Giannis Antetokounmpo may be the best international player in the NBA right now, but as the old saying goes, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. The Milwaukee Bucks’ versatile playmaker, in his fourth season already at age 21, made it clear he was taking nothing for granted when some praise was lavished on him Monday afternoon.
In a league-arranged conference call with media outlets from around the globe, Antetokounmpo was reminded that the league’s general managers – in NBA.com’s annual survey – voted him No. 1 among the 113 international players across 30 teams in 2016-17. He also was asked about Bucks coach Jason Kidd’s comments last week comparing him to Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas’ Hall of Fame-worthy power forward who ranks at or near the top of any discussion of international or European basketball greats.
Antetokounmpo didn’t respond with any false modesty when the praise came his way in a question from Germany. But he kept things in perspective.
“Aw, man, Dirk Nowitzki is the best European player, for me, that’s ever played the game. He’s an unbelievable talent,” said Antetokounmpo, the native of Athens who is averaging 21.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists. Call him a point forward or a point guard, it doesn’t matter – Antetokounmpo has a 26.4 player efficiency rating (PER) and 52.1 percent accuracy on his field goals.
Last weekend, when the Bucks played at Dallas, Kidd – who won the 2011 NBA championship with Nowitzki and the Mavs – said of his young star: “There is no ceiling. It’s up to him. You don’t put a ceiling on Dirk at the age of 19 or 20. It’s wherever he takes you. And here in Dallas, we got the opportunity to see [Nowitzki] take us for a ride and no one knew where it was going to stop. Giannis is in that same boat. He has the ability to do so many different things. And just like Dirk, he wants to win.”
What Antetokounmpo most lacks, in comparison to Nowitzki, is the Dallas star’s uncanny shooting range. Nowitzki doesn’t have the wingspan, the end-to-end explosiveness, the defensive prowess or the triple-double potency that the Bucks youngster possesses. The “Greek Freak” (a nickname he’s fond of, by the way) also hasn’t withstood the test of time, with the Mavericks’ 13-time All-Star in his 18th season.
“The things that Dirk has done for this league and for the Dallas Mavericks, it’s unbelievable,” Antetokounmpo said. “And Coach Kidd was a teammate of Dirk, so for Jason Kidd to compare me with Dirk Nowitzki, it feels nice. It’s a nice compliment. But I’ve got to keep my head down and try doing what I do, keep working hard and get better. Because I think I’ve got a long way to do what Dirk did for the league.”
Antetokounmpo bumped ahead of Nowitzki in the annual GMs’ poll with 27.6 percent of the votes compared to Nowitzki’s third-place 22.4. Memphis Marc Gasol, last year’s runaway winner at 62.1 percent, was second at 24.1 percent.
But Milwaukee just played the Grizzlies Saturday, and Antetokounmpo – most commonly referred to these days as a “point forward” – still was raving about Gasol as a “point center.”
Said Antetokounmpo: “As far as the best international player, it’s just so big from the GMs. It’s a nice compliment. But man, I think I’ve got a long ways to go. I can get a lot, lot, lot better.”
How much better? Antetokounmpo admitted that he has his eye on the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award one of these seasons. So far, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was named MVP while playing for the Bucks – he won three of his six MVPs while with Milwaukee.
“I feel like I can get there one day,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep working hard, try to get my team better. That’s a goal of mine. One day.”
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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