Tom Thibodeau referred to him simply as “the Greek kid” before praising him at shootaround Friday morning. Bulls PA announcer Tommy Edwards forgot a syllable the first time he checked in. Tony Snell referenced him as “that tall, lanky dude” who’s impossible to pass over following Friday night’s game.
Rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo might not have everyone’s attention, but that might soon change.
It’s been a dismal season in Milwaukee, and it didn’t get any better in Friday night’s 102-90 loss to the Bulls. The defeat was the Bucks’ 12th in the last 13 games and dropped them to a league-worst 14-62, matching the franchise-worst 62 losses they suffered in 1993-94. With six games to go, it’s a matter of when, not if, they’ll set a new record for futility.
It’s been a lackluster five months in the Brew City, sans one of the more exciting young players in the league. More specifically the youngest player in the league, Antetokounmpo is showing flashes of brilliance in his first season that has everyone who watches him buzzing.
“You can see he has great instincts and he can cover a lot of ground. He can make a mistake and still recover and make a great play, so I think he has a very bright future,” Thibodeau said. “His growth has been a big positive for them.”
The 19-year-old doesn't put up gaudy numbers and isn’t terribly consistent, two descriptors which should be expected for a teenager who a year ago was playing in a second-tiered league in Greece. He won’t be part of the Rookie of the Year discussion and entered Friday averaging seven points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists. But what has the city buzzing — as well as league executives, fellow teammates and opponents — is the way he can take over games in sudden, quick spurts. Whether it’s a chase-down block, a thunderous dunk in transition or a LeBron James-like pass through traffic to set up a teammate for an easy bucket, the Bucks rookie is making himself known around the league.
Such was the case Friday night. Though he finished with a relatively quiet four points, three rebounds and five assists, one of the few Bucks highlights came from him in the closing seconds of the first half. Bulls rookie Tony Snell ran down a loose ball in the Bucks backcourt and had a seemingly wide open path to the basket for a layup. That was, until Antetokounmpo sprinted back, blocked the shot off the backboard, dribbled down the floor and finished the possession with a touch pass to Jeff Adrien for a layup. He filled the stat sheet — as he does most nights — adding three steals and two blocks in 33 minutes.
“He’s a long, lanky dude. You can’t throw over-the-top passes on him because he’ll go get them,” said Snell. “He’s real quick and just really good. Length-wise he’s like (Kevin Durant), because he can also handle the ball real well.”
The Bucks made him the No. 15 pick last June in what was considered a historically weak draft. The 6-foot-10 forward has a 7-foot-3 wingspan, nearly 15-inch long hands and a remarkably under-control skill set for a player his size. He can post up on the block, is shooting a respectable 34 percent from beyond the arc and is one of eight players with at least 50 steals, 50 blocks, 130 assists and 35 3-pointers. His versatility is his calling card, and for a Bucks team with no real cemented future players he's the perfect fit.
Durant comparisons aside, he understands that he’s been in the NBA just five months and has played 71 career games. It’ll take more than the length of his arms or crafty body control for him to be satisfied with how he’s playing.
“At the end of the day, I’m just a rookie. I’ve got to work hard to be on their level, so I’m just trying to work hard. I just want to be more aggressive and try to play hard every night, so my teammates can trust me," Antetokounmpo said.
He wears an infectious smile each of the 24.4 minutes per game he plays, but he's also got a killer instinct that's allowed him to go toe-to-toe with his idol, Durant, go coast-to-coast for a layup in three mesmerizing dribbles against the Miami Heat and block two shots in one possession against the Sixers. It's those stretches that have the Bucks believing he can become a true star in the league once he puts it all together.
He's hit a bit of a rookie wall in April, but that was to be expected for someone who played just 26 games in the Greek A2 League, even fewer than his fellow draftees who each played roughly 33 games as collegiate athletes. He's now played in 71 games and in March averaged 6.6 points and 2.0 rebounds, his lowest marks in both categories since November, and his field goal percentage has decreased in each of the NBA's five months.
Still, those bursts of stellar play are still apparent. He scored 14 points and grabbed five rebounds last week against the Pistons, went for 13 points, six rebounds, four assists and four blocks against Philadelphia in February and had a four-game stretch in March when he shot 14-for-23 from the field.
“The thing with Giannis as we wind this thing down, is I want to see him out there playing and not make the same mistakes," Bucks head coach Larry Drew said. "I think we’re at a stage now in the season where I want him to be conscious of the mistakes that he makes and we watch film and we go over things with him.”
The Bucks wrapped up a top-two spot in this year's NBA draft lottery with tonight's loss, and if they can "hold off" the Sixers for the league's worst record it'll guarantee them a top-three pick in June's draft, expected to be the deepest and superstar-heavy since 2003. That means the Bucks will wind up with a potential franchise-changing player to put alongside Antetokounmpo, who might be a future franchise player himself — to put his age in perspective, he's just two months older than freshman Jabari Parker and three months older than Andrew Wiggins.
Antetokounmpo isn’t a household name quite yet, and it’s just as hard to get a shot off over him as it is to spell his last name. But if the “Greek Freak” continues to improve, cuts down on his mistakes and becomes more accustomed to the NBA, those flashes of brilliance will be popping up far more often for one of the league’s most athletically gifted young players.