We … we have trouble pronouncing it too.
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That shouldn’t be the case. It’s a five-beat last name, not unlike “Dellavedova.” It’s one more syllable than “Carter-Williams.” Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2013 NBA arrival was ballyhooed as much for the length of his name as it was the presence of his promising game, and because of this some fans, league personnel and especially media developed a fearful block as a result. Had the “you’re not going to be able to swiftly say this kid’s name”-narrative not taken hold, “Antetokounmpo” would be rolling off of our tongue. Because of those warnings, though, we psych ourselves into giving the guy the full Johnny Most treatment.
This is why Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd, only half-jokingly, credits his NBA-unorthodox name for Antetokounmpo’s inability to crack the sort of all-world fawning that a player of his caliber should receive:
Kidd was asked why Antetokounmpo is not getting more recognition around the league. "It's hard to pronounce," Kidd said.
— cfgardner (@cf_gardner) November 27, 2016
The Bucks point-center is averaging a team-leading 22 points, 8.3 rebounds, and six assists. His 1.9 steals and 2.1 blocks per game also lead the team by a wide, wide margin. His do-everything play is the biggest reason why the Bucks – who admittedly have played quite a bit at home and against a soft schedule – will enter Tuesday’s matchup with the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers with a chance to move up to a .500 record after 16 games.
The mispronunciation corollary is already in place. Earlier in the 2016-17 season Ben Rohrbach detailed President Barack Obama’s frustrations with getting “ah-deh-toh-KOON-boh” out …
… a move that likely stemmed from Obama choosing the “Chicago telecast” option too often when scrolling through Bulls games on NBA League Pass:
Of course, this may have less to do with Giannis’ syllable heft than it does the fact that, for so long, NBA observers have proven to have ongoing trouble pronouncing the word “Milwaukee.” In spite of Mr. Furnier’s help:
Milwaukee isn’t Basketball Hell, as Sacramento grabbed too strong a cinch-hold on that designation years ago. The Bucks have had their struggles since the 1980s, though, making it out of the first round just once since 1989 following a stint of Eastern Conference success that was, as things shall forever be with the Bucks, too often overlooked. It’s stature as a strong combatant for championship teams out of Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit was dismissed in ways that couldn’t be chalked up to “Bird,” “Malone,” or “Thomas” being easier to pronounce than “Moncrief.” Or “Mokeski.”
The same ideal hit briefly in the 1990s, when for a year or so Vin Baker (when the press tired of the same Mitch Richmond column) was repeatedly tagged by some national press as the NBA’s Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of; and nothing is easier to pronounce than “Vin” and “Baker.” That run was lost in Sept. 1998 when Baker was sent off to what became an exile in Seattle, and the Bucks’ run to the seventh game of the Eastern finals in 2001 stands as the team’s high point in the decades since the title the franchise won with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson in the lead.
That 1971 run came in just the franchise’s third year of existence. Since then, the team has lived in near-obscurity due as much to the franchise’s poor planning and front office work as it has its location and Bradley Center headcount.
Giannis is supposed to change this, and though we’re trying to aim the light in MKE’s direction …
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) November 22, 2016
… it isn’t easy due to Milwaukee’s image as a project-first, and team-second.
This isn’t because the squad eschews the idea of a typical center, far from it. Teams have been starting John Henson-types in the middle for ages, and though the thought of a highly-paid low post scorer acting as a sixth man isn’t new – 2015 free agent signee Greg Monroe fills that roll ‘round ‘ere – it isn’t exactly orthodox.
Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker count as the team’s only double-digit scorers, working for a squad that ranks 18th in offensive efficiency thus far. The team pairs the aforementioned “Dellavedova” in the backcourt alongside 2016 Mannequin Challenge winner Tony Snell. Henson (5.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.2 blocks in 18 minutes) gets the start at center after a Miles Plumlee cameo because (if this year’s team stats count as anything) Greg Monroe must have done something mean to one of Jason Kidd’s pets at some point over the summer, and the team still heavily relies on Jason Terry and his 35.5 percent shooting. Michael Beasley, at times, has to be “important.”
What Milwaukee does have is Giannis. Turning terrible transition spacing into loping fast break buckets with just an inside-out dribble and/or slight pivot. Turning broken plays into streaking jams in the half-court with just a lope and a half. Doing everything at once yet (more on this later) making you feel as if we’ve only pulled a few trinkets out of the treasure chest.
Here’s some of the man’s work from his near-5X5 performance against Orlando from last Monday:
The caveats remain the same. He can’t really shoot outside of five feet. His turnover rate remains Russell Westbrook-sized (that is to say, a bit much despite all the other accomplishments), Giannis (who led the league in fouls last season) is foul-prone early in games, and he’s missed 26 of 32 three-pointers on the season. And, as was the case with forbearers like Scottie Pippen and Andrei Kirilenko, one just gets the feeling that the contributions aren’t enough. As if we’re settling for 22-8-6 with four combined blocks/steals instead of something altogether sillier.
Charley Rosen, forever finding holes, has this to add:
His slight body makes it difficult for him to set solid screens. The two he did manage came on dribble hand-offs when he (illegally) turned into the screenee.
Antetokounmpo tried to profit by his considerable height advantage by occasionally taking an opponent into the low post. Even so, his high center of gravity made establishing optimum position very difficult, forcing Antetokounmpo to use his arms and elbows to try to set himself up in the pivot. In any case, he never received the ball down there.
He never seems to receive the ball anywhere, despite his ubiquity, moving in spurts in spite of Kidd’s clear (and, unfortunately unsuccessful) attempts at proving that this isn’t just thought of on the fly. There is design to Antetokounmpo’s movements within the Buck offense, lacking though it may be, but the Bit Of Everything Buffet has some wondering if the Bucks wouldn’t be better off just enjoying a singular, normal-sized, meal.
His shot and his lack of strength are Antetokounmpo’s most significant shortcomings. But will long offseason sessions in the weight room compromise his speed and quickness?
It’s encouraging that his free throw shooting has so profoundly improved. Accordingly, there’s some hope that he’ll develop at least a semi-accurate mid-range jumper.
If that does happen, Antetokounmpo will certainly evolve into an authentic franchise player. Until then, he remains an exciting, electric talent, but still a freak nevertheless.
It is all a big, goofy, mix; and you’d be understood in refusing to commit to its selling points even after acknowledging the appeal. This isn’t some work in progress, an inchoate plan of perfection run by parts and positions we’ve seen before – something along the lines of Minnesota’s growing pains under Tom Thibodeau.
No, the Bucks are thriving when Giannis plays ostensible center, with decades of NBA orthodoxy yelling at us about how you can’t rely on this sort of thing for long stretches: Magic Johnson only famously played the position for one night, and even he had big ol’ Jim Chones next to him to help bang. Scottie Pippen was Chicago’s championship point guard, but he had an assist/turnover ratio king and three-point threat in John Paxson working alongside him. Giannis’ helpers in this stable don’t seem fit for the task, just yet.
Why can’t Antetokounmpo pull it off, though? What is destructive basketball if it isn’t an ingenious solution to a problem that should have never existed in the first place? If Giannis can score and defend around the rim while providing relief in transition as both a passer and scorer, why can’t this keep up? Why fret when there is so little to fear?
“I know this sounds crazy, given all of the attention he got late last season and over the summer when he signed that big deal. But the entire league is sleeping on this kid. And I’ll admit it, I was skeptical on his shift to ‘point guard.’ That said, he’s playing like an All-Star and it seems like no one is talking about him. I don’t know if it’s the fact that the [Bucks] has gotten off to an uneven start or what.
“The only thing holding him back a bit right now is the fact that he’s not a knockdown shooter from distance. He has to keep working to be effective there … because when he finally gets that part of his game together, he’s going to be off the charts. You’re talking about a guy with Anthony Davis’ size and athleticism. He could be scary good.”
Well, no, he is “scary good” right now.
Also, whatever happened to just saying “frighteningly good?” Too many syllables, again?
We’re just too fearful, nodding at Milwaukee’s underwhelming team performance thus far, to equate that personal success with anything lasting. The sub-.500 run and typical Milwaukee haze – Brian Windhorst recently pointed out that he was shot down by ESPN after suggesting an Antetokounmpo segment for SportsCenter recently – allow for us to remain dubious in spite of that cut and finish that Giannis just gave us.
The pronunciation provides a block that some may never get past. Jason Kidd’s pithy comment can’t help but peel back a few layers. The Milwaukee Bucks are completely without precedent, and sometimes “completely without precedent” doesn’t provide legendary status or a gig as the NBA’s cool new swing – sometimes it only guarantees a 7-8 record, and the League Pass or in-person gaiety isn’t always assured.
We should be talking about this guy more often, though. Giannis Antetokounmpo is approaching the game in a way that we haven’t seen before. What’s also worth discussing is why we’re so quick to overlook it, as a reflex.
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