Fast-improving Antetokounmpo: 'I'm going to be better game by game'
ST. FRANCIS, Wis. -- At this time last year, Giannis Antetokounmpo was a wide-eyed teenager searching not only to find his way in the NBA, but also around a foreign country in which he'd hardly ever set foot.
Antetokounmpo is still a teenager and unquestionably has a long ways to go before he reaches his vast potential, but the progress the second-year forward has made in such a short time is nothing short of staggering.
Both socially and basketball-wise, Antetokounmpo is a different person than he was a year ago, and that is great news for the Milwaukee Bucks.
"I just try to learn every day," Antetokounmpo said. "I try to listen to my coach. I know that my confidence is growing by playing games and having good teammates that try to push me forward to try to make me make the right plays.
"I'm going to be better game by game. My confidence is going to keep growing, and we're going to do great things this year."
Starting the season as a matchup nightmare off the bench, Antetokounmpo is Milwaukee's second-leading scorer at 11.7 points per game to go along with 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 25.3 minutes. He's averaging 15.5 points over the last four games, twice surpassing his previous career high.
Antetokounmpo has scored in double figures in eight of 10 games this season after reaching double-digit points just 22 times in his successful rookie season. Defensively, Antetokounmpo is holding opponents to a 36.7 field-goal percentage on shots in which he's the primary defender, including 26.5 percent on shots from outside 15 feet.
After being drafted No. 15 overall by the Bucks in the 2013 NBA Draft, Antetokounmpo was an unknown to even the diehard basketball fan. Milwaukee entered last season with playoff aspirations, leaving Antetokounmpo's role up in the air.
At this time last year, former coach Larry Drew and the Bucks were wondering how to find minutes for Antetokounmpo to have game action as part of his development. But the path of Milwaukee's season quickly reversed course, and Antetokounmpo became a fixture in the Bucks' rotation by December, ultimately playing the fifth-most minutes per game in the rookie class.
"It is coming back to help me a lot," Antetokounmpo said of last season. "I got a lot of minutes in the NBA last year because the team was like that. We didn't do what was expected, but I had the opportunity to play a lot."
Antetokounmpo has also physically grown since he was drafted, as he's up two inches from 6-foot-9 to 6-foot-11. The Bucks experimented with Antetokounmpo at point guard during summer league and the exhibition season and have used him quite a bit at power forward during the regular season.
Against Memphis on Nov. 8, Antetokounmpo went head-to-head with Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph in what was an impressive back-and-forth in the fourth quarter of Milwaukee's 93-92 win.
Antetokounmpo held his own against the much stronger Randolph on the defensive end and took it to the two-time All-Star on offense, repeatedly driving to the rim to finish with 12 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter.
Three days later, Antetokounmpo went against Oklahoma City's defensive stalwart Serge Ibaka and finished with 14 points and nine rebounds.
"Game by game, practice by practice, I get more comfortable," Antetokounmpo said of playing power forward. "I think it is a spot that can help me because I usually play with bigger guys than me. So far, I like it."
The physical gifts possessed by Antetokounmpo were evident last season, but his increased level of confidence and decisiveness has helped him utilize the talent.
While the mistakes will still be there, Antetokounmpo is committing fewer of them and is starting to understand what he has to do to be successful both offensively and defensively.
"He wants to be good," Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. "He's doing everything to put himself in that position. He works extremely hard.
"That's the way this league is built, creating mismatches. Every player thinks they have a mismatch. Memphis probably felt with Zach that they had the mismatch, and we felt on the other end we probably had the mismatch in the sense of playing through Giannis.
"Which mismatch wins? We got very lucky in the sense that Giannis delivered for us. It was a great learning experience for Giannis defensively, being able to fight someone that big, not just on the post but also for the rebound."
After coming off the bench for nine games to start the season, Antetokounmpo was inserted into the starting lineup Sunday in Miami. He's expected to continue to start, as Kidd felt it was time rookie Jabari Parker and Antetokounmpo play together.
That means Antetokounmpo will start at small forward with Parker at power forward, but the 6-11 matchup nightmare will presumably continue to play all over the floor.
"I'm just trying to help my teammates with anything they need me to do," Antetokounmpo said. "We're making progress as a team. But we have to stay hungry. If we go out there every night and play hard, we're going to be in a lot of close games."
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