We get ahead of ourselves because we want the world to be otherwise. Not better, necessarily, but novel, refreshing, state-of-the-art. We want to be shocked into a higher consciousness by something we’ve never seen, heard, or tasted before. It’s why the lines around Apple stores on iPhone launch days can stretch for blocks and why television shows three episodes into what could be a six-season run get thoroughly celebrated before they’ve had a chance to disappoint. It’s why every local alt-weekly publishes twice-yearly lists of the best new restaurants in town. It’s why every election cycle, we’re awash in dubiously useful polling data. We want to know what’s up; we want to be on it before it even exists. The wearying impossibility of this has yet to stop us from trying.
The Wolves were supposed to get their stuff together quickly under Tom Thibodeau, but it turns out that’s a project that needs to simmer a little longer. The Pelicans were going to make a run at the playoffs after trading for DeMarcus Cousins, but they went in the opposite direction as Boogie and Anthony Davis struggled to figure each other out and the season ticked away. As sunny as the future seems in our minds, it’s almost never so bright when it arrives, or it lags behind schedule. Apple’s not ever going to build the phone tech bloggers dream of. Your favorite show is probably going to drag at some point. Your expectations are perfect and fully formed and reality isn’t that. It’s insufficient and messy and not at all crystalline.
This is to say that Giannis Antetokounmpo is about as good as we ever get, in terms of living up to the visions in our heads, in part because he’s taken off before we could get too clear a picture. When he entered the league, we had some grainy video of him balling out in what looked like high school gyms in the lower tiers of Greek basketball. He was an athlete to behold, sure, but it was hard to know anything else. There might be some delusional folks in the Bucks scouting department who can claim they saw something in him, but all there was to see at that point was a lanky frame and improbable grace and speed. You could have been forgiven for holding off on learning to spell that last name. If college players making the jump to the pros are theoretical, Giannis was like a proof that no one had thought to set about solving yet. An unknown unknown, as the great war criminal-pedant would put it.
When was it we realized he had the potential to be great? For me, it was last year, when Jason Kidd kicked off the Point Giannis experiment. Giannis had already shown that he could score, that his long rapid strides took him past most defenders, that his jumper was coming along fine, but when young players wrest control of an offense, they tend to do so by shooting too much. You give a talented 21-year-old who wasn’t raised a point guard the ball and they’re going to test out their young Jordan impression. So here was the first truly surprising thing about Giannis: when Kidd have him more responsibility, he was responsible with it. He made mistakes and lapsed into double team-splitting attempted heroics from time to time, but he tried to get others involved. He displayed an understanding of one of the game’s verities, which is that no matter how much better you are than your teammates—and in Milwaukee, there are some nice players, but no one else on Giannis’s level—you have to keep them involved, or you top out at noble circa ‘06 Kobe, circa now Westbrookian failure.
Or maybe this wasn’t the first truly surprising thing. Maybe it’s that Giannis is any good at all, that by his second year in the league he was a bona fide useful NBA player. That wasn’t promised, even if he made it look simple and inevitable. But the mental grasp of the game firmed up last year and the leap has arrived this season. He’s the best player on an exciting if flawed Bucks team that is, at least, putting a scare into the Raptors, who are coming fresh off a Conference Finals appearance and smack in the middle of the most successful spell in their franchise’s history. Giannis is doing it with Matthew Dellavedova as his backcourt mate, with Khris Middleton still not totally himself after a long injury layoff, with Greg Monroe clocking twenty-plus minutes of floortime per night. He’s doing it with spectacular drives and tough mid-rangers, but also by making due with what he has at his disposal. He has a LeBron Lite knack for using the whole buffalo. The Bucks have little business pushing the Raptors to six or seven games, except they have Giannis, who makes it his business to push everyone.
Whether the Bucks upset the Raptors or, as you would expect from a young team, succumb to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, this moment is worth appreciating, because it marks the beginning of something that’s just sort of shown up at our door unannounced. More than ever, we’re tracking everything all the time. We know what’s next and what might be. We spend a lot of time thinking about the future. So much, in fact, that when it becomes the present, it rarely has the ability to astonish us. What’s gobsmacking has been stripped away, like the rock at the edges of a meteor that burns up as it hurtles through the atmosphere. Honestly, I thought it would be bigger, we say, as it thunks against the ground. The suddenness of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s rise has caught most of us—delightedly—off-guard. As we were preparing ourselves to look for it, it happened, and we have this beautiful, unique, joyful player who’s doubly beautiful and joyful because we didn’t quite expect him yet. He’s twenty-two. He just moved to the states a few years ago. He’s so great, so soon. He would have been worth a much longer wait, but he’s here now, and he’s everything we could have asked for.