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Milwaukee Bucks

From a little known prospect to an MVP candidate: Giannis Antetokounmpo's rise to stardom

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Giannis Antetokounmpo has evolved from a project to an MVP candidate in five years. (NBA.com Illustration)

Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to grow up right in front of our eyes.

In a matter of six years, he's gone from a relatively unknown draft pick and long-term project to a finalist for the league's MVP award.

The Genesis

"With the 15th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, the Milwaukee Bucks select Giannis Antetokounmpo from Athens, Greece."

There he stood, a 6-foot-9, 196 lb. 18-year-old that left his native country for the first time just three weeks earlier. Now, he was the center of the NBA universe - if only for just five minutes - as the draft night crew broke down his game in between picks.

Who could have predicted his being the center of the NBA world would be the norm in a matter of years?

Giannis made his NBA debut on Oct. 30, 2013, at just 18 years and 328 days - making him the league's youngest player in the 2013-14 season. While it took time, flashes of excellence were put on display in his rookie year.

Starting in just 23 of the 77 games in which he appeared, Antetokounmpo averaged 6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists per contest, earning a selection to the 2014 Rising Stars World Team and a Second Team All-Rookie selection, but there was plenty of room for improvement.

That he did.

The beauty of Antetokounmpo's journey is his commitment to improvement - it's almost as if "baby steps" aren't a concept he's familiar with. This became very evident in Year Two.

Giannis became a full-time starter in his sophomore season, serving in a reserve role in just 10 of the 81 games in which he appeared. At just 20-years-old, he was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the first time in his career after averaging 19.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 blocks from Feb. 2-Feb. 8. Less than one week later, he found himself back in the center of the NBA world at All-Star Weekend, where he would again participate in the Rising Stars challenge and for the first time the Slam Dunk Contest.

Less than two years after he was drafted at the Barclays Center, Giannis was back in Brooklyn competing for a dunk title, and while he didn't make it out of the first round, TNT's Kenny Smith provided perhaps the most accurate assertion of the night.

The Bucks would go on to earn the East's No. 6 seed, finishing the 2014-15 season with a record of 41-41. Antetokounmpo nearly doubled his scoring production from his rookie season, averaging 12.7 points per game to go along with 6.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists - improvements all across the board.

MIN PTS REB AST FG%
2013-14 23.6 6.8 4.4 1.9 .414
2014-15 31.4 12.7 6.7 2.6 .491

Ascension

"Since Giannis has arrived, he has done everything he could possibly do to make himself the best player he can become." - GM John Hammond

While Year Two put the league on notice, Year Three is when Giannis really began to come into his own.

Six days after his 21st birthday, Antetokounmpo's 11 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists propelled the Bucks past the defending champion Golden State Warriors, who entered the night with a 24-0 record.

This kind of performance would soon become usual for Giannis, who after a switch to point guard, recorded his first career triple-double (27 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) in a seven-point win over Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.

How did he follow that performance? Three more triple-doubles over the next 10 games.

Antetokounmpo finished his third NBA campaign having recorded five triple-doubles, putting forth performances that emphasized his value as the future of a Bucks team that won just 33 games that season. He again increased his production across the board to average 16.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists per contest.

Milwaukee rewarded his performance through three seasons with a four-year, $100 million contract extension.

Naturally, Giannis was asked if there was any pressure that came along with signing such a lucrative deal, to which he responded, "No, to be honest with you I really don't feel any pressure. I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing these past years and keep working hard. I'm the only guy that can put pressure on myself. I want to be great and I want to make my team great."

By holding himself accountable and working hard, Year Four proved to be a breakout season for Antetokounmpo. If he wasn't a household name already, he certainly established himself as one this year.

A stronger, more poised Antetokounmpo took the league by storm, becoming a fan favourite with the one-of-a-kind finishes above the rim that were made possible by his unique athleticism. His rising popularity resulted in his first-ever All-Star appearance coming in a starting capacity, as he was the sixth-leading vote-getter behind just LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

In his first All-Star appearance, Giannis led the East with 30 points (on 14-for-17 shooting), which included a handful of big-time dunks. His team would lose in a 192-182 shootout, but he was once again the center of the basketball world.

The improvement continued, as Giannis' 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game led the Bucks to a 42-win season and a return to the playoffs. He was named the NBA's Most Improved Player for the 2016-17 NBA season in addition to earning All-NBA Second Team and All-Defensive Second Team honours.

That hard work and personal pressure paid off.

MIN PTS REB AST FG%
2015-16 35.3 16.9 7.7 4.3 .506
2016-17 35.6 22.9 8.8 5.4 .521

The Arrival

"The Greek Freak, I think, is a force. I've never seen anything like him. 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. He's by far my most favourite player to watch." - Kevin Durant

The thing about winning Most Improved Player is that it officially signifies a player's arrival. The masses are no longer surprised by big performances as they are now the expectation, and players of Durant's calibre go on record saying you could be the best player ever.

How do you respond?

37. 34. 44. 32. 28. 33. 28.

Through the first seven games of the 2017-18 season, Giannis averaged 33.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game - all while shooting 63.2 percent from the field.

He was no longer just a star - he had become a bona fide superstar in what seemed like the blink of an eye. For the second consecutive season, he was voted as an All-Star by the fans, only this time he received the second-highest amount of fan votes behind only LeBron James.

Antetokounmpo finished the season averaging 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game to lead Milwaukee to 44 wins and the East's No. 7 seed. His play earned him All-NBA Second Team honours and a sixth-place finish in MVP voting.

In a seven-game series loss to the Boston Celtics, Antetokounmpo nearly willed his team to victory, averaging 25.7 points, 9.6 rebounds and 6.3 assists while playing 40.0 minutes per game. He and the Bucks again failed to make it out of the first round.

MVP

The 2018-19 season marked another chapter of the superstar's career. Head coach Mike Budenholzer rejuvenated the Bucks' offence in his first season and the team brought in personnel that suits Giannis' game perfectly.

It was finally time to take things to the next level.

In his just his sixth NBA season, Antetokounmpo catapulted himself atop MVP conversations as the Bucks surged to a 29-12 record in the first half of the season. By the All-Star break, Milwaukee was 43-14 and Antetokounmpo received the honour of All-Star captain as the Eastern Conference's leading vote-getter.

The regular season saw Giannis score 40 or more points on six occasions, including a career-best 52 points (to go along with 16 rebounds and seven assists) against the Sixers. He recorded five triple-doubles, performances that prompted Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal to say that The Greek Freak is better than he was at 24.

MORE: Giannis is dunking on teams like a modern-day Shaq

With averages of 27.7 points (on 57.8% shooting), 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals over 72 regular-season games, Giannis and the Bucks finished with a league-best 60-22 record.

Better than the defending-champion Warriors. Better than reigning MVP James Harden and the Rockets. The East was Milwaukee's.

Only it wasn't just yet.

After cruising through the first two rounds of the postseason with relative ease - a clean sweep of the No. 8 seed Pistons and a five-game series victory over the preseason title-favourite Celtics - the Bucks had finally met their match.

As it met Toronto in the Eastern Conference Finals, Milwaukee would win Games 1 and 2 before dropping the next four as the Raptors would go on to capture their first NBA title. Though he had his struggles, Antetokounmpo finished the Conference Finals averaging 22.7 points, 13.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.7 blocks per game.

He finished the 2019 postseason with averages of 25.5 points, 12.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game.

In his exit interview, Antetokounmpo spoke with reporters, "What do you guys say? What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. This will motivate me but I love it, I love that."

The type of loss experienced by the Bucks in 2019 is exactly the type of adversity that propels a player to take things to the next level. Antetokounmpo's assertion of how he'll bounce back proves just that.

A year after coming so close to reaching the second round, Giannis led his team to its first postseason series victories in 18 years. After coming so close to the Finals, there's no telling what will come next.

History would show that hoisting the MVP trophy would just add even more fuel to Antetokounmpo's fire.

As he continues his rapid rate of improvement, there's no real sign of his slowing down - especially considering his lack of familiarity with baby steps.

Oh yeah, he's still just 24.

It's safe to say Milwaukee made the right choice.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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