Towering Heist

Giannis Antetokounmpo grew two inches during the course of his rookie season in the NBA.

The game notes the Milwaukee Bucks have distributed during the 2014-15 campaign still list Antetokounmpo at 6-11, the same height at which he was measured late in his rookie year.

Those who have seen Antetokounmpo’s career unfold from close range since his arrival in Milwaukee, however, can attest to the fact that he continues to grow.

“He’s getting better,” Bucks center Zaza Pachulia said. “And now he’s getting a great opportunity. The coaches like his game. We all do, because he’s so unselfish. He can score, obviously, but he can make plays for others as well. He enjoys that. Most importantly, he’s willing to play the right way. That’s what I love about him.

“With a lot of rookies and younger players, their mentality is to score and they think they’re good players. But this guy plays the right way, so as a teammate, you can’t ask more than that. I love what he brings to the table for this team.”

No one could have blamed Antetokounmpo for becoming overwhelmed, intimidated and withdrawn during his imposing introduction to the NBA and American culture.

But he won over his teammates with his happy-go-lucky lease on life and an almost ever-present smile.

“Off the court, he sometimes acts goofy and silly, but he’s 19,” Pachulia said. “That’s normal. We all have been there.”

Pachulia remembers one time early in Antetokounmpo’s rookie season when his usual bright expression had turned serious and he became uneasy.

“After he got his first couple of paychecks, we were talking about them,” Pachulia said. “His English wasn’t as good as it is now, but he came to me and said, ‘Is there a way I don’t pay taxes?’

“That was really funny. I couldn’t answer his question because I was laughing so hard. He was hoping he didn’t have to pay taxes because they were making his salary half of what it would have been otherwise.

“Finally, my answer, of course, was, ‘No.’”

Antetokounmpo quickly made it clear to his teammates that he understands what it means to go to work and earn those paychecks.

“He’s a competitor out there,” swingman Khris Middleton said. “He changes his mindset from joking to serious, which is an ability you have to have in this league, especially when you’re a young guy like him.”

Pachulia agreed.

“Obviously we all know that he’s a talent, right? He has a great basketball body with long arms and is a very athletic player,” Pachulia said. “He’s even grown two inches since he’s been here, which is crazy.

“With this being said, you’ve got to want it. The most important thing I’ve seen is he hasn’t wasted his time and he hasn’t wasted his talent. He’s been working hard since Day One. He’s always working with the assistant coaches. That’s why he has continued to progress.

“He understands hard work, especially for someone his age.”

Antetokounmpo has never backed down while competing against the premier players in the world, either.

“He’s never been intimidated,” Middleton said. “We’ve made sure he plays with confidence and that he’s not intimidated by anyone out there. He knows that to be in this league, you can’t be scared of anybody.

“We try to spend as much time as we can with him, but he has his family here with him now and he spends a lot of time with them. That has definitely helped him out. It put him in a brighter mood to be able to hang with his brothers and his mom and dad.”

Antetokounmpo impressed observers around the NBA with the confidence he exhibited as a teenage rookie, and that confidence continues to grow.

“On the court, he’s still learning, but he’s picked up a lot of little things since last year and he’s playing with more confidence,” Middleton said. “He’s playing his game, which I like.”

Pachulia can testify to Antetokounmpo’s transformation from off-the-court cutup to on-the-court serious dude.

“Once we start practice or once the lights are on and a game starts, his face changes,” Pachulia said. “You’ve got to love that.”

Bucks forward John Henson marvels at the strides – literal and figurative – that Antetokounmpo is making.

“Being such a young guy here, it’s been great to see him get more confident and play the way he does,” Henson said. “And he’s a sponge, man. That goes for on the court and off the court. The moves and all the things he sees on the court, he picks them up so quickly.

“I think being a later pick in the draft (Antetokounmpo was selected by Milwaukee with the 15th overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft) put a little pressure on him. He wants to put that ‘1’ or ‘2’ by his name that should have been by his name. The pressure and expectations are different now. I think he’s growing into his role – just like everyone else on the team.”

Antetokounmpo made the most of his opportunity to play with Milwaukee’s entry in the Samsung Las Vegas Summer League and for Greece in the FIBA World Cup.

“It was the first time I played summer league and played against other guys my age and different stars,” Antetokounmpo said. “I realized that I can compete with those guys. It was great experience. I tried to work on my game as much as possible and get ready for the NBA season.”

Jason Kidd became intrigued with Antetokounmpo’s diverse skill set and has explored the possibility of utilizing him as a point forward – a role in which Paul Pressey excelled at the direction of former Bucks Coach Don Nelson in the 1980s.

“We have the opportunity to have a long team,” Kidd said. “When I was talking this summer about looking at him, it was about being a playmaker. The way he plays with his teammates, we can play him at the point and give him the opportunity to make plays.

“To have a 6-11 guy at the point, that’s a tough matchup for most bigs, being on the perimeter. For him, he can guard a smaller guy. There’s nothing, really, that he can’t do. For him, being 19, it’s just a matter of doing it on a consistent basis.”

Antetokounmpo averaged 6.3 points and 4.3 rebounds during the FIBA World Cup in his first stint with the Greek Senior National Team. He had previously competed with Greece’s U-20 National Team in the 2013 U20 European Championships.

“Playing for Greece helped me a lot, playing a defensive style of basketball,” Antetokounmpo said. “It was a good group of guys. I learned a lot, and it made me more ready. I was really excited to play for Greece. It was fun.”

Antetokounmpo has stepped up his production substantially during his sophomore NBA season. Through 15 games he was averaging 11.8 points and 5.5 rebounds in 26.7 minutes per outing, up from 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds in 24.6 minutes as a rookie. He was shooting 47.9 percent from the field and 72.4 percent from the free throw line, bettering his first-year marks of 41.4 percent and 68.3 percent, respectively.

He hasn’t let his success get the better of him, though.

“I just enjoy being around him every day,” Middleton said. “He never takes too many things too seriously, and I like that. He continues to just be himself. He’s not going to change that.”

Henson is grateful for that.

“The other day, after he won a shooting game he ran over and jumped up on a pingpong table like he’d won a world championship,” Henson said of Antetokounmpo. “Larry (Sanders) told him, ‘Calm down, man, you’ll break the table.’

“He has done a number of funny things like that. He’s just so young and energetic and fun to be around.  You’ve got to respect that.”

Antetokounmpo consistently strives to maximize his God-given gifts for the betterment of his team. Opposing forwards and guards are quickly discovering what a difficult matchup he has become.

“I feel like my height gives me the opportunity to go around people and get to the basket and help make my teammates better,” he said. “I just feel like a 19-year-old kid who’s still learning. That’s what I’m going to try to do – learn and have fun with my teammates and make our team better.”

Pachulia looks forward to seeing the dividends of Antetokounmpo’s education, effort and development.

“He’s not there yet, and thankfully he knows that,” Pachulia said. “He still has a lot more time to spend in the gym and get better. Experience and spending time with his coaches are going to help him a lot. Playing for Coach Kidd, he’s going to get even better.

“The future is bright for him as long as he continues working the way he does, and we as teammates are going to help him as well.”