MILWAUKEE — In what has been a dreary, overcast season so far for the Milwaukee Bucks, a ray of sunshine finally broke through Saturday night.
That was the eyebrow-raising performance of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ intriguing rookie forward. Antetokounmpo made several exceptional plays throughout the course of the Bucks’ game against the Boston Celtics in the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
However, there was one sequence of plays that was simply jaw-dropping, one that was LeBronesque. That occurred in the second quarter when Celtics guard Jordan Crawford appeared on his way to a routine layup. But as Crawford was about to lay the ball off the backboard, Antetokounmpo soared from behind and, with his 7-foot-4 wingspan, swatted the ball away. That brought the partisan crowd and Bucks’ bench to their feet.
But Antetokounmpo wasn’t done. After teammate Zaza Pachulia grabbed the loose ball and outletted it to Luke Ridnour racing up the left side, Antetokounmpo sprinted down the court and, after taking a lob feed from Ridnour near the free-throw line, delivered a ferocious one-hand flush.
The crowd erupted again.
“Not many players in our league have those type of attributes as far as length, speed and the skills to handle the basketball like him,” Bucks point guard Brandon Knight said. “It’s very rare that you come across a basketball player his size who can do all those things.
“He can block a shot and then get out and get a dunk on the other end, all on one play, because of his God-given abilities and physical stature. Not a lot of us have been blessed like that. There are few players in the NBA who can do that.”
The scintillating plays Antetokounmpo delivered are what the Bucks envisioned when they made him the 15th pick in the 2013 draft. They were convinced then, as they are now, that Antetokounmpo is a special athlete and that the sky is the limit for the soft-spoken 18-year-old whose parents — Veronica and Charles — immigrated from Nigeria to Greece.
Yet, while the Bucks’ brass is enamored with Antetokounmpo, they have taken a cautious approach to his development. They are intentionally bringing him along slowly and carefully — he has appeared in 11 games and is averaging 5.3 points and 3 rebounds — and want to make sure the transition from playing in Greece for Filathlitikos, which one NBA scout insisted was the equivalent of an NCAA Division III alumni team, to the NBA as seamless as possible.
But the people who have regularly seen Antetokounmpo behind closed doors in practices fully realize his skill-set is off the charts.
As Bucks forward John Henson said, “He’s a dynamic young player. It’s going to be fun to watch him grow up in front of our eyes.”
Bucks coach Larry Drew has tried his best to downplay his excitement for Antetokounmpo, but it hasn’t been easy.
“He’s 6-9 and 18 years old and, where his skill level is right now, you just don’t see that much,” Drew said. “He does some intriguing things when he’s out on the floor. We just have to continue to develop him. We have to continue to allow him to grow.”
Not only is Antetokounmpo’s game growing, so is his body. When the Bucks drafted him in June, he was 6-9. Now, just more than five months later, he has added more than an inch to his lanky frame.
“I am now 6-10 and one quarter,” Antetokounmpo said smiling.
He then paused before adding, “I still have 3½ years to grow.”
Indeed, doctors have informed Antetokounmpo and Bucks officials that the former’s growth plate is still open. In all likelihood, he’ll become a 7-footer.
For now, Antetokounmpo is content with his role with the Bucks. He believes he’s on track to fulfilling the Bucks’ high expectations, saying he’s already become acclimated to the fast and furious lifestyle of the NBA on and off the court.
Asked if he was intimidated playing in the NBA against more mature and more established players, Antetokounmpo said, “Intimidated? No. I was at the beginning (of the season) scared but not anymore. I am more comfortable and more aggressive.”
Antetokounmpo wore jersey No. 11 while playing in Greece but now dons 34. The reason?
“I picked 34 because my mother was born in 1963 and my father was born in 1964,” Antetokounmpo said. “I picked that number because of them.”
Knight, the Bucks player who wears No. 11 now, is convinced Antetokounmpo will play a major role in changing the Bucks’ fortunes in years to come.
“As he continues to learn our offense and learns to minimize his mistakes — a rookie is going to make mistakes — he’s going to do a lot to help our team,” Knight said. “Like I said, not many guys can match what he can do on the court.”