The Extra Pass: Giannis Antetokounmpo is having fun. And starting to figure out how good he can be.

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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.

Charles Barkley says he hasn’t worn underwear in a decade

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Charles Barkley can’t control everything, like whether the Magic hire him as general manager.

But he can control his underpants, as he explained on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Knicks stress patience, indulge impatient tendencies by stretching Joakim Noah

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry talked a big game about patiently rebuilding – practically a foreign concept in New York.

And most of the summer, they backed up their words.

They drafted Kevin Knox No. 9 and Mitchell Robinson No. 36. They didn’t sign a single free agent to a multi-year deal. They made no win-now trade (or any trade at all).

Yet, even in the Knicks’ most patient offseason in years, they closed it with an incredibly impatient move.

New York stretched Joakim Noah, locking in a cap hit of $18,530,000 this season and $6,431,667 each of the following three years. The move opens an additional $12,863,333 in cap space next summer.

But what if the Knicks don’t need that extra room? What if they don’t attract free agents worth spending that amount then? Eating Noah’s entire $19,295,000 2019-20 salary that season, rather than splitting it over three years, is off the table.

What if they need even more room? What if they can draw great free agents who command more money than New York can offer? Attaching sweeteners to trade Noah’s salary and remove it entirely is also now impossible.

The Knicks could have waited until next summer to stretch, straight waive or trade Noah. They would have had far more information then, as the stretch deadline is Aug. 31.

This move puts so much needless pressure on New York to use its cap space next summer. Though the Knicks’ reported top target, Kyrie Irving, already said he’d re-sign with the Celtics, Kevin Durant-New York rumors are swirling, and Jimmy Butler put the Knicks on his list. The Knicks project to have about $33 million in cap space next summer, including a cap hold for only Kristaps Porzingis. They could add a franchise-changing star.

But this doesn’t jibe with a patient rebuild.

Biding time until next summer, New York took fliers on Mario Hezonja (one year, $6.5 million) and Noah Vonleh (one year, minimum). But despite seemingly tepid markets for those two in free agency, the Knicks didn’t capitalize on their leverage by attaching any additional unguaranteed seasons to their contracts. That will make it extremely difficult to get value from them. If Hezonja or Vonleh break out, they’ll be in line for bigger deals next summer.

Of course, it’s more likely New York’s first-, not second-, draft players dictate the team’s future. For the first time in eight seasons, the Knicks will have three players simultaneously on rookie-scale contracts – Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina and Knox. That most-modest benchmark is a major accomplishment in New York, where quick fixes have ruled the day.

After waiving Noah, it’s hard to see the Knicks as truly committed to a new, more prudent approach.

 

Offseason grade: C-

Jimmy Butler expects, welcomes boos from Timberwolves fans

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Jimmy Butler is set to start the season playing for the Timberwolves, who open Wednesday in San Antonio then host the Cavaliers on Friday.

Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic:

Butler has thrived in adversity and chaos. That’s the story of his life. There’s no reason this saga would be any different. In fact, Butler already showed his resolve during a heated practice.

Minnesota fans are well within their rights to boo Butler. He’s not a bad guy, but in the context of sports, he has made himself a villain there by requesting a trade from the Timberwolves.

The best thing Butler can do is embrace the inevitable backlash, which it sounds as if he’s prepared for.

The bigger question: How will Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor respond? He’s reportedly still looking to trade Butler, but an embarrassing fan response at a home game could shake him into pressing harder to get a deal done.

PBT Predictions: Who makes playoffs, who makes Finals, who wins it all

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Tuesday night the NBA season tips-off and the race for the playoffs begins, the first steps of a race that runs through June with some team lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy. We’ve already made our predictions for who will win MVP, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and more.

Now it’s on to the team predictions: Who’s getting in the playoffs? Who will have home-court advantage? And which team will win it all?

Here are our picks:

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kurt Helin: A little odd Dan and I agree up and down the line here. Putting the Raptors second is a bet that both Kawhi Leonard is his old self and new coach Nick Nurse can diversify the offense. The Pacers could finish fourth, but I’m very high on the Bucks with Mike Budenholzer so I’ll go with them getting home court. Also, Charlotte easily could best Miami or Detroit for one of those lower playoff seeds, and I’m not counting the Cavaliers out completely.

Dan Feldman: The Bucks are rising, to the point I thought about putting them over the 76ers. The bottom of the East playoff picture is ugly (and also includes the Hornets a small step behind Detroit).

WESTERN CONFERENCE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kurt Helin: Much like last season, I expect Golden State and Houston to be in and after that a razor-thin margin (five games or less) separating the three seed and the 10 seed. I’d have the Thunder higher but I think missing Andre Roberson the first couple months of the season is a big blow. I have the Timberwolves and Spurs missing the playoffs, but either could make it. I have Minnesota out on the assumption they trade Jimmy Butler. With the Spurs, I think the Dejounte Murray injury is a bigger blow than people realize.

Dan Feldman: The Spurs’ injuries and the Timberwolves’ [gestures at every Jimmy Butler link in the sidebar) made it easier to exclude them, but they still have a chance. So do the Clippers, Mavericks and Grizzlies. Too bad they’re all stuck in the West.

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS:

Kurt Helin
ECF: Celtics over Raptors
WCF: Warriors over Rockets>
FINALS: Warriors over Celtics

I don’t think the Warriors are a title lock, both Houston in the West and Boston in the East have a legitimate shot to dethrone them. However, assuming health, I just can’t pick someone else.

Dan Feldman
ECF: Celtics over 76ers
WCF: Warriors over Rockets
FINALS: Warriors over Celtics
Golden State isn’t guaranteed another title by any means, but there’s no way I’m picking someone else.