Giannis Antetokounmpo isn't only young stud in Milwaukee
Teammate Jabari Parker looks healthy, powerful and ready to rise alongside young Bucks
From the improbable geometry of his outlandishly long limbs to his changes of direction as he zigs, zags and Euro-steps his way through NBA traffic, Giannis Antetokounmpo attacks opponents via angles both obtuse and acute.
It’s remarkable, meanwhile, what Jabari Parker does with straight lines.
There’s already jargon for it in the Twittersphere – “’Bari bully ball,” some call it – when the Milwaukee Bucks’ other precocious wing player gets the ball and determines to make his way to the hoop. There’s his jarringly quick first step, serious pinch-me stuff for a fellow Parker’s size. And there’s the banging and thundering as he goes right through defenders as often as he brushes by them.
Think Ferrari acceleration and Humvee brute force. Think Bentley Bentayga.
One guy listed at 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds who knows a little something about lethal combinations of speed and power was impressed Tuesday night by this other fellow, 10 years his junior, who’s also listed at 6-8 and 250.
“He’s healthy. He’s got his past [injury] behind him. He’s gotten himself in great shape,” Cleveland’s LeBron James said of Parker after the Cavaliers’ 114-108 overtime victory at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. James had 34 points and 12 rebounds in more than 47 minutes with his typical mix of bruising assaults in the paint and feathery touches farther out.
Parker had 30 points and nine rebounds in 46 minutes, offering a few bruising assaults that James himself felt.
“He looks like the kid in high school, just the quickness and the size and the ability to jump,” said James, the standard bearer for teen prodigies while at St. Vincent-St Mary in Akron, until Parker offered a reasonable facsimile at Simeon Career Academy in Chicago.
“So he’s getting better every single day. I love him. He’s a great kid off the court as well. He’s going to continue to improve – they picked him for a reason and he’s definitely showing that.”
Bucks coach Jason Kidd, who spent the first six or seven weeks of this NBA season answering questions about Antetokounmpo, now gets as many or more about Parker, for whom the Milwaukee spotlight has had to stretch.
“Jabari was going,” Kidd said after the defeat. “His teammates made a conscious effort to get him the ball. … He responded in a positive way by scoring the ball or finding guys and getting to the free-throw line.”
There was some reluctance all around to say too much after 53 minutes of hotly contested hoops, because the two teams were scheduled to play at least another 48 Wednesday night at Quicken Loans Arena (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV). The Bucks are in the midst of a funky schedule quirk, playing the third of four home-and-away sets of games this month.
First with Brooklyn, then with Chicago, followed now by Cleveland in this back-to-back and with consecutive games against Washington straddling this holiday weekend, the Bucks are at risk of having all this familiarity turn into a helping of contempt, with their 4-1 mark so far in the eight games.
Besides seeing double, the Bucks’ foes might be looking at them cross-eyed after the recent work done by Parker and Antetokounmpo. The former’s 30 points Tuesday gave him two such performances this season, and he has scored 20 points or more in seven of his past 10 games. Antetokounmpo, slower to get going, had 18 points and 11 rebounds after halftime, finishing with 25 and 13 in his 13th double-double of 2016-17. He also set career highs with 15 free throws and 13 makes.
The pair of forwards – by dimensions but not necessarily by duties – are the bookends, the cornerstones of this Milwaukee team.
Born 99 days apart, and worlds away from each other in the winter of 1994-95, the two already are deserving of All-Star consideration. More than that, with sharpshooting teammate Khris Middleton out (hamstring surgery) and big man Greg Monroe working off the bench, Antetokounmpo and Parker are trying to find ways each night to make 1 + 1 = 3, in hopes of reaching the NBA’s optimal number of stars on a contender.
“When both of us are like one, it’s going to be scary.”
They’re not missing by much, either. Over the past three games, they have combined to average 49.0 points, 18.3 rebounds and 7.7 assists.
“I think I did a better job on Giannis than I did on Jabari,” Cavs veteran Richard Jefferson said after shadowing both at various times Tuesday. “Y’know, looking back on it, there are some things we tried to do from last game and they got a little comfortable. … But when you’re 36 years old and you’re chasing round guys who might not even remember when you played – actually, I played with their coach [Kidd]. I was a rookie with their coach.”
Time is mutable, as are the styles and substance of the two Milwaukee players’ games. Antetokounmpo, already an Inspector Gadget wannabe, has dabbled more recently in taking his game outside. He has taken 15.5 percent of his shots from 3-point range with a 29.2 percent success rate, both of which are improvements over last season’s 8.5 percent and 22.9. The Bucks, 13-13, have extended themselves along with him, boosting both their 3-point attempts (from 15.6 per game to 24.7) and buckets (5.4 to 8.7) about 60 percent.
It’s not just the long ones, either. Antetokounmpo took some advice from Kidd recently to pull up for jump shots on what otherwise might be forays all the way to the rim, just as a method of self-preservation. “Coach told me, ‘Sometimes not take the bumps and the hits.’ That’s how I’ve always tried to go and finish inside,” the fourth-year product of Greece said. “He said, ‘Just shoot a free-throw jump shot. It’s wide open. You make it in practice, so you’re gonna make it in the game eventually.’
“That just built up my confidence. … I’d take so many hits, so many poundings. If the next game is a back-to-back, my body is going to be tired.”
“He’s improved his mid-range jump shot,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said, while also praising Antetokounmpo’s post play. “You’ve got a 6-11 guy who’s pushing the ball in transition just as fast as LeBron. It’s a tough matchup. We’ve just got to get back and guard him by committee.”
And the other guy?
“He’s really improved his 3-point shooting,” Lue said of Parker. “When he first came in, I didn’t know he had this kind of motor. He has a lot of energy – his motor is great on both ends of the floor. And his first step is unbelievable. To be a 4 man, his first steps and catch-and-go’s are really difficult to guard.”
Parker looks to be in better shape this season and, finally, he’s fully healthy after the torn ACL knee injury he suffered in December 2014 as a rookie. As lonely as rehab got, as unguaranteed as the results would be, Parker admitted his spirits took a beating for a spell.
“There was no other choice but to think that way because I was on the bottom,” he said. “I wasn’t walking for a while. Couldn’t see myself jumping like the way I am now. It just took myself, it took my trainer, it took people around me to help me get motivated.
“I don’t think about it now. But I stay humble. It can end at any moment. I try to keep that in my mind.”
Opponents would be happy to keep Parker in front of them – and to avoid some of the pounding he appears to relish. Neither of the Duke products in the visitors’ dressing room Tuesday, Kyrie Irving and Mike Dunleavy, spent much time coping with Parker, so they sounded proud of the fellow (however brief) Blue Devil.
“We’re just now seeing him, the all-time healthy Jabari from the start to where we are now,” Irving said. “[With] him playing at an all-time level and getting those opportunities, and the confidence that J-Kidd puts in him, you give that to a young kid. … You understand you have to give him principles, you have to give him a huge length of rope for him to kind of explore every single night.”
Together, they give the Bucks a tandem around which to build. And build and build, with a decade or more of potential rapidly revealing itself.
“If you’re talking about offense, Jabari shoots the three now,” Kidd said. “He’s extended his range. I don’t think he gets a lot of recognition for the passing that he has. Giannis is blocking shots, doing some of the stuff that we all see on ESPN – running guys down. Media love that stuff.
“You’re going to have both of them that are very similar. Both can pass, both can play in the open court. They both understand the game as they learn. And they’re starting to learn how to play together.”
Said Antetokounmpo: “We worked a lot this summer together. Spent a lot of time together, me and Jabari. And this is our third year playing together. We still have a way to go, but I feel like game by game is going to be better and year by year is going to be even better.”
The affable Athenian made a gesture with his hands, like two links in a chain coming together.
“When both of us are like one,” Antetokounmpo said, “it’s going to be scary.”
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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