A camera caught Stephen Curry counseling Giannis Antetokounmpo shortly before the 2018 All-Star Game in Los Angeles. Antetokounmpo spent most of their interaction nodding his head, absorbing the words of the two-time MVP.
“You should see that every year you get better and you take the next step,” Curry said. “That’s what it’s all about. That right there.” Antetokounmpo responded that he enjoyed watching the Warriors play and they appeared to have fun on the court.
“We say winning is fun, but the way you do it everybody is involved,” Curry said. “Obviously, you lead the charge, but you appreciate what everybody brings to the table. As the leader, that’s what it’s all about.”
A little more than a year later, Antetokounmpo appears to be taking that next step. Two games from their first Finals appearance in nearly half a century, the Bucks, and their blossoming superstar, are on the verge of assuming the Eastern Conference title void left by LeBron James. Should Curry’s Warriors do as most expect and advance to their fifth straights Finals, there likely won’t be any new words of encouragement or the types of highlight-reel assists the two worked on in Charlotte, North Carolina at this year’s All-Star Game.
This season, and postseason, has seen Antetokounmpo transition from athletic marvel to fully formed MVP candidate. It would be easy to ascribe that to a set of physical skills that have opponents debating how many defenders to devote between a transcendental player who can travel from half court to the rim in a single dribble and the rest of his sharpshooting teammates, but it would also be incomplete.
For as much as Antetokounmpo has changed as a player in his six NBA seasons, he has matured just as much as leader for these Bucks.
“There’s a lot of great competitors in this league,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters before the opening of the Eastern Conference Finals. “And then there’s others [where] that competitiveness just is on that next level. It just stands out to you when you talk to [Giannis], when you watch him work and practice. He wants to win. And the great thing about him is I think he’s happy when his teammates succeed. He’s happy when others are playing well.”
Bucks general manager Jon Horst recalled being struck by the way Antetokounmpo and teammate Khris Middleton responded during last season’s team exit meetings following Milwaukee’s first-round playoff loss to Boston.
The teammates immediately pledged to return to work and avoid a similar fate. In the summer, they organized team workouts and shared excursions away from the court.
“He’s done things vocally where when he needs to speak, guys will listen,” Horst said. “He’s been great at bringing the group together at team events or holding different dinners or different events where the guys will get together. Just being someone in practice that brings everyone together. Being jovial and lighthearted at the right time. Being focused and highly competitive at the right time. He’s just adapted and grown, just as his game on the floor has grown and his impact on the floor has grown, I would say his leadership has grown as well.”
Charles Krupa/Associated Press
Middleton explains Antetokounmpo’s style succinctly: “He puts his work in, before practice, after practice. He’s in the weight room all the time. Guys see that. You’ve got one of the best players in the league, here doing that all the time, you’re going to follow.”
Steve Novak spent portions of his final two NBA seasons in Milwaukee before retiring in 2017. He now watches the 24-year-old Antetokounmpo from his perch as a television analyst for the Bucks on Fox Sports Wisconsin.
“The growth and his presence as a leader is completely night and day,” Novak said. “I feel like he was playing for the Bucks when I was on the team with him, and now he is the Bucks. There’s this completely different presence that he has in the last two years that it’s his team. He sets the tone. He talks about his guys.
“When I was with him, I think he was just an incredibly hard worker and had it in him, but I think, in his own mind, he still thought of himself as a youngster.”
For Novak, watching Antetokounmpo stirs memories of playing alongside Dwyane Wade at Marquette. Then, Novak said, the team never felt out of any game no matter the deficit. They were confident Wade would come through with the clutch basket, the key steal, the extra pass—always the right play at the right time. “Those two guys, in my experience, were able to completely dominate the entire game at any time,” Novak said.
Novak thought back to the rare occasions Milwaukee lost throughout the regular season. In a defeat to Indiana, Antetokounmpo had just 12 points. He returned two nights later to pour in 44 points on 14-of-19 shooting against Cleveland. Then there was a loss to Miami, when he went 3-of-12 with nine points. He followed that one up with a 30-point effort in an easy win over the Knicks.
“This team, they lost two games in a row one time, and that is because of the way Giannis has responded when he or the team has played poorly,” Novak said. “I think those performances have been his greatest signs of leadership, that he’s going to will this team and lead this team every time that there needs to be a change or an adjustment.”
Like his Eurostep, Antetokounmpo needed time and guidance to refine that leadership trait.
Jason Terry spent the final two seasons of his 19-year career in Milwaukee with Antetokounmpo. Every day, Antetokounmpo would pepper Terry with questions about how the Mavericks went about winning a championship when Terry played with Dallas.
What kind of workout did you guys do? What did you eat? How much did you sleep? How did you recover?
“That’s what led me to believe that this kid is different,” said Terry, now an analyst with Turner. “He’s different. He really wants to know the answers to the test so when he takes the test, he will be well prepared, and that is very rare when you’re talking about a young superstar in this league. Because a lot of young superstars that I either played with or played against or observed through my years, they’re looking at the stat sheet. Wins and losses really doesn’t matter to them. They want to know how their peers perceive them and did they get their numbers. And that’s just the reality of the situation.”
When Terry arrived in Milwaukee, he witnessed Antetokounmpo leading by example. That style carries for only for so long, Terry believes, until a voice needs to follow the actions. Team accountability spreads that way.
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Terry would tell Antetokounmpo that there would be times throughout the course of a long season that teammates would tire of his voice. Leaders tell teammates what they need to hear, not only the praise they want to receive. Leaders keep their voices heard, and honesty is eventually appreciated.
“Are you sure?” Antetokounmpo replied, according to Terry. “I can say that?”
“He was so wide-eyed and bushy-tailed,” Terry said. “It was just like he felt grateful that a veteran would talk to him and empower him in that way.
It took a little time to find his voice, but experience, and the pain losing in the playoffs can bring, has seen Antetokounmpo become more of a team spokesperson.
Take last season. Expected to challenge Cleveland and LeBron, Milwaukee struggled at times, undergoing a coaching change and finishing as the Eastern Conference’s seventh seed. A Boston team without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward shoved aside Milwaukee in a decisive Game 7 victory, 112-96, in the first round, leaving the franchise and its franchise player trying to figure out what went wrong.
“A lot of the guys in the locker room have never been in Game 7s,” Antetokounmpo said afterward. “It’s a new experience. Now we know now what it takes to win a Game 7. You’ve got to come out, hit first.”
Terry now sees the leadership traits in Antetokounmpo that he spotted in other notable teammates throughout his NBA career: Dirk Nowitzki‘s work ethic, Kevin Garnett‘s competitiveness and James Harden‘s ownership of a franchise.
“[Giannis] would take ownership, and he would be accountable and take accountability in the fact that we didn’t play well and it was on him,” Terry said. “Those are some of the first great signs of a leader. When you do it in the media, guys are listening. They watch, they see what is written or what’s being projected out there on TV But also, having that theme be consistent in the locker room as well. And it was something that, at first, he kind of just wanted to do things by example and not really say much. He would be tight-lipped. But … into that second season I was there, he really started to take ownership of the leadership role, and he realized that this is his franchise.”
Though Nowitzki ostensibly had that title with the Mavericks during Terry’s time with them, Jason Kidd also provided a veteran’s presence that Terry said was crucial on that 2011 championship team.
And it was Kidd, recently named a Lakers assistant, who shaped Antetokounmpo’s early years as the Bucks coach from 2014-18. Early on, he often encouraged Antetokounmpo to explain to teammates how he saw on the court.
“Sometimes as a foreigner—and English is your second language—it sometimes can be nerve-wracking to speak or say something because a teammate could not understand you, so to put yourself out there was something that we tried to do right off the bat, but you could see that he was maybe nervous to say something and also felt like maybe it’s not his place to say anything,” Kidd said. “He had to earn that. So that’s what made the situation special, too—that he wanted to play, but we also wanted him to talk. Because if he talks and understands what he’s seeing and shares with his teammates, it just makes the game that much easier for everybody.”
Kidd cited Antetokounmpo’s ability to play every position as paramount for his understanding of the needs of all of his teammates.
“When we gave him the ball the first time, he wasn’t ready,” Kidd said. “We talked about it, but the thing that makes him special is when we came back the second time, he was ready and you could see it in his growth and the aspect of the game where he was starting to connect the dots. His study, his work ethic was at a very high level, and it paid off. But those are kind of the things [you need] when you talk about someone wanting to be good or great. He wants to be great, and so he wanted to understand every aspect of the game.”
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He’s also come to understand and embrace the demands of the position.
“It’s not easy, it’s hard,” Antetokounmpo said to reporters after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. “You’ve got to be able to lead every single day. Even though you play bad, you play well … the team has to know that you’re going to come out the next day and still lead them. … But I’ve had people in my career who have helped me with that—veterans, coaches. At the end of the day, that’s my job, and I’m going to keep doing it, win or lose, play bad or play well. That’s what I do.”
Today, few players are as synonymous with an organization as Antetokounmpo is with the Bucks. Milwaukee drafted him in 2013 after he grew up in the Athens neighborhood of Sepolia. He and his brother Thanasis would rotate through the same pair of basketball shoes. They sometimes skipped practices, according to a New York Times story by Ken Maguire, to sell watches, bags and sunglasses to buy food. Oftentimes, they missed out on both.
Antetokounmpo arrived in Milwaukee at 6’9″ and less than 200 pounds.
“He was light as a feather, and because he had such long legs, he couldn’t brace himself, so he knew he had to get stronger,” said Jim Cleamons, an assistant coach during Antetokounmpo’s rookie season.
John Hammond, the general manager who drafted Antetokounmpo, described him as obsessed with hitting the weight room.
“Then, of course, the court [progress] followed that,” said Hammond, now Orlando‘s GM. “He was basically never, ever out of that practice facility. In there almost 24/7, and with a combination of strength training and skill training, it was immediate. That’s when you looked at him and thought: Uh-oh. Wow. If he’s this, what could he be?“
“If you think about it, very seldom is your best player not your hardest worker,” Hammond added. “Those usually go hand in hand. The other real parallel there is that when your best player is also your best person, then you have something special. I think Giannis is a guy that obviously fits in that category as well. Not only a great player, but truly a great young man.”
He chuckled at the little moments he witnessed being introduced to a foreign teenager who would eventually come to take on the NBA.
“He had the little high-pitched voice,” Cleamons said. “He hadn’t started to mature, and he’d get upset and he’d sound kind of squirrelish, but once again, he did know English. So, he’s a versatile kid.
“[When] he learned how to drive, that was really fun. They got him an American driver’s license. In Greece, I think they drive on the other side, and the seat had to be back almost in the passenger’s lap because he got those long-ass legs.”
The coaching staff would repeatedly tell Antetokounmpo not to become Americanized.
“That means thinking that success comes before hard work,” Cleamons said. “He had to understand, and he heard enough that first year that he had to put his work in. If he wanted the things that he wanted, it wasn’t just going to be show up and voila, wave the magic wand, and he was going to get what he wanted. He accepted that.
“He heard from everybody on the staff, and he started to see the residuals of his work—coming early, staying late, he saw his game grow. … He’s dedicated. He’s got a good sense of who he is and how he wants to be good and he’s going to be even better.”
Aaron Gash/Associated Press
Almost as important for the Bucks, he’s transferred that sense of purpose to his teammates. That Milwaukee was the only team to win 60 games this season was no accident given Antetokounmpo’s dominant play and, to hear his teammates tell it, the insatiable motivation he instills in the locker room.
“He has that motor and that will to win,” George Hill said. “He wants to win in everything he does—if we’re playing shooting games, if we’re playing kickball, if we’re playing flag football or whatever we’re playing. … And I think that trickles down to every other guy on this team. Whether K-Midd, Bled [Eric Bledsoe], like Sterling [Brown], like Brook [Lopez]. All of us are so competitive in everything we do—from doing anything on the plane, to doing anything in the gym, to free-throw games.”
Sounds like Curry’s advice was taken to heart.
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.
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