The Milwaukee Bucks haven't been especially fun to watch this season, scuffling to the league's worst offense, seventh-worst defense and a tie for the league's worst record with the similarly awful New York Knicks at 3-13. There are reasons for that — most notably, a rash of injuries that have forced starting center Larry Sanders, starting power forward Ersan Ilyasova, starting point guard Brandon Knight, backup point guard Luke Ridnour, expected small forward contributor Carlos Delfino and actual small forward contributor Caron Butler all to miss time. That's left the fate of the Bucks largely in the hands of second-round rookie point man Nate Wolters and eager-to-fire shooting guards O.J. Mayo and Gary Neal; admirable ownership intentions aside, that's not exactly a recipe for a postseason run.
In trying times like these, fans tend to look for something exciting to latch onto and carry them through the deep, dark nights of a going-nowhere NBA season. In the Bucks' case, that beacon's been rookie forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 18-year-old Greek Internet cause célèbre whose brief snippets of playing time haven't been quite as amazing as his backstory, but whose length, athleticism and potential have at times resulted in eye-popping plays like this end-to-end lightning bolt from a Saturday night win over the Boston Celtics:
Antetokounmpo's played in only 11 of the Bucks' 16 games, averaged just 15.2 minutes of playing time in those appearances, and has topped 20 minutes and double-figure scoring just twice. But those moments of brilliance — the glimpses of pterodactyl wings unfurling, of county-clearing strides, of thunderous throwdowns — have given Bucks fans something to feel good about, and cause to cast their mind's eyes toward a future when a more seasoned but still young version of Antetokounmpo teams with Sanders and emerging big man John Henson in a long-limbed frontcourt that will give opposing offensive players nightmares in the paint.
As it turns out, that monstrous mass of shot-swatting length will likely wind up covering even more ground than anticipated. From Gery Woelfel of the Racine, Wis., Journal Times:
Bucks coach Larry Drew has tried his best to downplay his excitement for Antetokounmpo, but it hasn’t been easy.
“He’s 6-9 and 18 years old and, where his skill level is right now, you just don’t see that much,” Drew said. “He does some intriguing things when he’s out on the floor. We just have to continue to develop him. We have to continue to allow him to grow.”
Not only is Antetokounmpo’s game growing, so is his body. When the Bucks drafted him in June, he was 6-9. Now, just more than five months later, he has added more than an inch to his lanky frame.
“I am now 6-10 and one quarter,” Antetokounmpo said smiling.
He then paused before adding, “I still have 3½ years to grow.”
Indeed, doctors have informed Antetokounmpo and Bucks officials that the former’s growth plate is still open. In all likelihood, he’ll become a 7-footer.
If this sounds familiar to you, it's probably because your memory stretches back roughly two years to Mike Wells' story in the Dec. 15, 2011, edition of the Indianapolis Star:
Indiana Pacers swingman Paul George doesn’t want to settle for just a “late growth spurt” with his body. He wants to grow his game, too.
George, who grew 2 inches to 6-10 during the offseason, is putting in the time to make sure his skills progress. One tactic the 21-year-old has adopted is to routinely be one of the first players on the practice court and one of the last ones off it. [...]
“It’s the extra time you put on the court that pays off down the road,” said George, who also has added 10 pounds of muscle to his lanky 224-pound frame. “I’m ready to take the next step.”
Obviously, Bucks fans would love nothing more than to see Antetokounmpo continually following in George's still-growing-post-draft footsteps by approximating the Pacers forward's jump from intriguing athlete/potential 3-and-D guy to no-brainer max-contract All-NBA game-changer. (Fans of every other team would not enjoy this so much.)
In the meantime, though, they'll just have to settle for this nice side benefit of drafting a not-yet-fully-formed 18-year-old — one who's already surprisingly coordinated and quick for his size, and who's seemed much more adept on an NBA court than just about anyone would have expected from someone who was playing in Greek's second professional division last season — with an awful lot of room to mature and develop. If Antetokounmpo winds up rocketing past 6-foot-10 toward the 7-foot stratosphere, like young/reedy/lanky predecessors George, Kevin Garnett and Kevin Durant, and continues to fill out while maintaining the agility and coordination he's developed thus far, he figures to give Drew and the Bucks a level of versatility in lineup and roster construction that they might not previously have counted on, which could help build the next legitimately competitive iteration of the Bucks.
Drafting such a young high-risk/high-reward prospect in the 2013 draft didn't necessarily seem like it would help the Bucks achieve the franchise goal of continued playoff contention this year, but in a new-CBA/salary cap/luxury tax environment in which hitting on your cost-controlled draft picks is so important — especially for small- to medium-market teams like Milwaukee — locking in young, high-ceiling talent with room to grow matters even more than it did in the past. And if that young talent can actually physically grow enough to require the raising of said ceiling, well, so much the better.
Hat-tip to James Herbert.
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