Antetokounmpo creating a lot of buzz in rookie season
FEB 12, 2014 3:30p ET
ST. FRANCIS, Wis. -- The smile on Giannis Antetokounmpo's face was wide, but that's not unusual. He was just waiting for someone to approach him in the locker room, eagerly anticipating the moment.
Sure, he was excited to talk about his family finally getting to move to the United States to be with him, but Antetokounmpo really wanted to show off the new pair of shoes given to him by Larry Sanders. He spun around and grabbed the box as he was questioned on the occasion.
"Just because!" Antetokounmpo said. "He takes care of me!"
To supporters of the Milwaukee Bucks, the 19-year-old carries the hope of a brighter future for a franchise in desperate need of something positive to latch on to. He represents literal hope to a family who has experienced extreme hardships in its home country of Greece. But he's just "Gianni" to his teammates, a teenager filled with energy, naively going about his business.
He doesn't quite grasp what he represents, but that's quite alright.
Not many players averaging 7.0 points and 4.5 rebounds per game have generated as much national buzz as Antetokounmpo already has. In an otherwise dismal season for the Bucks, media members from all over the world have flocked to Milwaukee to catch a glimpse of the Greek forward.
None of this would have been believable to anyone just five or six months ago. Bucks coach Larry Drew first saw Antetokoumpo play live during the European Under-20 Championships in Estonia this past July. He wondered what he was going to do with a player so raw.
"Just looking at his body, I just thought he had a ways to go," Drew said. "I thought he wasn't physically ready for the NBA style yet. I thought the language barrier would be somewhat of a barrier as well. Just learning the NBA terminology and lingo, I just thought there was a lot to be learned. I thought it would take some time."
It was immediately following Greece's fifth place finish in the tournament that Antetokounmpo moved to Milwaukee to begin preparations for the season. He wasn't satisfied with his team's performance and was almost angry about his personal showing.
Then and there, Antetokoumpo began to come out of his shell. He has since grown as much socially as he has on the court. The quiet kid from the summer has become a talkative sponge.
"He's listening to a lot of hip hop and R&B," Bucks forward Caron Butler said with a laugh. "He's checking out Reggie 'Smooth Butta' Brown all the time on V100.7 (a Milwaukee hip-hop radio station). To see that side of him is extremely amazing. He's living his dream and having fun in every sense of the word. He's really enjoying life right now."
Antetokounmpo came to this country having rarely left Greece. He was, at the time, an 18-year-old without his family in an entirely different culture. So many people embraced him from the start, helping ease the transition.
O.J. Mayo helped him move into his apartment, while Butler, Sanders and others have been there for support. Calls are placed to Antetokounmpo's hotel room on the road, just to make sure he's doing alright. His teammates became his family when his real family were thousands of miles away.
"The life in the NBA is hard because you make a lot of trips and you feel lonely most of the time," Antetokounmpo said. "But it was hard not having my family here for four months. I was living alone, doing stuff alone and talking to them on the phone. I couldn't have my young brothers.
"This was a very hard year for me and for my younger brothers. I was with the national team, the draft, I was always traveling and doing something. I didn't get to hang out with my little brothers a lot."
Antetokounmpo's level of comfort doesn't just stand within the organization. He feels landing in a smaller NBA city has allowed him to exceed expectations on the court.
"I love Milwaukee because it's a quiet city," Antetokounmpo said. "Maybe it doesn't have a lot of stuff to do, but that's what I need because it makes me stay in my house so that's nice. I love the people here. They are nice people that respect you."
Antetokounmpo has already grown an inch since June, when he was drafted 15th overall and 6-foot-9. There are some who believe he isn't done growing, either. Adding strength will be an offseason goal, but his physique is already bigger than it was when the season started.
Antetokounmpo is proud of the progress he's made in that regard and isn't afraid to let it be known to whoever will listen.
"I've caught him a couple of times in the mirror with his shirt off," Drew said. "He's one of those kids that wants to get better. When he sees improvement in areas of his game or with him personally, he's bubbly. His smile is from ear to ear. That's just the kind of kid he is."
The season started with the Bucks trying to figure out a way to steal two to three minutes per game for him to develop, almost a laughable thought just a short time later. Partially because Milwaukee has struggled and due to the fact he has proved he belongs, Antetokounmpo has averaged 24.4 minutes per game and made 21 starts.
From the minute they committed to playing him, Drew understood mistakes were going to have to be lived with. There are times it's fair to wonder why Antetokounmpo is even on the floor, but then he flashes one of those impressive moments and it all makes sense.
"For me it's a learning process now," Antetokounmpo said. "I'm not 'the man.' I'm just a kid that's 19 years old. Even every day I come to practice I make 20 mistakes. Some of those mistakes are mistakes I make every day.
"I have to train more harder and listen to all the coaches and every day try to grab something. You can't grab everything in a day, so every day learn one thing from a coach. I ask myself, 'What did I learn today?' Then I say to myself, 'I learned how to defend the wing action or something.'"
The 6-foot-10 forward has such long strides he can get to anywhere he wants to on the floor. He's dangerous in the open floor, but still learning how to balance aggressiveness with playing under control. A rare blend of physical tools with tremendous work ethic is exciting, but his competitiveness may be what makes him special.
Guys like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony make established NBA players look silly on most nights. Antetokounmpo has taken the challenge of guarding the league's best head on. He didn't back down when Anthony tried to bully him, instead giving it right back to the superstar.
"I've seen some of those guys who have tried to test him," Drew said. "Pushing, banging, in his ear talking trash just to see if he'd back down. He hasn't backed down. That was a huge step for him.
"They know and can sense when a guy has fear playing against them. This kid didn't show any signs. He competed."
After his first battle with Anthony, Antetokounmpo let slip that his one-time idol was now an enemy. It's not cockiness or arrogance, just competitiveness.
"I can't say that (I can hang with them)," Antetokounmpo said. "I'm a rookie and just 19. I talk about them because they have like 10 years in the league. I just want to go hard against them and play hard to see where it takes me."
Having already surpassed the length of a full Greek season, Antetokounmpo is likely to hit a rookie wall. February has been a bit of a struggle, as he's battled back and wrist injuries to average just 5.6 points while shooting 27.6 percent from the field in five games.
Antetokounmpo won't get the usual four days off for the All-Star break, as he's participating in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday and the Skills Challenge on Saturday.
"I think this is going to be a big part of his growth process as well, learning how to push through those days where his body feels achy, feels banged up," Drew said. "He has to learn how to push through that. There are a number of things he's going to have to continue to experience."
There was a bit of hesitation when Antetokounmpo began to answer the question about the rookie wall. He caught himself, almost realizing he didn't want to show any kind of weakness.
"I'm OK, you know?" Antetokounmpo said. "I feel a little bit tired, but we are halfway through. I can't say something about that. I'm the rookie. I have to play. It's my first year. That's a question for the veterans. I'm tired sometimes but I have to fight through it."
It's easy to see why many feel Antetokounmpo can rise to stardom, but there's still a long way to go. Rockets coach and NBA Hall of Famer Kevin McHale was complimentary in his evaluation but knows from experience how hard the next step is.
"You know, there is a big jump from nice player to All-Star," McHale said. "The next jump is up to him. You never truly know if they are going to make it, but where he is at he has a great opportunity."
Being around Antetokounmpo for over half a season has led Drew to feel confident in believing the potential will be realized.
"I can only imagine what he's going to be like three or four years from now," Drew said. "I think sky can be the limit for him, I really do. If he just continues to work, get bigger, get stronger, work on his game, continue to get an understanding of this league, I think this kid is going to be special."
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