Kia Race To The MVP Ladder
Kia Race to the MVP Ladder: All-Star nod proof of Giannis Antetokounmpo's ascent
Bucks' do-it-all big man has turned heads league-wide and is only primed to do more
Sidney Moncrief is the last starter to represent the Milwaukee Bucks in an All-Star Game. That drought that will come to an end next month in New Orleans, when Giannis Antetokounmpo will hit the floor at the Smoothie King Center with nine of the other most recognizable faces in basketball.
It’s a position the Bucks’ 22-year-old star might want to get comfortable with because if the next five to 10 seasons of his career continue on its current trajectory, he’s just getting started with this All-Star thing.
“It’s a great opportunity for Giannis, great for our organization and great for all involved,” Bucks general manager John Hammond told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “He’s accomplished this and is very deserving for all the work he’s put in.”
To say Antetokounmpo is the most improbable of the All-Star starters this season would be an epic understatement. When Hammond selected him with the 15th pick in the 2013 Draft there was no guarantee he’d make the journey from Greece for the 2013-14 season.
He was as talented as he is long, but so green, not having played in an elite division in his homeland. But the man with perhaps the longest stride in the NBA today made some of the biggest strides in his first three seasons in the league.
After averaging 6.8 ppg as a rookie, Antetokounmpo is now assuming a position behind LeBron James as arguably the most dynamic all-around player both in the Eastern Conference and the NBA at large. Add that to his megawatt, mile-wide smile and a splendid nickname — “The Greek Freak” — and the Bucks have the total package in their rising young star.
He’s putting up career highs (23.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.8 steals) while playing basically all five positions on both ends of the floor. It’s a plan Bucks coach Jason Kidd hatched late last season when he and his staff decided to do more than just tinker with the idea of making Antetokounmpo the most unique point guard in league history.
“I think it’s exciting to see a young player be able to do all of the things he can do, and to see him develop so fast” Kidd, one of the league’s all-time great point guards himself, said last week.
Antetokounmpo is on pace to become just the fifth player in NBA history to lead his team in points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals in the same season. He’d join an elite list that includes legends like James (2008-09 in Cleveland), Kevin Garnett (2002-03, Minnesota), Scottie Pippen (1994-95, Chicago) and Dave Cowens (1977-78, Boston).
To see Antetokounmpo turn the corner so early might surprise some outside of the Bucks organization. But not internally.
“We’re not surprised at the jumps he’s made since [his rookie year],” Kidd said. “But there was a big moment for him to take that next step and that was when we gave him the ball and and put him in the point guard position. So I don’t think we’re surprised. I think more or less he puts in the work and he wants to do it. And it makes it a lot easier when someone wants to do it, and for us, our job is to guide him. But he does all the work.”
Now to this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder:
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1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Last week: No. 1
Harden was at his shimmying best in a stellar performance against Milwaukee on Wednesday, finishing with 38 points, eight assists, six rebounds and two blocks. The Rockets continue to soar with Harden leading the way for a crew that has truly been the surprise of the first half of this season (32.0 points, 10.0 assists, 7.6 rebounds, 1.0 blocks, 1.0 steals in his last five games).
2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Last week: No. 2
The road has not been kind to Westbrook and the Thunder, losers of two straight and three of their last four games (all away from home). But Westbrook’s triple-double rush — he picked up his 21st of the season in Wednesday’s loss to the Warriors — rages on. Averaging a triple-double for the season didn’t get him on the starting five for the All-Star team (26.4 points, 11.0 rebounds, 10.2 assists, 2.4 steals in his last five games).
3. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Last week: No. 3
Anyone questioning Durant’s place on the list need only refer to the work he’s done all season, but most recently against his old mates from Oklahoma City. He dropped a season-high 40 points (to go with 12 rebounds, four assists and three blocks) on just 16 shots in a rout of the Thunder (28.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.4 blocks in his last five games).
4. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Last week: No. 4
It’s easy to overlook the fact that the Cavaliers are 30-11, the reigning champs and the runaway favorite to get back to The Finals when they get lumped up the way they did Monday in Oakland. LeBron remembers every slight, real and otherwise. And you can bet he’ll have this week stored in his memory banks for later (21.2 points, 8.2 assists, 7.2 rebounds, 1.6 steals in his last five games).
5. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
Last week: No. 6
Thomas was not rewarded with a starting spot in next month’s All-Star Game but he’ll no doubt be on the list of reserves next week. The best fourth quarter scorer in the league continues to dazzle, especially when it matters most (33.4 points, 5.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds in his last five games) for the No. 3 team in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.
6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Last week: No. 7
Warriors coach Steve Kerr loves it when his point guard is as aggressive as he was in a win over the Thunder (24 points, on 19 shots to go with eight assists). The Warriors look virtually unstoppable when Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Curry, an All-Star starter, all have it going on the same night (24.4 points, 8.0 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 3.0 steals in his last five games).
7. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week: No. 5
Antetokounmpo was up to the challenge in a showdown against James Harden and Houston (finishing with 32 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and three blocks in the loss). The Bucks, however, have hit a wall recently, losing three straight. But not “The Greek Freak” (21.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.2 blocks, 1.2 steals in his last five games).
8. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Last week: No. 8
Leonard is back on his 30-point grind, having piled up five straight games scoring 30 or more points to lead the Spurs’ quiet march through the first half of the season. He’ll be joining his superstar counterparts in the starting five for the Western Conference in next month’s All-Star Game in New Orleans (33.4 points, 5.0 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 1.8 steals in his last five games).
9. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
Last week: No. 9
DeRozan and the Raptors got tripped up by “The Process” (in their last outing), a loss that snapped their four-game win streak. But DeRozan got good news Thursday night when he was named a starter for the Eastern Conference All-Star team, edging out Isaiah Thomas for the backcourt spot alongside Kyrie Irving (30.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists in his last five games).
10. John Wall, Washington Wizards
Last week: Not ranked
Wall has led the Wizards on a jaw-dropping rise from that ugly 7-13 start to the season. The Wizards have gone 16-6 since then with Wall, the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Month, mashing the competition on both ends the way he did Thursday night in New York. He’s solidified his All-Star status by dominating on the regular (22.4 points, 10.2 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 2.4 steals in his last five games).
Next five (listed alphabetically): Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls, Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies; Paul George, Indiana Pacers; Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz
An inside look from an Eastern Conference scout at Otto Porter Jr.:
“He was a guy I couldn’t figure out at Georgetown, much like Jeff Green, because he didn’t dominate on a regular basis. He was plenty talented, but in that system, the way they played, you just weren’t sure it would translate. Give him credit, or give someone the credit for making sure he put in the work, because he’s finally looking like the guy who went off the (Draft) board (No. 3 overall in 2013). His confidence in his stroke from beyond the 3-point line makes all the difference this season. He’s not only feeling good from out there, he’s hunting his opportunities from deep. He gained the trust of John Wall, who is one of the best shot creators for his guys in the game, and that’s made a world of difference for Porter and really the Wizards. That was the one position that you looked at and said, ‘if they can find the right small forward to go along with Wall and [Bradley] Beal, they’re be dangerous.’ I think they’ve got a guy who’s going to be steady right now and continue to improve. It’s not easy being patient in this league, especially not with guys who have played a couple of seasons or more in college. Player development is crucial, I can’t stress that enough, and they’ve done a good job with him, a damn good job.”
Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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