The Incredible Transformation of the Greek Freak

By Connor Pignatello

When Giannis Antetokounmpo was drafted fifteenth overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2013 NBA Draft, he had never been to America and barely spoke a word of English. He was a lanky 18-year-old kid who measured at 6’9” and 196 pounds. Now, just four years later, Antetokounmpo is a 6’11”, 222 pound beast who can pass like a guard, score like a forward, and defend like a center. This past season, the Greek Freak started the All-Star game, was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player, and became the embodiment of the NBA’s future.

However, Giannis didn’t get to this point without hard work. After Bucks losses or bad games, Antetokounmpo drives to a gym in full uniform and works on his game until the wee hours of the night, sometimes until 3 AM. He is one of the hardest-working players in the league, a trait he learned as a kid in Greece with undocumented parents, tight money, and a yearning to play basketball, the game he loved.

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To truly understand how Giannis broke out and wreaked havoc in the NBA last year, we must go back to the year 1991.

That year, Antetokounmpo’s parents moved from Nigeria to Greece in an attempt to start a better life in Europe. It was in Greece that Giannis’ older brother Thanasis, and younger brothers Kostas and Alex, were born.

Charles and Veronica Antetokounmpo were undocumented immigrants, with kids who did not have Nigerian nor Greek papers. This meant that any day, the authorities could knock on the family’s door and deport them back to Nigeria.

This incentivized the Antetokounmpo kids to trust no one, behave themselves, and keep quiet. In a January interview with Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, Antetokounmpo said that when he first arrived in Milwaukee he feared that somebody would wake him from his dream, send him home, and “take it all away from me”.

Giannis’ parents struggled to find work in Greece, and the Antetokounmpos were very tight on money. When they were kids, Giannis and his older brother Thanasis would sell sunglasses, handbags, and watches to earn money for the family. If they didn’t make any money on a particular day, the family might not eat dinner that night. Giannis gained his tireless work ethic from those nights as a kid in Greece.

When he was 12, Giannis picked up a basketball and began training, molding his lanky frame into the body of an athlete. He loved basketball, because he saw that the amount of time he spent working on his game was directly correlated to his performance. He couldn’t control whether the tourists bought his trinkets, but he could control his own destiny on the basketball court.

He started playing for a neighborhood club in Athens, with one pair of shoes for him and his brother to share. But quickly his natural talent was noticed, and he earned a contract with a Greek second-division team, Filathlitikos, in 2012.

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Giannis played for Filathlitikos for just one season before he was taken fifteenth overall in the 2013 NBA Draft. Even though he was expected to go in the mid-to-late teens of the draft, the Bucks received criticism for their selection. This was understandable, as Antetokounmpo was a relative unknown. As much as his physical tools projected success at the NBA level, he had never played against competition in the same stratosphere as the NBA.

Antetokounmpo had a rough rookie season, which was reasonable seeing as it was the 19-year-old’s first time in the United States. He averaged just 6.8 points per game, and was mostly an afterthought. Despite flashes of brilliance — a putback dunk here, a eurostep there — he had just as many moments where he seemed lost and the game looked too fast for him. The Bucks finished with the worst record in the NBA that year, but Antetokounmpo made strides as the year went on.

In Antetokounmpo’s second year, he improved his stats in all five major statistical categories and boosted his scoring to 12.8 points per game. He was a primary starter for a Bucks team that improved to .500 and made the playoffs as the sixth seed. Antetokounmpo got his first taste of playoff action, but he played horribly and shot just 37% for the series. He also got ejected in Game 6 of the first round for bodychecking Mike Dunleavy into the stands, and the Bucks were eliminated after losing by 54 points on their home court.

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After that playoff embarrassment,  Antetokounmpo returned in 2016 with a vengeance. The Bucks missed the playoffs, but a post-All-Star-break experiment by Head Coach Jason Kidd changed Antetokounmpo’s fortunes. Kidd experimented with the Greek Freak at point guard, and it was a magnificent success. Antetokounmpo improved his stats in all five major categories for the second straight year, and after the All-Star break he averaged 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 7.2 assists, while recording 5 triple-doubles.

This past season, Antetokounmpo broke out, showing that his 2016 second-half was not a fluke. He established career-highs in all five major statistical categories for the third straight season, and led the Bucks in each category, becoming just the fifth player to accomplish that feat. Antetokounmpo piloted his team to the playoffs, even though his two sidekicks, Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker, played exactly one game together due to injury. The Greek Freak also became the first player in NBA history to finish in the top 20 in all five statistical categories, an incredible accomplishment.

This past season, Antetokounmpo broke out, showing that his 2016 second-half was not a fluke. He established career-highs in all five major statistical categories for the third straight season, and led the Bucks in each category, becoming just the fifth player to accomplish that feat. Antetokounmpo piloted his team to the playoffs, even though his two sidekicks, Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker, played exactly one game together due to injury. The Greek Freak also became the first player in NBA history to finish in the top 20 in all five statistical categories, an incredible accomplishment.

Antetokounmpo finished the season averaging 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.9 blocks this year; a truly remarkable stat line.

All of these accolades earned him spots on the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams, and he was voted the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

Antetokounmpo’s past drives him to improve every day, and as his late-nights as a street-vendor in Athens have turned into late-night workouts in Milwaukee, he has maintained his indefatigable march toward greatness.

Thanks to Basketball Reference for these helpful stats and Sports Illustrated for their article on Antetokounmpo.

Thanks also to Wikimedia Commons for the picture of Antetokounmpo playing against the Cavaliers

By Erik Drost (Giannis Antetokoummpo) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Connor

I'm a high school student who really enjoys writing about sports. I write about baseball, football, basketball, and soccer. Sports writing is incredibly fun for me and it's what I want to do later in my life. P.S: I announce each of my articles on twitter and facebook (@tfcpblog for both) and post my articles on SB Nation and Fangraphs as well as this site.

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