When the Milwaukee Bucks drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo 15th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft, very few thought stardom was in his future. The lanky teenager from Greece was still referred to by a different name, Giannis Adetokunbo, and was one of the draft’s riskiest prospects.
Yet he has now arrived, starting in his second consecutive All-Star Game Sunday night. From unknown prospect to international celebrity, Antetokounmpo has not only put the Milwaukee Bucks on the map, but shown a glimpse of the road ahead.
Coming into the 2013 NBA Draft, only draft experts and hard-core NBA fans had even heard of the Greek teen, let alone knew enough to bank on such a meteoric rise. The idea that a future star was coming over from Greece was not a popular one.
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix (now with Yahoo! Sports) wrote, “[Antetokounmpo’s] representatives have been telling teams he is a point guard, a position no one thinks he can play.” He was frequently described as “raw” or “a project” or “far away” rather than “a can’t-miss star.”More from Milwaukee Bucks
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It’s not that Antetokounmpo fell, either, with the Bucks finding themselves lucky to find him available at No. 15. In June of 2013, NBA.com put together a consensus mock draft from a variety of mainstream sources. Just one (HoopsWorld) had Giannis in the lottery.
In fact, many mock drafts felt the sweet spot for Antetokounmpo was at 19th, to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In the actual draft the Cavaliers came away with Sergey Karasev, who never made an NBA impact. How might things look today if the Cavaliers had been able to select Giannis Antetokounmpo?
As the majority of the 2013 NBA Draft class fades into back-end rotation minutes, Antetokounmpo is dominating. Each season he has increased his stats across the board, and this year is averaging a career-high 27.8 points per game — second in the entire league behind James Harden.
Whatever metric one wants to use shows Antetokounmpo among the league’s very best. The Greek Freak is top five in boxscore categories such as points, total field goals and free throws, usage and minutes per game, and similarly top five in advanced statistics such as Real Plus-minus, Player Efficiency Rating, offensive win-shares and Value Over Replacement Player.
If Antetokounmpo were only dominating on the court, this would be a story about a great player stuck on a middling team. That’s certainly a large piece of this pie, and the Bucks’ up-and-down season does not do justice to the impact Antetokounmpo has had. But what is truly special is how quickly Giannis Antetokounmpo is become a superstar off the court.
As the league continues to grow in popularity, its stars burn brighter. LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving — the league is bursting with incredibly popular and adored players.
Thus it was a standout feat for Giannis Antetokounmpo — not LeBron, Curry or Durant — to lead all NBA players in All-Star voting after the first returns. Although LeBron James ended up with the most votes by the end of the voting period, Antetokounmpo still finished second in votes, ahead of any of his Western Conference counterparts.
The NBA, more so than Major League Baseball and much more than the NFL, is a global sport. The league’s biggest stars are marketable and accessible, and fans the world over are familiar with LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
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But Giannis Antetokounmpo offers something else, something different. He is not a product of the American basketball system, raised around comparative wealth with AAU circuits and ESPN camera crews. He represents an import, a player raised in another country for whom English is not a first language.
With a name nearly impossible to spell and a distinguishable accent, Antetokounmpo is an international star. One only has to look back a decade to the impact Yao Ming had on the sport as an All-NBA player with international roots. Antetokounmpo could bring in an entirely new wave of fans.
That’s the future. The present is that the Milwaukee Bucks already have a bona fide superstar on their hands. Prior to the All-Star Game last night, Antetokounmpo was the odds-on favorite to win All-Star MVP. While the honors eventually went to LeBron James, the Greek Freak was an integral two-way part of Team Stephen, putting up 16 points and seven rebounds as part of a balanced attack.