While John Henson, Nate Wolters and the Bucks were winding up their annual summer league adventure on Friday, first round pick Giannis Antetokounmpo was doing the same with his Greek teammates half a world away at the U-20 European Championships in Estonia.
The Greeks had a bit more at stake on Friday in the round of 16 against Spain, but the Spanish ran away in the second half to end Greece's championship aspirations and send them to the consolation bracket. And so it goes. More importantly to Bucks fans: Giannis Antetokounmp was not good. Pretty ugly in fact.
Realistically, there shouldn't be anything too shocking about that--Greece's second youngest player is an obvious work in progress, so even in this setting we should get used to seeing him struggle at times. The Greeks bounced back with wins over Montenegro and Turkey on Saturday and Sunday (neither televised unfortunately) to finish in 5th overall at the tourney, but Antetokoumpo didn't distinguish himself much in either game, totaling just 10 points on 4/14 shooting to go with 16 total rebounds. He finished the tournament ranked second in defensive rebounding (7.0 rpg), seventh in blocks (1.4 bpg), and shot an encouraging 38.7% from three, but his 8.0 ppg, 36% shooting overall and nearly three turnovers per game weren't anything to write home about.
So what do we take from the 10 games crammed into just 11 days? Some positives, some negatives, and a whole bunch of question marks, all of which lead me to the same conclusion I had when the Bucks made Antetokounmpo the 15th overall pick on June 27: this will take a while.
Playing a complementary role in the Greek offense, Antetokounmpo spent much of his time over the past two weeks parking at the three point line in halfcourt sets, mixing in flashes to the high post as a screener and the occasional post mismatch. As you'd expect, the Greek offense is not one designed to funnel shots to a single superstar, and even if it did, Antetokounmpo is a long way from demanding that kind of attention even at the U-20 level. On occasion he's displayed nice ball-handling skills and long strides to attack the rim off the bounce--he did it to good effect a number of times in a win over Croatia last week--but against a disciplined Spanish side those opportunities never materialized as the Greeks went cold in the third quarter and trailed by 20 or more for much of the final 15 minutes. A nice baseline cut saw him swatted at the rim by a Spanish defender, while a pair of reckless drives in the second half resulted in an eventual turnover and a charge call. Aside from an early transition dunk and a late three, Antetokounmpo and his Greek teammates had little to show for the night on either end.
It's only natural to wonder what Antetokounmpo's performances over the past week might say about his future in the NBA, but the only certainty seems to be that it will be a long time before we know much about how he'll ultimately perform in the NBA. Antetokoumpo's best games saw him display a variety of promising skills: while it's obvious that he's still growing into his body, he has a solid handle and shows the unselfishness and court vision to be a dynamic player from the small forward spot, and his length and fluid athleticism enabled him to grab rebounds and make plays defensively all week. Antetokounmpo strikes me as more of a quick, fluid athlete than a jump-out-of-the-gym freak, but it will be interesting to see how his athleticism develops as he adds strength to his slight frame. Building up core strength and working on his lower body are only going to help, though I'm guessing he'll always be more of the long, wiry type of guy best suited to the three spot but eventually capable of mismatching guys at the four as well. He also may not be done growing--he reportedly grew three inches in the last year alone--which adds a bit more intrigue to his long-term potential.
The growing part also represents a challenge, as Antetokounmpo is still growing into both his body and his game, meaning that consistency appears to be a long ways off even at the under-20 level. Despite a few promising scoring games, he was mostly ineffective as a finisher (just 12/35 from two-point range) and did most of his damage on spot-up threes (12/31, 38%). He has solid form on his jumper, but it's basically a set-shot--he barely jumps and his release point isn't terribly high, which figures to make it harder to get off under defensive pressure. There's no reason to think he won't be able to extend his range out beyond the NBA arc in time, but he unsurprisingly looked most comfortable in the open court, where his athleticism, handle and vision are more obvious. As you'd expect of a youngster with little experience against top-level competition, he's prone to looking wild at times, particularly when he forces the issue in the halfcourt.
In the open court he's not afraid to grab a rebound and lead the break, even if his dribble looks a bit high and unwieldy at times. The Greek coaches had him occasionally bringing the ball up and initiating offense over the past two weeks, but anyone thinking he's going to be a point guard needs to pump the brakes a bit. While he'll likely be able to guard multiple positions in time, you're not going to send a 6'9" guy to check other team's speedy point guards unless his name is LeBron, nor does he look like a guy who will regularly run an offense. But that's not meant as a knock on Antetokoumpo so much as a reality check for unrealistic expectations. Speaking of which: if we are going to make silly comparisons to NBA superstars, I'd go with Scottie Pippen over Magic Johnson and Kevin Durant. A longer Nicolas Batum may be the fairest projection of his upside, but at this point we're basically just guessing.
In the end, only time will tell how experience against better competition and maturity--both on the court and off--will smooth out the decidedly rough edges to his game. At this point, all we really know is that he's raw in every sense of the word. He was the youngest player in the draft and won't hit 19 until December, he didn't play against top-flight competition in Greece, and his unique background--he wasn't granted Greek citizenship until a few months ago--prevented him from playing against top talent internationally until this summer. He may well be the biggest first round mystery of the past decade for any team, but the Bucks clearly did as much homework as they could and have insisted he was the clear choice at #15.
How a player with so much room to grow can contribute to an NBA team remains a huge question for me, so I'll continue to expect nothing from him this coming season. Even with the Bucks' search for wing depth dragging out into the dog days of the NBA calendar, it's difficult to imagine Antetokounmpo picking up the nuances of the NBA game (not to mention life in America) fast enough to not be a liability early on. And so long as the Bucks are prioritizing a playoff spot that would seem to make it difficult to play him any real minutes this coming season. I'd love to be surprised, but it's not as if sparse minutes early on would make him unique from most other mid-first round picks, particularly those that the Bucks have drafted. Of the five previous first round picks during the John Hammond era, only Brandon Jennings found anything resembling regular rotation minutes as a rookie, and not even an 18-year-old Tobias Harris faced the sort of adjustment that Antetokounmpo is in store for this fall.
Instead, Antetokounmpo figures to spend a good chunk of his rookie season watching from the bench in street clothes, with his real learning taking place in practice and perhaps some time in the D-League. There's a good argument to be made that bringing him along slowly under the Bucks' guidance is the best way to help him adapt to the NBA game, though it also figures to deny him the game action he might have gotten in Europe while also starting the clock on his road to restricted free agency immediately. Whether the Bucks will use the D=League option to get Antetokoumpo more game action is an open question--John Hammond has already stated his preference to keep him with the big club, which isn't a surprise given the Bucks' history of sparsely using their affiliate in Fort Wayne. Assuming he doesn't crack Larry Drew's rotation, the Bucks could choose to opportunistically shuttle him back and forth like they did with Doron Lamb last year, which may be the best compromise between allowing him to develop under the Bucks' watchful eye while still seeing more regular game action at times.
Time is fortunately on Antetokounmpo's side--let's just hope the Bucks and the rest of Bucks Nation can afford him the patience needed to see things through.