Thanasis Antetokounmpo hasn’t stopped smiling since signing a short-term contract with the New York Knicks last Thursday. Although it took him a while to get to the NBA, he’s finally in the big league and he is looking to do whatever it takes to stay there.
“I’m happy first of all, I’m excited,” Antetokounmpo told Neos Kosmos in New York. “Basketball-wise, fit wherever I can fit to stay. Do whatever the team needs me to do. Support as much as I can support.”
Antetokounmpo’s journey to Madison Square Garden has been an arduous one. He played one season in the D-League after being drafted in the second-round of the 2014 NBA Draft – turning down lucrative offers from European leagues in the process – before being invited to Knicks’ training camp last October.
He again failed to make the regular season roster, and has been with the team’s D-League affiliate in Westchester, New York, this season.
Despite the long road to the NBA, Antetokounmpo said he never lost confidence that he would reach the League again.
“You have to take risks and you have to be patient,” he said of his journey.
“Sometimes patience is a virtue. It’s really hard for someone to have a lot of patience, to stick to what he’s doing and somehow knowing that he’s going to get to where he wants to go.”
Knicks’ coach Derek Fisher admitted to reporters that Antetokounmpo’s signing was a result of circumstance as the Knicks were banged up and missing three starters at the time he was signed.
“[His defence] was a part of it but the reality is we just need bodies as well,” Fisher said at Knicks practice. “I think all teams are trying to use their D-League teams responsibly and this is another way for us to continue that as well.”
Given his relative inexperience at the highest level, coach Fisher has said that it’s unlikely Antetokounmpo will see regular minutes on the floor.
That didn’t stop the MSG faithful from giving the young Greek a rousing reception when he entered the game late in a blowout over the Phoenix Suns for his first NBA minutes. Antetokounmpo scored his only field-goal attempt. To receive love from a crowd that is usually unforgiving to unproven players was not lost on Antetokounmpo.
“It’s a dream come true playing at Madison Square Garden. Coming in as a sub that fourth quarter, everybody’s cheering, standing up, and then I make a play and I score – we’re already up 20 points – and everybody goes crazy … it’s amazing,” he said.
Making the moment even more special for Thanasis was receiving a reminder from younger brother Giannis that he, too, had scored his first points at the famous arena.
“He told me and I was like, ‘Really?’ Then I remembered that he really scored his first points in Madison Square Garden! It’s crazy,” he said.
In a league which values perimeter players that can defend and shoot three-pointers, Antetokounmpo will have his work cut out for him improving his outside shot, which is not quite at NBA level just yet – he shot just 28 per cent from long-range in the D-League – but Fisher says Antetokounmpo has some intangible qualities that might allow him to remain with the team beyond his current 10-day deal.
“I think a level of competitiveness and grit that a lot of guys don’t play with,” said Fisher. “Not necessarily just our roster, but league wide. Guys just don’t play hard every single possession – that’s not an easy thing to do, and he plays that way. When you have that, things like shooting skills and experience, in terms of reading offences and defences, you can learn those things, but sometimes it’s hard for guys to learn how to play hard. I think he does that.”
Just as important for Antetokounmpo is that he also has the support of the man who drafted him: the Zen Master, Phil Jackson.
“He told me what the team needed from me, and it doesn’t matter if I play two seconds or 12 minutes, just be a good teammate,” Antetokounmpo said. “Play hard, be smart, make smart plays and help the team defensively. That’s my niche … that’s how I’m going to stick here.”
It’s always a long-shot and a challenge to make it at the highest level for a guy drafted as low as Antetokounmpo was, but he continues striving to make his dream a full-time reality. In the meantime, he can take solace in knowing that three second-round picks made the All-Star teams this year, giving him even more motivation.
“That’s a really big boost for every second-round pick, not just me. Putting in hard work and finding a niche in the NBA – which you’re supposed to do – elevates you.”