MILWAUKEE — The New York Knicks were going to make sure Giannis Antetokounmpo was going to earn everything he got Wednesday night.
Between jawing at the young rookie and attempting to push him around, Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks tested Antetokounmpo during his first career start Wednesday. The 19-year-old stood up to the test and even fired back at the superstar in Milwaukee’s 107-101 double-overtime loss.
“I was really, really happy with what this kid did tonight,” Bucks coach Larry Drew said. “I was just so pleased. When he picked up the first two fouls, I know he was a little discouraged but it didn’t affect his play from a play-hard standpoint. He still competed.”
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At 19 years and 12 days old, Antetokounmpo became the youngest player to ever start a game for the Bucks. Ersan Ilyasova was the previous youngest starter in franchise history when he started at 19 years and 187 days old in 2006.
Antetokounmpo is the youngest player to start an NBA game since Andrew Bynum started at 19 years and four days old in 2006. He finished with 10 points and seven rebounds in 42 minutes before fouling out in the second overtime.
“It was a very nice experience,” Antetokounmpo said. “I can’t believe Coach trusted me and put me in the starting lineup. I’m very happy for that. I want to prove to him I can stay and continue to be there starting for the team.”
After saying he didn’t know how his first start would go, Antetokounmpo admitted he was nervous before the opening tip. Drew noticed a change in the rookie’s demeanor after he came back into the game after sitting with two early fouls.
“Yeah, of course,” Antetokounmpo said when asked if he was nervous. “I’m 19 years old. I never started on my team in Europe, I was the sixth guy. Now that I’m starting in the NBA, which I was watching last year from the TV, I was a little bit nervous. I think that was normal. I picked up a couple of fouls and I was hoping Coach would put me back in the game so I could play harder.”
Prior to the game, Antetokounmpo spoke of his respect for Anthony but didn’t sound intimidated at all about going up against one of the NBA’s best. Anthony and Antetokounmpo has a bit of a back and forth going throughout Wednesday’s game, and the young forward didn’t back down.
Antetokounmpo not only held his own in the war of words, but he competed defensively and helped force Anthony into a 9-of-29 shooting night.
“He’s one of the best players in the league, but he talks a lot,” Antetokounmpo said. “He was trying to intimidate me so I would lose my focus. I tried to play defense the only way that I know. He didn’t score on me, so I’m good.
“I was prepared. I know he talks so much, I know. But all the guys tried to intimidate me, even the bench. I don’t know why. I respect Carmelo. I respect who he is. He’s one of the best players. Before this night he was one of my role models. Now he’s one of the guys I play against, so I have to (beat) him.”
Anthony seemed to enjoy the chatter and didn’t make a big deal about it after the game.
“He is a young guy,” Anthony said. “(Giannis) played extremely hard. You got to give him credit for that. He was trying to help his team win the game. It was part of the game tonight.”
Bucks point guard Brandon Knight, who finished with a career-high 36 points, wasn’t surprised to see Antetokounmpo handle the pressure the way he did.
“Not at all,” Knight said. “We beat him up in practice and he doesn’t show fear there. Playing against one of the biggest names tonight he did a great job of being himself and not backing down. That’s part of what we want to build here, guys that are going to play hard no matter who it is against.
“They tried to be physical with him. That’s part of the NBA with a rookie. I think Giannis did a good job of holding his composure.”
O.J. Mayo’s absence due to personal reasons and Gary Neal’s foot injury made Drew’s decision to start the rookie relatively easy. When asked before the game if Antetokounmpo would have started if Mayo was available, Drew said, “I don’t know.”
After what he showed Wednesday, Drew’s hand may be forced for at least the foreseeable future. “I think when we watch him play, the things we’re seeing with him, we’re starting to see what his true position is,” Drew said. “I’ve always said this kid is going to be a point forward. When he’s in the open court, he can pass the ball and he can get to the basket.
“He has a good feel for when to give the ball up and when to keep it. He regulates his speeds well. The strength of his game is the open court.”
The Bucks coach admitted he is surprised with how far the youngest player in the NBA has come in such a short period of time. On draft night, both Drew and general manager John Hammond had no idea what Antetokounmpo could provide this year.
While he’s far from a finished product, Antetokounmpo has provided a glimpse of being something awfully special.
“I didn’t know if he would actually be playing at all, to be perfectly honest,” Drew said. “That was one of the things we said in getting him at 18 years old, there were still some development (areas) needing to take place. Whether he would be ready to step in and play at this level, we had no idea.
“I didn’t know. Especially him not playing against any NBA guys yet. I just didn’t know how much I would use him. He could have been a project. I didn’t know.”
When told he was the youngest player to ever start for the Bucks, Antetokounmpo lit up and had a big grin on his face. He seemed surprised but also proud of his accomplishment.
“It’s nice to be the youngest player,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’ll always remember that I was once the youngest player in the NBA. I’m going to say it to my grandkids, say it to my children. It’s nice to be the youngest player because if you don’t get injured you have many years to go.”