Watch Giannis Antetokounmpo for just a few moments and you’ll likely see things you’ve never seen before. Watch him do those same things several times in a single game and you’ll likely still not believe your eyes. The 6’11” Bucks forward can catch a ball in stride at midcourt and be at the rim in just one dribble, seemingly a physical impossibility. It’s not just that the things he does on the court are spectacular, although they are, it’s that the things he does on the court go against nearly everything we thought we knew.
So far, so bad for opposing defenses. The only thing longer than Antetokounmpo’s stride are his arms, and he uses both to get to the rim whenever he goddamn feels like. On defense he’s a human blackout, able to both pluck balls from passing lanes and blanket his man inside. Back in the spring of 2016, Bucks coach Jason Kidd said Antetokounmpo would be their primary ballhandler—making the then-21-year old the de facto point guard—a prescient move that not only makes things hell on opposing defenses, but has fast-tracked Antetokounmpo to NBA stardom thanks to improved handle and court vision.
But let’s talk about evolution on the basketball court for a moment. To wildly oversimplify things, there are two ways it happens, both equally important. There are small, subtle changes, and then there are giant leaps. The first is how you get from a Michael Jordan to a Kobe Bryant. The second is how you get a Stephen Curry, a Kawhi Leonard, a Giannis Antetokounmpo. They are disruptors, players that follow no one and change everything.
Back in 2013, 14 teams passed over Antetokounmpo in the NBA Draft. He was just a raw 18-year old then, but think of what could have been. Imagine if the Cavaliers had taken him first over Anthony Bennett, or if the Sixers had taken him 11th over Michael Carter-Williams. (Yes, MCW was named Rookie of the Year. No, no one will remember that in five years. Hell, no one remembers that now.) The draft is a funny thing—teams all too often look to the past to predict the future. Or general managers who want to keep their jobs look for players who can make an immediate impact.
Four years later, the future is now and the Bucks look like geniuses. Kevin Durant is the reigning NBA Finals MVP, he’s on what may be the best team ever assembled (current record notwithstanding), and he just turned 29 last month. But even though he’s in his prime, he can see what’s coming. “I've never seen anything like him," Durant said of Antetokounmpo during a YouTube Q&A. "His ceiling is probably—he could end up being the best player to ever play if he really wanted to. That's pretty scary to think about."
Back in late August, Bryant issued challenges to a number of people in different fields—from Richard Sherman to Kendrick Lamar. When Antetokounmpo asked for a challenge of his own, Kobe came back with three letters: MVP. Back then it seemed a tad far-fetched. Even for a guy who’d seen his points per game skyrocket each year, from 6.8 to 12.7 to 16.9 to 22.9 per. Now? Not so much. Four games into the season is a bit early to project a full season, but Antetokounmpo is currently averaging 37, 11, and 5, with a PER of, uh, 40 for the 3-1 Bucks. All this without even developing a 3-point shot yet. Not that he needs one.
Back in the early 2000s when Shaquille O’Neal was dominating the league, a common criticism was that “all he can do is dunk.” I was the editor of SLAM then, and whenever I heard this, my response was always the same: So what? If you can score 30 points a game just by dunking, and no one can stop you from doing it, why on earth would you do anything else? Antetokounmpo doesn’t play like Shaq, but his offensive game is—at least for now—equally immune to criticism. He’s only 1-6 from three in his first four games? So what? Stop his drives and maybe we can talk. Poor Aron Baynes still probably doesn’t realize he got dunked on.
It’s as hard to say in October whether Antetokounmpo will win MVP as it is to say of a 22-year-old that he will one day be the best to ever play the game. That’s something that’s still being debated about 32-year-old LeBron James, even after 50,000 minutes, four MVPs, and seven straight NBA Finals appearances. But there’s nothing more compelling than promise, and Antetokounmpo has more of it than even his broad wingspan can hold. His present is bright, his future may be brighter still. All we can do is watch. And believe.