Giannis what’s his name
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - April 18, 2019 - 12:00am

At the FIBA World Cup in Spain in 2014, there was a 6-11, 19-year-old kid playing for Greece supposed to be a future NBA star. He didn’t do much as a rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2013-14, averaging 6.8 points and didn’t do much either going against the Philippines in the first round of World Cup eliminations in Seville. His name is a mouthful – Giannis Antetokounmpo (pronounced Yahn-iss An-tay-toe-koon-poh).

Giannis logged 14 minutes in Greece’s 82-70 win over the Philippines, scoring three points on 3-of-4 from the line, grabbing six rebounds and missing all three field goal attempts. Gilas’ Marc Pingris was matched up with Giannis and did much better, finishing with seven points and six boards in 26 minutes. Gilas kept pace with Greece in scoring in the second quarter, each hitting 17 points and in the fourth period, had one more point, 25-24. The game ended on a sour note as Greece buried a triple with a second left in a sign of disrespect as the Philippines had withdrawn its defense to play out the clock.

Giannis later said the game wasn’t easy and credited the Filipinos for never giving up. Since the World Cup, Giannis has made a name for himself in the NBA. In Giannis’ rookie season, the Bucks registered a forgettable 15-67 record and of course, didn’t make the playoffs. But as Giannis began to improve, so did the Bucks. Giannis’ scoring average has increased season after season from 12.7 as a sophomore to 16.9 to 22.9 to 26.9 and this campaign, to 27.7. The Bucks have now qualified for the playoffs in three straight seasons, posting a record of 42-40 in 2016-17 to 44-38 in 2017-18 and now, 60-22 to finish first in the Eastern Conference. Golden State topped the Western Conference with a 57-25 record so the Bucks will enjoy the homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, including the Finals if they make it that far.

Milwaukee has won only one NBA crown so far. That was in 1971 when coach Larry Costello piloted the team to a 66-16 record with a lineup that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Greg Smith, Bobby Dandridge, Bob Boozer, Jon McGlocklin and Lucius Allen. In 1974, the Bucks were back in the Finals but lost to Boston in a thrilling series that went the distance.

Since 2001-02, Milwaukee has failed to make it to the playoffs in eight seasons and in nine seasons, went only up to the first round. Now, the Bucks are battling No. 8 Detroit (41-41) in the first round and unless a disaster happens, should advance to the next round. In Game 1 of the Detroit series at the Bucks’ homecourt Fiserv Forum last Sunday, Milwaukee crushed the Pistons, 121-86 with Giannis compiling 24 points and 17 rebounds in only 24 minutes. In the third quarter, Detroit’s rugged center Andre Drummond threw Giannis to the ground with a two-handed shove and was ejected. That kind of physicality is what opponents resort to in trying to stop Giannis. It’s a similar situation that June Mar Fajardo faces in the PBA.

Milwaukee coach Mike Buzenholzer, a 2015 Coach of the Year with Atlanta and a Gregg Popovich assistant for 19 years at San Antonio, designed a winning formula to exploit Giannis’ strengths. Sports Illustrated writer Chris Ballard called Budenholzer’s concept “positionless motion … no bigs or wings or guards, just five players, all interchangeable, creating a glorious randomness.” That style suits Giannis to a T. “Only so many transformative athletes come along in any sport,” said Ballard. “In the NBA, they emerge maybe twice a decade, players whose unique talents rip holes in the fabric of the game, forcing the rest of the league to react, adjust and evolve.” One such player is Giannis who in Ballard’s view, “conjures comparisons as disparate as Scottie Pippen and Shaquille O’Neal, with arms that spread wider than he is tall, who can play all five positions.”

Budenholzer said Giannis’ competitiveness and drive to win are special. Lindy’s Pro Basketball Yearbook described him as “perhaps the most imposing two-way player in the NBA last season.” Street and Smith’s said Giannis is the face of Milwaukee’s franchise “who continues to state his case among the top 10 players in the game.” Hoop Magazine said, “It’s only a matter of time (maybe even this current decade) before we see Antetokounmpo add another three letters – MVP – to his already substantial name. Giannis represents the new breed of NBA player: a position-less, long-limbed, do-it-all archetype, able to steal or block a shot on defense, rip a rebound and then start the break, ending it with a dunk, dime or pull-up three. At just 24, Antetokounmpo’s peak years will span most of the decade, making him the easiest prognostication in this group (of the next 10 greatest players).”

Giannis was born in Athens to Charles and Veronica Antetokounmpo, both Nigerians. Under Greek law, foreigners do not qualify as Greek citizens even if they were born in the country until they’re 18. FIBA considers Giannis a Greek local even if he didn’t receive his Greek citizenship until 18. Under FIBA rules, a foreigner is eligible to play for a country only if he was issued a passport before 16. Constantly fearing deportation, life was difficult for Giannis growing up. With an older brother Thanasis, Giannis contributed to the family income as a boy selling watches, bags and sunglasses in the streets. At 13, he began to play basketball and at 15, joined a pro club in Greece. At 17, Giannis broke into the Greek semi-pro league and eventually made his way to the NBA. There is talk that Disney is considering to produce a movie on Giannis’ life.

It’s usually not a compliment when one is called a freak but in Giannis’ case, he doesn’t mind the moniker Greek Freak. He was given the nickname because of his athleticism and ballhandling skills, so unusual for a 6-11 player who moves like a guard or a wing. How far the Bucks go in the playoffs this season largely depends on how freakish Giannis’ performance will be.

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