If you consider yourself a member of the frustrated base of Milwaukee Bucks fans, you owe it to yourself to see rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo in action. I typically write off the preseason and gloss over most of what occurs during exhibition basketball, but this October it's been impossible to ignore the raw talent Antetokounmpo has flashed on the floor.
We've learned a lot about Giannis over the course of the summer -- from his meteoric rise up draft boards, to the realization of his NBA dream, to his experience at the FIBA Europe U-20 Championship, to his debut in a team scrimmage -- but the team's 2013 first-round pick has still felt more like a mystery than a prospect for most of that time. How can you form a credible opinion on a guy you've never seen play against anything close to NBA talent?
In essence, his professional slate was so clean, so frighteningly immaculate, that it stunted any reasonable fan discussion of his true potential. I threw my hands up and shrugged for our post-draft reaction podcast back in June:
Without game tape of Giannis playing against NBA-caliber talent, the book on the Bucks' No. 15 is very thin. In the absence of evidence or on-point precedent, even the scouts and GMs have to use their imagination to fill in the gaps. We can all dream, but there's not a lot of substance to the analysis. It's impossible to have strong feeling about what Antetokounmpo will become, because the line between talent and skills has been blurred as the young forward prepares to play against athletes that will test him in ways he's never been tested before.
For me, I need to first see if Antetokounmpo can guard opposing players without fouling, apply his freakish length on the glass and understand the geometry of NBA offense before the upside conversation can begin. I'm not fond of the "point forward" talk at the introductory press conference, because that's at least two leaps of faith away from where Giannis is right now.
After watching the youngest player in the league lock horns with other NBA players for 57 minutes over two preseason contests, I suddenly feel a lot more confident about John Hammond's selection going forward. Sure the points didn't matter, and the outcome was instantly forgotten, but the array of highlight plays (vs. Cavaliers | vs. Timberwolves) he produced were destined to linger in our collective memory for quite a while longer. Those seven blocks feel great, and it's easy enough to sweep those 12 turnovers under the rug for now. If it's still wrong to speculate about his potential, maybe I don't want to be right. We need to talk about this guy.
His physical gifts are undeniable. His raw talent is mesmerizing. People around the league are already talking about him, AND HE'S A MIILWAUKEE FREAKING BUCK. Now the question is how the franchise should approach his development.
Recall that earlier this summer Hammond said the team wanted to avoid overexposing Giannis:
"We want to expose him 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. "
Giannis has looked capable at times, particularly during unstructured moments when his athleticism and instincts can take over (chase-down blocks, crashing the boards, etc.), but his half-court fundamentals are still a big question mark. I'm not sure he understands the geometry of the NBA game. He's had trouble with shifting into proper help position, recognizing screens, playing angles on the perimeter, and converting a triple-threat jab step into something other than a travelling violation. Dan laid out both sides of the equation well in his recap of the first preseason game:
Holy cow, this dude is a physical anomaly. He looks gangly as all get out when he moves without the ball, but when he gets in the air with arms outstretched, he looks like a windmill strapped to a rocket ship. He handled the speed, size, and length of his opposition better than I expected, to be honest, but still made quite a few mistakes. He traveled while winding up his dribble at least twice and made a few ill-advised passes, but also swatted away an alley-oop pass with ease, blocked three other shots and drew a bunch of fouls. Nothing to discourage our obsession with his long-term potential, but certainly reason to think Giannis might do more harm than good in the early going of the regular season.
So what should the Bucks do? Injuries to Carlos Delfino, Ersan Ilyasova, and Ekpe Udoh have cut into the depth of the roster and carved out an interesting potential niche for Giannis as the season approaches. That opportunity has come about in an unsavory manner, but it raises an interesting issue: What is the best way to develop such a unique prospect?
Should he spend time with the team, grow in practice sessions, and simply take time to get adjusted to NBA culture during his rookie season? Should he head to the D-League and fight for minutes? Or should the Bucks toss him out there against NBA players and live with whatever happens? Dan Sinclair and Frank Madden joined me for a 50-minute podcast to discuss these issues and all things Giannis Antetokounmpo. Here it is:
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