The Future of the NBA has Arrived
When the Milwaukee Bucks used the 15th pick in the 2013 NBA draft to select Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks fans at Madison Square Garden and around the country didn't know whether to cheer or boo, although most were skeptical. Too little was known about the youngest player in the draft that year to have an opinion. Prior to the draft, Antetokounmpo had played outside of Greece only once, and that was just three weeks before the draft took place.
When Antetokounmpo debuted in the league as an 18 year old full of potential, he talked about the chance to guard his idol, Kevin Durant. Now entering his 5th season, Giannis is on his way to becoming Kevin Durant 2.0. Sure, he needs to develop a three point shot. He's nowhere near Durant in that regard. But he reminds many of Durant, only a more athletic, stronger, faster and more versatile version. His numbers through the first three games of the season (the Bucks 4th game is being played as of writing)? A league-leading 38.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 2.7 steals on 67.2% shooting. Insane numbers. So good, they earned "the Greek Freak" Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Granted, we're only 3 games into the 2017-18 season. But damn have those three games been fun to watch! If he stays anywhere in the same zip code with the numbers he's produced to this point, the MVP award is already his. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Even those that followed Giannis in Greece, those who believed that one day he had the potential to one day become a superstar in the NBA, most likely didn't believe that transformation would happen this quickly. Giannis himself has said he's surprised he's become this good, this fast. But here we are, talking about the league's next great superstar. One player was ahead of the curve in seeing what the future holds. Antetokounmpo's idol, Kevin Durant himself, said this preseason that Giannis is going to be the best player to ever play the game. I'm not sure KD realized that his prediction might come true THIS season, however. He's not at that level yet. But he's getting there. Fast.
Before we go any further, excuse me for a moment. The Bucks are playing the Hornets and I need a quick check on Antetokounmpo's stat line: 19 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, midway through the third. Ok, sorry, where was I?
Keep in mind Giannis is only 22 years old, with 4 seasons of NBA experience under his belt. He doesn't even need a three point shot to become dominant. He already is dominant. But imagine if he develops the three ball into his repertoire? Scary thought. Right now, he's leading the league in scoring. There's a long way to go to be sure, but leading the league in scoring without a three point shot? That's almost unthinkable in today's game. That's how efficient Giannis is when he has the ball. Nearly half his shots come from the restricted area, where's he's connecting on 85% of his field goal attempts. And yes, he admittedly needs work, lots of it, on that three point shot. But he's connected on over 44% of his jumpers to this point, and over 63% of his jumpers off the dribble. When he's anywhere near the paint with the ball, he's very difficult to stop.
The whole Giannis takeover of the NBA might never have happened, if not for a chance encounter with a scout. That scout was Spiros Vellinaitis. Vellinaitis had played professionally in Germany. He had begun looking for standout prospects to develop when Athens experienced an influx of immigrants in the early '90's. When things didn't pan out for Villanaitis after a decade of looking for the next big thing, he called it quits. One week later, he came across a 13 year old Giannis, who wasn't even playing basketball when he spotted him. But Villanaitis saw the potential. He talked Giannis into playing basketball for him and mentoring him, in exchange for finding work for Giannis' parents, who were struggling to make ends meet. Giannis in fact had so little during those days, he would share a pair of sneakers with his brother. Villanaitis eventually talked a club into providing Giannis with a 500-euro monthly stipend - before ever seeing him touch a basketball.
To say the Bucks took a gamble on Antetokounmpo is an understatement. They were swinging for the fences. There were only a handful of scouts that knew much about him prior to his playing outside of Greece just before the 2013 draft. Most of those scouts were largely skeptical of his ability to develop into a complete player, let alone what he has become.
To watch Antetokounmpo now is a thing of beauty on a basketball court. Go watch some of his highlights online. There are plenty of examples of him taking off from the free throw line, and with a mere two dribbles, finishing with a layup or dunk at the opposite end of the court. That's covering approximately 76 feet of court with two dribbles.
In the Bucks 2nd game of the season, Giannis went for a career high 44 points, 17 coming in the 4th. Those 44 points came on 17-23 shooting. His heroics also included a key block on 7'0 Jusuf Nurkic late in the game that keyed the victory. I think I'm safe in saying there has never in the history of the NBA been a 6'11 point guard with the ability to block a 7-footer at the rim. He's a first of his kind.
If the 2013 draft were revisited now, there's no question Giannis would be the undisputed #1 overall pick. That would mean Giannis would be a Cavalier. Imagine LeBron coming back to play with Giannis. The list of names taken ahead of him in the 2013 draft include the Cavs #1 selection Anthony Bennett (who last season played in the Turkish Basketball Super League); Victor Oladipo, Otto Porter, Trey Burke, Steven Adams, and Shabazz Muhammad. With guts, come glory. And the Bucks were swinging for the fences on potential.
Keep in mind, when Giannis first started playing basketball, he never envisioned becoming this 6'11, 7'0 wingspan superhuman. As a result, he worked at becoming a point guard. And now he has one of the best point guards of all time as his head coach, helping him learn the ins and outs of the position at the NBA level. Having Jason Kidd, one of the best passers the NBA has ever seen, as a mentor, should only help fast forward his progress.
Credit Kidd too, with making the move to point for Giannis late last season. It was March of last season with 8 games remaining, that Coach Kidd decided to give Giannis the reigns. "We're going to go forward with him handling the ball, and you can call him point guard, point forward, point center, however you want to look at it," Kidd told media. "We'll finish out these last eight and then also look forward to training camp and him handling the ball."
That move has created a player the NBA has never seen. Magic Johnson revolutionized the point guard position with his ability and passing genius at 6'8. Giannis is 6'11, and in a different stratosphere in terms of athletic ability than Magic. He's no Magic yet. Far from it. But a point guard with his size, his athletic ability, able to see over any defender thrown at him - and his still developing game ... he has all the makings of something this league has never been witness to before.
The Bucks game has wrapped against Charlotte ... excuse me while I check Antetokounmpo's stat line one last time: 32 points, 14 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks on 13-21 shooting. Bucks win. That gives Antetokounmpo at least 30 points in all 4 games this season. His 147 points through the teams first 4 games of the season? That's the most in team history, surpassing one Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Not bad. Let the MVP talk continue. But yes, I know, it's early.