpo needs to round out his game. But given his the advancements he has made in two months — in addition to his natural physical gifts — and one admissible conclusion is that the Bucks won the 2013 NBA Draft. And they did it with the 15th pick no less. Think about that for a second.
The Bucks may have stolen the best player from the 2013 draft with the 15th pick.
Of course there are caveats aplenty to keep everyone grounded.
First, it was a weak draft class, though that fact that makes Giannis lasting until the 15th pick even more incredible.
Second, his ‘best player’ status is not a lock. Michael Carter-Williams, Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo will challenge Antetokounmpo for the title of ‘best player’. But those three are 21 and 22-year-old guards. Giannis is an athletic 6’10.5″ forward with a 7’4″ wingspan and the growth plates of a 16-year-old, meaning that he could grow even taller still while retaining his guard-like ball handling. He has the opportunity to be the basketball equivalent of baseball’s “five-tool player”.
By pulling a coup with the 15th pick, general manager John Hammond has now picked well on four straight first-rounders: Larry Sanders, Tobias Harris, John Henson, and Antetokounmpo. With the advantage of of hindsight, we now know that in each case Hammond snapped up one of the few impact players available to him in the middle of the first round. Harris is now out of the picture, but the remaining trio forms the long-reaching core of his future team.
Even if Sanders and Henson form the team’s future core, other players have been helpful to Giannis too. “Zaza, Ersan and Miroslav (Raduljica) help me a lot,” Antetokounmpo said. “Miroslav is (also) a rookie from Europe. Zaza and Ersan have been in my shoes before. They try everything to help.”
In fact, Pachulia and Ilyasova really have been in Antetokounmpo’s shoes. Before Giannis, they were the only two European-born players to play with the Bucks before turning 20 years old. Now they can tutor the third through the pitfalls of being an NBA teen in a foreign country.
For now, Giannis has to balance the challenge of battling his way into the playing rotation with the challenge of turning a learner’s permit into a driver’s license. He has to balance four-game road trips with the fact that he won’t see his family in any of those cities, not even the one he will come home to.
And he misses his family. For his 19th birthday, he said that his one birthday wish would be to have them with him. He cannot bring them to Milwaukee yet because his parents and two younger brothers have not yet been able to sort out the visa issues that would allow them residency.
In the meantime, while striving for greatness, Giannis waits for them.
Waiting is the theme in Milwaukee in 2013-14. The Bucks bide their time until their players (and players and players) get healthy. The fans wait out the season hoping for a top-tier draft pick. Everyone waits. All of the usual narrow goals have been shelved for longer-term thinking and a progress measured by the skill development of the remaining players.
The wait makes for a placid and oddly pleasant season, despite the losses. In the meantime, enjoy the quiet spectacle of Giannis Antetokounmpo, basketball prodigy. He won’t be out of the NBA’s noisy spotlight much longer.