Sunday Shootaround

The Giannis Antetokounmpo dream becomes reality

by Paul Flannery

BOSTON — It was early in the NBA tenures for both Brad Stevens and Giannis Antetokounmpo when the Celtics’ coach first laid eyes on the Greek phenom. Scanning the court, Stevens took in all 6’11 of the skinny teenager and thought, “Holy s.” (In the retelling of this story, Stevens really stopped short with the letter S, being the considerate Hoosier that he is.)

“He does some things,” Stevens said. “That’s the best way to put it.”

Giannis does indeed do many things. He’s not really a point guard, per se, but he brings the ball up the floor on occasion and initiates the offense. More often than not, the Bucks run their system through him in the high post, making him more of a point forward. Even that relatively modern designation isn’t exactly right because our terminology has yet to catch up to Antetokounmpo’s game.

In the open court, Giannis is breathtaking. He barely needs but a dribble or two to transverse the length of the court and his liftoff area begins around the free throw line. “Him in transition,” Stevens said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone like him.”

He is also good for a dozen holy shit (sorry, Brad) plays a night. Some of these wind up on the nightly reel of gifs and highlights. Many of them, however, are subtle, fleeting moments. A behind-the-back pass here, an altered shot there. You simply can’t take your eyes off him at any moment and expect to get the full show. Blink and you’ll wish you hadn’t.

Giannis’ rise has been both steady and spectacular. He was a curiosity as a rookie, a phenom as a sophomore, and an intriguing talent in his third campaign when the Bucks began tilting their offense more and more in his direction. The wins, however, remained stagnant. The Bucks were a playoff team in his second season and a disappointment in his third, not that either were directly attributable to him. For the first three years of his career Giannis was a big part of a large ensemble, but not quite the man yet.

That’s all changed. What has elevated Antetokounmpo from the ranks of the young phenoms into a full-blown All-Star has been the melding of his phenomenal talents with a keener understanding of the game. That he has not had to sacrifice any of his spectacular gifts to reach this point makes him one of the most exciting prospects to come into the league since … ever, really. There is no precedent for a hyper-athletic 7-footer who plays like a forward and commands the game like a guard.

In his fourth season Giannis has experienced the biggest jump of his career. Everything is up, from scoring and shooting to playmaking, steals, and assists. Most importantly, the Bucks are winning games and their trajectory is once again pointed in the right direction. As we head down the stretch of the regular season, they are the most dangerous low seed in the entire bracket and the one that makes potential opponents in the East wary.

All that, and Giannis is still just barely 22 years old.

“I know for you guys it’s different, but when you see him in the gym every day and you see the work he puts in, it’s not really a surprise,” Greg Monroe said. “He’s never tired. Ever.”

18-year vet Jason Terry compared his work ethic to that of Dirk Nowitzki and marveled, “He has so much more basketball to go.”

His coach Jason Kidd attributed Giannis’ growth to his ability to listen, which sounded like a perfunctory compliment at first but made sense in the reasoning.

“He wants to be great,” Kidd said. “He thrives in the challenge of us putting more responsibilities on him, but I would say his ability to listen and digest what we’re saying (and then) to translate it onto the floor. To be given the ball at 21 years old at 7-feet tall, to run the offense and understand what we’re trying to do. There’s going to be some good and there’s going to be moments to learn from. He digests not just the good, but the bad too.”

Giannis himself echoed that refrain when asked the same question, reinforcing the messaging that his coach is providing.

“Listening,” he said. “That’s the most important thing. Usually when you’re this young you think you know everything but really you don’t know nothing. You got to keep listening.”

Even as he grows into his featured role, Antetokounmpo remains an unabashed delight. He is young and fun, commanding the post-game DJ role with glee. His English is fantastic and his manner is playful. He has not yet been beaten down into giving cliched, canned answers, bless his heart.

Responding to an on-court altercation with Celtic provocateur Marcus Smart that led to a flagrant foul on Smart, Giannis noted: “I thought he just flopped a lot. I wasn’t even mad about him tripping me. I touched him but I thought he oversold it. He’s a smart player. That’s why his name is Smart.”

On 24-year-old teammate Malcolm Brogdon, who it must be noted is two years older than Antetokounmpo: “He’s not a rookie in my eyes.”

Told that Stevens had made a similar comment, Giannis didn’t miss a beat: “Great minds think alike.”

Giannis can be charming and goofy and the stories of his early indoctrination into American culture were both hilarious and endearing. But as he told SI’s Lee Jenkins earlier in the season, “I’m not really that kid anymore.” Where once he was a League Pass fever dream, now he’s a legitimate franchise player.

That’s the biggest development of this Milwaukee season. With Giannis leading the way, the Bucks have suddenly become a very good basketball team even without injured scorer Jabari Parker. They have the best record in the East since the All-Star break and were tied with Portland for the most wins in the month of March with 13 heading into the weekend. While not particularly proficient on either end of the floor statistically, they have become a solid proposition each night with players sliding seamlessly into roles that work for them.

Much of that has to do with the return to form of Khris Middleton, a wonderfully underrated player who can shoot, score, and defend. Middleton has brought balance to the Bucks, providing a secondary scorer whenever Giannis is on the court and a primary option when he gets his rest. Kidd has made a point of staggering their minutes so that one of them is always on the floor.

With Middleton back in the lineup, there’s ample shooting around Giannis and dependable size down low, thanks to the revitalized play of Monroe, who should get Sixth Man of the Year consideration. Veteran characters like Terry, Matthew Dellavedova, and Tony Snell provide steady shooting and interchangeable versatility. Brogdon, the aforementioned old rookie, has been both consistent and a revelation all season.

What makes the Bucks unique is they have so much length. Even when they go “small” they are still enormous. All that speed and wingspan creates a chaotic match-up nightmare and all that comes back to Giannis.

Consider the game against the Celtics, who used no less than four different players from all the major position groups to guard him. First it was Al Horford, who at least had the length and savvy, if not the speed. Horford’s other talents directing the defense were wasted on the match-up, however, and after Giannis popped a couple of threes and the Bucks raced out to a 10-point lead, Stevens turned to Jae Crowder. What he gave away in length, Crowder made up for in strength and quickness. The two battled for most of the game, with Smart and Avery Bradley also taking their turns.

As is typical with Smart’s brand of brutalist defense, his encounters with Giannis helped make it a tight, tense contest. It was not the kind of game that lends itself to heroic maneuvers or breathtaking aerial ballets. Rather, it was the kind of game for a young team to prove itself on the road, which Milwaukee did. The Bucks held off a couple of Boston rallies in the fourth quarter and emerged with an important win on the second night of a back-to-back.

Giannis was tremendous, if not dominant, going for 21 points with nine boards, along with three assists, three steals, and three blocks. It’s the kind of line that shows up only a handful of times during the course of the season, made the all more extraordinary by how casual it all was.

In the joyful din of a jubilant young locker room, Giannis offered one more possibility for future.

“Hopefully one day I can be able to lead this team deep into the playoffs,” he said. “And hopefully to the Finals.”

Of such pedestrian pursuits are the most epic tales of Greek mythology born. Giannis Antetokounmpo is crafting his own legend and he’s still just 22 years old. Holy shit.

The List Consumable NBA Thoughts

We’ve had more than a month pass since the trade deadline. That’s still not enough time to judge these deals in full, but it’s a reasonable point to offer assessments.

New Orleans

In the initial rush of this unforeseen blockbuster, and a lopsided one at that, a huge question remained: How would DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis function together on the court? Not well, at first glance. The Pels struggled after the deal and after they won three games that Cousins didn’t play, the signs began to look troubling. Patience, people. Patience. The playoffs are out of sight, but New Orleans has played better of late with Boogie in the lineup and the defense has been stout. AD and Cousins deserve a training camp and a full season at least before we can properly suss this out, but time is not on NOLA’s side. With Cousins approaching free agency in the summer of 2018, next season will be critical for the franchise.


There were two parts to the deal that brought Jusuf Nurkic to Rip City in exchange for Mason Plumlee. The first part was a cap-nerd delight that fell decidedly in Neil Olshey’s favor. In dealing the 27-year-old Plumlee before he hit restricted free agency for a younger, cost-controlled option, the Blazers did well. In getting a first round pick for a second, they did even better. In unleashing Nurkic on an unsuspecting world, Olshey hit the motherlode. The Blazers have surged since the deal and Nurkic has thrived, bringing Portland back from the dead and into prime position to steal the final playoff spot … from the Nuggets. Oof. What looked like a decent transaction at the time can now be called a heist. (Get healthy, Bear.)


The Raptors have been in need of an impact four-man ever since Chris Bosh took his talents to Miami. Serge Ibaka may have lost a touch of dynamism from his halcyon days in OKC, but Ibaka can still be a force on both ends of the floor while providing smallball versatility. Yet it’s been the play of P.J. Tucker that has really stood out since the deadline. Already a cult hero up north, the veteran 3-and-D man brings a competitive edge that is infectious. The Raps have followed his lead, turning into a defensive menace when he takes the floor. They have ably held it together while Kyle Lowry heals from a broken wrist, and if K-Low can recapture his form this will be the most talented Toronto squad since it began its playoff run. It had better be because barring an offseason shakeup, this will also be the most expensive Raptor squad in memory.


One of the consequence of making mistakes in free agency is using first round picks to fix problems. The payoff tends to look good in the short term, but it’s the long-term cost that lingers. The Wizards fixed a problem when they acquired Bojan Bogdanovic from the Nets, and he has delivered shooting and instant offense. Bobo, along with free agent Brandon Jennings, a healthy Ian Mahinmi, and action figure Kelly Oubre, have made the Wizards bench both productive and constructive. That’s a huge step up from the disaster area it was before the deadline. The verdict will be rendered in the playoffs and beyond, but the Wizards are certainly a more viable contender than they were before the trade.

Oklahoma City

Picking up Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott along with a first rounder for Cam Payne was a nice score for Sam Presti, even with Gibson set to hit free agency this summer. Then Gibson joined the starting lineup and lo and behold we have a dangerous team on our hands. The Thunder went 8-2 during the switch, including victories over the Spurs, Jazz, and Raptors, while the new starting five is crushing opponents by more than 17 points per 100 possessions. Gibson’s game should age well, but he’ll be 32 when next season begins and this may ultimately be more of a short-term fix for a longer-scale maintenance project. That’s not a bad problem to have at the moment.

By The Numbers The stats that explain the week


We are finally seeing the true value of Paul Millsap, long one of the NBA’s most underrated stars. Without Millsap’s solidifying presence, the Hawks have tumbled from rock solid fifth in the East to fighting for their postseason existence. They did manage to pick up a pair of wins against Phoenix and Philly, their only ones without Millsap. The Hawks may yet limp into playoff basketball, and they are encouraged by the latest medical update on his injured left knee. Still, Sap is still out for a few more games and as he’s likely to hit free agency this summer, Atlanta’s long-term diagnosis is shaky.


This is the most important number for the Sacramento Kings at the moment and it all has to do with J.J. Hickson. Way back before the lockout, the Kings sent Omri Casspi to the Cavs for Hickson along with a top-10 protected pick that has rolled over year after year. That debt is finally coming due. The Kings will keep their pick, which now would otherwise be directed to Chicago, so long as it falls within that protected range. While that remains the most likely scenario, it is not yet a given. There’s also the matter of the pick swap with Philly and the top-3 protected choice en route from the lottery-bound Pels, but all of that is far too convoluted to deal with adequately here. The Kings aren’t a franchise. They’re a flow chart.


Way back on Jan. 21, the Celtics dropped an overtime game to the Blazers on a Saturday afternoon at home. They then reeled off 17 wins in their next 19 at the Garden. Along the way they’ve racked up victories over the Cavs, Wizards, Raptors, Rockets, and Clippers, which gained them some legitimacy as they challenged the Cleveland for the top spot in the East. The remaining schedule sets up nicely for them, but predicting the final weeks of the regular season is a sucker’s game. Regardless, the C’s have done what they needed to do down the stretch.


The Cavs defense has been a horror show since the All-Star break, ranking just a hair ahead of the Lakers for the worst unit in the league. It’s been a complete breakdown, from pick-and-roll mistakes in the halfcourt to half-hearted transition efforts. Cleveland’s defense has been an issue all season, but the Cavs had coasted along confident they would get it right when it counts. It’s starting to count now as they are in a battle for home court advantage in the East. Whether that bothers them or not is another matter. If anyone has earned the right to flip the switch, it’s LeBron James. That’s not only the hope for Cleveland, it’s the expectation.


It was barely three weeks ago when the worn down Warriors got whacked in San Antonio, leaving them a half game ahead of San Antonio in the West. Death seemed imminent. The Dubs then reeled off nine straight wins to regain control and all was right again. That run included an impressive back-to-back road sweep against Houston and San Antonio led by Steph Curry’s 61 points. Curry has been rolling, averaging almost 26 points a night and flashing his two-time MVP form. Just a friendly reminder that Chef remains a cold-blooded killer.

Say What? Ramblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

“We’ve got guys that compete, but some of us don’t compete. Some of us just think about scoring. That’s what it is. … Coach keeps repeating it: We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice. Those guys, we know they’re going to get calls. We’ve just got to come out aggressive and ready to fight.”

Utah center Rudy Gobert after a loss to the Clippers.

Reaction: Gobert quickly backed off those criticisms earlier this week after a team meeting, but it’s been fascinating to see him not only develop into an All-NBA caliber player but also a conscious voice in the locker room. This is an important moment in Utah’s development with a long-awaited playoff breakthrough on tap and serious roster questions to answer this summer. Gobert is the key to everything the Jazz do from here on out.

“I just feel bad for Blake. It’s hard to come back from a knockout like that. We sent flowers to his family. I can only guess he’s going to be drinking through a straw for a long, long time. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Blake and his family.”

Dallas owner Mark Cuban after Griffin induced a flagrant-2 from JJ Barea.

Reaction: Geez, Mark. Harsh.

“If I were going to a game and watch, I always wanted to see a player when he played his worst. His worst. Not his best. I think when somebody plays their best you always got excited about it, but that’s not really who a player is unless he’s extraordinary. For those kind of players, when you watch them play their worst, do they still play basketball?”

NBA legend Jerry West.

Reaction: I’ve always been intrigued by the thought process of talent evaluators and this Q&A with’s Scott Howard-Cooper offers an interesting window into West’s mind. The notion that a player reveals themselves in their worst moments is a fascinating thing to consider.

“It wasn’t really fair to him — we were running him out there, putting pressure on him and he’s seeing things he should be able to do and he just can’t do them. He’s not feeling pain, but he just can’t make the plays he wants to make. And we’re trying to put him out there.”

Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy on shutting down Reggie Jackson.

Reaction: This season has been an unmitigated disaster for Jackson, who missed the first 21 games with a knee injury and hasn’t been effective since his return, save for a few brief flashes. The Pistons are in a bad place right now with a litany of blowouts on their resume. This is the team Van Gundy wanted, and it’s one he paid highly to construct. If it needs to be torn down, the aftermath may not be pretty.

“We didn’t handle the game the way we should have. They were able to hang around and have their way, and that’s how the game goes when you play like that . . . I’m disappointed in ourselves.”

Nets center Brook Lopez after a loss to Philly.

Reaction: Disappointment is good. Disappointment means progress and the Nets have been making steady, if unspectacular, progress since the All-Star break. That alone is encouraging for a team that has been running uphill since the season began. Without the benefit of their own draft picks for this year and next, the Nets need all the small victories they can gather.

Vid of the Week Further explanation unnessecary