LOS ANGELES — Watch him play in person and there are moments where Giannis Antetokounmpo makes your jaw just drop like you’re in a Tex Avery cartoon.
Monday night against the Clippers there was the point in the fourth quarter when the young Bucks forward took a rebound away from DeAndre Jordan, spun around and led the break himself at a speed normally reserved for point guards and just attacked the basket, forcing Matt Barnes to foul him. It was breathtaking.
Or there’s this.
Antetokounmpo is a story hard not to love. In just a handful of years he has gone from part of a poor, struggling family in Greece — he and his brothers used to sometime sell their toys to help pay for food — into a cult favorite of NBA fans and maybe ultimately the best player out of this past draft class.
He’s savoring this change of fortune, enjoying it — and more than anything else that comes through in his play.
“I can’t believe my rookie season so much has happened and I have fun all the year,” said Antetokounmpo, despite this being a season where his team has won just 13 games. “I enjoy all the days, all the time in practice, because I got good teammate and a good coaches.”
He’s enjoying the little things. Like how people can now pronounces his last name.
“That’s awesome,” Antetokounmpo says with an infectious smile. “At the beginning no one could say my name and now everybody knows it.”
Watch him play and the other thing that leaps out is he is still a very, very raw player— just a year ago he was playing in Greece’s second division and the jump to the NBA is light years.
“For sure the speed of the game was an adjustment at the beginning, but now I’m used to it,” Antetokounmpo said. “I even like it. I love it now, running up and down, trying to block shots and get dunks.”
Antetokounmpo has gotten the chance to learn on the job this season in part because the Bucks are physically banged up and struggling — Bucks coach Larry Drew admitted if this season has gone as planned the “Greek Freak” would have been riding the pine. The plan was to bring him along much more slowly. Instead the Bucks have the worst record in the NBA, so Antetokounmpo gets to learn on the court (he played crunch time against the Clippers and their athletic front line Monday).
He still has a lot to learn.
“His next stage is would certainly have to be just get stronger,” Drew said. “I think he’s gotten familiar with the NBA lifestyle. People ask me if he has hit a wall. He his stretches where he didn’t play well but he was still playing hard.”
“It’s not just about getting stronger. It’s about getting stronger, getting better on defense, being in the right position on defense, improving my jump shot, everything, my explosiveness. Everything,” Antetokounmpo said,
The biggest adjustments for Antetokounmpo have come off the court — moving halfway around the world to another culture, going from having no money to having enough to support his family at age 19, plus just being thrust into the spotlight.
“I think the hardest part was the English, because at the beginning I didn’t speak so good English,” Antetokounmpo said. “After that the culture was a little different.”
His English is pretty good now and he picked up the language of basketball just as quickly.
“When he came in one of our concerns was him just adapting to being here in the states and for me just the language barrier and would he be able to understand NBA terminology, our lingo, would he be able to comprehend it?” Drew said. “And he has. He picks things up pretty fast, which is a big surprise to me. At 18 years old when he got here I was really concerned if he would really understand the terminology with all the things that happen, but he picked it up. He wasn’t afraid to ask questions, which is good. A lot of young guys are too timid to ask questions. He has shown he has really grown and is developing in that area.”
He even had to get used to a new nickname — the Greek Freak.
“At the beginning it was a little like ‘The Greek Freak’ (I didn’t like) ‘Freak.’ But now I like it because my brother is also the Greek Freak… We’re Greek Freak nation,” Antetokounmpo says laughing.
There’s still a long way to go for Antetokounmpo to reach anywhere near his potential — his game is still so raw. But every game you watch you see flashes of that rare athleticism that led the Bucks to take a chance on him at No. 15 — and you realize they a steal when then did. Redo this draft and Antetokounmpo doesn’t get out of the top five, maybe the top three.
There were a lot of questions last June about if Antetokounmpo could really adapt to America and the NBA. The answer turns out to be a jaw-dropping yes.
And he’s doing it all with a smile.