The Unspeakable Greatness of Giannis Antetokounmpo
MILWAUKEE — Michael Redd averaged 26.7 points per game at the height of his Milwaukee Bucks career. Redd earned a $91 million contract as a Buck, won an Olympic gold medal while a member of the Bucks and stood as the Bucks’ lone N.B.A. All-Star for a span exceeding a decade.
You could thus make the case that Redd, based on his résumé, knows better than anyone else in the basketball universe how it feels to be Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The problem: Redd couldn’t suppress a laugh when that idea was presented to him.
As he stood on the floor of the Bucks’ first home, in anticipation of watching the Antetokounmpo show at an arena unforgettably known as the Mecca, Redd made the claim that none of his predecessors — from this franchise or otherwise — could truly identify with the prodigy affectionately known as the Greek Freak.
“I’ve never seen anybody like him,” Redd said. “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.”
This is the sort of breathless praise Antetokounmpo routinely inspires in his fifth N.B.A. season. Building on a 2016-17 campaign in which he became the Bucks’ first All-Star since Redd in 2004 and won the N.B.A.’s Most Improved Player Award, Antetokounmpo zoomed to averages of 31.3 points, 10.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists entering Friday’s play — benchmarks no player in league history had ever hit, in unison, through the season’s first eight games.
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Yet it is the manner in which he operates, on top of the sheer statistical delirium, that makes the 22-year-old from Greece such a phenomenon. The N.B.A. is famed for the comparison game it triggers any time a new star emerges, but 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.
Is he a budding Magic Johnson — albeit with more athletic ability? Is he the next LeBron James — only blessed with much more size and length? Can we call him a full-fledged point guard now? Is it more accurate to say he’s more of a point forward?
What, exactly, is he?
“Point all,” Bucks Coach Jason Kidd said, after a lengthy pause in search of the proper summation.
The veteran Bucks guard Jason Terry, referring to his former longtime teammate Dirk Nowitzki, the revolutionary power forward, explained the conundrum this way:
“Dirk, in my eyes, is the best European player to ever play this game,” Terry said. “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.”
A Huge Milwaukee Fan
To the Bucks’ delight, “all” includes a trait that tantalizes team officials as much as his 60 percent shooting from the field so far, or anything else the league’s hottest individual force does with a basketball in his hands: Antetokounmpo unabashedly loves Milwaukee.
It’s a city that, despite a string of successful teams in the 1980s and a squad that fell one win short of the N.B.A. finals in 2001, has never fully shed its “unfashionable” label, which was affixed when the best player in Bucks history — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — forced a trade to the perennially glamorous Los Angeles Lakers in 1975.
But Antetokounmpo, in a recent interview, went so far as to assert that where he plays directly influences how he plays.
“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.”
N.B.A. teams saddled with Milwaukee’s small-market, glamour-shy profile generally live in fear of big-market behemoths signing away their brightest talents at the first free-agent opportunity. 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 are well aware that teams out there are plotting their recruiting pitches for the summer of 2021.
Visitors to Milwaukee, however, quickly discover that it’s no exaggeration to describe Antetokounmpo’s future as the least of the Bucks’ concerns in their bid to become a credible contender for the first time in nearly two decades. It also doesn’t hurt that, by virtue of his speedy ascension to All-N.B.A. status and contention for other top individual honors, 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.
As he tweeted in July, to the presumed glee of every Milwaukeean, “I got loyalty inside my DNA.”
‘The Giannis Effect’
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. One example of his blame-me tendencies: He said last week, on the morning after a home setback to the Boston Celtics, that he was still angry “for personal reasons,” implying that the 96-89 defeat was all his fault.
But the Bucks do not try to influence Antetokounmpo’s thinking too much. They prefer to let him figure things out as they come — except when he decided during the summer that he wanted to have a garage sale as a part of his recent move.
He wanted to stage the sale to pay homage to his Athens youth, when he and his brothers had to peddle knockoff watches and sunglasses to help his parents and siblings survive. The Bucks’ front office and Veronica Antetokounmpo ultimately talked him out of it.
“I’m a great seller — that’s one of the other talents I have,” Giannis 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.”
Sounds like a safe estimate given the Bucks’ rising popularity in Green Bay Packers territory and Antetokounmpo’s central role in that rise.
At the Milwaukee Brat House near the team’s current Bradley Center home, the manager Jennifer Fellin said she saw more patrons wearing Bucks gear now than at any other point in her eight-year stint at the restaurant. It is a fashion trend she attributes largely to the Giannis Effect.
The Antetokounmpo-led Bucks, Fellin asserted, have risen to “cool” status.
“They have breathed new life into the city,” Gino Fazzari, owner of the nearby Calderone Club restaurant, said.
Team executives, mind you, are realistic. They know Antetokounmpo will be fiercely pursued by rival teams (and, perhaps more worryingly, stars from rival teams) at the earliest opportunity. They know those future suitors will point to a three-headed Bucks ownership structure that has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months and paint the arrangement as a potential source of instability. They know, even as construction proceeds swiftly on an impressive $524 million arena scheduled to open next fall and complement Milwaukee’s gleaming new practice facility across the street, that Antetokounmpo might find it hard someday to resist looking around if the Bucks cannot fortify their roster and rediscover playoff success.
After all, even Bryant and Tim Duncan — two legends whom he hopes to emulate in terms of never switching teams, as Antetokounmpo recently told Time Magazine — flirted with leaving their teams before opting for the increasingly rare only-one-jersey approach.
“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.”
Outlandish as the retired Redd sounds at the moment — given, for starters, Milwaukee’s lack of a consistent second scoring option as well as a need for more speed and more shooting — Antetokounmpo encourages the lofty talk. He is convincing when he says he thinks he “can take this organization to the next level and bring that championship,” undoubtedly projecting so much confidence because he’s so aware of how far he has come.
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.
Giannis estimates that he was 10 or 11 at the time. One bed for the four children was all Charles and Veronica Antetokounmpo could manage. The parents slept in a small nearby den, as Giannis recalled, behind “like a curtain.”
“It’s an unbelievable story,” Antetokounmpo said. “Good stuff.”
Memories like that leave little doubt why the only N.B.A. city that the Greek Freak has ever known can feel like the promised land.
“There’s a lot of things you can do in Milwaukee, too,” he said proudly.
The whole league can see that now.