As Giannis Antetokounmpo read the defense at the top of the lane, towering over his defender, John Hammond couldn’t help but think of another tall, dynamic ball-handler.
The Milwaukee Bucks general manager often resists making comparisons. But in that one moment, the way that the 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo handled the ball and surveyed the court reminded the longtime NBA executive of Hall of Famer Magic Johnson.
High praise, for sure, but Antetokounmpo is quickly developing his own unique reputation. The do-it-all franchise cornerstone has blossomed into an NBA All-Star nearly a year after becoming the primary ball-handler for the Bucks.
“You watch him handle it and see him looking over the top with that size. That’s kind of what Magic did,” Hammond said. “Magic laid on top with the ball, and one of his unique abilities was he was so much bigger and could see over the top of the defense.”
It was last February when coach Jason Kidd assigned Antetokounmpo to take over as the Bucks’ primary playmaker.
“It takes people a while to emerge,” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said earlier this season. “He’s still a very young man and learning a lot about what he can add to his game and that’s what he’s doing.”
Antetokounmpo has been a fan favorite as much for his upbeat personality as his rim-rocking dunks. But the Bucks have hit a rough patch, 2-8 in their last 10 games, following a 112-108 loss in overtime on Saturday at home to Boston.
“Were taking a step forward toward the right direction,” Antetokounmpo said. “We got back into the game, but we weren’t mature enough to close it out.”
He’s come a long way from the gangly and awkward 18-year-old rookie who arrived in Milwaukee nearly four years ago.
Hammond scouted Antetokounmpo in the player’s native Greece before drafting him in the first round in 2013 with the 15th overall pick. His talent was raw, though passing ability was one of the skills that stood out, Hammond has said.
Antetokounmpo showed flashes of potential over much of his first two-plus seasons in the league. Freakish athleticism and a 7-foot-3 wingspan made him a tough matchup on both ends of the floor.
Kidd made a subtle change following the NBA All-Star break last season, making Antetokounmpo the primary ball-handler. He recorded his first triple-double on Feb. 22 against the Los Angeles Lakers in soon-to-retire store Kobe Bryant’s last game at the Bradley Center, then added four more triple-doubles before the end of that season.
No longer was Antetokounmpo known outside of Milwaukee mainly for his hard-to-spell last name (pronounced ah-deh-toh-KOON’-boh).
The most imposing part of Antetokounmpos game is the ability to get to the rim, seemingly gliding with long, effortless steps in the lane and thunderous finishes. He can throw the behind-the-back pass. He has vision to thread balls in traffic to open teammates under the basket.
The perimeter game is picking up, too. At one point in Antetokounmpos career, Kidd urged the forward to forego taking 3s. Antetokounmpo shot 34 percent from behind the arc in his rookie season, then slipped to a paltry 16 percent the following season.
His 3-point shooting improved to 25 percent in 2015-16, and the percentage has inched up to 28 percent this season. Overall, Antetokounmpo is shooting 33 percent on jump shots so far this season, up from 29 percent last season, according to the Basketball Reference website .
“There was always this sort of reckless abandon that he attacked the game with. I think that it’s becoming more polished, more sophisticated. All of us will probably point to the growth of his perimeter game,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said.
In Kidd, Antetokounmpo has a mentor who filled the stat sheet during his own playing days. A 6-foot-4 point guard, Kidd’s 107 career triple-doubles are third most in league history behind just Johnson (138) and Oscar Robertson (181), who played four seasons in Milwaukee.
Antetokounmpo has “a great coach in Jason that navigated how you be elite, like Jason was, without a 3-point shot in the early stages of Jason’s career. There are other ways you can impact the game,” Brown said. “What he has now is a touch more sophisticated, a touch more polished.”
The emergence is a boon for an up-and-coming franchise moving into a new downtown arena in two seasons.
He is the team’s first All-Star since Michael Redd in 2004, and the first starter since Sidney Moncrief in 1986. Antetokounmpo had the 14th most popular jersey in the league, the NBA said this month, the first Bucks player to rank that high since Gary Payton in 2003.
Antetokounmpo is handling increased notoriety the way he has spent much of his time in Milwaukee before he became an All-Star – working out in the gym.
“I might be one of the best players, but the thing I say to myself is, ‘Even if I’m there, I’m not there’,” he said. “I’m just trying to get better.”