Such is the level of respect for Dirk Nowitzki that any time a young player is compared to the German future Hall of Famer, the notion is met with heavy scepticism. But when that sentiment is thrown towards Giannis Antetokounmpo, it doesn’t feel like hyperbole.
Aptly nicknamed the ‘Greek Freak’, the Milwaukee Bucks phenom is a comic book superhero posing as a basketball player, literally standing head and shoulders above some of the most gifted athletes in the world.
Antetokounmpo is a bundle of limbs tacked onto a 6-foot-11 frame and his mind-bending anatomy makes no Euro step seem impossible or any dunk seem too far.
At the young age of 21, he’s already on his way to becoming one of the faces of the league and taking over the mantle that Nowitzki and fellow European stars will eventually pass on.
But even before the curtain falls on the Dallas Mavericks icon’s career, Antetokounmpo is already considered by many to be the best international player in the NBA. In an annual survey, the league’s general managers voted the Greek product as the top foreign player among 113 internationals from 41 countries on opening night rosters this season – ahead of those who’ve paved the way like Nowitzki and Gasol brothers Marc and Pau.
Speaking with international media on a conference call, Antetokounmpo was adamant that despite the success he’s found four years into his budding career, he still hasn’t reached any pinnacle.
“I have to keep my head down and try to do what I do, keep working hard and try to get better because I think I got a long way to do what Dirk did for the league,” he said.
“It’s just an opinion from the GMs (general managers). It’s a nice compliment, but man I think I have a long way to go. I think can get a lot, a lot, a lot better.”
Antetokounmpo’s confidence should be a scary thought for the rest of the league, considering he’s already a triple-double threat on any given night and averaging 21.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.1 blocks and 2.0 steals at the start of this season.
It’s not unreasonable to wonder whether Antetokounmpo can reach a level where he’s in contention for the league’s MVP. The award has no shortage of suitors right now, but there will come a time when many of those players are on the decline while Antetokounmpo is in his prime.
“I feel like I can get there one day,” he said. “That’s a goal of mine one day.”
His coach, Jason Kidd, agrees and claimed “there is no ceiling” while comparing Antetokounmpo to Nowitzki. There are, of course, few people more qualified to speak on Nowitzki than Kidd, who spent the latter years of his own stellar playing career with the smooth-stroking 7-footer.
Antetokounmpo’s shooting is a far cry from that of the 13-time All-Star, but his all-around game and explosiveness make up an identity that is relatively unique to him.
While their respective ages make it an unfair fight at the moment, Antetokounmpo feels Nowitzki’s body of work has set the benchmark for foreign-born players.
“Dirk Nowitzki is the best European player, for me, to have ever played the game. He’s an unbelievable talent. The things Dirk has done for this league and for the Dallas Mavericks is unbelievable,” he said.
“Jason Kidd was team-mates with Dirk, so for him to put me and compare me to Dirk Nowitzki, it feels nice. It’s a nice compliment.”
To the Bucks he’s a franchise cornerstone and to fans he’s one of the most exciting players to watch, but to the NBA as a whole, he’s as much a representation of the evolution in playing style as anyone.
After entering the league as a wing in 2013, Antetokounmpo has refined his skill set to become a destructive, dynamic point guard that is in many ways a cheat code against opposing teams.
Kidd’s decision last year to entrust the offence to a raw, but talented player has paid huge dividends to unlocking Antetokounmpo’s potential, and it came in a new-norm climate in which players are being utilised by what they can do rather than size or archaic definitions of positions.
“A lot of people label the positions,” Antetokounmpo said. “Basketball right now, you cannot label the positions because a lot of players can do a lot of things. Like Marc Gasol is one of the best play-makers in the league. For me, he’s a point-centre.
“My job right now is playmaking. I don’t label myself as a point guard, point-forward. I just have the basketball in my hands and just play-make.
“Basketball now we’re moving in a generation that has no positions. Even if Jason Kidd didn’t have this crazy idea to put me at point guard, I’d still be doing the same things, I’d still have the ball in my hands and play-make.
“I think the league is moving towards positionless players, players that can do a lot of things. That’s good because now you can see a lot of players, even the centres, going out on the 3-point line and shooting 3s. That’s nice because I feel like that’s how we’re supposed to play the game.”
Antetokounmpo’s rapid rise to stardom hasn’t made him forget how he got here though. The son of immigrants from Nigeria, his family found a home in Greece and survived despite “not having much”.
With the current atmosphere in the United States following the election of Donald Trump as President, Antetokounmpo believes it’s vital that immigrants receive fair treatment and opportunities.
He said: “I think what we have to do is not be so negative and judgmental and just be positive and just help around because at the end of the day, we are people and we just have to help one another.”
Antetokounmpo on his ‘Greek Freak’ nickname
I like it, you know it’s different. My nickname has followed me from my rookie year until now, so I like it. I think it’s a cool nickname.
On Matthew Dellavedova
Matthew is the best team-mate I’ve ever played with in my four years. He always wants to get, not just the pick-and-roll, but get everything right. And he’s a willing passer so it makes it a lot easier.
On what he needs to improve on
Now that I have the ball more in my hands, I have to make plays and make sure that all my team-mates are in the right spot. It’s one of the hardest things to do, to try to satisfy all your team-mates.
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