ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) With his baby-faced features, soft voice and gangly arms nervously fidgeting behind his back, Giannis Antetokounmpo looked and sounded like a typical teenager politely waiting to get out of a family function.
All this 19-year-old rookie from Greece wants to do is play in the NBA.
The 6-foot-9 forward is providing an unexpected bright spot in an otherwise tough season for the Milwaukee Bucks. Midway through his first year, he’s standing out for more than just his tricky name.
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”I’m happy for him, man. He’s living the dream,” forward Caron Butler said at the team’s practice facility just outside Milwaukee. ”He’s having fun in every sense of the word.”
Through 36 games, Antetokounmpo is averaging 7.0 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. The Sixers’ Michael Carter-Williams and the Magic’s Victor Oladipo have been more productive, but Antetokounmpo has certainly put up respectable stats for a rookie.
At 210 pounds, he’s slowly filling out his frame, though coach Larry Drew already relies on Antetokounmpo to provide energy on the court.
And here’s perhaps what’s most important to know about him: the name is pronounced YAHN-iss ah-deh-toh-KOON-boh.
Antetokounmpo is picking up the lingo, too.
”I thought the language barrier would be somewhat of a problem as well. But just learning the NBA way, all the terminology, I thought there was a lot to be learned,” Drew said. ”But he has surpassed where I thought he would be at this point.”
Expectations were very modest back in October. The plan was to bring him along slowly, especially with the Bucks bringing in some veterans like Butler and O.J. Mayo for leadership roles.
Then a slew of injuries hit the team in training camp. The injury bug stretched into the season, with key players like guard Brandon Knight, forward Ersan Ilyasova, center Larry Sanders and Butler all going down.
Antetokounmpo stepped up.
”First of all, coach wants for me to bring energy, play some defense, run the court, blocks shots, running the lane, try to get some layups, shoot open jump shots,” said Antetokounmpo, sounding like a student reading from a list.
He’s learning on the job. Drew realizes it’s going to take a while for the teen to pick things up to the point where he’s not repeating mistakes. For now, he’d like him to play to his strength.
”When he gets the ball off the glass and brings it in the open court, I think that’s when he’s at his best,” Drew said. ”He’s got to get better. He’s got to get better playing under control. But once he pushes that basketball, if he sees any type of a crack … with his length, he’s able to finish.”
He’s making the slow adjustment socially to a new culture, all without any of his family in town. Family members from overseas are expected to join him in Milwaukee in the near future.
Butler, one the veterans who has taken to mentoring Antetokounmpo, said the teen has started listening to hip hop and R&B. The young, shy forward is also starting to open interviews with media. Antetokounmpo looks more at ease in front of cameras, fidgeting aside.
”It’s nice. First of all, I love Milwaukee because it’s a quiet city, you know. Practice, maybe not a lot of stuff to do, but that’s what I need,” he said.
The first half has been rough on the Bucks, an NBA-worst 8-33 at the midpoint of the season. Besides Antetokounmpo, third-year guard Knight (15.9 points) has been another bright spot, along with spurts of promise from young forwards Khris Middleton and John Henson.
All of which has made it difficult at times for veterans like Butler as Drew continues to look for the right combination. It’s been difficult with all the injuries, though there appears to be some stability finally with personnel.
”I didn’t think I could get to this point, could get into the starting lineup playing so much minutes, coaches going to trust me so early,” Antetokounmpo said. ”No, for me it’s a learning process.”
Notes: Starting C Larry Sanders and G O.J. Mayo returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday’s 104-101 win over Detroit due to illness. … C Zaza Pachulia, sidelined since early December with a fractured right foot, did some running at practice Thursday.
Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP