'Greek freak' offers rare highlight in Milwaukee Bucks' season
Milwaukee Bucks rookie forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has managed to enthrall National Basketball Association fans and coaches this season despite playing on the league's worst team.
Antetokounmpo's statistics are anything but gaudy, averaging seven points, 4.4 rebounds and two assists through 66 games. His jump shot needs work and defensive awareness lapses at times.
So why is the buzz justified for the beloved Bucks forward known as «The Greek Freak» in NBA circles?
At 18 years and 318 days old, Antetokounmpo made his NBA debut last October as the 15th youngest player ever and the youngest since the league implemented a rookie age limit in 2005. Since then, his court vision has, in moments, dropped jaws.
In one sequence during Monday's road game versus the Los Angeles Clippers he blocked Hedo Turkoglu's layup, ran back down the court and dunked in transition. His athleticism, effort and rawness fuel imaginations of what he could become.
Antetokounmpo received his Greek citizenship last May, the country in which he had lived his whole life and to where his parents Veronica and Charles immigrated in 1991 due to Nigeria's troubled economy.
He and his family held a slew of jobs, from picking oranges to selling sunglasses. Now, his parents and two younger brothers live in Milwaukee.
African immigrants in Greece are often the target of racial epithets, but Antetokounmpo says he faced none while growing up.
However, after the Bucks selected him 15th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft, Greek parliament member Nikos Michaloliakos of the Golden Dawn party said, in reference to Antetokounmpo, «if you give a chimpanzee in the zoo a banana and a flag, is he Greek?"
"It didn't affect me,» said Antetokounmpo.
On the court, though, he's had the benefit of playing extended minutes, a surprise for someone who jumped straight from Greece's second league, averaging 24 minutes per game.
"It's been sort of a blessing in disguise the way our season has somewhat turned out because it's really given him an opportunity to play,» Bucks head coach Larry Drew said of his 13-58 team that is last in the NBA.
"Had we been healthy from the very beginning, he may not have played ... he's made the most of the time that he's played."
Antetokounmpo cites adapting to American culture and the language barrier as two of his biggest changes crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Drew had similar worries.
"Would he be able to understand NBA terminology, our lingo?» Drew recalls. «And he has. He picks things up pretty fast, which was a big surprise to me.
"But he picked it up and he wasn't afraid to ask questions, which a lot of young guys are timid in asking questions, but he has shown that he has really grown and developing in that area."
What will further develop is his body. Since draft day last June, Antetokounmpo has grown an inch to 6-foot-10 and could still grow. Drew states Antetokounmpo needs to add weight to his 210-pound frame.
All that will come in time. Until then, the 'Greek Freak' will keep earning new fans with his youthful exuberance and dedication.
"When I go out there, I try to bring some energy, play hard every day and every night. Just play hard,» Antetokounmpo says.