Bucks Fan Fest: Giannis Antetokounmpo shows he belongs

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

It's not worth trying to draw any real conclusions from a scrimmage, but let's look on the bright side: the Bucks' 18-year-old rookie actually looks like an NBA player.

It wasn't real basketball, nor was it even preseason basketball.

But Saturday's open scrimmage at the BMO Harris Bradley Center (rewatch it at Bucks.com) was still our first taste of what the remodeled 13/14 Milwaukee Bucks will look like on a court together, and in that sense it offered much to look forward to when the Bucks tip off their preseason schedule on Tuesday in Cleveland and their regular season schedule in 24 days in New York.

Kicking off in the morning with player and staff interviews and autographs, the Bucks' Fan Fest was a a well-conceived mixture of basketball, amusement and marketing, all culminating in the intrasquad scrimmage that we've become accustomed to over the years. And in case you're keeping score: Larry Drew's presumed starting lineup of Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Caron Butler, Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders led the Black team to a 41-29 win over the White squad that started Luke Ridnour, Gary Neal, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Olek Czyz and John Henson.

Zaza Pachulia (Achilles) and Ekpe Udoh (sore knee) joined Carlos Delfino (out for the preseason with a foot injury) on the sidelines, hence camp invitee Czyz found himself in the starting five. Coming off offseason surgery on his Achilles, Pachulia participated in pregame drills and looked reasonably mobile while Udoh reported knee soreness Saturday after an apparently solid week of practices (Larry Drew sang his praises on Friday).

So what did we learn? After watching the scrimmage twice on video, I'll stop short of claiming we know much of anything about how this team will come together over the next six months. Not everyone was going at the same speed--veterans know how to pick their spots somewhat in these kinds of settings--and it's difficult to expect too much fluidity on either end from a team featuring 11 new players, a new coaching staff and just one week of practice under their belts. But it was still mostly competitive, and it was especially interesting to see new players mixing with old ones on the court for the first time. A sampler of impressions:

Giannis Antetokounmpo was likely the man that most of us were most curious to see on Saturday, and he didn't disappoint. Did Antetokounmpo light up the BC? No, not exactly. But he looked the part of an NBA player from the opening tip, and that in itself was an encouraging sign from the NBA's youngest player. Setting up shop in the right corner as part of the Bucks' basic sets, Antetokounmpo fired a nice pass to a cutting Czyz on the opening possession and rifled another good feed to Czyz under the basket a minute later.

He later scored his first basket on a cut of his own, finishing through contact and adding the free throw for his first kind-of-almost-OK-not-really NBA points. Our Twitter and RealGM bud Paul Henning uploaded a bunch of videos from the scrimmage that are definitely worth checking out if you don't have time to watch the whole thing.

Antetokounmpo wasn't bashful from the perimeter either, missing his first two three point attempts badly but later burying a triple in the second half. He drew a foul and split the throws for his other points and also set up Henson on a tidy drive-and-dish. And of course there were some teachable moments, too: he barreled over Ersan Ilyasova (who else?) for a charge on one of his few halfcourt forays toward the basket, and saw his shot swatted by Sanders on a putback attempt. Defensively, he faced few direct challenges from Caron Butler and Khris Middleton, though he did get called for a foul on what appeared to be a clean block of Middleton along the baseline.

But overall this was less about tallying points and rebounds and more about how seeing how Antetokounmpo looked and moved while sharing the court with NBA players. And in that regard his public debut in Milwaukee was nothing if not encouraging. As promised, Giannis had the green light to bring the ball up quickly following a rebound, and his uncommon combination of length, ball-handling and vision was obvious from the opening tip. His length and broad shoulders made Butler look downright small when they stood next to each other, and his natural feel with the ball in his hands suggest that he's a legit three despite boasting the frame (albeit lacking the strength) of a four.

So while I haven't been expecting much of any real contribution from Antetokounmpo as a rookie, I have to admit that watching him on Saturday made me wonder if he'll be ready sooner than I expected. Delfino's injury means that he'll likely suit up for most if not all games early in the season, and Middleton's ankle injury last week gave him first crack at establishing himself with the second unit. Whether he can take advantage of that in the form of an early season rotation spot remains very unclear, but seeing him Saturday suggested that he's capable of giving Middleton a strong run for backup minutes at small forward.

Larry Sanders doesn't appear to have missed a beat over the summer, swatting at least three shots, running the floor for a handful of dunks and missing a jumper while occasionally overcomplicating his offensive touches with tricky dribbling.

John Henson didn't have the most enviable task being matched up with Sanders much of the night, but vacuumed up rebounds, scored on a couple tricky moves inside and still looks like someone who shouldn't be shooting jump shots. While everyone seems set on trying to pair Sanders and Henson together up front, Drew's decision to start him at center next to a guy who won't make the roster (Czyz) implies the coaching staff's openness to shuttling him between the big positions. Or it could imply nothing at all, seeing as how two other potential center options weren't playing.

Brandon Knight looked fairly comfortable running the offense and had a couple nice feeds to Sanders, though we'll need a lot more than 24 minutes of practice to tell if he's made appreciable strides as an NBA point guard. He also reminded us what a point guard who can dunk looks like, coaxing a transition tomahawk over the rim.

O.J. Mayo looked more intent on probing the defense than anything, catching the ball off curls a number of times to get into the paint. Generally looked aggressive and unselfish without finding much luck from outside.

Caron Butler was there, and I can't really remember much of anything he did.

Khris Middleton came off the bench to spell Butler and shortly thereafter picked off a wayward Antetokounmpo pass to setup a fastbreak dunk. Didn't try to do too much.

Gary Neal must have shot twice as much as anyone on the court, but I can't recall him making any other than a single wing three. Hey, somebody's gotta pick up the slack with Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings out of the picture, right?

Luke Ridnour and Nate Wolters matched up at times and looked, you know, competent. That's expected of Ridnour, encouraging for the rookie.

Ersan Ilyasova still likes to pump fake and (attempt to) take charges, and like everyone else, his perimeter touch was off.

Miroslav Raduljica did a good job of being enormous and threw in a baseline hook in the second half, but I'd be lying if I was paying much attention to him with all the other fresh faces on the court. Looked eager to find cutters from the post and set up Antetokounmpo's first bucket. I did think it was interesting that Drew went small with the White squad by starting Czyz next to Henson rather than Raduljica.

General Thoughts:

  • The game was generally played at a fast pace, so Drew's emphasis on advancing the ball into the frontcourt within 4 seconds seems to be sticking. Then again, lots of missed shots and turnovers were also a big part of it.
  • I haven't seen a box score, but I'd guess both teams shot around 25% on shots outside the paint. The Bucks don't have a shortage of perimeter shooters this year, but you wouldn't have known it on Saturday. It's early, eh?
  • Offensively, ball movement was a major theme--not much isolation stuff to report, though the Bucks don't really have the personnel to play that kind of game anyway.
  • Defensively, there was a steady dose of heavy show/recovers against pick-and-roll, with some outright trapping as well. Sanders and Henson not surprisingly hung back more (read: they're shot-blockers).
  • The new court looked good with actual people running around on it--I'm definitely looking forward to see it in person in November.
  • For more thoughts on Saturday, check out Jon Hartzell's summary at Bucksketball and the Fan Fest thread over at RealGM.
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