Giannis Antetokounmpo always seemed too good to be true. He was the latest international mystery man in the draft when we first learned about him in 2013, a skinny Greek teenager who had seemingly blossomed out to nowhere to become a legitimate first round NBA prospect. Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress wrote the first public report on Antetokounmpo while comparing his body to Nicolas Batum and Thabo Sefolosha and his game to how UCLA used Kyle Anderson.
As we learned more about Antetokounmpo, we realized just how incredible his personal story was. The son of Nigerian immigrants, Giannis and his brothers were denied citizenship by the Greek government despite being born in the country. They sold watches and sunglasses in the streets to help their parents make ends meet. Giannis and his older brother Thanasis were playing basketball in a park one day when a coach from Greek basketball academy saw them while riding his bike. He let them join the academy free of charge.
Antetokounmpo was a 6’9 forward with a reported 7’3 wingspan who showed rare comfort handling and passing the ball. He didn’t play against serious competition in the second division of the Greek league, but the outlines for a future MVP were there. The Milwaukee Bucks, with the No. 15 overall pick, took a swing for the fences by drafting him. His story could have ended up like so many other failed international first round picks — Darko Miličić, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, and Jan Veselý just to name a few — but instead Giannis kept growing, both literally and figuratively.
The Bucks were miserable in Antetokounmpo’s rookie year, finishing 15-67 overall. There were some positive signs, though. Antetokounmpo looked comfortable in 77 games after a terrific Summer League run, averaging only 6.8 points but already showing he could compete on an NBA floor. The Bucks also unearthed another pleasant surprise that season: Khris Middleton. The Bucks had acquired Middleton weeks after drafting Antetokounmpo as a throw-in in their Brandon Jennings for Brandon Knight swap with the Pistons. Middleton, a former second round pick, quickly became a starter and ended the year as the team’s third leading scorer by averaging 12.1 points per game.
The Bucks were supposed to acquire their big prize the next year when Antetokounmpo’s rough rookie season landed them the No. 2 overall pick. They had their choice of Duke forward Jabari Parker and injured Kansas center Joel Embiid. The Bucks took Parker, and six weeks into his pro career he tore his ACL. He tore his ACL again two years later, and was off the team by the time his rookie contract expired. This was supposed to be the piece that took Giannis and the Bucks to the next level, but instead it was a bust.
Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo kept getting better. He averaged 12.7 points his second year and 16.9 points per game his third year as head coach Jason Kidd experimented with using him as a point guard (Giannis played point guard 40 percent of the time in his third season, according to Basketball Reference). The NBA didn’t know exactly what Giannis was supposed to be yet, but it was clear he was on his way to becoming a star.
The biggest factor in Antetokounmpo’s development was how much bigger he got: he had grown at least two inches to 6’11 and was on his way to adding over 40 pounds of muscle. Giannis put in the work to change his body and he was able to carry the extra weight without losing his quickness or explosiveness. He was starting to play with immense force on every possession — not just offensively, but defensively.
Antetokounmpo became a terror in the open court, busting out Eurosteps to unsuspecting defenders as they pleaded for travel calls. Defensively, Giannis’ length and newfound strength added burgeoning rim protecting ability to an already strong perimeter defender. The Bucks snuck into the playoffs three times early in Antetokounmpo’s career, but couldn’t get past the first round.
Everything changed when Mike Budenholzer was hired ahead of the 2018-19 season. Suddenly, the Bucks went from plucky upstarts to the team with the best record in the NBA. Antetokounmpo had gone from an emerging young star to a 24-year-old MVP who now had a case as the best player in the world.
Milwaukee blitzed the league with a 60-22 record in Coach Bud’s first season by unleashing Antetokounmpo to his full potential. He became a defensive anchor near the paint who could erase any mistake on the perimeter by his teammates. Offensively, Antetokounmpo put the pedal to the floor on every possession, charging hard to the basket through contact while still having the touch and poise to finish. Middleton was coming into his own at the same time as a 6’8 forward who had developed into one of the league’s best pure shooters. Brook Lopez was signed to a bargain contract and transformed his game from post scorer to three-point shooter to give Giannis more room on his drives.
Something special was brewing in Milwaukee, but like so many other basketball deities before him, Giannis had to take his lumps in the playoffs first. The Bucks started the 2019 playoffs at 10-1 and took a 2-0 lead over the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals. Game 3 went into double overtime, the Bucks lost, and Antetokounmpo finished with only 12 points in 45 minutes. Toronto would go on to win the next three games to eliminate the Bucks in shocking fashion.
Antetokounmpo won another MVP and led the Bucks to the NBA’s best record again the next year. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and when the NBA came back after a nearly five-month pause, Giannis and the Bucks found themselves in a bubble. The Bucks drew the Miami Heat in round two, an opponent uniquely equipped to matchup with them thanks to a brilliant coach and a long, strong roster. The Bucks lost the first three games, and Antetokounmpo was injured in Game 4 before Miami completed a stunning gentleman’s sweep.
At this point, the shine surrounding Giannis started to wear off. He was a great regular season player who couldn’t get it done in the playoffs. James Harden famously said he had no skill. It didn’t matter what Antetokounmpo accomplished during the regular season this year: he wasn’t winning his third straight MVP after consecutive playoff failures.
Speculation over Giannis’ impending free agency had reached a fever pitch. LeBron James and Kevin Durant both left the small market organizations that drafted them because they didn’t have enough help to win a championship. Antetokounmpo could have said the same thing about the Bucks. Instead, he signed a five-year max extension just before the season. Whether he would eventually win a title or not, he was going to try to do it on his own terms.
As a superteam formed in Brooklyn mid-season, the Bucks became something of an afterthought. They took their foot off the gas in the regular season, experimenting with different defensive strategies and integrating new guard Jrue Holiday at the expense of some regular season wins. After finishing with the league’s best record in consecutive seasons, seven teams ended up winning more games than the Bucks before the playoffs, including two teams in their own conference. Antetokounmpo finished fourth in MVP voting.
Unlike the previous two seasons, the Bucks entered this year’s playoffs without overwhelming expectations. Antetokounmpo’s extension had taken away some of the immediate urgency. Not making it out of the East wouldn’t be seen as a failure anymore, not with three veteran superstars teaming up on the Nets while the 76ers coalesced into conference power.
For once, Giannis and the Bucks had room to breathe. It might have been the best thing that ever happened to them.
Every NBA champion needs good fortune to raise a banner. You can of course say the same about the Bucks.
After avenging their playoff loss to the Heat in the first round with a decisive sweep, the Bucks met the Nets in the second round. In the first minute of the first game, Harden went down with a hamstring injury that caused him to miss the first four games of the series. Brooklyn still went up 2-0 on their home floor and seemed to have the Bucks on their way to a second straight second round exit. Then Kyrie Irving got hurt in Game 4 and never returned.
The Bucks forced a Game 7 in Brooklyn. Durant capped an incredible game with a game-tying shot in the final seconds of regulation that would have been the game-winner if his foot wasn’t on the three-point line. The Bucks won in overtime and kept their championship dream alive.
On the other side of the Eastern Conference bracket, the Atlanta Hawks upset the Sixers. The Hawks stole Game 1 of the conference finals in Milwaukee, but the Bucks would take the next two. In Game 4, Antetokounmpo suffered a scary leg injury and immediately exited. After so many injuries to superstars in this postseason, it sure felt like the worst case scenario was on the table. The Hawks won to tie the series with Giannis sidelined, but Middleton and Holiday powered wins in the next two games. The Bucks were in the Finals.
The Phoenix Suns had their own luck on the other side of the bracket. Phoenix knocked out the defending champion Lakers in the first round after Anthony Davis suffered an injury late in the series. They swept a Jamal Murray-less Denver Nuggets team in round two. They beat the Clippers in the conference finals after Kawhi Leonard partially tore his ACL. Both the Suns and Bucks were legitimately great teams, but it’s impossible know if they would have advanced to the Finals against a fully healthy field that wasn’t set against the backdrop of a pandemic.
Antetokounmpo entered the series doubtful to play in Game 1. Hours before tip-off, he was upgraded to questionable. After suffering an injury many believed would bleed into next year, Giannis was in the starting lineup for the first game of the Finals. He didn’t look like he was 100 percent, but he still played 35 minutes and finished +1 in a game the Suns won by 13 points.
Milwaukee’s only chance was for Giannis to fully return to form and assert himself as the best player in the series. That’s exactly what happened.
Giannis’ performance in the Finals was nothing short of remarkable.
He finished with 42 points on 15-of-22 shooting in Game 2, but the Suns still won to take a 2-0 lead. As the series came to Milwaukee, Antetokounmpo was even better: he put up 41 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists in a decisive Game 3 victory that gave the Bucks’ a puncher’s chance.
In Game 4, Antetokounmpo sealed the win with one of the best blocks you will ever see on an alley-oop meant for Deandre Ayton. In Game 5, he helped deliver an even more incredible play when he slammed home a lob off Holiday’s tremendous steal in the final seconds. The Bucks had won three straight games and now had a chance to end the series on their floor in Game 6 on Tuesday night. Giannis already had two defining plays and a gaudy stat line during these Finals, but he saved his best for last.
It is no exaggeration to say Giannis played one of the great games in NBA history to carry the Bucks in Game 6. On a night when Holiday couldn’t make a basket and Middleton struggled to get open, Antetokounmpo absolutely dominated the game on both offense and defense. With the Bucks trailing by seven points at halftime, Giannis put up 20 points in the third quarter while deterring so many Suns scoring opportunities with his help defense.
He brought home the win in the fourth quarter by overcoming his biggest weakness: free throw shooting. After shooting about 55 percent from the foul line throughout the playoffs, Antetokounmpo somehow made 17-of-19 free throws in the biggest game of his career.
The end result: 50 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks, and Milwaukee’s first NBA championship since 1971.
Giannis’ greatness has never fit into a box.
He was drafted as a nominal small forward, but he was always the type of player who never really had a position. While the Bucks used him to initiate offense on the perimeter from the early days of his career, his massive growth spurt after entering the league made him something closer to a big man.
We know what big men look like and we know how they score. Antetokounmpo didn’t conform to those norms. While Hakeem Olajuwon had deft footwork in the post, Giannis mastered his footwork in the open floor. While Shaq unleashed his power after planting himself deep in the paint, Giannis backed up 30-feet away from the hoop to get a running start before unfurling his force. While NBA fans pleaded with Budenholzer to use Giannis as a roll man, the Bucks preferred to put him in space and let him attack.
As it happened, it became easy to see the holes Giannis had in his game. He didn’t have a three-point shot in a league obsessed with three-pointers. He struggled to shoot free throws. His ball handling ability never fully leveled up. Instead, Giannis was said to succeed because he was simply bigger and faster than everyone. That led to jealousy from his peers and confusion from some fans who could only see greatness through the lens of how Michael Jordan and (to a lesser extent) Kobe Bryant accomplished it.
Giannis was said to have ‘no bag’ — the ultimate diss for a hooper. While some saw a lack of crossovers and pull-up jumpers, Antetokounmpo’s skill showed up in different ways. It often felt like his apparent lack of appreciation from other NBA stars was because he wasn’t from America and had no interest in running in the same cliques as they did.
The discussion about Antetokounmpo’s skill level missed several key points. For one, he had become the best defensive player in the world, someone with a length and quickness of prime Kawhi Leonard on the perimeter with the shot blocking ability of Rudy Gobert near the basket. It also discounted how hard this man played. Giannis never took off a single possession on either end of the floor and established himself one of the most competitive athletes on Earth. The questioning of his offensive game was wildly out of place, too. He just averaged 35.2 points per game on 61.1 percent shooting from the field in the NBA Finals, in a series some feared he wouldn’t even play in against a team that was favored to beat his Bucks.
Giannis’ greatness is a testament to his incredible work ethic to go from a skinny teenager to a physical freak. He should be held up on a pedestal for his motor. The fact that he committed long-term to the small market team that drafted him rather than running away to play with other superstars makes this championship even more meaningful.
Antetokounmpo’s awards cabinet is filling up. He’s two-time MVP, a Defensive Player of the Year, the winner of the Most Improved Player, a five-time All-Star, a five-time All-NBA selection, and a four-time All-Defense selection. Now he can add an NBA championship and a Finals MVP. He’s still only 26 years old.
We are watching one of the greatest athletes of this generation in any sport in the prime of his career. He is an immigrant who found a new home in Milwaukee after not even knowing where it was when he got drafted. He does it all with a humble approach that is devoid of ego. His press conferences were almost as good as his play during the games in the NBA Finals.
Basketball is now a global game, and Giannis is a global icon. He represents the dream of how sports can change anyone’s life. He plays the game the right way, giving all he’s got on every possession. He doesn’t run away from challenges.
A championship was always going to elevate Giannis into the land of legends, and the way he did it will define his career forever. What a story, and what a player. For once, something that always felt too good to be true actually lived up to the hype.