The humble, athletic and skilled NBA star had just spent the previous two hours dazzling fans, elevating teammates and frustrating opponents. He then spent extended time in an arena hallway posing for pictures with children he has also inspired with both his play and presence.
But for all the impact Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has already made with his superior strength, fundamentals and versatility through nine NBA seasons, he conceded uncertainty on his ultimate trajectory.
Can Antetokounmpo eventually become this generation’s version of former San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan? After all, Duncan became another prized NBA star similarly known for his big-man presence, positional versatility and humble demeanor.
“Tim Duncan? I don’t know,” Antetokounmpo told NBA.com “That’s a tough one.”
It sure is.
Duncan earned a spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame by compiling five NBA titles, three Finals MVPs and two regular-season MVPs during a 19-season NBA career spent entirely with the Spurs. Antetokounmpo has collected one NBA title, a Finals MVP and two regular-season MVP’s during his nine-year career spent entirely with the Bucks.
Duncan made 15 All-Star appearances, while Antetokounmpo will play in his sixth All-Star Game this Sunday in Cleveland (8 p.m. ET, TNT), tying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s franchise mark for most All-Star appearances. But Antetokounmpo will need to ensure both a prolific and healthy second half of his NBA career to match Duncan’s All-Star appearances.
Duncan landed on eight NBA All-Defensive First teams before finishing high on the NBA’s all-time leaders in rebounds (sixth; 15,091) and blocks (fifth; 3,020). Antetokounmpo has made three All-NBA First teams and defensive teams while still having work to climb on the NBA’s all-time list for rebounding (No. 190; 5,897) and blocks (No. 144; 832).
Clearly, Antetokounmpo has plenty to fill out the rest of his Hall-of-Fame bound resume. But here’s the scary part: after guiding the Bucks to their first NBA championship since 1971 with a Finals MVP performance in 2021, the 27-year old Antetokounmpo appears to be just getting started with collecting hardware and setting new milestones. As Bucks assistant coach Darvin Ham mused, “we’re in trouble.”
“I see that as being right on point,” Ham told NBA.com about Antetokounmpo becoming this generation’s version of Duncan. “He likes to have his fun, don’t get me wrong. But he’s not one of those guys that’s looking to bring a whole lot of nonsense or silliness where his name is being out there. He avoids the drama. He’s about his family and he’s a quiet-to-himself type of guy. He laughs and jokes with his teammates and does different things with his teammates. But outside of that, there’s no shenanigans. It’s straight business and focus.”
‘I always just try to play to win’
Not surprising then that Milwaukee (35-22) hosts the Portland Trail Blazers (23-34) on Monday (8 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass) as one of the league’s championship contenders with Antetokounmpo leading the way. He has stayed in the Kia MVP race after faring high among the NBA’s leaders in numerous statistical categories.
Antetokounmpo is tied for second in the NBA in points per game (29.0), seventh in rebounding (11.2) and ranks 12th in blocks (1.4). Antetokounmpo and Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic are the lone NBA players this season to average at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per game. And among the NBA’s power forwards, Antetokounmpo has fared second in field-goal percentage (54.4%).
Antetokounmpo also appears on pace to further cement himself among other NBA greats. Antetokounmpo remains on track to become the first NBA player ever to average at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five seasons for four consecutive seasons. He has logged at least 25 points for 21 consecutive games, which marks the Bucks’ third-longest 25-point scoring streak behind Abdul-Jabbar’s marks in 1969-71 (22) and in 1971-72 (25). And Antetokounmpo ranks 16th in career triple-doubles (29), both behind former Boston Celtics guard John Havlicek and Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (31).
He avoids the drama. … He laughs and jokes with his teammates and does different things with his teammates. But outside of that, there’s no shenanigans. It’s straight business and focus.”
— Bucks assistant coach Darvin Ham, on Giannis Antetokounmpo
“He’s a little bit different player than Tim,” Ham said. “Tim was more fundamentally based and nowhere near Giannis is athletically. Tim was a little more polished with his skillset with shooting the ball and scoring the ball. They’re both dynamic defenders. But Giannis tends to be able to guard a lot of smaller players a little bit better. But the parallels I see are more of the seriousness and approach they have with the game.”
Just like a certain Spurs star acted for nearly two decades, Antetokounmpo has made little of his impressive achievements. Instead, Antetokounmpo placed more importance in his approach.
“I just try to play as hard as I can, play for the team and always play to win,” Antetokounmpo said. “No matter what’s going on with the game and the excitement, I always just try to play to win.”
- NBA 75 Legend Profile: Giannis Antetokounmpo
No wonder those qualities remind Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer of Duncan when he served as a Spurs assistant coach under Gregg Popovich (1996-2013). Budenholzer witnessed Duncan fulfill the same description that Antetokounmpo outlined while winning four of his five NBA titles. He also saw how Duncan and David Robinson dominated inside as the “Twin Towers.” Then, Budenholzer saw Duncan evolve toward complementing and elevating both a dynamic point guard (Tony Parker) as well as a crafty scorer and defender (Manu Ginobili).
So with Popovich nearing the NBA’s all-time record for most wins, a reporter wondered if any other NBA team could eventually replicate the Spurs’ longevity.
“It’s happening here in Milwaukee,” Budenholzer deadpanned. “I got a 20-year contract. Giannis is going to play for 20 [more years]. It’s over.”
Budenholzer was joking, but his implied message wasn’t off. Before the 2020-21 season started, Antetokounmpo signed a five-year, $228 million extension with the Bucks that keeps him under contract through the 2025-26 campaign. Shortly after delivering his zinger, Budenholzer turned serious while pondering how Antetokounmpo’s identity as a humble superstar compares to Duncan’s makeup.
“That’s one of the things where he fits into that mold and that mindset. One of the many things that makes Giannis great and makes those players great is their humility is really high up there,” Budenholzer said. “I love Giannis’ humility. I think it’s fair to put him in that kind of bucket with Timmy, Manu and Tony and all of those guys.”
‘Growth mindset’ has Bucks dreaming of dynasty
It surprises no one that Antetokounmpo has acted to Budenholzer’s coaching similarly to how Duncan responded to Popovich’s demanding expectations.
“He tells me to coach him harder,” Budenholzer said of Antetokounmpo. “It’s not just once when he’s told me that. I think it’s rare when you get a guy to tell you to coach him harder. So, I’m going to do my best to coach him harder.”
During recent film sessions that Ham described as “really intense,” Budenholzer talked to Antetokounmpo about becoming even more active on the glass, elevating his teammates and ensuring better ball movement. Antetokounmpo has typically excelled in those areas, but Ham noted that Budenholzer has challenged Antetokounmpo to master “the intricacies of the game.” During the Bucks’ recent loss to Phoenix, Budenholzer also shared critical words with Antetokounmpo before shooting a pair of free throws.
“Bud can push him hard,” Ham said. “Giannis is not going to totally surrender every time. But they have a back-and-forth where they can come to a mutual understanding with how we play on both sides of the ball.”
So much that Ham estimated that Antetokounmpo accepts the feedback “98% of the time.” Why has a proven NBA star become so amenable to criticism?
“I want to be coached. I want to get better,” Antetokounmpo said. “I want to improve every single day. I think I got steps to go.”
Hard to imagine how Antetokounmpo has steps to go. He offered that self-criticism after leading the Bucks to a dominant win last week over the Los Angeles Lakers with 44 points while shooting 17-for-20 from the field and 2-for-2 from 3-point range along with 14 rebounds and eight assists. The Lakers might be flawed, even with LeBron James and Anthony Davis on their team. That might explain why Antetokounmpo had only 18 points on 5-for-14 shooting along with eight assists and seven rebounds three days later against the Phoenix Suns.
It hardly matched what Antetokounmpo showed in those areas seven months ago against Phoenix in the NBA Finals through six games in points (35.2), shooting percentage (61.1%), rebounds (13.2) and blocks (1.8).
A near-perfect night for Giannis.
44 PTS | 14 REB | 8 AST | 85% FGM | 100% 3PM pic.twitter.com/UvI7Ov7rLf
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 9, 2022
Overall, though, Antetokounmpo still has mirrored similar numbers as he did during his second MVP season in 2019-20 in points per game (29.5). He also remains on pace to surpass his scoring average during his first MVP season in 2018-19 (27.7). Still, Antetokounmpo shot more efficiently and collected more rebounds during his MVP season in 2018-19 (57.8%; 12.5 rpg) and in 2019-20 (55.3%; 13.6).
That might explain why Antetokounmpo still rattled off various parts of his game that he argued still needs to improve.
He scrutinized his shooting from mid-range, from deep and at the free-throw line as well as his passing and defense. Antetokounmpo contended he needs to trust his teammates better and attack downhill more effectively. And Antetokounmpo called on the Bucks to establish more consistency with their team defense, rebounding, shot selection, screen setting, ball handling and teamwork.
Antetokounmpo appears to have excelled in most parts of his game, but he critiqued them all. As Antetokounmpo argued, “those are good habits that are going to help us down the stretch and win a championship.”
“We’re happy that we won the championship last year, but we’re not satisfied,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’re trying to hopefully put ourselves in a position that we can be one of those teams that play down the stretch in June.”
The Bucks won’t be surprised to read Antetokounmpo’s commentary.
“The great thing about him is he has that growth mindset,” Budenholzer said. “He has always wanted to improve and get better. In a lot of ways, it feels similar. He’s pushing the team and pushing us to improve and to get better. So, his approach is pretty steady and consistent. He wants to be great.”
After all, Antetokounmpo experienced early playoff exits during his regular-season MVP years in 2019 (Eastern Conference Finals to Toronto in six games) and 2020 (Eastern Conference semifinals to Miami in five games). During both of those playoff runs, Antetokounmpo faced varying double teams and defensive schemes. Since then, Antetokounmpo has become nearly unstoppable.
“He’s just being himself,” Bucks forward Khris Middleton said. “That’s what he’s been doing for so many years. We don’t talk about last year at all, really. We talk about this year and each day trying to get better and trying to find a way to win a ball game. So, it’s nothing different.”
That is because Antetokounmpo has already learned and shown what it takes to win an NBA championship. That is because Antetokounmpo has guarded against complacency following the Bucks’ championship title run.
I’m enjoying the game like last year. I’m in a good place. I’m happy. … I’m blessed I have the opportunity to go out there on the court and create every single day something new and to help my teammates be great in any way possible.”
— Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo
Perhaps that approach ensures Antetokounmpo accomplishes something that even Duncan could not do: defend an NBA championship. After the Spurs won an NBA title, Duncan experienced two first-round exits, lost once in the Western Conference semifinals and appeared once in the Western Conference finals.
“He got a taste of the championship success and now he’s addicted to it,” Ham said of Antetokounmpo. “It’s a different type of pressure. He has no pressure externally on whether he can be the guy that can lead his team to a championship. So now there’s internal pressure. Can he remain consistent with his winning habits and push his team forward to stay consistent with those winning habits that allowed us to hold up the trophy?”
Will the Bucks hold up the trophy again? They are among the Eastern Conference’s top contenders because of Antetokounmpo’s dominance and a strong supporting cast in Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Milwaukee also acquired veteran Serge Ibaka in a trade-deadline deal from the LA Clippers in hopes to add more championship reinforcements.
But the Bucks have experienced some speed bumps. Valuable wing P.J. Tucker signed with Miami last summer as a free agent. Center Brook Lopez has stayed sidelined all season while recovering from back surgery. And the Bucks have gone 12-15 against teams with winning records and were 7-7 in January.
“It’s too early to say,” Antetokounmpo said of the Bucks’ title fortunes. “Last year, nobody believed we would win a championship. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Antetokounmpo then mentioned several other Eastern Conference teams, including the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers and Charlotte Hornets as possible threats. The Brooklyn Nets and Philadephia 76ers are, too, especially after the two teams swapped James Harden and Ben Simmons. But the Bucks have both talent, continuity and another key intangible Antetokounmpo considers important to another title run.
“As long as we are playing our basketball, we keep having fun and keep enjoying what we’re doing,” Antetokounmpo said. “That’s the only way you can prolong this. If you don’t enjoy what you do, you’re not going to be able to play all the way through.”
A superstar simply enjoying the ride
It has become clear Antetokounmpo has enjoyed what he does. Who wouldn’t enjoy dominating nearly every game he plays? But Antetokounmpo has also showed that joy off the court.
Before training camp started in September, Ham said Antetokounmpo invited coaches and teammates to his hometown of Athens, Greece. Although all the attendees paid their own way, Antetokounmpo hosted them on a trip that included some informal workouts and a lot of beach time before then taking a multi-day trip to Cyprus.
“It was an awesome experience,” Ham said. “Very little hoop; more of a social trip.”
The Bucks surely enjoyed the sightseeing, culinary delights and relaxation following a challenging title run. Though their focus has shifted since then, Antetokounmpo has still tried to show levity.
Following each postgame interview, Antetokounmpo shares a “Dad joke” that has become both endearing and eye-roll-inducing. Some examples?
How about Antetokounmpo’s zinger after the Bucks’ recent win against Clippers: “Why did the NFL coach go to the bank? To get his quarterback.” Or how about Antetokounmpo’s punchline after the Bucks’ win over the Lakers: “Why did the orange lose the race? He ran out of juice.” Antetokounmpo then sprinted out of the interview room as if he just delivered an epic set.
Giannis stays ready with the dad jokes. 🤣 pic.twitter.com/oUMLY3l0be
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 9, 2022
“He’s always been the same way,” Middleton said. “You go back to one of my first days here with him, it’s just him telling his corny jokes that he loves to tell.”
That comment sparked some laughs. “You all cracking up,” Holiday said to a few reporters, shaking his head. “Y’all don’t have to laugh,” Middleton added. It’s hard for the Bucks and the general public not to, though, knowing what the joy represents.
This isn’t about a man finally at peace after winning his first NBA title. This is about a man who remembers his roots as a child raised by Nigerian parents while living in poverty in Greece. Last week, Antetokounmpo attended an early screening of Disney’s “Rise,” an upcoming movie that is based on his family’s journey. Beyond appearing in the All-Star Game, Antetokounmpo will also team up with his brothers, Alex and Thanasis, in the Taco Bell Skills Challenge on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, TNT).
Great day at @disneystudios watching an early cut of the movie about my family’s journey. Cannot wait to share it with the world 🙏🏾🙌🏾 pic.twitter.com/W5KsWeFc15
— Giannis Antetokounmpo (@Giannis_An34) February 8, 2022
“I’m enjoying the game like last year. I’m in a good place. I’m happy,” Antetokounmpo said. “But I haven’t changed. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m blessed I have the opportunity to go out there on the court and create every single day something new and to help my teammates be great in any way possible.”
That sounds like what Duncan did during his whole career. There are some noticeable differences, though.
“Giannis also has a humility and playful spirit and personality. Those guys did, too, but a little bit more behind the scenes,” Budenholzer said of the Spurs’ stars. “You’re so lucky to be around somebody that great and, at the same time, incredibly humble.”
Fans saw a glimpse of Antetokounmpo’s humble demeanor after the Bucks’ recent win over the Lakers. He walked with his family only to see numerous fans asking to take pictures with him.
Antetokounmpo embraced the attention and appeared humbled with the interest. After his presence caused a young boy to sob, Antetokounmpo asked the boy why he cried.
“My man, you might dunk on me one day!” Antetokounmpo said. The young boy sounded skeptical, but Antetokounmpo insisted he would have a 20-year NBA career. After learning the boy was 10 years old, Antetokounmpo then predicted he would enter the NBA as a 19-year-old phenom.
“You’re going to dunk on me one day,” Antetokounmpo said. “You’re going to shoot a three in my face one day.”
Moments later, Antetokounmpo hardly sounded as confident he could become the Duncan of the NBA’s current generation. But just like how Antetokounmpo saw something special in a young 10-year-old boy, the Bucks see something special in Antetokounmpo.
Said Ham: “He’s wholeheartedly up for the challenge.”
* * *
Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.