If you were to describe Giannis Antetokounmpo to someone who didn’t watch basketball, you’d have to start with a play. Any play will do, really. Each one tells a unique story in the career arc of an evolutionary talent. They each speak of a player testing his physical limits and expanding the range of his imagination.
Like the one where he caught an outlet pass at midcourt on the run against the Pacers a few years ago. Antetokounmpo needed just one dribble to accelerate past the 3-point line, splitting two defenders in the process, before flying past a helpless C.J. Miles en route to a thunderous dunk.
Or the time he stripped Portland’s C.J. McCollum in the final seconds of a one-point game, then raced down the floor ahead of two Blazers for a game-winning jam. (That all-time moment ranked a mere 33rd on an official NBA compilation video.)
There was the alley-oop he caught with two hands just as it was hitting the backboard against the Bulls before sending it home in a smooth, fluid motion that defied the laws of physics. You could bring up the windmills — there have been many — or the double-clutch throwdown against Miami, a personal favorite.
You could reference all of these singular moments and still only scratch the surface of what Antetokounmpo can do on a basketball court. With his 6-11 frame and wingspan stretching to the heavens, there are plays only Antetokounmpo can make and moves only he would even dare try to pull off in the moment.
Like a young Julius Erving in his ABA prime, you have to see Antetokounmpo in action to truly appreciate him. And like the Doctor, he seems to invent a new move every night.
Antetokounmpo is now in his sixth season and has achieved a certain level of notoriety. He’s a two-time All-Star and a past winner of the Most Improved Player award, an honor that seems quaint considering the strides he’s made since emerging from the obscurity of the Greek Second Division.
He has also been named to the All-NBA Second Team twice and finished as high as sixth in Most Valuable Player voting. Antetokounmpo is no longer a novelty, but a legitimate superstar. Still, many of his most glorious highlights have occurred far from the NBA’s main stage, relegated to the nether world of League Pass where the diehards converge for their nightly dose of thrills.
That also makes him the last great NBA folk story, a player for whom legend and reality meet at the 3-point line and intersect on the way to the rim. If you didn’t see it, you wouldn’t believe it was possible. He is a player born for this particular moment in time, when a simple snippet of video can tell a story in far greater depth than mere words can convey.
Watch him fly over Tim Hardaway, Jr with ease. Stick around for an incredulous John McEnroe reaction at the end. Johnny Mac’s look of awe and bewilderment at what he just saw speaks for everyone that was in Madison Square Garden that night.
Even with the aid of video, it helps to have the rewind button handy to catch all the small, intricate details that may have escaped initial notice. Consider the lightning-quick shimmy of the Gyro step or the rapid changing of hands on a tomahawk dunk in traffic. There are layers to Giannis highlights.
Those who are privileged to witness his nightly explorations into the unknown have their own favorites. His longtime teammate John Henson is partial to this one against the Knicks late in Antetokounmpo’s second season.
It started with a block on Hardaway, Jr. at the rim. It included a behind-the-back dribble on Lance Thomas at midcourt that spun Thomas into oblivion. It finished with poor Cole Aldrich simply bailing out of the way. Afterward we were treated to one of the first appearances of Antetokounmpo’s mean mug.
“That was the first time you saw the angry face,” Henson says with a chuckle. “The backstory is he didn’t play the game before. Something happened at practice and (former coach) Jason Kidd reprimanded him. He came off the bench like a madman. That’s just who he is, man. He’s so competitive. So strong minded. He came out that game and was just a monster.”
NBA players are conditioned to shrug their shoulders at the sublime moments that take place during games, but there are still times when Henson will catch himself and do a double-take. Did he really just do that?
“Me and (Khris Middleton) were actually talking about this today,” Henson says. “We were on the bench and he did a dunk. We were like ... wow. We just applauded. It was a crazy dunk. We’re so used to him doing such freakish things out there, that dunk was just like, normal.”
Antetokounmpo can make the spectacular look routine and he can also make the mundane seem surreal. Early in a game against the Hornets back in 2017, he threw a bad pass that Brian Roberts intercepted and took off with a clear lane to the basket. Malcolm Brogdon was the first defender back, but behind him he heard the unmistakable voice of Antetokounmpo booming, MOVE, MOVE.
“I was shocked when he did that,” Brogdon says. “You see me in the film slow down and move out of the way. You see him speed him up and cover ground.”
Brogdon shook his head as if he still can’t believe it was real.
“He does so much amazing stuff,” Brogdon continues. “He’s going to have a dunk tonight where people are wowed. As his teammate you see it so much. I wouldn’t say I’m immune to it. You acknowledge and respect greatness every time you see it.”
Antetokounmpo is still just 23 years old. He is entering his prime years for a Milwaukee franchise that finally seems poised to breakthrough the Eastern Conference clutter and emerge as a contender. The mainstreaming of Antetokounmpo is happening right now and the days of legend are becoming part of the league’s official narrative.
“It’s a testament to how great he is, how great he can be,” Brogdon says. “People still see him as a young ascending talent, but he’s already a top-5 player in the league. There’s no ceiling on what he can do. He’s a special talent. We have the best players in the world in the NBA and Giannis is at an optimal level.”
These are the stories we will tell one day. When future generations ask about Antetokounmpo, we’ll say you had to be there. Then we’ll pull up a clip and let his actions speak for themselves.