By Steven Lebron
The Milwaukee Bucks entered last season with a plan to make the playoffs. After bidding farewell to the Brandon Jennings-Monta Ellis backcourt, the Bucks traded J.J. Redick and overhauled the roster by signing Brandon Knight and O.J. Mayo to complement its roster of young players, including Larry Sanders and John Henson. Outgoing owner Herb Kohl made it clear there were no plans to bottom out and rebuild. Instead, the Bucks ended up exactly where they didn't want to be, with a league worst 15-67 record.
A year later, the Bucks are back on the developmental path. Even with rookie Jabari Parker out for the season with a torn ACL suffered in mid-December, Milwaukee has a handful of intriguing young players with immense upside. Knight has averaged 17.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists as the team's starting point guard, John Henson and Kris Middleton have quietly developed into contributors on this roster. After Monday's 82-75 road win over the Toronto Raptors, the Bucks improved to 26-22. They're sixth in the Eastern Conference, where playing .500 ball guarantees you a playoff spot. But if they're going to eventually compete for a championship, getting there will depend on the development of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
In his rookie season last year, Giannis became a much-talked about player for his ability to contribute on the floor with his sheer athleticism. Nicknamed "The Greek Freak", Giannis showed off his 6-foot-9 height (he has since grown to 6-foot-11 in his second year) and 7-foot-3 wingspan on a regular basis. In just a season and a half, the collection of highlights has grown to the point where it needs to be collected somewhere for future reference. So far, it includes this block of Kevin Durant, going full court in just two dribbles for a dunk, his own lengthier version of the Euro Step, this ridiculous pass and most recently, a breakaway windmill dunk that served as a preview for fans anticipating his appearance in the upcoming Dunk Contest.
Any basketball fan who watches Giannis eventually wonders: What exactly is his ceiling as a player?
"He's a young talented player who's growing every time he takes the floor in practice and in the game," Kidd said after shootaround on Monday in Toronto. "He's getting a lot of minutes under his belt. We're asking him to do a lot on both ends and he's up for that challenge."
In his second season, Giannis is averaging 11.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.0 blocks per game, while shooting 49.4 percent from the field and 72.2 percent from the free throw line. He's playing 28.9 minutes per game, and has improved his shooting percentages and per game averages across the board from his rookie year.
Per NBA.com, Giannis has taken 73 percent of his field goal attempts in the paint where he's shooting 57 percent. The one aspect of his game that is still in the development phase is any semblance of a consistent jumper. From mid-range, Giannis is shooting 32.1 percent on the season. Against the Raptors on Monday, Giannis sized up DeMar DeRozan for a mid-range jumper on the first possession of the game. It was an airball. He would add another one in the third quarter on a three-point attempt with the shot clock running down. But then there are moments when he uses his size and length to his advantage, posting up Terrence Ross several times late in the fourth quarter and drawing shooting fouls at the basket to help the Bucks close out a road victory playing with just eight healthy players after Mayo's ejection in the first half.
The Bucks know that a consistent jumper is the next step on Giannis's potential path to becoming an elite player in this league. It would change the dynamic of Giannis's role on the Bucks, especially in the half court offense in late-game situations.
Despite the missing aspects in Giannis's game, Milwaukee's head coach knows he has a special talent in his 20-year-old forward.
"Kevin Garnett was pretty good as a teenager," Kidd said. "And so was Tim Duncan. Those are two future Hall of Famers who could do a lot of things at seven feet. If Giannis turns out to be like those guys, that's pretty good company. I think he has that potential. You're talking about a seven footer who can put it on the floor, can pass the ball, and is still learning how to play the NBA game."
Giannis's path to the NBA is as unorthodox as his game. Before he was drafted, Giannis was playing professionally in Greece for the senior club at Filathlitikos, which is part of the Greek A2 League, a second-tier basketball league. The adjustment of joining the Bucks was not just learning to play basketball at a higher level, it was also about a new language and being in a foreign country.
"It was tough," Giannis said, reflecting on his rookie season. On the court, he became a nightly highlight reel alert. Off it, he discovered simple delights like the smoothie, and showed off his bright personality with a series of behind the scenes videos on YouTube.
"Basketball is different here. But I have good teammates and coaches. They made me comfortable on and off the court. I adjusted pretty fast."
Even with the Bucks having relatively comfortable position as a playoff team in the East, they're still continuing to figure out how to best utilize the talents of their young core. And that starts with Giannis.
During summer league last year, Kidd explored with the idea of having Giannis play the point guard position. The idea was eventually abandoned, but the potential for what he can do on the floor remains limitless. There are still questions to be answered before we can comfortably say he is on the path to becoming a top-ten player in the league. But envisioning a version of The Greek Freak that's put everything together in a few years is just as frightening for the rest of the league as it is exciting for the fans in Milwaukee.
If the Bucks make the playoffs in April, it will only be their sixth postseason appearance in 13 seasons. They've lost in the first round in the previous five appearances. They've made it out of the first round just once since the start of the 1989-90 season. Their lone championship came during the 1970-71 season, when a 23-year-old Kareem Abdul Jabbar averaged 26.6 points and 17.0 rebounds in the playoffs in leading Milwaukee to the title.
The chance to become a contender may rest in how Giannis develops over the next few years. The question about his ceiling is one that's difficult for Giannis himself to ponder.
"I just try to listen to my coach and teammates, and by working everyday, I'm hoping to get better and better," Giannis said. "I don't know what my ceiling is. I don't think even the coaches know. I just want to work as hard as possible and maybe one day I can reach that ceiling."
We'll all be watching.
Steven Lebron is a contributing writer for Sports on Earth. He has published work for Grantland, The Classical, VICE Sports, GQ, Rolling Stone and various other publications. You can follow him on Twitter@steven_lebron.