As bad as it’s been, lugging around the albatross of the NBA’s most miserable W-L record, the Milwaukee Bucks can take solace in knowing that the 2013-14 schedule is nearly half over and they’ve only been caught using the word “tanking” in a few sentences, each time in close proximity to “not” or “no.”
Regardless of what might or might not be unfolding before our eyes, coach Larry Drew and general manager John Hammond have stirred enough new faces through the new system and into plucky moral victories to obfuscate the onerous. Staking out the higher ground of continued mid-level competitiveness, while tunneling toward the draft lottery, might earn somebody Exec of the Year consideration.
And so might this: Hammond and the Bucks, drafting from the first non-lottery spot (No. 15) last June, landed a player who has had a bigger impact than the No. 1 pick overall. A player, 19-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo, who – if that draft were redone tomorrow – probably would be chosen before most of the 14 guys in front of him, certainly in the top five and definitely ahead of the pole-sitter, Cleveland’s Anthony Bennett.
Antetokounmpo has been the Bucks’ great Greek hope, the biggest reason (besides elbow room) to drop by the BMO Harris Bradley Center. On the right nights, Antetokounmpo’s coltish potential and unbridled enthusiasm turn the town into a Kentucky horse farm; sunshine, bluegrass and thoroughbred greatness in the making.
He has arms that reach till next Tuesday, hands like jai-alai cestas. The Bucks produced a Giannis growth chart for a giveaway and it was obsolete almost immediately; the kid reportedly has grown 1 1/2 inches since he was drafted, his warm-up pants starting to look like Capris.
Antetokounmpo’s stats are solid – 6.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 45.6 percent shooting, 23.1 minutes – given his age, his experience, the players around him and the malaise, too. Which makes you nervous that someone so tender, so fragile, might get knocked off course through a lousy season for his team.
Is Antetokounmpo being force-fed too much too soon? Might all the losing and lack of foundation hurt him? Is there anyway to sequester him from Larry Sanders, Milwaukee’s spirited but stormy center who has been setting the don’t-do-this examples lately?
Antetokounmpo seems to be answering the questions affirmatively with his performances and a resilient personality.
As expected, he’s had some roller-coaster stats lines – double-doubles at Brooklyn and Oklahoma City the past couple of weeks, sandwiched around a 50-minute, three-game stretch against Phoenix, Golden State and Chicago in which he shot 1-for-10 with two points, eight rebounds and eight turnovers. He has broken plays on the Bucks, his halfcourt game way behind the havoc he can wreak in transition.
But Antetokounmpo has played 30 minutes or more in 11 games; Bennett, Otto Porter, Cody Zeller and Alex Len – four of the 2013 Class’ top five – have combined for zero such nights. The NBA’s youngest player has started 13 times, the Bucks have been about 10 points better when he’s on the floor and he has averaged more minutes in the fourth quarter (7.5) than in any of the first three.
“I think he’s earned it,” Drew said the other day. “When he’s on the floor, the thing that really intrigues me about him is, he does not have to score necessarily to impact the game. He’s rebounding, he can block shots, he gets in the open court, he makes plays. He’s energy – that’s something we need more than anything. I think besides Larry, he may be the most energetic guy on our team.”
Said the rookie: “I’m very happy that my coaches and my teammates are not forcing me to come in slowly, that I can come in and play. I’m very happy that the team trusts me to throw me in there. I love what I’m doing. Of course it’s my dream, and I’m just having fun. I try to learn from each game as much as possible.”
Drew and his staff are trying to fold Antetokounmpo more into the offense, drilling him in his “attack areas.”
“Right now, I can see he’s a lot more comfortable just spotting up at the [3-point line],” the coach said. “I don’t want him to fall into that type game, because he’s just too long and too athletic. … Anything on the perimeter, he’s a bounce away from the basket. Once he develops his mid-range game where he has consistency in his shot, it’s going to open up the other parts of the game.”
Antetokounmpo, the most tireless chaser in the game who doesn’t play for the Miami Heat, hasn’t wilted from all the losing or picked up bad habits from any unhappy souls in Milwaukee’s locker room. Good thing for Bucks fans: He’s still two years from accompanying anyone to nightclubs.
One area in which Antetokounmpo has been tested has been the traditional hazing that goes on by established opponents. He didn’t play well against the Suns earlier this month but handled the banging he got from P.J. Tucker. Against big names such as Carmelo Anthony and Vince Carter, Antetokounmpo has shrugged off physical and mental challenges.
“I enjoyed seeing that. If Giannis is going to take that next step, he’s going to have to learn how to balance,” Drew said. “He’s got to find ways how to play against them. I think he’s figured it out against the finesse guys. … but physical [small forwards], the strong ‘threes,’ he’s going to have to figure that out.”
Guard Gary Neal added: “I’ve seen guys bump him and he’ll bump ‘em back. The one I remember, him and Carmelo were going at it a little bit. And with Carmelo being an All-Star and challenging him, he didn’t back away from that. That’s big. … If you thought about it, there probably are some guys who folded it up and went home. We just don’t know ‘em because they’re not around anymore.”
Asked about intimidation by certain stars’ reputations, Antetokounmpo said: “Aw, no. Most of the players in this league, I don’t even know them.”
That’s not entirely true. Antetokounmpo recently lauded Kevin Durant, a player to whom he’s been compared in build, as his “idol” for his drive and focus more than his skills. By the time their meeting Saturday was over, with the kid logging 13 points and 11 rebounds, Durant was returning compliments.
“He’s just sneaky athletic; he’s quick,” the Oklahoma City star said. “He plays extremely hard. I can definitely roll with a player like that.”
Milwaukee can, too, if it is careful. The road to the draft lottery and a brighter future is bumpy, narrow and long, with nasty ditches on either side. But given Antetokounmpo’s reach and stride, he looks to be about a bounce away.