On the heels of a blowout loss at the hands of the Chicago Bulls and the team's fifth consecutive preseason loss, Milwaukee Bucks fans should actually be feeling pretty good. General manager John Hammond recently chatted with Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN and TrueHoopTV* about captivating rookie forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and irresistible Kopp's frozen custard, and the talk took an important turn when Hammond effectively signed a blank check for Larry Drew and the coaching staff. [*The video interview is embedded at the bottom of this post]
After just ten weeks and five preseason games, the Bucks have gone from fearing overexposure for Giannis Antentokounmpo, to declaring that overexposure is impossible, and that the rookie is ready to make positive contributions immediately.
Before we get to the new statement, let's revisit the message delivered this summer. When Hammond drafted Antetokounmpo No. 15 overall in the 2013 NBA Draft and committed to bringing the untested 18-year-old from Greece's A2 League to the NBA, he outlined the development timeline like this:
"We want to expose [Giannis] but not overexpose him. Anytime that Larry Drew can find a way to get him on the floor, sneak in minutes for him, get him out there but not put him in too uncomfortable a position early on. But we'll see how things go in training camp, how things go in exhibition season, really see what he's capable of doing."
The slow, careful approach laid out in that quote made perfect sense for the youngest player in the association, but Hammond left some leeway for Giannis to make an impression against NBA competition in exhibitions. Allow the rookie to sample his new environment before saddling him with any expectations or responsibilities. We analyzed the development options for Antetokounmpo several weeks ago, and generally agreed with the notion that big fish in small ponds need time to adjust to exponentially-larger bodies of water.
The tantalizing flashes of skill from Greece Lightning have drawn attention from fans and analysts around the league, and the Bucks have already started to capitalize on the trend. More importantly, Hammond admitted that he's seen enough to change his mind about the potential limits to his on-court development this season. Here's the key portion of what Milwaukee's GM said to Arnovitz:
"When you're watching [Giannis] do some of these things on the floor, whether it be with the ball or without the ball, or with his athleticism and length, it comes back to [he's] 18 years old. We can't do it, but this is kind of a societal thing, and especially for us I can tell you in sports, we want to speed up the clock. I want him to be 20 [years old] right now, or 21, but we can't do it. We've got to let him have his time. We've got to let him develop.
And, you know, we were talking about how much we could get him on the floor, how soon we could get him on the floor. We've talked about exposing him, but not overexposing him. I'm not sure right now, Kevin, that there's such a thing as overexposing him. I think he can be on the floor, and he can find a way to contribute and be a positive factor on the floor for us in games right now."
Most of that response fits the tone that Hammond established this summer: Don't risk overexposing or overextending a guy that's never dealt with anything like NBA talent or the league's grueling schedule. But then John hit one high high note that changed everything when he suggested Antentokounmpo possibly can't be overexposed, and that the rookie is ready to make positive contributions right now.
Does GM stand for Genie Man? Because John Hammond has clearly started granting wishes. Yes,injuries to Carlos Delfino, Ersan Ilyasova, and Ekpe Udoh carved out an unexpected spot for Giannis in the rotation, but this signals a more fundamental shift for the organization. It's a message to fans searching for a reason to watch this year: Giannis will play, so be sure to watch closely.
As I see it, the important shift here is that the GM has ripped up the post-dated check written for 2015 and offered up carte blanche to Larry Drew and his staff. Play Antetokounmpo as much as you'd like, and don't worry about potential negative consequences, because there are none. Never mind what we said in August, he can't be overexposed. It's good deal for Drew, and a spectacular one for Bucks fans--assuming the Bucks' head coach is ready to take it. Actually, we've already heard from Drew about letting the rookie learn by doing (via Andrew Gruman of FOX Sports Wisconsin):
"[Giannis is] very, very intriguing. We selected him knowing that he would get an opportunity during the preseason. We're willing to live with the mistakes. He had a total of 12 mistakes in his first two exhibition games. I find it more important to allow him to play through his mistakes than to sit him on the bench."
I believe we have our hook for the 2013-14 season, people.
However, it's still important to keep things in perspective. With established veterans like Caron Butler and (the injured) Carlos Delfino around, we can't expect 30 minutes per night for Giannis. Heck, 30 minutes per night might not be good for him. I appreciate what Hammond said, but let's not pretend that overexposure isn't a real risk.
I'm ecstatic that the organization appears committed to playing Antetokounmpo, but I see three reasons why he won't log starter's minutes:
- An 82-game NBA slate is a grind that even top-level college players have trouble handling as rookies, and Antetokounmpo isn't coming to the league with even an NCAA-level training regimen or travel schedule under his belt.
- It's still important to hold Giannis accountable for mental mistakes and technique errors, especially with established veterans ahead of him on the depth chart. Living with mistakes is great, but that shouldn't mean accountability goes completely out the window.
- How the heck can the Hammond say there's no such thing as overexposure when Brandon Knight is on the roster?
Knight is certainly our new favorite point guard option, but his lost puppy journey through the NBA is instructive. He played one year for a major college program and was coached by arguably the best recuiter and developer of pro point guards in the modern era, but when asked to play 30+ minutes a night for the Pistons in his first two seasons, things didn't go well.
He had a lot to learn about how to run pick-and-roll and how to function in half court offense (sounds like Giannis, right?), but his on-the-job training left him with bad pick-and-roll habits, poor numbers in key areas, and low trade value. The No. 8 overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft has quickly become a reclamation project, and he may currently be the worst starting point guard in the league. Let's be careful what we wish for, okay?
Although Antetokounmpo didn't exactly dominate during the preseason, his 6.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.6 turnovers, 2.0 blocks, and 1.2 steals in 23.4 minutes per contest were more than enough to prove that (a) he has immense physical talent, (b) he's not intimidated by jumping to a higher level of competition. Unstructured moments in the open floor (chase-down blocks, crashing the boards, etc.) have allowed him to showcase his athleticism and length, but don't let the 'splash' plays lead you to ignore his deficiencies in the half court.
It's clear to all of us that Giannis belongs in this league, but our collective dream for handing him 10-15 minutes per night had previously felt a bit hopeful, considering the goals of the team. Now Hammond has opened that door and allowed us to think big. Antetokounmpo's 34.8 percent shooting (8-23 FGs, 1-6 3PT) in the preseason underlines the reality that he has a long way to go on offense, but his 77.3 percent mark on a team-leading 22 free throw attempts highlights the fact that his aggressiveness and quickness can lead to good things in small spurts (his 52% true shooting is much closer to league average than that ugly fg% is). Sure the games didn't matter, and his counterparts were often D-League-caliber, but none of that matters now.
We should all be excited to see what Larry Drew and company do with that blank check. It's a good day to dream about the future by thinking about the present.