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In Antetokounmpo, future is passing before Bucks' eyes

Coach Jason Kidd has started to unlock immense potential of "The Greek Freak" by moving him to point guard

POSTED: Apr 12, 2016 11:19 AM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen

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Giannis Antetokounmpo's 7.3 assists per game since the All-Star break ranks ninth in the NBA.

He appeared to begin sprinting upcourt even as he was pulling down the defensive rebound. Such is the image of the Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has the length of a center, the instincts of a point guard and a future that promises more than he can fathom.

Antetokounmpo turned and dribbled up the middle as if Amir Johnson, the center of the Boston Celtics, was blocking downfield for him. Johnson knew what was coming behind him but he had no choice but to race downcourt. Such is the pressure that 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo creates by cutting out the middleman: He defends, rebounds and attacks as if all three plays are a whirlwind. At 21, he is threatening to become a longer, sleeker LeBron James.

3DTV: The Greek Freak

3D gets on the court to talk about the profile-defying ability of Giannis Antetokounmpo.

"Just their ability to put pressure on you with speed right when they get the ball,'' Celtics coach Brad Stevens had been saying less than two hours earlier Friday while comparing "The Greek Freak'' to LeBron, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. "It eliminates any second thought of where somebody else should be. They're just running.''

From Antetokounmpo's point of view, he was driving like a cabbie chasing an ambulance through the rush-hour traffic. Johnson, in the role of the ambulance, was doomed to arrive late. By the time he reached the paint and glanced over his shoulder, Antetokounmpo was rising past him for a dunk as the whistle shrieked and a brushing foul by Boston's Jae Crowder resulted in a three-point play.

Antetokounmpo Takes Flight

Giannis Antetokounmpo drives to the lane and throws down the commanding dunk while drawing a foul.

"I think people make the mistake of waiting on him because he's not a high-volume 3-point shooter,'' said Stevens, who then drew Antetokounmpo's 21-year-old teammate, Jabari Parker, into the conversation. "Parker to an extent as well: If you wait on them to get a head of steam, they will kill you. Because they'll just step around you, jump over you. Their downhill drives are pretty impressive.''

Since he began to take on more of the Bucks' ball-handling in early February -- a role that increased with the season-ending hip injury to point guard Michael Carter-Williams -- Antetokounmpo has transformed his own outlook as well as the identity of his team. Not only is he averaging career-highs of 17.0 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals this season overall, but his assists have soared to 7.3 since the All-Star break (as opposed to 2.8 previously).

Giannis' Euro-Step Jam

Giannis Antetokounmpo describes how he attacks the rim with a Euro-step move.

Over a recent span of 20 games, he generated five triple-doubles, instantly tying Antetokounmpo for third all-time (alongside Oscar Robertson and others) in franchise history. On Friday he was creating plays of all kinds against the highly-rated Boston defense: In 19 first-half minutes he would generate 20 points on eight shots with six assists, four rebounds and a 3-for-3 display from the arc.

Ever since Antetokounmpo's discovery by the Bucks with the No. 15 pick in the 2013 Draft, there had been speculation of his potential. Suddenly that future has arrived.

Point guard in progress

"It wasn't that we saw him as this,'' Bucks GM John Hammond was saying Friday by phone from Portland, where he was scouting the Nike Hoop Summit. "But that was the position that he was playing.''

The Starters: Giannis The Point Guard

Is there any point to Jason Kidd naming Giannis the Bucks point guard?

Hammond had gone to see Antetokounmpo in Greece, where he played in a 500-seat gym for the second-division club Filathlitikos. He was a growing 18-year-old who played off the ball, deferentially, with his club's senior team. But with the junior team, Antetokounmpo was dominant.

"When he was playing with his younger Greek team especially, he was the primary ballhandler even though he was one of the taller players on the team,'' Hammond said. "He would rebound and take it himself; and many times if he didn't get the rebound, a smaller player would be passing to him. I can tell you his agents in Greece talked about him as a point guard in the NBA.''

Jason Kidd, who arrived as Milwaukee's coach after Antetokounmpo's rookie season, was able to see what Hammond had seen. "When I came, we all talked about him playing point guard,'' Kidd said. "Maybe we all wanted it to happen then, but he wasn't ready. But that is his strength -- he been very unselfish, he loves to play both ends and he wants to compete, he wants to be good, he wants to win.''

Antetokounmpo's Triple-Double Run

Check out highlights from Giannis Antetokounmpo's triple-doubles as he set the Bucks record for most triple-doubles in a season.

It was not so long ago that Kidd was the point guard who was pushing tempo in his own way. Kidd, who had 118 triple-doubles in his 19-year career, made a specialty of converting his defensive rebounds into instant fast breaks. "I was using speed,'' said Kidd. "I didn't want to mess around, I didn't want to give the defense a chance. My idea was to go past you as fast as I could.''

Antetokounmpo may be raising Kidd's style -- literally -- to a new height. "His window, his line of sight is different from mine,'' said Kidd, who is seven inches shorter than Antetokounmpo. "I've got to get on a chair to figure out the things that he can see. There's very few people who can make a pass from this corner all the way to that corner and not be a lollipop -- he could throw a fastball and the guy could catch and shoot. His line of sight is something that I've got to make the adjustment with, as he's running the break. He's seeing things differently. If I can help him by understanding what he's seeing, hopefully I don't screw him up.''

Antetokounmpo Works The Glass

Giannis Antetokounmpo notches a triple-double with 18 points, 17 rebounds, and 11 assists as the Bucks beat the Rockets 128-121.

"He knows what I see,'' said Antetokounmpo. "He helps me figure out the next step, the next move, what I have to do better. All year he's been telling me I have to put my head up. I always go my first two or three dribbles with my head down to speed it up. J-Kidd told me to keep my head up -- sometimes the pass is going to be on the first dribble. It helps me a lot.''

Would it help Antetokounmpo to study the game from Kidd's point of view? To watch video of Kidd's extraordinary playmaking as Kidd explains what he was seeing even as he left the defense behind?

"I watched a lot of highlights of him, but I've never seen it with him,'' Antetokounmpo said. "I definitely got to do that some time.''

Limitless potential

Does Antetokounmpo represent another example of the NBA's new normal? Is the family tree of point guard play extending from 6-foot-9 Magic Johnson to a 6-foot-8 James and on through him?

"I'm here in Portland watching the Hoop Summit, the young guys, and even here that is what's happening,'' said Hammond. "The big young players are evolving as perimeter players, as guys that can shoot the ball.''

Bucks vs. Nets

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 28 points with 14 assists and 11 rebounds as the Bucks beat the Nets, 109-100.

But the future cuts both ways. As the evolving offenses stretch the floor, the reactionary defenses learn how to shrink it back down again.

"Teams are going to pick him up,'' said Kidd of efforts by defenders to attack Antetokounmpo earlier in the possession, "and try to wear him down. He's got to learn how to offset that. That's part of the next process.''

I think he's going to be able to guard either of the forward positions, and as he gets stronger he's going to be able to guard centers, too, because of his length.

– Milwaukee Bucks GM John Hammond, on Giannis Antetokounmpo

As Kidd was preparing for the game in Boston, he was accounting for the likelihood that Antetokounmpo was going to see more attention. "They've got guys on the perimeter who can pick up Giannis three-quarters -- and Jabari too,'' said Kidd, who was planning to have backup point guard Tyler Ennis play alongside Antetokounmpo against the Celtics. "We're going to look at another lineup to see how he plays with a point guard on the floor.''

The strengths and weaknesses of Antetokounmpo run parallel to the qualities of his team. He is sleek and young and athletic, and so are they: Last week they put out a starting lineup with an average age of 21.8 years -- younger than Final Four teams Oklahoma (22.0) and Syracuse (22.3). Antetokounmpo's needs -- to improve his shooting and his defense -- mirror the needs of the Bucks.

Hammond anticipates the day when Antetokounmpo will be dominating at both ends of the floor. "People are talking about his offense, but he can be a top-tier defender,'' Hammond said. "I think he's going to be able to guard either of the forward positions, and as he gets stronger he's going to be able to guard centers, too, because of his length -- he does it some now. With his ability to block shots, his good footwork defensively, he's going to improve and he's going to learn.

"In the NBA, experience is such a major part of becoming an elite defender -- the feel for the NBA, game for the players in this league, the know-how. The player is coming down the floor and you know who he is, his strengths and weaknesses, because you've been playing against him over the years - that part is irreplaceable.''

Giannis Antetokounmpo Drops 27 Points

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 27 points, dishes out seven assists,and pulls down seven rebounds in the Bucks loss to the Celtics.

The push for education and improvement must be never ending for a talent like Antetokounmpo. His perimeter shooting must continue to improve, but that's not all; he must also begin to develop the post game that will serve his team eventually in the playoffs, while enabling him to extend his influence as he ages and is weaned off his above-the-rim athleticism. All of these responsibilities are going to be draining, which was why, even now, Kidd was searching for someone else to bring up the ball when the Bucks are not breaking in transition, in order to lessen the demands.

A bright Bucks future

As the game wore on the Celtics were defending him better. The Celtics were lining up two defenders at the 3-point line to dissuade him from attacking in transition. Avery Bradley, a 6-foot-2 guard, succeeded in outfighting Antetokounmpo for position when he tried to set up off the ball. "He's got quick feet,'' Antetokounmpo said. "I was trying to get him in the post but I never felt really comfortable, couldn't find my spot on the floor, so I didn't have the opportunity to punish the defense when they switched Bradley on me."

The Starters: Bucks' Bright Future

Is it Giannis' unlimited potential? The Magic's roster? Or the pull of New York?

He kept trying to attack, but the pursuit of more points led instead to foul trouble as the Celtics pulled away. Antetokounmpo finished with 27 points (4 for 5 from the 3-point line, 8 for 12 overall), seven rebounds and seven assists with five turnovers. His Bucks were beaten 124-109.

"He's a big-time talent, and the comfort level that he's playing with the ball and now shooting the ball,'' said Stevens. "If he starts making 3s at a regular rate, watch out.''

Injuries to the backcourt had contributed to a 32-win season as the Bucks finished out their final week. A return to the playoffs would be on hold for another year at least, and yet the Bucks' future is not so much discouraging as it is inspiring. Parker, the No. 2 pick who missed most of his rookie season with a knee injury, has averaged 19.2 points post All-Star. Within that span he has averaged 25.2 points on the nights of Antetokounmpo's triple-doubles, a strong sign of their developing rapport. Khris Middleton, 24, has averaged 18.2 points in what has been his best season. Carter-Williams, Greg Monroe and John Henson are all 25 or younger.

He been very unselfish, he loves to play both ends and he wants to compete, he wants to be good, he wants to win.

– Bucks coach Jason Kidd, on Antetokounmpo

"He can play the 1 through the 4, and maybe even the 5 some nights,'' said Henson of Antetokounmpo. "There's not so many guys that can play every position on the court -- one or two, maybe. It's going to be exciting to see him grow to when he's my age, 25.''

Is this the launching of a dominant career?

"Yes,'' Antetokounmpo said. "I don't say it, but I believe in myself. I think I can be great in this league one day, I think I can be really good.''

The possibilities, endless as they appear, may be coming together before he realizes.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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