clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The NBA Now Orbits Around Giannis

Antetokounmpo ascended to a new level of superstardom in 2019, winning the league’s MVP award and pushing our imaginations as he scrambled geometry and sped up time on the court

Pablo Iglesias

Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t here right now. Maybe that’s for the best. Sometimes, Giannis overwhelms the world around him, contorting and stretching his body in ways that can be admired or feared, but never really understood.

But right now he’s doing none of that. He’s nowhere in sight. It’s 5:37 p.m. on a Saturday in Indianapolis, and here inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse, a few dozen fans are staring down the tunnel behind the Bucks basket, looking at the empty space where Giannis might soon appear. Necks are craning. Tip-toes are engaged. On the court, actual flesh-and-blood basketball players—Wesley Matthews, Eric Bledsoe, Domantas Sabonis, to name a few—are going through warm-ups before the Bucks tip off against the Pacers, but no one is paying much attention to any of them. To the assembled crowd, the possibility of Giannis is more thrilling than the actual presence of anyone else. “I think he’s coming soon,” says Finley Van Hoevan, who’s been standing here for about 20 minutes. “He has to be.”

Finley is 15, blond and tall for his age, wearing a Giannis no. 34 black Bucks jersey. He’s from South Bend, but his parents drove him two and a half hours south to Indianapolis for this game, as a birthday present. “He’s so good,” Finley says of Giannis, summing up the prevailing opinion. “As soon as you watch him you can’t help but love him.”

Giannis’s gifts are so vast they defy comprehension. 2019 is the year he ascended to a new level of superstardom, winning the NBA’s MVP award and staking a claim to the post–LeBron James throne as the best player in the league. It’s also the year he began to take on his own gravity. In November, about a month into his MVP defense season, I followed the Bucks for about a week—four games in four cities—to witness that pull taking shape. To see how teammates orbit around him, hunting assists and open 3s; how some opponents challenge him and risk humiliation while others sidestep him to preserve their bodies and their pride; how cramped visiting locker rooms pack with curious reporters even though most know he speaks to them only in polite platitudes; how road fans thirst over him while home fans hope desperately that they’ll never have to let him go.

And to talk to people like Finley. “I’m so excited,” he says, leaning over the railing, taking another peek down the tunnel. “This is gonna be crazy.”

You know who doesn’t defy comprehension? JaKarr Sampson. This is not meant as an insult. Sampson is large for a wing—6-foot-7 and 214 pounds—but not staggeringly so. He is athletic, but not in ways that seem to violate laws of space and time. He is better at playing basketball than most humans are at most things, but his particular kind of ability follows a logic with which we’re all familiar. He was born with talent. He worked to maximize it. As a result, he reached the highest levels of his profession. But just barely.

“It’s been a long road,” Sampson says. Originally from Akron, he went to college at St. John’s and entered the 2014 draft after his sophomore year, only to go the whole night without hearing his name called. He worked his way from Philadelphia’s summer league team to its opening-night roster, and he’s spent the past five seasons bouncing from there to Sacramento and Chicago, the G League teams in Reno and Iowa, and to Shandong, China, where he did a stint last year for a team called the Golden Stars.

Now he’s here, in Indiana, playing for the Pacers. And tonight, when his team hosts the Bucks, Sampson knows exactly what he’s supposed to do. “I know when I’m in there,” he says, “it’s to guard Giannis. That’s my whole job.”

We’re talking postgame, at Sampson’s locker, long after most of the Pacers players have showered and gone home. Eventually, Giannis did indeed emerge from the tunnel, and when he did, the Indiana crowd cheered (after all, he’s not Paul George). He proceeded to take the floor and to calmly and methodically blow the Pacers right off of it. He mixed in the usual absurdities—unguardable hooks in the lane, Eurosteps that could cross oceans, blocks that feel more like engulfments—along with a few well-taken shots from well beyond the 3-point line. He finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds, and the Bucks won without much trouble, 102-83.

That’s the summary. Those are the numbers. But when discussing Giannis, what matters more are the moments. When he does something no other player can do. Moments like the ones, early in the second quarter, when JaKarr Sampson stepped on the floor and Giannis absolutely wrecked his shit.

It started off innocently enough. Sampson walked up to Giannis and made a point of sticking as close to him as he possibly could. He stalked Giannis up and down the court with remarkable purpose, paying little mind to anyone else. Sampson had the look of one of those role players who changes the game’s energy the moment he steps on the floor, someone unafraid of getting embarrassed, obsessed with the defensive task at hand.

And then, well, Giannis bodied him. It started at the top of the key. Giannis took the ball in his right hand, and Sampson crouched low, yellow headband angled upward, eyes fixed on Giannis’s chest. He looked focused. He looked ready. Giannis made a quick crossover between his legs and to his left, and that was the moment the play began to slip away. Sampson lifted both arms to impede Giannis’s progress, hoping they could do the work his legs could not. Giannis took a single dribble—it always, impossibly, takes only a single dribble—from the 3-point line before collecting the ball in his left hand at the top of the key, then taking two massive steps while Sampson chased from behind. And then Giannis did what he must have always known he was going to do, what everyone in the arena knew he was going to do, what most had paid to see, and what Sampson was paid to try to stop.

He dunked. Elegant and violent, somehow both at the same time. Right in Sampson’s (and, for good measure, Pacers rookie Goga Bitadze’s) face.

“Yeah,” Sampson says later at his locker, grinning, the gap between his two front teeth on full display. “He got me there.”

But that wasn’t the end of it. Even after getting dunked on, Sampson was undeterred. He kept moving with the same frantic energy, competing with the same edge. Seconds later the Pacers got out in transition, and Sampson caught a pass at the foul line, Giannis trailing behind him. He took two steps toward a layup, and then, well, you can almost certainly guess what happened next. Giannis violently spiked the ball to the ground before it sniffed the rim or backboard, sending Sampson to the floor with the force of the block. Seconds later, Sampson was removed from the game. He did not return until garbage time.

Postgame, Sampson is not the least bit embarrassed. “That’s what I’m always going to do,” he says. “I’m always going to compete.” These moments are inevitable, when the impossibly gifted is challenged by the merely very good. Sampson has worked his entire life for the right to get dunked on by one of the most gifted athletes in the history of the game.

We learned to refer to him as “the Greek Freak” before we ever learned how to pronounce his name. The nickname defines him as something barely human, as if his talents can only be explained by shrugging our shoulders and saying, he’s not like the rest of us.

In Indianapolis, though, I meet someone who feels connected to Giannis, the human. Fani Smernou is 16 years old, a foreign exchange student from near Thessaloniki, in northern Greece. She’s living for the year in Steelville, Missouri, a town of 1,642 people about 90 minutes southwest of St. Louis. When she first arrived in America, her host family asked her to make a list of what she most wanted to experience. No. 1: She wanted to go to New York City. No. 2: She wanted to see Giannis.

So here she is, standing pregame near the same tunnel as Finley Van Hoevan, wearing a Greek national team jersey and holding a sign with Giannis’s name spelled in his native script. Indianapolis is the closest NBA city to Steelville, about five hours away. She and her host father drove all the way here today. “I really wanted to meet him,” she says, moments after security asked her to leave the area surrounding the tunnel. Her eyes turn down. “I thought maybe I could.” In some cities, from Cleveland to New York to back home in Milwaukee, Giannis has hung around postgame to greet groups of hundreds of Greek fans who come together to watch him play. Tonight, though, Smernou and her host father are alone.

She loves how he plays and carries himself. “He’s so humble,” she says. She doesn’t care much about the Bucks, only about Giannis. Wherever he goes, her fandom will follow. “I get so excited,” she says, “to see someone Greek in the NBA.” As much as anything, she loves what he represents. “He came from nothing,” she says. “He became the best.”

It’s true. Born in Greece to Nigerian migrants, Giannis grew up poor in Athens, selling watches and glasses and DVDs. He told 60 Minutes that he was “the best” salesman in the city. He was persistent. And as a little boy, he said, “I was cute.”

He was also tall, and he was energetic, and when he wasn’t in school or working in the streets he was often with his older brother Thanasis, playing basketball. He ascended through the youth club ranks in Greece, eventually rising to the senior team at Filathlitikos, in the second division, playing a level of competition his agent has compared to a local YMCA. He averaged 9.5 points and five rebounds in 23 minutes a game. He was far from the best player in his very bad league, not even the best player on his very bad team. But he was young, and he was long, and he loped down the court with simultaneous power and grace, and soon enough he was in New York City, wearing a cheap suit he’d just bought the day before, shaking hands with Adam Silver as the 15th pick in the 2013 draft.

He rarely discusses his early life. (The Bucks, who face a deluge of requests from all corners of the NBA, made it clear that he would not be doing an interview for this piece.) But like so much with Giannis, the vast unknowns of his story leave so much to interpretation. It can be told as a fable: Young boy works hard on the streets of Athens, becoming the best salesman in the city; he grows and works hard on the basketball court, becoming the best player in the world. Or it can be told as a myth: Mysterious “freak” spotted galloping through the gyms of a faraway country; discovered by scouts before coming to America and growing into the most dominant force in the NBA.

Both versions of the story bridge the gap between his talents and our comprehension. One emphasizes his humanity. The other, the sense that his greatness can only be explained as coming from another world. Right now, though, the distinctions matter little for Fani Smernou. All that matters is that tonight she gets to watch him on a basketball court. Regardless of how he got here, Giannis has arrived at the kind of stardom that makes teenagers turn giddy at the prospect of entering his presence.

“Can you help me meet him?” Fani asks.

I can’t, I say.

“OK,” she says. “I will just watch.”

Sometimes, even his teammates seem to be just watching. The Bucks spread the floor with shooters, players who can score efficiently even if they barely ever touch the ball. This season, Giannis has a usage rate of 38.6, fourth highest in the history of the league. Never does Giannis seem more like his own planet than on a Bucks half-court possession, when the nine other players all make subtle and controlled movements, entirely in reaction to his every whim.

Among them is Kyle Korver, the 17-year veteran who has made a career of floating around the perimeter, finding the right spots when the defense begins to bend or slack, catching passes from playmakers and stepping immediately into 3s. Korver has been on bad teams (the 33-49 Sixers his rookie season); and he’s been on Finals teams (the 2016-17 and 2017-18 Cavs); and he’s been on regular-season juggernauts that failed when it mattered most (Derrick Rose’s Bulls and the four-All-Star Hawks). Everywhere, he has had a similar role. Here in Milwaukee, like in Cleveland with LeBron, much of that role depends on his offensive movements in relation to the team’s star.

“We’re still all different pieces to the same puzzle,” Korver tells me one morning in Chicago. We’re sitting on the edge of the gym at a local college, where the Bucks have just finished up shootaround in advance of that night’s game against the Bulls. Outside, a group of basketball players from a nearby D-II team have gathered to try to get a glimpse of Giannis—“Tell him I want him in one-on-one,” said one—but in here, Korver and the rest of the Bucks are quietly moving through their road-trip routine.

Korver continues. “Now, Giannis is a significant piece, right? Like, right dead in the center.” He thinks of his teams in Atlanta, where the Hawks won 60 games without any true stars. “Kind of like there’s a lot of ways to make par,” he says, “there’s a lot of ways to do something great.” In Atlanta, the puzzle pieces came in similar sizes, each player with near-equally weighted roles. Next he thinks about his years in Cleveland. “Playing with LeBron was similar,” he says. “Like, when you’re a team that’s focused on winning—and LeBron will say this more than anyone—you need all the pieces to fit together. It can’t just be all about one guy. It can’t be one person making every play.”

It’s true. And yet the Bucks have the look of a title contender—at 24-4, they’re four games clear of the 76ers for the best record in the East, and coming off an 18-game winning streak—because of how perfectly their roster fits around its biggest piece. Khris Middleton is an ideal second scorer, able to handle the ball when Giannis sits and to play off the ball when Giannis is on the floor. Bledsoe is the hard-charging and relentlessly-defending point guard; Korver and Matthews the reliable catch-and-shoot wings. George Hill is the consummate sixth man. The Lopez brothers, Brook and Robin, have evolved into the perfect centers to pair with a player like Giannis. On defense, they protect the rim. On offense, they get the hell out of the way until they’re asked to launch 3s. All seem perfectly orchestrated by coach Mike Budenholzer, the man who made a 60-game winner out of the starless 2014-15 Hawks, and who last season matched that win total with a Bucks roster that had won only 44 games the season before. “There are so many good players in here,” says Brook Lopez. All of them, though, seem to exist on the floor in service to Giannis. They give him the time and space he needs to be the most unstoppable version of himself, while he gives them a bounty of opportunities—open shots, new chapters to their careers, and a chance at the championship.

All of it (except Middleton, nursing an injury) is on display that night in Chicago. Giannis goes 13-for-22 on his way to 33 points and 10 rebounds in a win. But afterward, in the locker room, conversation revolves around another group of people who struggle to grapple with the ways Giannis warps the world around him: The officials.

“It’s bizarre,” Lopez says, sitting at his locker and addressing reporters. Tonight, Giannis piled up five fouls, all on the offensive end. He fouled out of the Bucks’ first two games of the season, and he’s gotten at least four personal fouls in 11 of their 28 games. “I don’t want Bud to get mad at me or to get fined,” Lopez continues, “but the difference between him and the way other guys are called, you know, I think the discrepancies between the two—it’s pretty wild and mind-boggling to me.”

Giannis entered the league at 6-foot-9 and 190 pounds. Five and a half years later, he’s 6-foot-11 and 242. None of those numbers seem to do justice to the sheer mass of him, nor to the length of his limbs and his fingers. “He’s a tough call, obviously,” Lopez says. Like LeBron or Shaq, Giannis’s overwhelming strength and athleticism can make it seem like he is both fouling and getting fouled on every play. “I imagine he’s difficult to call. But it’s definitely bizarre.”

Tonight, the Bulls tried what so many teams try against Giannis. They threw help defenders in his direction, each of them reaching in with one or two arms. Sometimes, Giannis picked up offensive fouls. Other times, the officials stayed silent. On a few, they sent Giannis to the line, where he struggled, hitting only five of 12 free throws.

When asked about it afterward, he lifts his hands and forearms. “One,” he says, pointing to a small laceration on his right wrist. “Two,” he adds, looking at another mark on his hand. “Three.”

He shrugs. By now, he surely realizes that in this league, he is singular. On some plays, he looks like a musclebound Kevin Durant. On others, he is Shaq with single-digit body fat. In a game dictated by rules regarding contact between bodies, it has to be difficult to officiate someone who inhabits a body unlike any the league has seen.

“I’m not gonna criticize the officiating, obviously,” he says. “I just gotta be strong with the ball.”

Two nights later in Atlanta, Giannis talks with someone who likely understands slivers of his own experience.

“This is it,” Vince Carter says.

“This is it?” Giannis asks.

“This is it.”

“Ah, man. I thought you had one more!”

They are standing on the floor at State Farm Arena, a couple of hours before the Bucks tip off against the Hawks. Tonight will be one of the last times Giannis and Carter ever share a court, as Carter completes the final season of his 22-year NBA career. Last year, Giannis asked Carter to exchange jerseys with him after a game. “I’m a big fan of his,” Giannis said then of Carter. “I just wanted his jersey.” Now, though, the conversation is cordial but brief. Giannis tends not to spend much time chatting with opponents. Unlike LeBron and some other superstars, he’s been open about worries that befriending fellow superstars could strip away his competitive edge.

Like Giannis, Carter once overpowered some of the greatest athletes on the planet. After they go their separate ways, someone else who has shared the same experience steps to the edge of the floor. Age has also added flesh to Dominique Wilkins’s frame and gray to his temples and chin. There was a time when his was the only body in the league with such a combination of power and grace, when no one else but him—not even Michael Jordan—knew what it was like not only to fly, but to detonate, midair.

And like Giannis, he knows the feeling of walking into every room and rearranging its molecules, pulling eyes and minds in his direction. “You have to embrace it,” he says. “You have to welcome the attention. Honestly, you don’t have a choice. The attention’s going to be there just by virtue of who you are.” He looks out onto the court through wire-rimmed glasses, watching the warm-ups of a young Hawks team so full of unmolded talent, so bright and ambitious and still so deeply flawed. For rookie wings Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, tonight represents one of the biggest opportunities of their young careers, a chance to match up with the league’s best.

Wilkins thinks back to when he represented that same kind of opportunity for young opponents. He perhaps never reached Giannis’s level, but he was close. “We were entertainers,” he says. “Myself, Michael, Magic. You have to realize that and enjoy it. You become a show on the road.” And now, as he prepares to take his seat to call the game for the Hawks TV broadcast, he relishes the chance to watch someone who occupies that same air. “He’s at that level and then some,” Wilkins says. He shakes his head and smiles. He looks around the building. The Hawks are unveiling a new court and debuting their “Peachtree” City Edition jerseys. At halftime, 2 Chainz will perform. In a city often derided for having a lackluster fan base, the arena will pack and the decibel level will swell. Tonight is special. Giannis is here.

“Stars are stars, man,” he says. “Giannis is one of a kind. I can’t think of anybody who’s ever played the game like him.”

Soon the show begins. Another night, another win, another 48 minutes of casual dominance. Giannis goes for 33 and 11, on 12-for-17 shooting from the field. The Hawks actually defend him remarkably well for stretches, but in the third quarter he starts putting his head down and alternately dodging and bulldozing the defense, going for 17 points, including an 11-3 run all by himself. “I don’t think anyone has an answer for him,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce says when I ask about that stretch. “He goes right through you. He goes over you. He’s got the stride to slide through gaps. If he thinks there’s a gap then he’s gone. And there’s nothing that anyone can do.”

Afterward, like at so many of the Bucks’ stops along the way, the cramped visitors locker room is packed with far more reporters than the home team’s, all waiting for Giannis. He emerges and dresses and speaks, polite and reserved as ever, praising teammates, expressing gratitude for the win. The Bucks have played 10 of their past 14 games on the road, winning eight. Tonight, finally, they’re going home.

“It’s gonna be nice,” he says. “Stay at home. Sleep in my bed.”

He smiles.

“It feels good.”

Less than 24 hours later, a mass of bundled and green-clad bodies filter in from the cold and through the doors into Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum, ready to watch their team upon its return. Milwaukee is hosting the Portland Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard is out, injured. Carmelo Anthony is back, on an NBA roster once again. Tipoff approaches and the arena’s energy builds, until the lights go out and the pyrotechnics begin, the mascot Bango the Buck riding across the court on a motorcycle while the crowd screams. Loud. Wisconsin has long been known for caring about the Packers first, the University of Wisconsin Badgers second, with the Bucks and Brewers fighting for position as a distant third, but right now, this is a fan base that appreciates what it has. The Bucks are home. Giannis is home.

At least, that is, for now. Giannis is under contract with Milwaukee until 2021. Over the course of this road trip, it’s been clear how his presence impacts teammates and opponents, officials and retired legends and teenage fans. Soon enough, though, he’ll have an opportunity to rearrange the power structure of the league.

Just like LeBron in Cleveland, Anthony Davis in New Orleans, or Durant in Oklahoma City, Giannis is on his way into a familiar cycle of speculation. Soon after a superstar breaks out in a smaller market, media and fans start talking about whether (or when) they’ll leave for a bigger one. Now that Davis is a Laker, Giannis is the next superstar in line. The story lines surrounding player movement often seem to eclipse the actual games. All the while, league owners are growing increasingly frustrated by perceived tampering among their competitors. For Giannis, it could all lead to one of the most obsessed-over free agencies in memory.

Bucks fans realize the stakes. “They have to make sure the team around is good enough to compete in the playoffs,” says Eric, a fan I talk to after the game. “If not, then I won’t even blame him for doing what he has to do.”

The Bucks are trying. They look, more than a quarter of the way through the season, like the clear best team in the East, capable of challenging the Lakers or Clippers or any other contender who could emerge from the West. Giannis has said that he loves Milwaukee. He’s insisted that he was misquoted by a Harvard study in which he reportedly said, “If we’re underperforming in the NBA next year, deciding whether to sign becomes more difficult.” He has stated, time and again, that he loves Milwaukee. He is winning. He is becoming increasingly rich and famous, now with his own shoe, the Nike Zoom Freak 1. Still, for Bucks fans, it’s hard not to worry.

Right here in their city, in this arena, Milwaukeeans have a gift. Someone possessed of unknowable greatness, who puts that greatness to work, at least in part, in service of their city’s collective joy. Tonight, Giannis steps on the floor and finds new ways to dominate. Fatigue slows him, as he goes 9-for-27 on the second night of a back-to-back. But in showing his flaws, offering reminders of his humanity, he reveals new layers of a skill set that still remains beyond comprehension. He finishes with an inefficient 24 points, yes, but with an utterly dominant 19 rebounds and 15 assists. Only Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and Larry Bird have ever put up those numbers in a single game.

The Bucks win, 137-129. As the clock winds down, he grabs his final rebound and he listens as the crowd cheers, and soon the buzzer sounds and he walks calmly to his TNT interview, where he answers questions, kindly and distant as ever, before he begins to walk away. And now the court is full, and all around him the crowd is cheering, and the Bucks dancers are dancing, and an inflatable mascot is twitching while the motorcycling Bango the Buck is writhing, and someone is on the floor waving a sign that says, “Bucks Win.”

He towers above them all, walking across the center of the court. Everyone else in the arena is unlike him in so many ways. All, though, have their own ways of contending with his greatness. Coaches and opponents can try to understand it. Teammates try to feed it. Home fans try desperately to cling to it. All while it remains so hopelessly far outside their control.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is here right now. Maybe that’s for the best. Sometimes, it’s thrilling to be overwhelmed.

Video Games

The Best Video Games of 2023


The 27 Best Albums of 2023


The Best Movies of 2023

View all stories in Year in Review