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Giannis Is the MVP

May 16 2019
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Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images
Photo by
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images
Pau Gasol
Milwaukee Bucks
May 16 2019
W

hen I joined the Bucks, the questions started right away.

People wanted to know about Giannis. They wanted to know what I thought about him, and they wanted to know what players I would compare him to.

I don’t blame them. Giannis is hard to describe. He doesn’t fit easily into categories that we’re used to, now or in the past.

I came to Milwaukee in March, and I was excited to join a great team — a franchise on the rise with its eye on an NBA championship. Not a championship down the road, but right now. This season.

And I knew I was joining the team with this year’s MVP on it.  

Every year, there are many players who put together outstanding seasons. But there can only be one MVP. Over 18 NBA seasons, I’ve had the opportunity to play with and against some of my generation’s best players. I’d like to think that I have an informed opinion on the subject, but I’m not an analyst or a commentator, so let me do things a little differently here:

I am going to try to tell you who Giannis is.

By telling you who he is not.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Giannis Antetokounmpo is not Russell Westbrook.

I repeat: not Russ.

That being said, I’ve played against both guys, and I see similarities between them. Both Giannis and Russ play downhill like nobody else in the league does. They run at you, not around you, putting incredible pressure on the defense to make split-second decisions. They both use the Euro step like no other. Both guys can put up a triple double in the course of carrying the scoring load for their teams. And maybe most noticeable of all, both guys play with a fierce intensity that is rare even at the NBA level.

But Giannis is not Russ. Russ is a future Hall of Famer, an eight-time All-Star and the only player in NBA history to average a triple double in two consecutive seasons.

So, Giannis isn’t Russ. Not yet. Giannis is only 24. We don’t know his ceiling.

Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

And Giannis Antetokounmpo is not Shaquille O’Neal.

But for a moment, I want you to think of young Shaq. Do you remember Shaq, when he was at LSU? Do you remember Shaq in his first few years with the Magic? Can you think of another player since with that size, with that agility? Who dunks harder and more often? To me, the list is one player long — it’s my Greek teammate.

To give some perspective, I did some googling. When he was 24, Shaq finished the 1996–97 season with 26.2 points per game on 56% shooting, with 12.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists. Let’s compare that with Giannis’ production this season: He led the Bucks in points (27.7), rebounds (12.5) and assists (5.9). He shot 58% from the field and finished third in the league in points per game.

As a player, I know that statistics don’t tell the whole truth — they merely tell a version of it. But I think NBA fans can see what I see. It’s very uncommon for a player with the height of a center to be so skilled, fast and physically dominant. Giannis shares those qualities with young Shaq. The way young Shaq ran the fast break, finished with thundering dunks, defended the rim … I see some of the same qualities in Giannis. Here’s an example. It’s very specific, but I think it says a lot. When you watch video of young Shaq contesting dunks at the rim, you will see similar defensive instincts in Giannis. Both guys go for the block every time. I think you’d have a hard time finding an example of either player allowing an easy dunk. This, also, is rare in the NBA. It is a message to the opposing team: Every time you come at the rim, I’ll be there.

By the time Shaq was winning three titles in a row in L.A., he had become a player without comparison at the center position. Maybe without comparison at all. Shaq became the most dominant big man of my generation — and without a doubt one of the best handful of bigs ever to play basketball. Shaq is in the Hall of Fame. He’s got four rings. He’s on his own level. He’s Shaq.

So, Giannis isn’t Shaq. Not yet. Giannis only 24. We don’t know his ceiling.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

Giannis Antetokounmpo is not Kevin Garnett, either.

I did a little more googling: When he was 24, in 2000–01, KG averaged 22 points and 11.4 rebounds. This season, and pardon me for repeating myself, but it’s that utterly impressive: Giannis averaged 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds. Again, I think comparing statistics across eras is not the only way to judge a player or a career. Kevin was one of the most vocal guys I’ve ever played against, and Giannis is quieter on the court.

But what I saw when I joined the Bucks, and could watch him up close every day, is the way Giannis plays with the intensity, aggressiveness and competitiveness of a Kevin Garnett. In both Giannis and KG, you see a unique tenacity for rebounding. Both players have an eye for passing that many big men don’t have.

But Kevin Garnett? Any list of all-time power forwards that did not have KG in its top three would be, in my opinion, very wrong. KG’s an MVP, a 15-time All-Star. He led the league in rebounding for four straight years at one point. He’s a Future Hall of Famer, and he’s got a ring.

So, Giannis isn’t KG. Not yet. Giannis only 24. We don’t know his ceiling.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

And Giannis Antetokounmpo is not me.

Before my first NBA season, in 2001, I made a personal goal: I wanted to win Rookie of the Year. And I was able to achieve it. I was proud — not just because I’d worked hard, but also because I don’t think many people expected it. What I mean is: Some people didn’t know what they would get from a European player back then. For those who can remember back to 2001, it was still a novelty for foreign-born players to come to the NBA and make an impact right away. I remember fielding a lot of questions about how I thought I was going to adjust to the NBA style — would I be strong enough or fast enough? Would I be able to adjust to the style and pace of the NBA? I knew those kinds of questions were all part of the deal, and part of my own challenge to prove myself.

Giannis was 18 as a rookie, and I’d never heard of  him before that time. But I remember playing against him — he was long and skinny and quiet. He didn’t play a ton of minutes as a rookie. He averaged about seven points a game, and he didn’t win Rookie of the Year. But even as much as the NBA has globalized (this year almost one in four NBA players is foreign-born), I wouldn’t be surprised if Giannis got some of the same kinds of critical questions I did his first year or two.

I remember when I was 24, too. We won 45 games in Memphis and went on to play the Suns, the top seed, in the first round of the playoffs. We got swept. The following season, we got swept again in the first round. I didn’t see the second round of the playoffs until I teamed up with Kobe in L.A. in 2008. Here is what Giannis is doing at the same age: After a 44-win season last year, he led the Bucks to 60 wins, the league’s best record and the team’s most wins in almost four decades.

Even though we share some similar experiences as international players, Giannis and I are different players. We have different basketball influences. We grew up in different eras of basketball. And, importantly, I was never putting up the numbers that Giannis is six years into the league. Or any year, for that matter, in case you were wondering.

So I wouldn’t want to compare myself and Giannis too closely, either.

Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Finally: Giannis is not Kobe Bryant.

I repeat: Not the Mamba.

Nobody is quite like Kobe. His combination of talent and will to win is like nothing I’ve seen in my career. I’ll tell you a short story: I remember showing up at the Lakers’ training camp in 2012, after a summer playing for Spain at the London Olympics. Kobe and Team USA had beaten us in the gold medal round a few weeks before. In the time after the Olympics and before training camp, I had been resting my body. On the first day of camp, I remember that Kobe challenged me to a game of one-on-one after practice. And because he knew that playing the post was my thing, he demanded that the game be in the post only. I couldn’t turn down the challenge. I was in O.K. shape, but my body was still recovering from the summer. Kobe wouldn’t let me refuse, so we played. He was talking trash. So I tried to hold my ground by talking back a little. Kobe was not messing around — he was ready to beat me. So I tried to match his energy. But no matter what I did, he was not going to take it easy on me. I remember I was like, “Kobe, relax. The season’s just starting, I’m still getting my legs back. Relax.”

One day in the future, maybe I’ll tell you who won that game. Actually, screw it, you know who won.

I like this story because I think it tells you a lot about how Kobe approached the game. He never let himself get out of shape. He was always ready to go, and he demanded that everybody else be on the same page. I don’t believe that Kobe ever took a break. It was championship mode, pure and simple. The six and a half years I played with Kobe were my best basketball years. I learned the most about my game, and a big reason was number 24.

And here’s what I will tell you: Giannis and Young Kobe share some important qualities.

I remember when Kobe tweeted this before the 2017–18 season:

 

He challenged Giannis to win the MVP that year. And I think it surprised a lot of NBA fans — the young guy from Milwaukee? Was Kobe serious? Wasn’t it too soon?

I think Giannis was just as surprised. Last month, I asked Giannis about it, and his response was something like, “This guy, one of the greatest of all time, he’s challenging me to be the MVP. That means he thinks and believes that I can.” Giannis told me that it motivated him like nothing else … he wasn’t scared or taken aback from it. It was a public and a private challenge.

Giannis and Young Kobe share some important qualities.

Giannis didn’t win the MVP last year, of course. But if you look at how much his game has improved since the last year … it’s clear that something clicked. Fewer people are surprised now.

Last summer, Kobe invited Giannis to work out with him in Newport, and I already knew how it would go. Not because I was there — I just know what Kobe would be like with him. Kobe would be intense. Kobe would constantly be teaching. Kobe wouldn’t give Giannis any cheap praise. He would challenge him. He would try to break him down.

Giannis told me how it went. He said Kobe told him to prioritize preparation. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Watch tape. Identify your weaknesses, the weaknesses of your opponents, their tendencies. Add something new to your game each summer.

And that’s what I saw Kobe do with his own game. He approached preparation like it was a competition in itself. I see Giannis doing the same. He spends a lot of time watching tape with assistant coaches, I’d be surprised if there was another player on the team that watched more film than he does.

Like I said, Giannis is not Kobe. But both guys bring an uncommon intensity and competitiveness to the way they play, and it’s only something you can really see if you’ve been near them. You see it in their eyes. They both bring an edge to the way they practice, too. I’ve been Giannis’s teammate for far less time than I was Kobe’s, but I know what Kobe’s approach to practice was like. He practiced as hard as he played. To Kobe, everything was a challenge.

During this playoffs, when we lost Game 1 of the second round against the Celtics, we all knew we didn’t compete to the best of our ability. And, of course, a lot of criticism landed on Giannis because he’s our main guy. Before Game 2, I saw him respond the way I’ve seen Kobe respond to adversity in high-pressure moments: Giannis didn’t guarantee a Game 2 win. He didn’t act arrogant or defensive. He was cool and poised. He knew he needed to bounce back. And he did. We haven’t lost since.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Here are the facts:

Giannis is the best player on the league’s best regular-season team.

Giannis will be first team All-NBA and first team All-Defense. He’s been one of the most dominant players in the league, on both ends of the court.

Giannis, with 60 wins in the regular season behind him, has a chance to take the Bucks to the franchise’s first Finals in 45 years.

Simply put: Giannis is the MVP of this season.

So let’s not focus too much on who he is similar to. No need to compare him to anyone. He doesn’t have the record of an entire career behind him, or even of half a career. He’s not the same as the players I mentioned here.

Simply put: Giannis is the MVP.

 

But most of the best players in this league, past or present, don’t perform — even at the peak of their careers — like my young Greek teammate is doing this year. He’s only 24. And that should worry the rest of the league. Because he’s only just getting started.

So instead of comparing him to others, let’s just watch him play, watch him grow and enjoy his journey.

Let’s let Giannis be Giannis.

There’s no predicting how high he can go.

Pau Gasol
Milwaukee Bucks