‘Greek Freak’ shows glimpses of potential in rookie season, must get stronger

Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game, showing glimpses of the special talent he possesses.

Benny Sieu/Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t need much time to respond when asked what letter grade he would place on his rookie season. 

"D-minus," Antetokounmpo said. "I’m hard on myself."

 It wasn’t the grade Milwaukee Bucks coach Larry Drew was expecting to hear from the 19-year-old as the team gathered at the Cousins Center on Thursday for exit interviews after the season ended with a 111-103 loss to Atlanta on Wednesday.

"Did he really?" Drew said. "He’s being hard on himself."

Nearly 10 months after the Bucks drafted a shy and raw forward from Greece with their first-round pick in the draft, Antetokounmpo is hardly the person he was when he first came to Milwaukee. 

On the court, the Bucks went from trying to figure out how to get Antetokounmpo minutes here and there at the beginning of the season to playing him 24.6 minutes per game in 77 of the 82 games. Antetokounmpo averaged 6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game, showing glimpses of the special talent he possesses. 

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Considering expectations were so low, Antetokounmpo accomplished much more than anyone could have anticipated in his first NBA season.

"I’m happy with myself, but I’m not satisfied," Antetokounmpo said. "I have to work this offseason and come back better.

"My shot, my dribbling, my body. Coach said I have to work on my explosiveness and being in the right spot defensively. I’m going to try to work on everything."

After playing just 16.6 minutes per game in November, Antetokounmpo really started to see the floor a lot in December. The Greek forward averaged 8.4 points in 27.7 minutes per game in December, shooting 47.1 percent from the field. 

It was during that time he opened a lot of eyes throughout the NBA. Antetokounmpo had just turned 19 years old when he began to take on the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, superstars he admitted to admiring from afar just a few months prior. 

"At the beginning it was hard to believe," Antetokounmpo said. "I was thinking, ‘Woah, I’m playing with these guys now?’ As it went on, I said to myself, ‘I belong here.’ " 

Antetokounmpo’s production naturally slipped as the season went on. He was playing a season roughly four times as long as what he had been used to and suffered a few injuries for the first time in his life. He scored 7.4 points per game in January, but that figure fell to 6.6 in March and 5.1 in April. 

Measured at 6 feet, 9 1/2 inches without shoes on Thursday, Antetokounmpo is going to have to add strength in order to continue to improve. 

"I want him to really focus on just getting stronger," Drew said. "He may not be a guy that’s going to pick up a lot of size from a strength standpoint, but there is such a thing as wiry strong. I’ve played against guys and I’ve coached guys like that. 

"He’s got to get quicker, more explosive, particularly laterally, so he’s able to chase and defend guys out on the perimeter. He still has a lot to learn, but it all starts with his strength." 

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Antetokounmpo will begin his offseason work around May 1 when he will help his brother, Thanasis, prepare for the upcoming draft. Eventually his focus will turn to himself, as he plans to work with Bucks assistant coaches Nick Van Exel and Josh Oppenheimer in Milwaukee. 

"I’m going to continue to work on my body because I have to get a lot stronger," Antetokounmpo said. "Coach said that my progress was nice, so I’m just going to try to make more progress and get bigger.

"Coming into this league, the first thing I wanted to do was not get pushed around by the big guys. I accomplished that. The thing now is I want to get bigger so I can push them around." 

From where he was when he was drafted last June, Antetokounmpo’s first NBA season has to be considered a great success. The growth and level of talent he showed was one of Milwaukee’s few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season. 

Antetokounmpo has become a popular figure in the NBA world, as his exposure blew up around NBA All-Star weekend when seemingly every national outlet invaded Milwaukee to feature him in some kind of way. 

"I’ve grown a lot," Antetokounmpo said. "All the articles talk about me, but I don’t like to think about it. I know people know me now. That feels nice.

"I’m really proud of myself for what I accomplished this year."

Nowhere has he been embraced more than in Milwaukee, something Antetokounmpo didn’t see coming when he first arrived in the city. 

"I really didn’t imagine that," Antetokounmpo said. "It’s a nice feeling because I love Milwaukee. Thank God Milwaukee loves me too. I hope I’m here for a long time."

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