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Bucks excited over Antetokounmpo’s flashes of potential

John Henson is only one season removed from the eye-opening experience of being a rookie in the National Basketball Association.

With the memories of his own NBA introduction still fresh in his mind, Henson peers across the room at Milwaukee Bucks teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is following in his footsteps at the tender age of 19.

The 22-year-old Henson smiles and shakes his head in admiration of the NBA’s youngest current player.

“I’m amazed,” Henson said. “He’s growing up before our eyes, really. He comes in every day and gets more and more comfortable with everybody. He’s playing well in the minutes he gets. That’s all you can ask for from a guy was 18 years old when the season started.  

“I was moving into a college dorm when I was 18. College is a challenge in itself, but you have people around who can help you. He’s by himself, pretty much. It’s got to be tough.”

The Bucks teammate who can best relate to the challenges facing Antetokounmpo is Ersan Ilyasova.

Seven years ago, the Bucks drafted Ilyasova when he was 18 years old. He participated in preseason camp with the team before being assigned to the Tulsa 66ers of the National Basketball Development League, where he not only strengthened his body and sharpened his skills, but learned the English language and the nuances of living in the United States.

“I remember what a tough time it was for me,” Ilyasova said. “I came in at the same age as Giannis, 18, but I knew basically no English. I could say words like, ‘Hi,’ but not much more. I always needed help getting around. My agent was with me 24/7 so he could help me out. It was real tough to adjust to learning English. As you go through the process, it’s not easy. There are a lot of other things to learn at the same time, too.”

Ilyasova has seen Antetokounmpo encounter different hurdles than the ones he faced as a newcomer to the NBA and the USA.

“Giannis speaks more English than I did, but I had been playing professionally for a couple of years before I got to the NBA,” Ilyasova said. “He had only played in the second division (in Europe), so he’s in a much different position here.

“When you make a goal for yourself, you have to be consistent. In order to get time in this league, you have to bring something. Giannis is so young. He has several processes to go through just to play basketball. He obviously was playing overseas, but this is a much different level.”

That being said, the 6-foot-9-inch, 210-pound Antetokounmpo has impressed Ilyasova with the way he has seized his opportunities. He appeared in 20 of the Bucks’ first 25 games, averaging 6.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.1 assist in 18.2 minutes per outing. His 14 blocked shots ranked third on the team.

He scored in double figures for the first time as an NBA player on Nov. 12, totaling 11 points against none other than the two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat.

He blocked at least one shot in six consecutive games.

He achieved NBA career highs with 15 points and eight rebounds Dec. 11 against the San Antonio Spurs and their three future Hall-of-Famers.

He made his first NBA start against the New York Knicks on Dec. 18 and played a career-high 41 minutes, collecting 10 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals and helped limit Carmelo Anthony to nine field goals in 29 attempts.

“He’s a talented guy and he’s very athletic,” Ilyasova said of Antetokounmpo, a native of Athens, Greece, who played 10 games for Greece’s U20 National Team during the European Championships earlier this year. “If he keeps working hard like he has so far, he’s going to be a great player.”

The start to Antetokounmpo’s NBA career is what Bucks General Manager John Hammond had in mind when the team selected him with the 15th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.

“I want people to see him make a play where, when they see a kid 19 years old on the floor doing what he’s doing, they’re going to say, ‘I’ve got it. I can see it. I can see what he can be,’” Hammond said. “I watched him at Tim Grgurich’s camp in August. I watched him do a few things that … (Bucks
Vice President of Player Personnel) Dave Babcock and I were there together and we’d get giddy for a few minutes. I watched him working with our guys during the summer making plays I got so excited about.

“I want people who support us to see that and get excited the same way I am. To me, that would be success for him.”

The highlight reel is growing.

Henson has a favorite sequence that he has seen duplicated.

“I think when he gets a block on one end, runs down and dunks on the other end,” Henson said. “He’s done that two or three times this season already. That shows hustle and energy and athleticism.”

Bucks guard Brandon Knight, who made his NBA debut at the age of 19 in 2011, offered rave reviews of Antetokounmpo, too.

“There aren’t many players in our league who have his attributes as far as length, speed and skills to handle the basketball like that,” Knight said. “It’s very rare to come across a player his size who can do all those things. He can chase it down, block shots and get down to the other end to make plays.”

Antetokounmpo has shown a willingness to look, listen and learn.

“He watches,” Henson said. “He watches and learns. Being as young as he is, he’s not really a guy who’ll come to you and ask a lot of questions, but he takes things in like a sponge. We have some great, great vets on our team this year, so that’s really good for him.”

Knight has seen Antetokounmpo’s education unfold both in games and on the practice court.

“I’ve seen all the work that it takes that he’s putting in, and how he’s studying the game when he’s not in the game,” Knight said. “I can see his progression day by day and how he’s helping the team improve.”

Both Henson and Knight have noticed that Antetokounmpo might be his own toughest critic.

“Toward the beginning of the season, he’d play 12 minutes or whatever and not play as well as he thought he should have,” Henson said. “You could see it get to him. We had to tell him, ‘Hey, man. We’re playing 82 games. You’ve got 10 years of that ahead of you – 800 games left. You’ve got to get over that. If you don’t, it can really drag you down.’”

Knight likes how demanding Antetokounmpo is of himself, but he also realizes the need for a short memory.

“That’s a good trait to have, beating yourself up,” Knight said. “In this league, though, there are so many possessions and so many games that you have to forget about your mistakes at some point as well. He has to do a little bit better job of just forgetting about them. You just have to make sure you hold yourself accountable.”

When Antetokounmpo arrived in Milwaukee, one of the first objectives he expressed was to have his parents (Veronica and Charles) and his two younger brothers (Kostas and Alexandros) leave Greece behind and join him in Milwaukee and make a new home here. In particular, Charles has been an important part of Giannis' development and focus.

That hasn’t happened yet, and though the situation obviously disappoints Antetokounmpo, his teammates are impressed with the way he is coping with it. Everyone familiar with his situation recognizes the need for at least his father Charles to be here with him to assist him with this overwhelming transition.

“He has a lot of weight on his shoulders, trying to learn a whole new country, deal with the huge spotlight of the NBA, and basically be an independent adult all alone. It would help to get his family over here,” Henson said. “He wants to have them here living with him in Milwaukee. It’s got to be tough, but he’s handled it well.

“If I was 18 and having to handle all of that, I don’t know if I could make it.”

Knight concurred.

“For a young kid who just turned 19 years old, I think he’s doing a great job of handling the situation he and his family are in,” Knight said.

Henson and Knight agree, too, that they could be witnessing the beginning of a special NBA career.

“He’s so young and athletic,” Henson said. “You don’t see guys at his position who can do what he can do with his athleticism and size. It takes you aback a little bit.

“I’m almost four years older than him. It’s a little scary to think how good he’ll be in four years. It’s going to be fun watching him.”

Knight looks forward to doing the same.

“Once he puts it together and has a couple of years of maturity, with his physical build and his ball skills, I think he can be very good,” Knight said. “It’s his God-given ability that a lot of us weren’t blessed with.

“As he continues to learn and tries to minimize the mistakes that a rookie is going to make, he’s going to do a lot to help our team. There aren’t many guys who can match what he can do on the court.”

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