If the early polls hold true (although we now know how dangerous that assumption can be), the Milwaukee Bucks are about to have their first All-Star since Michael Redd in 2004. Maybe even more significantly for a franchise located in the 31st largest city in the U.S., in the 35th largest media market, Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the first Buck voted a starter in the All-Star Game since Sidney Moncrief in 1984.
It is the dream of good people everywhere not only to have something beautiful, something to be cherished, but to have others understand how precious and rare that thing is. The Bucks have that at last in Giannis.
I mean, good Lord, look at this:
When he was drafted with the 15th pick by Milwaukee four years ago, Antetokounmpo was an unknown 18 year old in Greece, a six-foot-nine wing with a seven-foot-three wingspan. According to a Draft Express video from the time that is well worth revisiting (if only to hear baby Giannis say, “I want to be an NBA player” in halting English), he had grown three inches in the last ten months, and he’s now grown another two since coming into the league to stand six-feet-eleven-inches at 22.
The average adult male’s hand measures 7.4 inches from pinkie tip to thumb tip. Wilt Chamberlain’s hand measured 11.5 inches. Antetokounmpo’s measures 12 inches. That’s big enough to evoke primal, facehugger fear.
But the dimensions here are only important inasmuch as they represent the scaffolding upon which an entire city and fanbase is resting their hopes. When he was drafted, Antetokounmpo was more this mess of measurements than anything else, a prospect whose strengths were basically physical size, potential (to get even bigger), potential (to grow into that size) and potential. If he was going to pan out, it was going to take patience and time. Since Giannis was drafted, other projects like Bruno Caboclo (whom Fran Fraschilla notoriously described as being “two years away from being two years away” when he was picked 20th by Toronto in 2014) have stalled out. For every Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, there are dozens of mid- to late-first round picks that fade out, flame out or simply burn away.
It’s clear, though, that Antetokounmpo is more than just the sum of his considerable measurements. “To make the next step, I’ve learned you need a little cockiness inside you,” he told SI’s Lee Jenkins. “I can be a little cocky.” On Martin Luther King Day against the Philadelphia 76ers, he put a forearm into Gerald Henderson, who backpedaled and took Giannis down with him. He jawed at Henderson and the refs. On the next trip, he singled out Henderson on the left wing, faked left, spun off him to the right and dunked the ball emphatically, staring down Henderson afterwards. All of that considerable potential is being propelled by a good chunk of grit and fight.
So it’s entirely fitting that an underdog like Giannis would be leading the resurgence of an underdog like the Milwaukee Bucks. Yes, they have a plan for a gorgeous new training facility and stadium. They have new ownership that’s helped to reinvigorate the brand with one of the league’s best makeovers in recent memory. They’ve made solid moves like bringing on Jason Kidd as head coach, drafting Jabari Parker and hanging onto Swiss army knife Khris Middleton for a reasonable price.
But players aside, all that stuff is just window dressing without an element as galvanizing as Giannis to put it all together. Middleton figures to be an important part of the Bucks’ core going forward, but he’s currently injured and even when healthy is only outwardly impressive to people who are already dug in deep with basketball. After a rookie season marred by injury and a rocky start to his sophomore season, Parker has begun rounding into something like what he promised when drafted. Antetokounmpo, though, is the nucleus, the straw that stirs the drink, the miána.
Giving him primary playmaking responsibility in the offense has provided the Bucks with a hook to hang their hat on, a wrinkle that makes them instantly interesting to watch. Pair that with defensive chops like chasedown blocks and that 7’3″ wingspan poking away balls and he is easy to keep track of for a whole game. On the break, Giannis can cover the 94 feet of the court in what feels like a few strides. His awareness combined with his height means he can hit the right player as he gazelles up the court, or he can Eurostep (or gyrostep, more appropriately) around them and not just for a layup. Antetokounmpo has perfected the art of the Eurostep dunk.
The math is simple, actually: Unless you’re born into fandom, you fall in love with a given team because of a player, and Giannis can be that player. It’s not unlike the way you fall in love with a person because of their smile, their crooked dimple, the way their hair falls after you run your hand through it, the way their heart sounds beating against their chest when you rest your head on it and other mushy things. It’s the stuff that break against the grain, that remind you of hope and humanity, that make you believe impossible things. Years later, they’re not the reason you love that person, but you can recognize them as the bellwether that led you down the path into it.
To be sure, Giannis’ numbers are impressive. He’s currently averaging 23.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.8 steals and 2.1 blocks per game. Leave out the blocks and it’s a season comparable to Larry Bird, Michael Jordan or one of this season’s other supernovas, Russell Westbrook. Add the blocks and no one else has averaged those numbers for a whole season. Notching a career-high 39 points against the Washington Wizards and stunning the New York Knicks with a dramatic stepback jumper in Madison Square Garden have certainly elevated Giannis’ profile nationally.
But for now, the Bucks are still mired in the middle class of the Eastern Conference, currently sitting at seventh but more or less deadlocked with Washington, Indiana, Chicago and Charlotte. Unless Middelton returns in full form, they’re likely not quite ready to face the top of the conference in a seven game series.
Barring a late letter from James Comey, though, Giannis is going to start in the 2017 All-Star Game in New Orleans. If this is the start of a broader fame beyond Lake Michigan, of kids across the nation getting their first taste of impossible basketball, remember to enjoy it, Milwaukee. This is the patience and the work paying off, the fresh and new beginning that lays the foundation for a long relationship. That giddy feeling you get thinking about watching Giannis? That’s love’s first blush.