The Milwaukee Bucks are a team in transition.
After getting swept by the eventual NBA Champion Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs last spring, the front office overhauled the roster. Only four players – John Henson, Ersan Ilyasova, Larry Sanders and Ekpe Udoh – returned for the 2013-14 season.
John Hammond and the front office parted ways with guards Monta Ellis (free agency) and Brandon Jennings (trade), while signing several free agents – O.J Mayo, Carlos Delfino, Zaza Pachulia, Miroslav Raduljica and Gary Neal. A trio of trades brought in Caron Butler, Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Luke Ridnour.
Milwaukee’s final two additions came via the draft in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nate Wolters.
Wolters, drafted 38th overall by the Washington Wizards and involved in a pair of draft night deals, has made an immediate impact as a point guard. Injuries to Knight (hamstring) and Ridnour (back) forced Larry Drew to throw Wolters into the fire early and very often. He leads Milwaukee in minutes and is averaging 8.8 points, 6.2 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game. His 6.2 assist-to-turnover ratio reflects amazing poise and seasoned decision-making.
As good as Wolters has looked, Antetokounmpo – it’s pronounced ahn-teh-toe-KUHN-poe – holds the key to the future.
Antetokounmpo, who will celebrate his 19th birthday in December, is the youngest player in the NBA. The much-discussed age limit has minimized the number of teenagers in the league, but Antetokounmpo is still historically young. Only 15 players have entered the league at a younger age than the Greek Freak.
Known as a prospect with good potential, the Bucks were not exactly lauded for using the 15th overall pick on the 6-foot-9, 205-pound forward. A number of major media outlets gave Milwaukee a middling grade for taking a chance on Antetokounmpo, but others took shots. Sports Illustrated gave the pick a C+ and called it “a reach.” HOOPSWORLD slapped a D on the selection. Chad Ford of ESPN issued an incomplete, nothing that Antetokounmpo had “very little experience playing against other talented players.”
Choosing to bring him to the NBA immediately, Antetokounmpo has had to undergo a significant adjustment in recent months.
He played for his native Greece at the U20 European Championships in July, which kept the Bucks from evaluating him during summer league player. Antetokounmpo put up 8.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 10 games as Greece settled for a fifth place finish.
“It’s been fun to watch him through the first month of training camp and now the regular season. I didn’t really know that much about him, other than what I saw on tape,” assistant coach Bob Bender told RealGM.
“He wasn’t with us for summer league, so everyday you’re just amazed at what this kid has in his package. The size, the ability to handle the ball and length. It’s surprising how instincts take over for him the right way, that’s not usually the case for 18-year-olds at this level. Probably the greatest thing about him is that he’s a sponge, so you can see him getting better in some area everyday. Sometimes we have to push him to do a little more, he’ll give the ball up at times when he needs to keep it and create something. You look at him and you say, ‘Wow’ because this kid has a chance to be something special.”
Speak to anyone employed by or surrounding the Bucks and that is the kind of reaction you’ll get when you mention Antetokounmpo, who has had to master two new languages – English and NBA basketball.
“The language is easy for him, but sometimes terminology you’ve got to go over a few times with him, especially if it’s a defensive term, coverage-wise,” Bender explained. “But his instincts help him because once he hears what he’s supposed to hear, he’s able to execute immediately.”
Like most Europeans, Antetokounmpo learned basic English by watching television. He has impressed his new teammates with his attitude and work ethic, but the transition he has made isn’t lost on them.
“He just wants to learn everyday,” John Henson said of Antetokounmpo. “It’s tough being that young and in this situation, I don’t know if I could have done it, but he’s handled it so well.”
Drew has seen a lot in 30-plus years around the NBA, a decade as a player and two more as a coach. When asked about the rookie he flirted with effusive praise, but was clearly working to temper his admiration.
“An 18-year-old kid coming from an entirely different country, it’s got to be tough for him, but this kid has really shown some great strides,” Drew said. “I think one of the most important things right now is for us to bring him along slowly, develop him slowly. He really wants to be good, he’s very receptive to everything we talk about. He has really put in the time and the work. He’s got to get a little bigger, got to get a little stronger, but this kid has a great attitude. He has a defined skill set. People ask what I think he’ll be and I say he’s your prototypical point forward. At his size he can handle the basketball, he’s a terrific passer and has real good instincts with the ball.”
Antetokounmpo has only logged 34 minutes in his career, but player comparisons are already threatening to weigh him down. Nicholas Batum. Paul George. Kevin Durant. You’ll hear them all from those around the league, some with caution and others with wide smiles.
“It’s funny because today he was doing some dunks and on one of them he just looked so much like Batum,” Henson said when asked to find a comparable player. “He kind of reminds me of him a little bit, but I think Giannis is more of a playmaker and passer than Batum. I’m excited to see what he turns into.”
Unlike the lanky forwards mentioned as possible projections, Antetokounmpo is being brought along relatively slowly by Milwaukee. They want to get his feet wet against the best competition possible and he seems undaunted thus far.
“At the NBA level, he’s going against the best in the world and what better way to learn than to go against the best,” Drew said. “He’s a kid that doesn’t shy away from playing against top-level competition. If you think about it, at 18 and at this level there has to be a lot of excitement and a little bit of nervousness, but he doesn’t show it. We feel that allowing him to play a few minutes and to try to live with some of his mistakes will help him develop much more. Not to say that never can happen, but we like him here.”
Antetokounmpo played five minutes against the New York Knicks, at Madison Square Garden no less, in the season opener. Injuries forced him into action and then foul trouble hampered him.
He hasn’t played in Milwaukee’s last two games and fouls have continued to be a problem when is goes get on the floor. The coaching staff is trying to find the right spots for him, which isn’t easy with a depleted roster – Delfino, Ilyasova, Knight, Ridnour and Sanders have all missed time.
“What makes it tough is that you want to look for the right matchups for this kid, you don’t just want to put him out there,” Drew noted. “We have to look for matchups that are best and give him what the game situation is. We’ll look at matchups and if I see an opportunity to get him in there, but it may be foul trouble or it may be a situation where someone goes down like Brandon Knight did. The situation can dictate his performance.”
The sample size is incredibly small, but watching Antetokounmpo is like watching a pubescent deer. He runs in fits and starts. At times he looks completely at ease. Other times he navigates the court as if it’s a foreign land (which it is). There was a moment earlier this month when a skirmish seemed to be developing between Pachulia and Boston Celtics forward Gerald Wallace.
It took place just feet from the Milwaukee bench and Antetokounmpo dipped a toe onto the court before hopping back over the sideline with a sheepish, wide-eyed look. Confident that he wasn’t caught violating a rule, he let go of a huge breath. Rookie mistake avoided.
The Bucks have a young roster, 10 players are 26 or younger, but it has been sprinkled with veterans brought in not only to play but also to mentor. Butler, 33, is oldest and highest-paid player on the team.
“He’s very athletic and explosive,” Butler said of Antetokounmpo. “He’s a guy that’s still learning the game and he’s doing it on the fly.”
Butler is in his NBA 12th season. Antetokounmpo was six years old and utterly unaware of the league when Butler was drafted 10th overall by the Miami Heat back in 2002.
“As a big brother to him, he’s just fun to be around,” Butler said. “He takes me back. I got a daughter that’s 18; so to have him here I look at him like a son/little brother. His spirit is always great and there is nothing he sees that he can’t do.”
Antetokounmpo has already become a mini-legend among hoopheads, but stories about the possibility of further growth, huge hands and potential as a future superstar only go so far. If the Bucks contend for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, we may have to wait a season before they remove all the wrapping from their young rookie.
But if they struggle, Milwaukee just might ride Antetokounmpo, for better or worse, in the second half of the season.
“In three or four years, it’ll be fun to see where he is as a player and how he’s become just one of us,” Henson said. “You won’t remember his rookie year and the adjustments.”
We also won’t remember a time when he wasn’t completely comfortable in his own body, in the United States and the NBA.