Q&A: Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo
At 21, "Greek Freak" adjusting to new role as career continues to soar for fourth-year player
MILWAUKEE – Buddy Hield had to figure he had the angles. The New Orleans rookie curled toward the key, saw 7-footer Omer Asik rolling to the rim and, off the dribble, lobbed a pass toward the Pelicans center.
Bucks play-by-play man Jim Paschke already was in mid-observation about Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo as the play unfolded.
“One of the advantages when you’re 6-11 and you’re handling the ball,” Paschke said, “you see the court and the game from the top down.”
No kidding. In that instant, Antetokounmpo flashed in front of Asik to turn the alley into an oops. Three dribbles, two giant steps, a veer between scrambling New Orleans defenders and the Bucks’ “Greek Freak” was dropping in a layup. No need for extended commentary on this one from Paschke, who simply said, “Oh my goodness.”
This has been an oh-my-goodness season so far for Antetokounmpo, his fourth since the Bucks grabbed him with the No. 15 pick in the 2013 Draft. Each year, his game has taken strides nearly as great as his own, from points per 36 minutes (10.0 as a rookie, then 14.6, 17.2 and 23.0) to player-efficiency rating (10.8, 14.8, 18.8 and now 26.5). Through the Bucks’ first nine games, he was averaging 21.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting 52.1 percent.
“He has the potential to be one of the greatest to play this game,” veteran teammate Jason Terry said of Antetokounmpo. “I say that because he’s multi-faceted. He’s a great facilitator. He can make every pass on the floor. He has the ability to be a two-way player and lock down the other team’s star, whether he’s a one, two, three or four man.
“And then this other thing which he’s developing is his offensive skill set. His jump shot is getting better – it will get there. But when he gets in the paint and finishes, he’s already one of the best. He’s 6-11, coming at you full speed, and there’s nothing you can do.”
Antetokounmpo was the choice in NBA.com’s annual survey of general managers as the league’s best international player and ranked second only to LeBron James in “versatility.” Plays of the sort described above are among the most exciting you’ll see on any given night in the Association, he’s good for one, two or more almost every time Milwaukee plays, and the native of Athens with the suspension-bridge wingspan still won’t turn 22 until Dec. 6.
Antetokounmpo charmed a group of international reporters from 14 countries Monday on a teleconference call set up by the NBA. But he already had taken time to talk with NBA.com over the weekend:
NBA.com: Everyone is embracing the “point forward” and “point guard” descriptions of you. What do you make of that, and what do you consider your position to be?
Giannis Antetokounmpo: I feel like, in today’s game, you cannot put those labels on players. There’s a lot of big guys who can play-make. We put labels like, ‘Oh, he’s a point guard, he’s a center.’ But sometimes your center can play-make for you and not just be the center, boxing out for rebounds and playing in the post. Like [Memphis’] Marc Gasol, he’s doing a great job for his team. That’s what I’m doing, but I’m not trying to be labeled a “point guard.”
NBA.com: In fact, you play a lot of minutes alongside point guards Matthew Dellavedova or Malcolm Brogdon.
GA: It just makes the game easier for me. They’re both ball handlers, I can handle the ball, so it makes it easier for everybody to set your offense.
NBA.com: How much, in your role, have you had to learn your teammates’ game, the nuances of when and where they want the ball delivered and other point-guard responsibilities?
GA: That’s one of the toughest things to do as a ball handler. But yeah, by practicing with Delly, playing with him, we spend several hours during the day, walk-throughs and stuff, so I kind of know what they have to offer. As a ball handler, I try to put them in the right spots best as I can.
NBA.com: Your broadcasters refer to you and Jabari Parker as the franchise “cornerstones.” What have you seen in him since he arrived as the No. 2 pick in 2014? (Parker was averaging 19.1 points and 6.2 rebounds through nine games.)
GA: Jabari has grown as a person. He’s grown as a player. But the most exciting thing about this year is, he’s becoming a leader. You can see he’s getting more mature, his game. I saw Jabari as a rookie and when he went down [with a torn ACL], and when he came back I saw those things. So by him playing now and having fun, and being a leader of this team, it’s really fun to play next to him.
NBA.com: He was far better known as a prospect when he got here. Has it been competitive between the two of you?
“The Bucks are the Bucks’. It’s Milwaukee’s. The city’s. I don’t like it when people put labels on it. ‘Oh, it’s Jabari’s team’ or ‘oh, it’s Greg Monroe’s team.’ No. It’s Milwaukee’s. The city. We’re all in this together. It’s our team.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo, on whose team the Bucks are
GA: Definitely. Coach [Jason] Kidd always says, it’s a friendly competition. At the end of the day, we are teammates. But we always go and fight against the others. Nothing bad between us teammates. Everybody wants to make each other better. Of course Jabari is one of the best players in the league. People want to keep up with him. I want to keep up with him. We try to make each other better.
NBA.com: Some players and teams get wrapped up in talk about “whose” team it is. Whose team is the Bucks?
GA: The Bucks are the Bucks’. It’s Milwaukee’s. The city’s. I don’t like it when people put labels on it. ‘Oh, it’s Jabari’s team’ or ‘oh, it’s Greg Monroe’s team.’ No. It’s Milwaukee’s. The city. We’re all in this together. It’s our team.
NBA.com: At the end of last season, you had big plans for the summer, which you knew you’d be splitting between Athens, Milwaukee and Los Angeles. How did that go and how much did you work on your game?
GA: I spent a lot of hours in the gym. And I’m just growing as a player, as a person. I’m getting more mature. My confidence is up. So that’s it. I spent some time in Greece. I came back and spent almost a month with [Bucks assistant] Sean Sweeney in L.A. Working out with my older brother [Thanasis] who’s in Spain right now. Then with Suki Hobson, our strength and conditioning coach, she came with me in Greece and Sean Sweeney came there to spend almost two weeks. Then I started playing with the [Greek] national team for a month. Then I went to the military. So I was always doing something to get better. I never spent time alone without a coach of the Bucks or someone being there with me, because I wanted that connection and someone to be with me so they could check on me and always work on my game.
NBA.com: In your fourth season, what’s the No. 1 thing you’ve learned about the NBA?
GA: I feel the thing that stands out is consistency. You have so many games to play, and you can do well in one game but bad in the other ones. The thing you’ve got to be is consistent. It’s such a long season and there’s so many games, so many trips, you’ve got to build habits and be consistent with what you do.
NBA.com: What’s your routine between games?
GA: The night before games, I try to get some shots up. Early on the game day, I come early in the morning to try to get some shots up. I just try to do the same things: go through the scouting, watch some clips before the game, just try to get my body ready.
NBA.com: Do you still keep the notebook?
GA: I still do. We make a lot of mistakes in practice and games, so your mind cannot remember all of those mistakes. You’ve got to write them down so you can be like, ‘Oh, in the game two weeks ago I did this. So in this game today, I’ll make sure I don’t do the same mistake.’ So yeah, I still take notes.
NBA.com: Name some players whose games you’ve admired, either before or since getting to the NBA.
GA: There were a lot of great NBA players I admired growing up. Scottie Pippen, he was one of the best two-way players. Allen Iverson, I loved how tough he was on the court. He was little, playing with giants, but he never backed down.
NBA.com: Some have compared your versatility and certainly your length to Kevin Garnett’s. Of course he was known for being nasty to opponents. How did it go for you vs. KG?
GA: Yeah, I’ll just say, because he wants to win, sometimes every player gets into that situation where you play really, really hard. But it’s a competition and you’ve got to do whatever it takes to win. Sometimes that can be a hard foul. Or trash talk. So going against KG, it was great playing against him. When I first came to the league, he was 36 I think, and at that age he showed me how bad he wanted to win.
NBA.com: Name some opponents you’ve enjoyed competing against.
GA: That would be LeBron James. He’s the best player in the world, so I’m always looking forward to playing against the best.
NBA.com: That’s not easy though.
GA: I know. But what do you have to lose? He’s the best player. I’m not expected to do anything [against him].
“It’s unbelievable how much length we’ve got. We can be in the passing lanes, we can get deflections, we can contest every shot, we can recover for one another. It’s unbelievable. It helps a lot in our defense.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo, on the Bucks’ rangy roster
NBA.com: When you consider your responsibilities on offense and on defense, is one more important than the other?
GA: No. I feel like I’ve got to lead at both ends. I’ve got to best for our team on defense and I’ve got to be best on offense. I’m trying to focus on my game more on the defensive game because I know the offense is gonna come. By having the ball in your hands a lot, it’s gonna come. I’m just trying to focus on the defensive end because we’re trying to be a defensive team. We set a lot of goals defensively for this year.
NBA.com: Your team is big on defensive wingspans with you, John Henson, Tony Snell now…
GA: It’s just gonna be hard for teams – they’re gonna have a long night, is what that means. It’s unbelievable how much length we’ve got. We can be in the passing lanes, we can get deflections, we can contest every shot, we can recover for one another. It’s unbelievable. It helps a lot in our defense.
NBA.com: On a scale of 1 to 10, where would you put your jump shot these days?
GA: The other day I took three and made two – that’s 66 percent so I’l say 6.5 [laughs]. No, I’ll say … y’know, two guys told me in rookie transition [program] – one of them was Jarrett Jack, the other was Chauncey Billups – that whatever it is you do in life, even if you’re stuck in a room, try to get as much information as you can. Get as much out of things like practice as you can. So for me right now, I’ll say my jump shot is a 1 and it doesn’t bother me. Because I know that every practice, I’m trying to get better.
NBA.com: Room for improvement.
GA: But one day it’s gonna be better. Some people would answer that question and say 8 right now or 9. But that’s only a little room to improve. I feel like I can improve a lot. When that jump shot comes, it’s gonna be a problem for a lot of players in this league. So I’m just happy that I can already do a lot of damage in this league basically without a jump shot, just driving the ball, making plays and free throws. So imagine when the jump shot comes. It’s gonna be hard to guard.
NBA.com: You signed a four-year, $100 million contract extension, taking about $6 million less than the maximum. You must like playing for the Bucks and the team that you’ve got around you.
GA: Definitely. Jabari as we said before, from where he started to where he is right now, it’s unbelievable. We got Thon Maker. His potential is unbelievable. He’s like me when I came in and was raw but had a lot of potential. Two or three years from now, I think he’s gonna be a real important player for our team. Moving forward, I think our future is bright.
“I’ve got to be best for our team on defense and I’ve got to be best on offense. I’m trying to focus on my game more on the defensive game because I know the offense is gonna come.”
NBA.com: Khris Middleton, probably your team’s top shooter, has been out since hamstring surgery. Have you guys been able to make him feel like he’s still a part of things?
GA: Yes. I haven’t gotten hurt but I know it’s hard for players. Like I got sick one day and I felt like crap [about being out]. So I know how it is for Khris not to be able to participate – he’s the best player on this team. But we’re always getting him involved, and if we have a video meeting or a team meeting, he’s always there. He’s always watching, he’s always there when the coaches talk before practice. He’s always lifting, shooting, getting some spot jump shots. We could not be more excited and ready for him when he comes back.
NBA.com: Where do you consider “home?”
GA: I got two. My first home is Athens, and Milwaukee now. But I spend more time in Milwaukee now.
NBA.com: What do you miss most about Athens?
GA: The food. The culture. My friends. The coaching staff from my old team. Just my neighborhood in general.
NBA.com: You moved this offseason in Milwaukee.
GA: It’s great. But I feel like I live in the practice facility.
NBA.com: Tell us more about the commitment to military service you’ve dealt with in Greece.
GA: It’s a good experience. It’s mandatory. You get drafted when you’re 18 or 19. Everybody’s gotta do it. It was fun. I think going in there for a few days, it builds mental toughness. It was a great experience. I went in with my brother Thanasis and we met a lot of people. I’ve got to be there for the next two summers.
NBA.com: Is this in your participation on the Greek national team or actual military training?
GA: I’m doing actual military preparation. It is like ‘boot camp.’
NBA.com: How much time did you devote to it this summer?
GA: I was in and out, maybe for two or three weeks. Then we took our oath and they told me I had to schedule my finish next summer and the summer after to finish it up.
NBA.com: What did you like best?
GA: Going through it, getting stories you can tell when you grow old. It makes you feel like basketball is just a game compared to what others have to go through.
NBA.com: And the hardest part?
GA: For me? The hardest part was that I had to wake up at 5:30 in the morning. I’m not a morning person.
NBA.com: Did it give you added appreciation for soldiers?
GA: I give a lot of respect. You’ve got to for those people who can actually do that as their living. It’s really hard. You’ve got to be really mentally tough. When you see what people go through when they protect the country, you understand it even more.
NBA.com: So who is tougher to deal with, military officers or basketball coaches?
GA: J-Kidd [laughs].
NBA.com: How are your parents doing in Milwaukee?
GA: They’re living right next to me. My little brother [Alex] goes to [high] school here. My older brother [Thanasis] is in Spain and my other brother Kostas is in Dayton, Ohio, going to college there [at the University of Dayton].
NBA.com: What’s the latest on Alex?
GA: Alex is 15. He’s gonna be a freshman and he’s gonna be a really good player – watch out, I’m telling you guys. You haven’t seen him lately? He’s 6-4. It’s true, swear to God. He’s 6-4. He’s taller than what we were at 15.
NBA.com: So perhaps we’ll see all four of you on the same court some day?
NBA.com: What do you do to relax?
GA: I spend time with my family. Maybe going out to a movie theater. Or to dinner. Or just spending time together. We travel so much, it’s hard to spend time with my family.
NBA.com: I read where you love to play laser tag.
GA: Yeah, I do. Actually, I almost went there after the game [against Memphis Saturday]. But they were closed. I went there at like 11:20 [p.m.] ‘cause my little brother wanted to play.
NBA.com: That sounds like, when Elvis would want to see a movie, the theater owners would open up for him and his ‘Memphis mafia’ crew at midnight. Can’t you make that happen?
GA: I’m not that big-time yet.
NBA.com: How are you feeling about social media these days? I know you’re on Twitter as @Giannis_An34.
GA: It’s a good way to connect. Sometimes I like posting pictures on Instagram, but I’m not a real Twitter guy. But it’s a nice way to connect with your fans. Whatever I have to say, I’ll say it.
NBA.com: That photo that was circulating of you and Thanasis and the BMW i8 with the gull-wing doors – yours or his?
GA: That was an ad that I had to do. A lot of people ask me if that’s my car. Nope. I’ve still got a 2011 Yukon. I’m not letting it go. That’s my baby.
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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