Two hours into a recent morning shootaround and new Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer was ready to go. Several players had already headed to the team bus and Budenholzer — with work to do to prepare for a preseason matchup with Oklahoma City — was pushing the rest of the team in that direction. On one end of the floor, a sweat-soaked Giannis Antetokounmpo was running through drills with Khris Middleton and Christian Wood.
“Giannis, how many more spots do you have left?” Budenholzer asked.
Antetokounmpo pointed to several areas of the floor.
Budenholzer nodded. A few minutes later, he headed down the tunnel. The first bus would leave. The Giannis bus would come back.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is 23, a two-time All-Star, arguably the NBA’s top young talent and now he has something else working for him: one of the NBA’s best coaches. Budenholzer’s five-year run in Atlanta ended with a lackluster 24-win season last spring, but the 2015 NBA Coach of the Year remains universally respected as one of the league’s top tacticians. His space-fueled, pick-and-roll-heavy offense helped the Hawks win 60 games in 2014-15, propelling a superstar-less Atlanta team into the conference finals.
Budenholzer has a superstar now in Antetokounmpo, a uniquely gifted, stringy, 6-foot-11 monster to mold. And while Budenholzer is reluctant to dive too deep into the relationship, he says Antetokounmpo’s mental makeup is comparable to what he saw in some of the great players in San Antonio and Atlanta.
“We’re just getting to know each other, but my first impression of him is that he is very much like those guys mentally,” Budenholzer told Yahoo Sports. “His approach to the game, his desire to be great, his competitive spirit, the way he treats his teammates. I’m beyond impressed with how he stacks up. His characteristics stand out to me.”
So what does Budenholzer do with a super-skilled big man driven by a desire to be great? Give him room to operate, for starters. “It was always amazing how he could get through the smallest cracks,” Budenholzer said. “No matter how hard you tried to keep him from getting to the basket, he just found ways to get there. When you make an emphasis to take away something and great players still get it, that’s why they are great.”
To widen those cracks, the Bucks drafted Donte DiVincenzo, a 40 percent 3-point shooter in his last year at Villanova. They signed Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez, floor spacing big men who are comfortable beyond the 3-point line. They added ex-Blazers wing Pat Connaughton to the mix.
The additions, Antetokounmpo says, have stoked his confidence as a playmaker.
“Every pass feels like the right pass now,” Antetokounmpo said. “Previously, sometimes I feel like when I threw it to a big guy, it didn’t feel right. I trust my teammates, but sometimes you feel … like, if you have John Henson in the corner and Khris on the wing, you have to throw it to Khris. But this year if you have Pat in the corner and Donte on the wing, both passes are right … it’s easy now.”
In Atlanta, Al Horford thrived as a pick-and-roll screen/roller. Antetokounmpo will slip into that role, as well as causing matchup mayhem as the ball-handler spinning off screens set by Lopez, Ilyasova and even Middleton. Antetokounmpo says he wants to improve as a post player (“He has a chance to be the best post player in the league,” Lopez said), while continuing to terrorize opponents in the open floor. Budenholzer admits he hasn’t fully fleshed out everything he wants to do with Antetokounmpo, but says, “We’re not going to make him a traditional player.”
Where Antetokounmpo wants to be traditional is from beyond the 3-point line. Defensive strategies against Antetokounmpo last season were some variation of “make him shoot.” “Everybody played three feet away from me,” Antetokounmpo said. A career 28.4 percent 3-point shooter, Antetokounmpo connected on 30.7 percent of his threes last season, while attempting a shade under two per game.
“I had confidence, but I wasn’t comfortable,” Antetokounmpo said. “I had Jason Kidd [coaching me] in the past. My second year, he told me not to shoot the ball. My third year, at the end he told me to shoot a little bit. In my fourth year he let me shoot it and in my fifth year he told me I had the green light. But I wasn’t comfortable enough.
“It’s hard. When you are not shooting the ball, it’s hard to get it back. Mike Bud came to the team, he said, ‘I need you to shoot the ball.’ He said, ‘I don’t care if you miss it, make it, hit the backboard, shoot the ball.’ It’s weird. But that’s extra motivation. I want to work hard on my three and that’s going to make me a better player a year from now, two years from now. When I’m able to do what I do, get to the paint, get to the free-throw line and then shoot the open three, it’s going to make me a better player.”
Said Budenholzer: “I want him to be great. I don’t think we’re going to snap our fingers and he is going to be Ray Allen or Chris Mullin. But I think he has certainly got a lot of confidence. He has spent a lot of time working on it. Hopefully, right out of the gate, he’s confident taking threes. In an ideal world he’s making them. But it’s more important to me that he is taking them and shooting them with a lot of confidence. If he is, there is no doubt he is going to reap the benefits from it.”
To help Antetokounmpo, Budenholzer brought in Ben Sullivan, a former assistant in Atlanta and a shooting coach who studied under Chip Engelland — widely regarded as one of the league’s premier shot doctors — in San Antonio. Budenholzer says the two have made some minor mechanical tweaks.
“He told me from Day One, he wants to be pushed,” Budenholzer said. “That’s music to a coach’s ears. He’s also open to doing things a little different, trying new things. He’s been great.”
A strong connection between Antetokounmpo and Budenholzer won’t guarantee a deep playoff run. The Bucks need to bolster a leaky defense (No. 19 in the NBA last season) and get significant steps forward from their collection of young talent (Malcolm Brogdon, Thon Maker, Tony Snell and Sterling Brown) to contend in a top-heavy conference.
But the team with the best player on the floor often wins close games, and the Bucks will regularly have the best one in Antetokounmpo, an early MVP candidate. After a preseason win over Minnesota, Antetokounmpo went to Budenholzer. His message: I need to play more. To most, Antetokounmpo is one of the NBA’s best conditioned athletes. To Antetokounmpo, it can be better. After years of going against LeBron James and Kevin Durant — two-way superstars who shoulder enormous team responsibilities — Antetokounmpo says there is a level of conditioning that needs to be achieved to play like them. And he is not quite there yet.
“I have to build my confidence,” Antetokounmpo says. “I know I can get to the basket whenever I want. I have to be able to create some plays, some easy plays. Sometimes I’m wide open, and I just have to shoot it. Because with the offense we have this year, there are going to be a lot of open shots.”
And when he sees those open shots?
“This year? I’m shooting,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’ve worked so much this summer on it, and day by day I get more comfortable. I’m going to shoot more shots and hopefully I make more. If I don’t, there’s another year coming and hopefully next year I can be better and better and better and better and better. Eventually, it’s going to come.”
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