MILWAUKEE (AP) — While catching his breath during a break along the sideline, the Milwaukee Bucks’ star pupil put his arms on his hips and leaned his 6-foot-11 frame over to listen to coach Jason Kidd.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is learning the nuances of running a team from one of the best point guards and triple-double threats in NBA history.
Give it a little more time, Kidd says. The fun is only just beginning with the 22-year-old Antetokounmpo.
“The big thing is we gave him the ball and his appetite is big,” Kidd said.
It was only in February 2016 that Kidd assigned Antetokounmpo to be a primary ball-handler. His career has taken off, much like one of his soaring dunks.
In his fourth year in the league, Antetokounmpo turned into an All-Star this season after averaging career highs of 22.9 rebounds, 8.7 rebounds and 5.4 assists. He ranked in the top 20 in the league in total points, rebounds, blocks, assists and steals, an NBA first.
“He wants to learn. He wants to be a point guard,” Kidd said. “He wants to have the ball and help make decisions, be involved in the play.”
It’s hard to miss the towering player who can breeze by defenders to the hoop, pass out of double-teams and make stops at the other end . He has been the best player so far for the Bucks, who take a 2-1 lead in their first-round playoff series against Toronto into Game 4 on Saturday.
The 6-foot-4 Kidd had an all-around skill set of his own back when he was playing, though he didn’t have Antetokounmpo’s imposing length and height.
“I wish I was 7 feet tall,” Kidd said. “He’s better than I am.”
Not quite yet.
Kidd averaged 12.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists in a nearly two-decade NBA career that ended in 2013. His 107 career triple-doubles are third in league history behind All-Stars Oscar Robertson (181) and Magic Johnson (138).
Kidd could step back and hit 3s. He created in transition. His court awareness gave him a distinct advantage over opponents.
Now he’s passing that knowledge on to Antetokounmpo, and Kidd isn’t that far removed from his playing days so he can relate to a team with a young core.
“He puts himself in our shoes because he was in our shoes,” Antetokounmpo said. “It helps a lot because taking tips from J-Kidd – he was a player that was one of the best that’s ever done.”
Antetokounmpo has professed to having a lighthearted moment of doubt about Kidd at one point during the coach’s first season in 2014-5 after being pulled from a game. A native of Greece, Antetokounmpo had to look up his coach’s credentials online. They checked out.
“It’s really easy to accept (Kidd’s mentoring) because he’s been in my shoes. He knows how I feel right now,” he said.
Team President Peter Feigin described a close relationship between player and coach bonded in part by what he called a shared “maniacal focus” to be the best. Antetokounmpo has spent long days and nights at the team’s practice facility in a quiet Milwaukee suburb.
“There’s a tremendous amount of mutual respect,” team co-owner Wes Edens said. “You can’t really put a label on Giannis as a basketball player … but you can really see culturally he fits the model of a Jason Kidd player. He plays at both ends.”
He’s already a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches, including Toronto’s Dwane Casey.
“As far as keeping him off the free throw line we have to make sure we give him space. Challenge late. We have to mix that up and start trapping him also because he is getting where he wants to go,” Casey said. “We have to give him different looks.”
Perhaps one of the next steps for the Bucks is regularly taking advantage of the extra attention that Antetokounmpo draws on the court. It happened in the Bucks’ 104-77 rout of Toronto in Game 3, when defenders were drawn by Antetokounmpo’s every move to open up room for teammates.
Antetokounmpo finished with 19 points, eight rebounds and four rebounds, fairly pedestrian numbers for him. But six Bucks scored in double figures.
“He’s still just understanding the point guard position and understanding how to run the team, how to carry a team, and what that means with not scoring … or what the team needs at what time during the game,” Kidd said.
“He’s picked up a lot of those things quickly,” he added, “but he still has a long ways to go.”