Two budding stars ready to take another step forward

Impressive during regular season, Milwuakee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo and Utah Jazz's Gordon Hayward will look to prove themselves during the playoffs

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

They have nothing in common except a shared position on the court and a sense of anticipation right now while they wait on deck.

Yes, they’re up next. Later this month when the playoffs begin, we’ll know a little more about Giannis Antetokounmpo and Gordon Hayward, a pair of breakout stars who’ll finally get the chance to confirm all the fuss made about them this season.

Kenny Smith, the former point guard and current TNT broadcaster, once said it best: “The regular season is when you make your fame, but the playoffs is when you make your name.” What two young players in each conference is more prepared to earn some “name” recognition than these two? Both were All-Stars this season, are breathing life into their teams, can entertain as well as produce and appear primed for long and rich careers.

Here’s something else: Neither hasn’t done anything in the postseason, but that’s based mostly on circumstance.

Antetokounmpo and Hayward appeared in the playoffs once and those debuts were forgettable. The Jazz were swept by the Spurs in 2012 because Utah was a team in transition, their first full season without Deron Williams and only their second with Hayward; he wasn’t ready to be an engine yet. Same for Giannis in 2015 when he and the developing Bucks couldn’t get beyond the Bulls in the first round.

Neither player has returned to the playoffs since, but the Jazz have already clinched while the Bucks are fifth in the East and all but assured of a spot. They’ll certainly play against teams with more postseason stripes, putting them at a disadvantage there. Which makes the stakes that much greater for Giannis and Hayward, should they pull out a first-round win or at least shake up the series with performances that leave big impressions.

Here’s a look at they’ve done this season, and what they’ll be up against, and the potential ramifications:

Hayward. The basketball world can’t quite make up its mind about this guy. All will agree that he’s a talent, perhaps better than most projected when the Jazz drafted him ninth in 2010. But: Is he a soon-to-be great player, or at least a candidate for All-NBA? Or is Hayward a typical jack-of-all trades who’s not quite capable of pushing a team deep in the playoffs as the lead singer of the group?

He is arguably the best player in a Jazz uniform since Stockton and Malone, a low-maintenance, high-energy swingman that must play well in order for the Jazz to have any chance. He’s their best offensive weapon and some nights Utah’s best passer, someone who fits the definition of a core player. He fits in the half-court and up tempo and isn’t afraid of the big shot.

His scoring has risen every season: 5.4, 11.8, 14.1, 16.2, 19.3, 19.7 and now 21.7. He’s also a solid passer for a 6-foot-8 small forward. The offense goes through him, which is important, because no one else with the Jazz brings the same dependability. Plus, he’s comfortable in that skin.

Hayward worked hard on his 226-pound body last summer to add strength, which has allowed him to finish more plays at the rim without fear. He’s on pace to shoot a career high in free-throw attempts and his overall shooting percentage is his best since he became the team’s first option. He’s also averaging more offensive rebounds and overall rebounds than ever, further proof of his willingness to mix it up in traffic.

This all reflects well on Hayward and his body of work is commendable. We just don’t know if he’s ready, or even able, to take the elevator up another floor or two, and that’s usually accomplished by taking your team a few rounds in the post-season. Either Hayward will demonstrate as much, or feed the notion that he’s better suited as a shotgun-rider, a No. 2 guy, for any team with championship dreams.

“The regular season is when you make your fame, but the playoffs is when you make your name.”

TNT’s Kenny Smith

Of course, as a pending free agent, he’ll be treated like a savior by a handful of suitors, based on the money they’ll offer, which doesn’t always accurately reflect the talent of the player. There are dozens of good players paid like A-listers because their free agent timing was perfect. That’ll be true with Hayward, with the salary cap ready to take another rise, and suddenly $25 million-per-season for someone like him isn’t unusual at all in today’s NBA.

And so: No matter what Hayward does this spring, he’ll be a superstar after July 1. Miami, Boston, Brooklyn, Orlando, the Lakers and obviously the Jazz, among others, will fight to make sure his grandchildren will always eat lobster.

Antetokounmpo. All of a sudden, he’s showing up on some of those lists that ask teams: If you could build around one player, who would it be? What’s not to like about the Freak? He’s longer than Milwaukee winters, goes rim-to-rim in about seven or eight steps, has developed a toughness streak for someone so lean, brings an improved dribble game and desperately wants to be great. Not since Ray Allen have the Bucks felt this satisfied about their best player, and oh by the way, he doesn’t turn 23 until the middle of next season.

Seriously: At 6-foot-11, he can play all five positions and do so with a varying degree of success, depending on the matchup, which is usually hell for the other guy. His single-game highs this season scream of versatility: 41 points, 15 rebounds, 11 assists, six steals (twice). The Bucks have only lost four times since March 3 and in that time Giannis has averaged nearly 23 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. He’s also amazingly efficient for such limited experience, shooting a crisp 52 percent for the year.

Even more, he plays with a joy, like someone who’d do with for free. Wisely, though, the Bucks locked him up for another four years at $100 million, which right now looks like a bargain. He’s their foundation, the player they need to launch a title contender, the young star who could make future free agents think twice before turning down the chance to play in Milwaukee.

Still, Giannis is growing, overcoming the occasional lapse of judgment and bad decisions, and learning what it takes to be a leader and fourth quarter savior. His shooting range remains a work in progress and there is a reasonable hesitation before taking threes, since he’s connecting on only 27 percent. Nothing happens overnight, and he’ll need to follow-up his breakout regular season with a breakout post-season to make this truly a dream year for him.

Can he beat the double-team off the dribble with the game on the line in the pressure moment that only the playoffs can bring? Giannis has never really been in that situation since he became Milwaukee’s first option. Also, can he be the most impactful player on the floor for an entire series? Maybe not against the Cavs, if the Bucks see them, but anyone else? These are the tests that young Giannis will be confronted with, and maybe it’s too much to ask of him to ace all of them right now.

The Bucks are dealing from a disadvantage because, while the return of Khris Middleton has helped and Malcolm Brogdon is a rookie revelation, they’re without Jabari Parker for the year and point guard remains a somewhat troublesome sore spot for them. This will only add a sense of urgency to Antetokounmpo to fill multiple gaps once the playoffs begin (again, assuming the Bucks don’t crash these last few games and miss out).

They’ve already asked that of Giannis and he hasn’t discouraged them yet; can the playoffs be that much more difficult?

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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