Giannis is learning to be boring off the court because he’s singularly unpredictable on it.
BOSTON — You know a player has reached a certain level of stardom when everyone in the gym gravitates toward him. All other conversations become secondary when the star is ready to talk.
The star knows this and is prepared, having gone through it day after day and night after night in city after city with each pack of strangers asking variations on the same questions. Sometimes the star can be pithy and fun. Sometimes he can be pissed off and moody, which is its own kind of fun. That’s the reason you talk to the star — to gauge the mood and thus the temperature of the team.
This is the world that Giannis Antetokounmpo inhabits now. As he sat down on a bench after the morning shootaround while a trainer attached ice packs on his knees, he sized up the mass of people gathering before him.
“Morning,” he said with all the professional assurance of a regional sales manager beginning a powerpoint presentation. The message was clear: We won’t be getting goofy, wonderful Giannis. This would be business.
“My mindset is to get better every day and do what it takes to get my team better,” he said. “The same as the past years. I take it day by day. Try to get better. Try to listen to my coaching staff, to my teammates and see what areas we can get better as a team. That’s it.”
That a 22-year-old Greek immigrant who came to the States without a firm grasp of the language could master the basics of the media scrum in such a short amount of time is impressive. That he’s even in this position as the leader of a franchise is frankly astounding, considering that no one had any idea what he would become when he made his debut just four years ago.
During his incubation period, Giannis has been a delight both on and off the court with his transcendent game and beguiling personality. The Giannis Experience has been nothing less than the wide-eyed joy of discovery, full of end-to-end rushes and delicious smoothies.
The breakthrough came last season in which he averaged 23 points, nine rebounds and five assists with career highs in blocks, steals, and shooting percentage. He was a first-time All-Star, a second-team All-NBA pick, and the winner of the Most Improved Player award, which didn’t feel sufficient to capture his progress.
With Giannis leading the way, the Bucks made the playoffs for the second time in three years and threw one hell of a scare into the playoff-tested Raptors. He and his team are no longer a novelty item. They will be on national television 18 times with 10 of those appearances spread out among ESPN and TNT. That’s double their total from last season and triple the amount of exposure on the league’s two main networks.
Of all the teams scrambling for relevance in the shadows of LeBron’s Eastern Conference, the Bucks are the funnest thanks primarily to their emerging star. They are graduating from League Pass cult status right before our eyes and with that Giannis will no longer be an object of devotion among the hardcore. He will belong to the world and be subjected to all their dreams and expectations.
“There’s no manual and it’s the road less traveled,” 19-year vet Jason Terry told me. “Being a young up-and-coming superstar in this league, having your own franchise, the world upon your shoulders, it can be a lot added pressure. It’s tough to do. As a young player you’ve got enough responsibility of trying to make sure you’re doing what you need to do, let alone 12 other guys on your team. If he couldn’t handle it, he wouldn’t be in that position.”
Terry, along with everyone else in the Bucks organization, comes back to the same word when describing the prodigy: special.
“It’s his willingness to search out and seek information and then apply it to his regiment,” Terry said. “You will see this kid in the gym late night after games working on defensive coverages. That is a special skillset. Nobody does that. When I saw that it told me this kid is different.”
A the league’s most evolutionary player enters a new phase of his career, Giannis recognizes the need to adapt to his new environment. For example, on the subject of his improved diet: “Just eating better. No more fast food. More vegetables. It’s that point when you grow up and realize that you’re not a kid anymore. You’ve got to eat good because my body can’t take this anymore.”
It’s that point when you grow up …
It happens so fast. This offseason was the culmination of the first act of his star turn. First, he attained the stamp of authenticity from Kobe Bryant who threw down the MVP gauntlet. Later, Kevin Durant took that one step further by suggesting that Giannis could be one of the greatest ever, if he so chose.
“It doesn’t affect you,” Giannis said. “It’s really good compliments from both players but I got to do what I got to do. I’ve got to get better every day. That’s all I’ve got to do. That’s my goal.”
That is the correct answer. Boring, but correct. Ask Anthony Davis what happens when you don’t make the leap everyone expects on their timeframe. This star business is a fickle thing, once you attain one order of magnitude there is another order and then another before reaching absolute status. It’s not just corner lockers and control over the sound system.
In a moment of candor, Giannis acknowledged what may be the toughest aspect of his transition to franchise centerpiece; that of leadership.
“It’s hard,” he said. “It’s hard to be vocal. It’s hard to be talkative, especially for a guy like me. I’m a low-profile guy. But you’ve got to do it because your team expects you to talk more. They want to hear your voice. I think they feel more confident when they hear your voice because they know their leader is going to be there for them. But it’s hard to be a leader when you’re 21, 22, 23.”
There are, of course, multiple ways to lead a franchise. There is the one that goes on behind the scenes and the one that play out in public for the press. All of that is secondary to the most important element of leadership for a young star, that being the willingness to take over games in whatever manner needs to be taken.
Giannis was breathtaking in his season debut against the Celtics on Wednesday. He scored 37 points on just 22 shots, utilizing an array of bully-ball tactics along with his otherworldly talents. He scored over guys, around guys, and on one memorable dunk he went over and around 260-pound Aron Baynes, improbably switching hands on an alley-oop before levitating even higher.
Most impressively, Giannis was at his best in the fourth quarter where he scored 16 of his points on just seven shots. When it came time for the crunchtime dagger, he passed out of a double team to a wide-open Matthew Dellavedova who buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key. “When you watched Giannis tonight you thought, that’s an MVP candidate right there,” an admiring Brad Stevens said.
This is his world now. It consists of MVP talk and heightened expectations. For four years, Giannis has made the impossible seem mundane. Now comes the hardest part, making it seem routine.
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