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Giannis Antetokounmpo is reinventing the game

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The NBA has never seen someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo. His game-changing potential is obvious, even in its embryonic stages.

Illustration by Harrison Freeman

I can't get this one Giannis Antetokounmpo play out of my head. I've watched it 100 times and I still don't understand it.

It's midway through the third quarter in a December game against the Miami Heat. The Heat botch a fast break when Chris Bosh slams a fast-break layup hard off the glass. Any one of five Bucks can grab the rebound, but Antetokounmpo throws his long arms backwards and tips the ball away from teammate Jerryd Bayles.

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The obvious instinct is to look for a guard, but this isn't what Antetokounmpo's new coach wants. Jason Kidd had an idea in July: try the 6'11, then-19-year-old at point guard. Antetokounmpo's handle is loose and he lacks the high-level experience even peers in his age bracket possess, but Kidd didn't care. He wanted his budding star to be demonstrative, not passive. This wasn't about actually playing point guard. It was about coaxing a more dominant personality out of a gentle giant that loves to make people smile.

"We've seen it in practice," Kidd said then. "When you see a player's comfort level with the ball no matter what size, we want to see it in game action."

So Antetokounmpo looks straight ahead and not at Bayless or O.J. Mayo. He wants to dribble forward. He just needs a plan. One dribble. Two dribbles. Three dribbles.

Suddenly, it comes to him. Two Heat players are back, but they've both raced to their own men on the flanks. Josh McRoberts, Antetokounmpo's man, is retreating back himself because he advanced too far up the court when Bosh missed. Nobody is guarding the basket.

This is Antetokounmpo's chance. He puts the keys in the ignition. He revs up the engine.

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Antetokounmpo loops in front of Mario Chalmers and plants his left foot to accelerate. To this point, he's taken nine steps. He's 60 feet from his basket.

He needs just six steps and one dribble to go the rest of the way.

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Three of those steps are in McRoberts' direction. The Heat forward is racing back in position from the right, but he's late and retreating. Antetokounmpo takes two short steps in his direction, then a larger third one that takes him just past the outside of the mid-court logo. The ball is up by his head, because it's not easy to look in control when you are 6'11 with arms that can cover a busy intersection.

This is his last dribble.

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That sets up the decisive move. Rather than continue at McRoberts, Antetokounmpo plants his right foot sideways and pushes off the other way, sharply moving left. It's like if a truck suddenly decided to veer across three lines on the highway, except it somehow didn't lose control.

Antetokounmpo takes what seems like a 10-foot step, going from just over halfcourt to the edge of the three-point line. McRoberts moves to stop the move, but it's too late. Barely. Antetokounmpo swings his right foot back across his body, coming inches from banging knees at full speed. That foot last hit the ground 35 feet from the basket. Now, it goes to ground just in front of the free-throw line. All McRoberts can do is swipe aimlessly.

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Danny Granger is late, but even he knows he must do what he can to stop the ball. To avoid him, Antetokounmpo brings his left foot back across his body to get closer to the basket.

The downside: this creates a difficult wrong-footed finish. The upside: Antetokounmpo can jump off either foot and still kiss the rim. Antetokounmpo lifts off from a tiny mark well in front of the restricted area and glides to the hoop.

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Nobody can process the sequence, much less move to stop it.

***

What just happened shouldn't be possible. Maybe it isn't. It's unclear if Antetokounmpo's gather step was executed legally -- NBA rules permit two steps after a player fully terminates his dribble and it's not obvious when Antetokounmpo actually terminated that final dribble 30 feet from the basket. It's also possible he palmed the ball by dribbling it so far over his shoulders.

Then again, nothing in Antetokunmpo's basketball life should be possible either. A son of Nigerian parents persecuted due to Greece's harsh immigration laws, Antetokounmpo and his brother had to become street vendors at a young age just to provide enough money for their family to eat. A local coach discovered him and pushed him to basketball, but his family's poverty kept him going back to the streets.

He grew and fell in love with the game, but was playing in Greece's second division. Only a series of grainy tapes and relentless promotion from his representation got Antetokounmpo's name out there. Once it did, he rocketed up draft boards, finally settling at No. 15. He's been a bundle of joy for the Bucks ever since, melting hearts with his smile despite an upbringing that'd make most people bitter at the world.

Antetokounmpo isn't an All-Star yet. He lacks confidence in his jump shot. He still gets lost on the floor. That handle is still far too loose, however captivating it may be in transition. He's most comfortable when backing up several feet and attacking a slow big man with a head of steam -- in essence, creating a transition situation in a half-court set. The Bucks are winning in spite of his growing pains, not because of them.

But that'll quickly change if he and the Bucks harness even a quarter of those gifts. The NBA has never seen a 6'11 guard that runs and jumps like a gazelle while processing information like a super computer. (And yes, he's a guard). He's in the Slam Dunk Contest this year, so his rise from cult hero to mainstream phenomenon is about to begin. His ceiling is so high that not even his skyscraper arms can touch it.

When he hits it, I'll always remember that finger roll in the third quarter of the second month of his second season. That was the first time it became clear that Giannis Antetokounmpo was unlike anyone we've ever seen.

All illustrations in this series were done by Harrison Freeman. Click here to view his portfolio. Also see our pieces on Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson and Pau and Marc Gasol.

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