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Antetokounmpo taking note of what makes a player great

Milwaukee's wiry, skilled and emerging forward (and Sprite Slam Dunk participant) is a true student of the game.

POSTED: Feb 11, 2015 10:31 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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The rise of Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has helped Milwaukee stay in the thick of the East's playoff race.

— As notebooks go, there isn't much to this one: Lime green cover, your basic "One-Subject, College-Ruled Spiral Notebook." It's all of 70 sheets thick, which means it's as floppy as it is slim. Strictly undergraduate sized.

And yet these days, it's the repository of Giannis Antetokounmpo's lessons, insights and wisdom about the NBA. Also known as the unofficial chronicle of the education of a phenom.

Sprite Slam Dunk: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo will showcase his dunking ability in the 2015 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest.

"I came with the notebook three days ago," the Milwaukee Bucks' 20-year-old prize pupil said last week after an overtime victory against the Los Angeles Lakers. "It's really a great plan. I watch and see what I did wrong. I write the actions that work."

Antetokounmpo, the "Greek Freak" as he's affectionately known in Milwaukee and among savvy NBA fans, has taken his professional basketball apprenticeship to another level, and it already is paying off. The Bucks are 29-23 with one game left before the All-Star break, as dramatic a turnaround from 2013-14 as the league has seen.

A story of unlimited potential

Through 53 games last season, the Bucks were 9-43, on their way to the NBA's worst finish (15-67). They ranked 26th of 30 teams in offensive rating (100.2) and 29th at the other end (108.9). This season, they have improved to 17th (102.0) and second (99.2), respectively, big reasons for their climb to sixth in the Eastern Conference.

Giannis Nets His Career-High

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores a career-high 25 points (on 10 for 14 shooting) and grabs six rebounds with two steals and two blocks in a victory over the Lakers.

Antetokounmpo's development has been just as remarkable. He was named the East's Player of the Week Monday for helping the Bucks to a 3-1 mark while topping and re-topping his personal bests. Antetokoumpo scored 25 points with six rebounds and two blocks in the overtime home win over L.A., then went for 27 points and 15 rebounds two nights later at Houston.

He had 14 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in Saturday's win over Boston, then notched 12 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and three steals in another home victory (the Bucks' fifth straight) over Brooklyn Monday. And to think, he owes at least some portion of it to his little green book.

"Before the game I ask my coach, 'What do you think about the Lakers? What do we have to do?' " Antetokounmpo said. "He told me, 'Defensive rebounds.' So tips like that, I write them down. Then I say 'Offense. What does my guy do?' He tells me, I write it down. And after, what I think."

Every day you see the growth, man. Every day he's learning. ... He's picking up little things. His thing is just time, honestly. Next week he'll be a better player than he is today.

– Bucks guard O.J. Mayo, on Giannis Antetokounmpo

Antetokounmpo routinely lingers after shootarounds and practices to work with coach Jason Kidd and staffers such as Sean Sweeney and Josh Oppenheimer. Sometimes it's a shooting game, other times just tedious repetition in the high or low post and lots of hard work. There are a lot of video breakdowns too. And now, this book/journal/personal scouting report.

"I'm gonna keep it going," Antetokounmpo said, smiling. "Some day I'll have a collection and I'm going to keep all my notebooks and one day I'll remember it."

Block of the Night: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo flies in and rejects James Harden's layup attempt.

At the rate he's going, Antetokounmpo's collected works will stack up nicely against an old set of Encyclopedia Brittanicas. His game, not unlike his elongated body, is a great carton from Ikea that has exploded on your family room floor, parts here, parts there. The instructions are there, too, in the effort he puts in, the help he gets from his teammates and the know-how of his coaches.

"About two weeks ago, it was like something clicked for him," one of the Milwaukee assistants said. "He always put in extra work, but there was a seriousness about him, wanting to be a real professional."

Bucks guard O.J. Mayo said: "We're asking a lot from a young guy, man. Sometimes he plays some four, a little bit tonight he played some five. He guards some of the better players in the post for us. Sometimes he guards on the perimeter. [On a scale of] one through 10, I'd say he's a seven, because he's still getting better.

"Every day you see the growth, man. Every day he's learning. He can do almost anything with the size of his hands and his length. He's picking up little things. He's gained a lot more confidence in his jump shot. He's gained more confidence in his post-up game. His thing is just time, honestly. Next week he'll be a better player than he is today."

All of the young man's skills were on display against the Lakers last week. Half a minute into the game, he took a pass on the right wing just past midcourt. One dribble, two strides and wham! Flushed it. Whether he was giving up 50 pounds bodying up Lakers big man Robert Sacre, helping out to swat Ed Davis' shot in the paint or, in a switch, posting and spinning around Nick Young for a two-handed slam, Antetokounmpo was filing away moves and decisions for future reference.

'No matter how long you've been in the game, this guy [Antetokounmpo] will do something tonight that will make your jaw drop.' He tries things but I don't think he thinks about them -- they seem to spring from him naturally.

– A Western Conference scout

Part of his appeal flows from his youth and his physique, and the unknowns of what he'll eventually become. Teammate Khris Middleton sees the similarity in build to Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, last season's MVP. But Middleton thinks Antetokounmpo will score less yet have a more varied game in time. On a nightly basis, there's an element of surprise as Antetokounmpo learns new things about his game right along with the folks in the arena.

"When I filed my report on them," one Western Conference advance scout said of the Bucks, "I wrote that 'No matter how long you've been in the game, this guy [Antetokounmpo] will do something tonight that will make your jaw drop.' He tries things but I don't think he thinks about them -- they seem to spring from him naturally. The way he's going, he can be a 10-year All-Star for Milwaukee."

A story of growing up off the court

It's all happening so fast. Two years ago, Antetokounmpo had just turned 18. He was playing for Filathlitikos AO, averaging 9.5 ppg and 5.0 apg, while shooting 62 percent. He was picked to play in the Greek League All-Star game, was voted co-Rookie of the Year and was named to the all-defensive team by Eurobasket.com. In the 2013 U20 European championships, Antetokounmpo helped Greece's national team go 8-2, averaging 8.0 ppg and 7.6 rpg.

The Bucks took him 15th overall in a 2013 Draft that, were it recast today, would have Antetokounmpo going in the top three. He was a tough sell in Milwaukee initially, not just as an unknown on a team desperate every year to stay competitive, but for the challenges he faced both on and off the court.

Inside Stuff: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo's adjustment to American culture is coming slowly but his game needs no translation.

"He's had to make a lot of adjustments," said general manager John Hammond. "Living here in the States. Playing in the NBA. He had to adapt to not having his family here, and then his family finally arriving. There were a lot of obstacles for him to overcome off the floor before even learning how to play in the NBA."

Little things, y'know, like eating. Driving. Handling the money dumped in his lap in his rookie deal -- $6.8 million over his first three seasons -- and even loneliness while his parents and brothers grappled with visa issues in their attempt to join him last season.

They made it in February: parents Veronica and Charles, younger brothers Kostas and Alex. Now the family is reunited in a home not far from the Bucks' south-suburban practice facility. He has two older brothers, Thanasis and Andreas, with the former drafted in the second round by New York last June and playing in the NBA D-League.

Hammond admitted that Antetokounmpo's cultural transition concerned the Bucks as much as his hoops adjustments. But Milwaukee seems to suit the player and his family, in size and hominess, and Antetokounmpo's personality has won over both friends and skeptics.

"It was a factor, especially with someone that young, at 19, wondering how difficult this would be for him," Hammond said. "But Giannis is an outstanding person. He's extremely bright. He's got a good sense of energy about him. Great sense of humor. People like him and he likes people."

On the court, Antetokounmpo is winning over fans and critics almost nightly. Every time he scribbles something in his old-school notebook about a play, an opponent's tendency or a mistake, you get the sense it's uploaded in higher-tech fashion into his nerve center.

He had to adapt to not having his family here, and then his family finally arriving. There were a lot of obstacles for him to overcome off the floor before even learning how to play in the NBA.

– Milwaukee Bucks GM John Hammond

It's tempting, developing a player with so much potential in so many areas, to throw too much at him. Antetokounmpo admits to occasionally feeling overwhelmed. His solution? Simplify.

"Yeah, sometimes it's too much. I've got to play in the low post, I've got to go out and set screens, I've got to drive on my defender. Jump shots. Find guys. Makes plays," he said. "So the only thing I want to focus on is, just play hard.

"Run. Set screens. Roll. Pop out. And just play the game. I'm gonna have some nights when it's not gonna come. But if you keep playing natural, it's just gonna come. I'm gonna keep getting better, keep getting better and one day, everything's gonna pay off."

A story of a difference-maker

Antetokounmpo's jump shot has shown some of his greatest improvement. A year ago, he mostly drove to the rim and worked in the restricted area, his accuracy beyond five feet stuck in the mid-teen's in field-goal percentage. This season, the 6-foot-11 second-year man has doubled those numbers, per NBA.com stats; he's shooting 35 percent from 5-9 feet, 28.6 percent from 10-14 feet and 39 percent from 15-19 feet.

Antetokounmpo Slam

Giannis Antetokounmpo throws down a powerful slam.

All those defenders playing off him now? They'll start edging closer, at which point Antetokounmpo can toast them with long strides and quick first step.

"If he can make one, two, make that defender uncomfortable, it will open up the rest of the floor for him," said Bucks guard Brandon Knight. "He works on that shot. We just don't want him to hesitate. If he catches and shoots, we love it."

Lakers coach Byron Scott played with a 6-foot-9 point guard -- fellow named Magic Johnson -- so his thoughts on a 6-foot-11 player who can run point at times carries weight.

Big-Time Block

Giannis Antetokounmpo blocks a shot off the backboard.

"He can be a difference-maker," Scott said. "When you look at the skill level he has, the way he can handle the ball, the way he can pass it, he has a freakishness about him on the court that is undeniable. The guy is 20 years old. It seems like when he stretches his arms out, he can touch baseline to baseline. He's that long. If he continues to develop, they've got something special here."

Antetokounmpo isn't ready to limit himself, though he feels he'll be most effective in time up front, matching up with the NBA's power forwards.

I'm gonna have some nights when it's not gonna come. But if you keep playing natural, it's just gonna come. I'm gonna keep getting better, keep getting better and one day, everything's gonna pay off.

– Giannis Antetokounmpo

There is a maturity and even an urgency about this kid, too. "If you really want it ... this is the only thing I got. I never went to college," he said. "Other guys, they go to their jobs. They read and all that stuff, and perfect [themselves] as doctors or lawyers. I've got to perfect my game. Keep working."

A story of hope for Milwaukee

And yet, he's not skipping steps. Bad games don't plunge him into depression -- they're teaching moments. The Bucks' unexpected switch in coaching staffs, from Larry Drew to Kidd and his crew, has given Antetokounmpo fresh lessons.

Inside The NBA: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks joins Inside The NBA to give his thoughts on his upcoming showing at the 2015 NBA All-Star Sprite Slam Dunk Contest.

"I give Jason a lot of credit for where our team is right now and for where Giannis is right now," Hammond said. "He and his staff have done a great job of challenging him, teaching him, putting him in positions where he can be successful. The change turned out to be a very good thing for Giannis."

Milwaukee's season, surprising as it's been, has had hiccups too. Rookie Jabari Parker was lost for the year in December to a torn ACL. Center Larry Sanders has been a washout again, tapping out for personal issues and then getting suspended for another violation of the NBA's anti-drug policy. Guard Kendall Marshall is done for the season, too, after right knee surgery. Forward Ersan Ilyasova has been out with a variety of injuries.

Antetokounmpo's versatility has helped smooth those bumps for the Bucks. He's trying to stay smooth as well. After that shootaround last week, after his tutorials with his coaches were over, Antetokounmpo was asked about his plans for the Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Saturday. He claimed not to have any, saying at first he would think about the contest only after he gets to New York.

He was lying, of course, trying not to tip his hand. He might have Thanasis as his coach and set-up man. And he finally admitted checking out video of Larry Nance, the Phoenix Suns forward who won the NBA's first All-Star dunk contest back in 1984 over legend Julius Erving.

Sky High

Giannis Antetokounmpo flies to the basket and delivers with the Statue Of Liberty jam.

Antetokounmpo tried to describe one Nance's signature dunks -- "He would, how you say...?" Cradle? "Yes, cradle the ball" -- and finally stepped back on the court to walk-through Nance's sky-walking, reverse slam move. But even with his dunk schemes for a glitzy night, Antetokounmpo wasn't rushing through anything. It's like the old John Wooden building block: he's being quick without hurrying.

"I try to not put pressure on myself," Antetokounmpo said. "Every day, I just want to go in, listen, 'what do I have to do today?' And get better. Because I see myself, like two years ago, I wasn't as good as now. So imagine what I can do in two years. So if I keep working, I'm gonna get better."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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