ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Shabazz Muhammed thought he had an easy breakaway dunk in a recent preseason game, the kind of play that gets replayed over and over again on all of the highlight shows. Instead, Minnesota’s rookie got put on a highlight reel.
Using incredible closing speed and his freakishly long arms, Giannis Antetokounmpo somehow caught Muhammed and pinned the ball off the glass.
How should the rookie season of a kid from a foreign country who won’t turn 19 years old until December be judged? The Milwaukee Bucks just want everyone else to see the flashes of brilliance they’ve already seen in Antetokounmpo.
“To me, success for Giannis is I want people to see it,” Bucks general manager John Hammond said. “I want people to see him make a play that when you see a kid 19 years old out on the floor doing what he is doing, you’re going to say, ‘I got it. I get it. I can see how good he can be.’ I don’t think they will see it every night, but if he shows it every once in a while.”
Three preseason games in and Hammond’s hope has already begun to come to fruition. The buzz surrounding Antetokounmpo is spreading like wildfire throughout Milwaukee and the league in general, as many are finally understanding why the Bucks would take the risk with the 15th pick in the 2013 draft.
Antetokounmpo’s overall preseason numbers don’t tell the whole story, but do show he’s quite a bit of time away from becoming a consistent contributor. He’s averaging 6.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game, but there’s also the 4.0 turnovers per game and 33.3 percent field-goal percentage.
Outside of the preseason opener when he scored 14 points, Antetokounmpo has struggled offensively but has put his length and athleticism on display on the defensive end. Even practice has been a mixed bag of results. It’s clear Antetokounmpo not only has to get stronger, but he also has to improve his conditioning to an NBA level.
An assistant coach has been trailing Antetokounmpo’s every move in practice, standing by his side in case there are questions or issues with the language. One thing he’ll have to improve on is his ability to play without the basketball. Antetokounmpo has almost always had the ball in his hands growing up, something that won’t happen right away with the Bucks.
No matter the growing pains, Antetokounmpo keeps providing highlight reel plays to remind many why this process could be worth it. Playing one-on-one with assistant coach Nick Van Exel, who was being very physical defensively, Antetokounmpo made a nice move off the dribble and took off from just inside the free-throw line for a thunderous one-handed dunk.
“I’m always using this word intriguing,” Bucks coach Larry Drew said. “He’s very, very intriguing. We selected him knowing that he would get an opportunity during the preseason. We’re willing to live with the mistakes. He had a total of 12 mistakes in his first two exhibition games. I find it more important to allow him to play through his mistakes than to sit him on the bench.”
There are no positives in key members of the roster missing time with injury, but Antetokounmpo has been one benefactor thus far in the preseason. When Carlos Delfino returns from injury, the Bucks will have a crowd at small forward. Caron Butler, Delfino and Khris Middleton will see the majority of the minutes, leaving Antetokounmpo on the bench.
Practice and individual workouts will be crucial to Antetokounmpo’s development, but no player can reach their full potential without game experience. Because the rookie is so far away from being a reliable member of the rotation, Drew is faced with the challenge of picking times when to give Antetokounmpo some run on the floor.
“Right now, I don’t know to be perfectly honest,” Drew said about Antokounmpo’s role in the regular season. ” … Once this thing starts up, hopefully he’ll be in a position where we can get him in the games, but he’s a very intriguing talent with his size, with his ability to pass the ball. He can make shots. When he’s out on the floor in the open court, things do happen. I’m excited about developing this kid. I think this kid has an opportunity to be a terrific NBA player.”
There’s an outside chance the Bucks could send Antetokounmpo to the NBA Developmental League, but many in the organization would much prefer to keep him under their watch in Milwaukee, especially as he adjusts to a foreign country with his family in town. But if playing time truly is scarce or even non-existent, the Bucks could send Antetokounmpo to the D-League for a game or two to get game experience when Milwaukee is on a road trip, much like the team did with Doron Lamb last season.
“You want to have patience with Giannis,” Hammond said. “But from my seat, and I know Larry and I are going to be like-minded in this kind of thinking, but the best experience Giannis can have is getting him in between those lines, between those lines at the Bradley Center in particular.
“There is nothing like playing time. He needs to get out there. He needs to get his feet wet. He needs experience with the size, the quickness, the speed of the NBA game. I know we have training camp, exhibition season. We’ll see how that all goes, but he needs to get experience. He needs to get out on that floor. The sooner he gets it, the quicker it’s going to happen for him.”