Look, up over the backboard, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s ….. Giannis Antetokounmpo!
It’s taken a little while for The Greek Freak as he’s called, Greece’s best basketball player, son of Nigerian immigrants who gave their sons Greek first names, to come into his own in the National Basketball Association but it seems like he’s on a path to join the pantheon of the game’s greatest ever players, a combination of Elgin Baylor, Connie Hawkins and Oscar Robertson – you have to go back to names from the past to compare him because few in the game today are his match.
He didn’t lead Greece to the Olympics or Under-21 titles, didn’t play for his national team this year because he said he had a knee injury and – after criticism he didn’t have his heart in his homeland – had to watch while Greece couldn’t even quality for the European tournament.
Antetokounmpo has elevated his game to superstar status while playing with one of the NBA’s still-mediocre teams, the Milwaukee Bucks, not a premier city to showcase his growing myth as a player who soars like a pterodactyl, and, at 6-11 with a 7-3 wingspan, handles the ball like a guard and can bring dunks from above like thunder from the gods.
“I’ve never seen anybody like him,” former Buck star Michael Redd told the New York Times in a feature about the rapidly growing legend of Antetokounmpo. “We’ve never seen anything like this. The numbers he’s getting right now are almost on accident. Once he learns how to play play — unstoppable. It’s almost like he’s from another planet.”
Not another planet, but another country – Greece – and he’s given the country downtrodden with more than 7 ½ years of bad news during a crushing economic crisis some good news and someone to look up to, apart from the anti-semitic, racist, anti-Capitalist, anti-immigrant extreme right Golden Dawn which wants racial pureness as a test of Greekness.
Antetokounmpo is in his fifth season and became an All-Star last year as a highlight reel of shuttering dunks and floating in air toward the basket while people got out of the way. He won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, averaging 31.3 points, 10.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists this year improving on the most improved player, numbers never before exceeded: not by Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Lebron James. Nobody. Looks like the knee is better.
And he’s still only 22 but as the Times reported, “No one has quite figured out how to size up this 6-foot-11 235-pounder who occasionally needs just one dribble from midcourt to swoop to the rim and does all that scoring without a dependable perimeter stroke to open up the rest of his game.” And get out of the way if you don’t want to get hurt because he’s gone 57 in two dribbles.
What, exactly, is he? “Point all,” Bucks Coach Jason Kidd – who, when he played was one of the game’s greatest ball handlers, told the Times after trying to find the right definition.
Veteran Bucks guard Jason Terry, referring to his former longtime teammate Dirk Nowitzki, the revolutionary power forward, said, “Dirk, in my eyes, is the best European player to ever play this game. He literally changed the way his position is played. But Giannis doesn’t even have a position. He does it all, and he’s still learning what to do out there.”
What bumped Antetokounmpo above his peers this year is that he’s found a shooting touch and outside game, hitting 60 percent from the field, which means defenders can’t stay back, can’t stick on him and can’t stay with him.
He’s a fan favorite not just because of his player but because, coming from Athens, he said he truly loves Milwaukee. This from a man who, when he was young, sold sunglasses around the Athens neighborhood of Sepolia for a few bucks before becoming a multi-millionaire with a galaxy-wide smile and unabashed humility.
“I’m a low-profile guy,” he said. “I don’t like all these flashy cities like L.A. or Miami. I don’t know if I could be the same player if I played in those cities,” he told the paper.
Antetokounmpo is in the first year of a four-year, $100 million contract extension — $11 million less than the maximum he could have signed for — but the Bucks know other teams are already planning pitches to lure him away in four years.
Antetokounmpo is on a course to be eligible for a so-called “supermax” contract extension from the Bucks via the league’s new Designated Player Exception during the 2020 off-season, which would put him in line for a new deal well in excess of $200 million. Maybe he, like most, will take the money and leave Milwaukee when the time comes but said in a Tweet that “I got loyalty inside my DNA,” although his country’s own basketball federation doubted that when he said the knee soreness would keep him from playing for Greece.
He’s even moved his family to Milwaukee, a happy time saddened with the sudden passing of his father on Sept. 29 at age 54 from a heart attack. “I can feel the love from the city every day I step on the floor,” Antetokounmpo said. “For me, what I’m going through now, I appreciate it even more.”
Brother Kostas is a redshirt freshman at the University of Dayton but the rest of the family moved into a new downtown complex before this season, with Giannis and Alexandros Antetokounmpo (a high school sophomore) housed on the fifth floor and Charles and Veronica on the fourth.
“Leading your family is a lot tougher than basketball,” Antetokounmpo said. “Especially right now. But I’ve got to be strong for my family. “Things,” he continued, “are going to get better.”
MOST IMPROVED NEEDS IMPROVEMENT
He’s not perfect despite the accolades. His outside game needs work and reading the game at both ends of the floor to make better decisions. “He’s like a plane that just started taking off,” Kidd said. “He’s at 10,000 feet.”
When he arrived in Wisconsin, via the 15th overall pick in the 2013 N.B.A. draft – where he waved the Greek flag – Antetokounmpo was measured at 6 feet 9 inches and weighed less than 200 pounds. A half-decade later, he is closing in on 240 pounds, and coaches and teammates routinely refer to him as a 7-footer.
Milwaukee assistant coach Frank Johnson, noting Antetokounmpo’s bulked-up body and added strength, said, “He gets bumped now and he loves it,” a tall test in the rough-and-tumble world of the NBA where muscle matters.
Bryant, now in his second season of retirement, had seen enough coming into training camp to challenge Antetokounmpo via Twitter in late August to make a bid for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award. Bryant told the Times that he was moved by Antetokounmpo’s “rare physical gifts that are matched by a rare inner passion.”
Bucks staffers do worry that Antetokounmpo is occasionally too hard on himself, having watched him head straight for the practice floor on the same night as a frustrating loss more times than they care to remember.
After a home game 96-89 loss to the Boston Celtics he said it was all his fault, not his teammates, taking hard a loss of one game in an 82-game season that’s so long that some players just mail it in occasionally and could care less who they are playing for or even if they win or lose as long as they get paid. There’s no W’s and L’s on the checks.
He’s not lost touch with the youth who didn’t seem to have a chance growing up in Greece and wanted to have a garage sale as a part of his recent move to pay homage to growing up in Athens. The Bucks’ front office and his mother Veronica talked him out of it.
“I’m a great seller — that’s one of the other talents I have,” Antetokounmpo said. “I wanted to do it so bad. But they told me I couldn’t because three or four thousand people would show up.”
He’s dyed-in-the-wool Milwaukee now, even with its frigid winters so unlike the sun and warmth of Athens and Greece. “I really don’t see Giannis going anywhere,” Redd said. “Even in the future.
“With what he’s doing on the court, it’s going to automatically draw people to come play with him. I know people have that stigma about Milwaukee. But it won’t be hard for him to attract talent here. I just want a ring when they get a ring.”
In the month since his father’s death, Antetokounmpo revealed that he often found himself looking at a picture on a private Instagram page he maintains. The image shows Giannis, Kostas, Alexandros and their older brother, Thanasis, who currently plays for Panathinaikos in Greece after a brief stint with the Knicks, all sleeping in the same bed.
He said he was about 10 or 11, sharing one bed with three brothers as his parents slept in a small nearby den.
“It’s an unbelievable story,” Antetokounmpo said. “Good stuff.” And it’s just getting started.