After hearing that Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant described him as an "unbelievable" talent, Milwaukee Bucks phenom Giannis Antetokounmpo expressed shock on Monday afternoon that the future Hall of Famer, who was about to play his final game in Wisconsin before retiring at the end of this season, even knew who he was. Well, even if the Black Mamba hadn't been aware of the Greek Freak's work before Monday, he damn sure would've been by the end of an evening that saw the 21-year-old showcase the wide variety of gifts that makes him one of the league's most tantalizing young players.
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The 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo opened the game as the Bucks' starting point guard and operated on the ball early, often and to great effect on Monday, scoring 27 points on 12-for-17 shooting with 12 rebounds and 10 assists against just one turnover in 42 minutes of work as he led Milwaukee to a 108-101 win over the visiting Lakers. It marked the first triple-double of Antetokounmpo's three-year NBA career — he was briefly credited with one in Milwaukee's December streak-snapping victory over the Golden State Warriors before two of his assists were retroactively awarded to Michael Carter-Williams — and his fourth straight double-double for the Bucks, who have now won four of their last five to improve to 24-33 on the season. Antetokounmpo, who also notched four blocks and three steals in his command performance, now has 11 double-doubles on the season, one more than he managed all of last year. (It's still February.)
It's unlikely that this recent run of form will spark enough of a turnaround for the Bucks — who now sit six games back of the East's No. 8 seed with 25 games remaining, with the Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards and Orlando Magic all ahead of them in the standings — to make the return trip to the postseason for which many had hoped back at the start of this season. Even so, the continued growth in Antetokounmpo's game offers quite a silver lining to a disappointing season.
Throughout the year, we've seen him work on expanding his playmaking game from his familiar frontcourt position, grabbing rebounds, pushing the ball in transition and looking to use his county-clearing stride to beat opponents down the floor for fast-break buckets. We saw some of that on Monday, with Antetokounmpo whipping cross-court bullets for open corner 3s:
... and threading the needle with in-stride bounce-pass dimes for layups:
Where we're seeing even greater growth, though, is in Giannis' half-court playmaking — the short-roll drive-and-pass that created an open corner jumper for Khris Middleton and an alley-oop finish for Greg Monroe, the drive-and-dump-off for a short Miles Plumlee hook, the on-time delivery from the block to hit Monroe as he curled into the paint for a bunny. Granted, any evaluation of Antetokounmpo's work as a lead guard has to be balanced by the reality that he was facing a Lakers team that boasts the league's worst defense, has lost six straight and 16 of its last 18, and owns the West's worst record at 11-47. But the poise, patience and touch on display Monday tracked with what we've seen in some of his better outings throughout the season.
It also suggested that — in stretches, at least — Point Giannis might give Jason Kidd the best chance of getting his Bucks back to havoc-wreaking. The Bucks' starting lineup Tuesday — Giannis on the ball, Middleton and O.J. Mayo on the wing, Plumlee and Jabari Parker up front — outscored the Lakers by 14 points in 13 minutes of shared floor time to open the first and third quarters, staking Milwaukee to an early lead and pushing the advantage to 20 points in the third before L.A. eventually got within three possessions in garbage time. Kidd's only begun going to that group recently, and it's logged just 52 minutes of shared floor time on the season, but it has outscored its opposition by 19 points in that span — a promising start that, combined with the moves of prized free-agent signing Monroe and former top point guard Michael Carter-Williams to the bench, has seemed to bolster Milwaukee's depth and put a charge into one of this season's more disappointing teams.
Watching Antetokounmpo gallop all over the court, soaring for slams and picking out passes, you understand why Kidd recently referred to him and Parker (who kicked in 15 points, nine rebounds, four assists, a steal and a block in 36 minutes) as "vault guys," the kind of blue-chip prospects about whom you don't start trade conversations. Giannis is now averaging 16.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals per game, while shooting 50.7 percent from the field. The list of players checking off those boxes this year includes four All-Stars (Kevin Durant, Paul Millsap, Pau Gasol and DeMarcus Cousins), one big man with fringe-All-Star-consideration numbers (Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic) and Giannis. The list of players who have produced those sorts of numbers by their age-21 seasons is short, distinguished, full of multiple-time All-Stars, future Hall of Famers, and some of the most multifaceted talents the game's seen over the years.
He's not there yet, but each passing night — and with each pass-first game — Giannis gets closer to either reaching the vaulted ceiling of his game or obliterating the notion that one even exists.
Antetokounmpo earned a sign of respect from Bryant (who finished with 15 points on 3-for-12 shooting, five rebounds, two assists and a steal in 24 1/2 minutes) after his career-best outing:
— Frank Madden (@brewhoop) February 23, 2016
... as well as a postgame audience/mentoring session with the future Hall of Famer:
— Matt Velazquez (@Matt_Velazquez) February 23, 2016
Those real-recognize-real moments might've seemed unreal to Antetokounmpo before the game, but as he showed Monday, he's earning that sort of recognition — and then some — as he continues to evolve and develop, with no end in sight and seemingly limitless possibility ahead of him.
Giannis on Kobe saying the Freak doesn't know how much talent he has: "I don't know yet. That's why I have to keep working every day."
— cfgardner (@cf_gardner) February 22, 2016
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