In the same week that Milwaukee Buck Giannis ‘the Greek freak’ Antetokounmpo was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the NBA rising star hit a buzzer-beating fade away shot against the NY Knicks to win the game.
It was another example of Antetokounmpo’s potential talent being realised.
Playing in his fourth season, the Greek-born 6’11” athletic basketballer has taken the NBA by storm and many, including his coach, former NBA star Jason Kidd, are predicting big things for the 22-year-old.
“The game changes, you have special players you come across,” he said. “Lebron James, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. You have different players that you know are rare and I think Giannis is one of those rare players that we will be able to enjoy for a long time.”
Before Antetokounmpo began his fourth season in the NBA, there were signs that big things were about to happen. It started in September last year, when he was given a four-year, $100 million contract extension with the Bucks. Then, just before the 2016/17 NBA season began, Giannis was voted as the league’s top international player by the NBA’s general managers.
Throughout his first three seasons, Antetokounmpo has improved on all aspects of his game, but this season, Giannis’ stats have taken off. After playing 35 games, the 22-year-old leads his team in every category, averaging 24 points, 9 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.9 steals and 2.1 blocks per game.
The cover of Sports Illustrated announced Giannis as “the most intriguing point guard in NBA history”, and this could be the season the youngster makes his first NBA All-Star team.
But back to that winning shot, and the reason that moment is telling. Antetokounmpo is not known for his shooting prowess. The best players in the NBA have all had a jump shot, and adding shooting to his game means the predictions for his future may become reality. Tellingly, Gianni’s coach at the Bucks believes his young charger is so talented that he doesn’t even need to shoot.
“He can be a great player without the jump shot,” said Jason Kidd. “There will always be people who criticise and pick at his game by not doing something well. But for him he has to understand who he is and what he does well.
“We all want to shoot the ball better. He works on it as hard as anyone and the jump shot will come, but he has other parts of the game that are so far ahead of the jump shot and that’s what makes him great.”
Giannis the family man
Antetokounmpo’s parents Charles and Veronica emigrated from Nigeria to Greece in 1991 and struggled to make ends meet. Giannis’ older brother Thanasis also plays basketball professionally in Spain, and when they were younger spent many days walking through the streets of Athens selling watches, sunglasses, toys and video games.
But Giannis didn’t hawk electronic goods on the street for long, because when he was 18 years of age he was selected as the number 15 overall pick in the 2013 draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. In his rookie year Giannis took time to get used to playing with basketball’s elite. With only the experience of playing in the Greek A2 League, his rookie year saw him play 77 games with a modest average of 6.8 pts per game.
As first years go in the NBA, it was to be expected, and during that period of adjustment Giannis took solace in his family.
“It was hard, as I was alone,” he said. “I wasn’t playing at the beginning and things were a little hard and I was still figuring out the style of play here in America. I told my mother that I couldn’t do it, that it wasn’t the same. I wasn’t crying but I was upset.
“My mother said, ‘listen here, if you drop out and you can’t do it and you’re always complaining and you want to come back, it’s a betrayal for a lot of kids. A lot of kids will drop out, but more importantly, your brothers will also drop out. You shouldn’t say in your life that you’ll walk away because a lot of kids look up to you and are following you’.”
Giannis says he is still getting advice from his family, but this time in the form of his 15-year-old brother Alexander.
“He told me, ‘when you play and make a mistake, or you make a bad shot or the team is losing, make sure you’re always smiling’. And I said to him ‘what are you talking about, always smiling?’ He said, ‘because we as a family are not thinking if you play well or shit, we just want to see you happy and smiling’.”
Giannis the Game Changer
There are players who redefine the game and, armed with an abundance of natural athletic talent, Giannis is taking basketball to a new dimension. Graced with speed, height, an ability to drive to the basket and ball-handling skills, his position on the court is a combination of a point guard and a centre. That move has been the springboard for Giannis’ career and it could be the catalyst that sees him become a NBA great. However, Antetokounmpo says that moving from a forward to point guard took some adjusting.
“I remember that moment,” he said. “I think coach Kidd’s experiment started in my second year in the league. It was in the pre-season against the Cavs. He told me, ‘today you’re going to be the point guard’. I remember I messed up that game. I had, like, six turnovers.
“But coach Kidd always saw that I was really good at playmaking. He gave me a second chance last year, against Atlanta. And he didn’t even tell me. He told me like 15 minutes before the game: ‘Giannis, you’re starting as a point guard today’. And it felt good to know that he trusted me again and gave me a second chance. I was like, ‘this time I’m going to make it right’.”
Giannis the future Superstar
While Giannis has much to achieve before he is considered one of the greats of the game, the ‘Greek freak’ believes he can reach the pinnacle of basketball and become the NBA’s most valuable player.
“Yeah, I feel like I can get there one day,” he said. “I just have to keep working hard, try to make my team better. And that’s a goal of mine, one day. I think I have a long way to go, but for the steps that I’ve made in my life, from where I started – I grew up in Athens not having much. Being in the situation I had to keep pushing, keep pushing, and it’s a great feeling, because all the hard work I did in my life, it paid off.”
While he aspires to be an NBA legend, one of Giannis’ biggest desires is to inspire the next generation of basketball players.
“As the years go by and I am still in the team I believe that some young guy might say that they want to play against Giannis Antetokounmpo,” he said. “That would be a compliment. I started at 18 years old and used to say I wanted to play with Kobe and LeBron. So if some little kid said that, it would be a super compliment.”