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Bucks’ Antetokounmpo is the real deal

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — There are more difficult things than trying to figure out how to pronounce Giannis Antetokounmpo’s name.

But not many (for the record, it’s “Ah-deh-toh-KOON-boh”) but “Greek Freak” is starting to stick as an alternate moniker.

One of those trying tasks might be just trying narrow down which position the Bucks’ budding star plays; another could be avoiding superlatives to describe how good he is — and can become.

Those are reasonable debates, but what’s not debatable is Antetokounmpo’s improvement this season, which has the Bucks hovering around .500 and thinking playoffs for the third time in the last five seasons. He scored 23 with eight assists and five rebounds while playing 35 minutes of the Bucks' 119-94 victory over the Pistons Wednesday night.

He’s listed as a shooting guard, but at 6-foot-11, 222 pounds, his true position isn’t yet defined, even in his fourth season.

“Antetokounmpo is so unique: a 6-11 guy handling the ball and the ground he can cover in a very few amount of dribbles and what they do at the rim,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said.

“He’s finishing seven percent of his shots in the restricted area. LeBron’s about the only guy I’ve ever seen in that (percentage).”

Last season, Bucks coach Jason Kidd raised eyebrows when he said he planned to use Antetokounmpo as a point guard. But he’s more than that. He’s found himself all over the court, posting up, facing up and hitting from beyond the 3-point arc.

He’s improved his scoring dramatically over each of his three seasons: from 6.8 points as a rookie in 2013-14, up to 12.7 and then 16.9 last season, up to 23.4 points this season — in addition to 9.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.9 blocks.

Maybe the only hole in his game is 3-point shooting, where he’s at just 28 percent, but has refined his overall game in so many other ways. Bucks assistant coach Stacy Augmon said the major boost he’s seen is in Antetokounmpo’s work ethic and motivation to improve on his own, watching film and working on all aspects of his game on a daily basis.

He’s a rising star in the league — and he might just be starting to realize what his potential even is. And that has opposing players and coaches wondering about the possibilities.

“The scary thing is if he ever becomes a consistent perimeter shooter,” Van Gundy said. “Hopefully, I’ll be retired and sitting on a porch somewhere in Florida before that happens — because the guy is scary enough as it is.”

Marcus Morris drew the defensive assignment on Wednesday of trying to slow Antetokounmpo and pointed out his length and athleticism as the two biggest factors in trying to stay with him. It’s the first step off the dribble, then the ability to finish in the paint that makes him even more formidable than other wing players such as LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant.

“He does a great job of getting in the lane and he’s a good player, long and athletic,” Morris said. “His length and size are definitely tough. He can be at the foul line and Euro step and get all the way to the rim.”

Those qualities almost limit the ways in which they can defend him, but Morris tries to keep it simple, rather than trying to put too much into it.

“Just stay in front of him as much as possible and make him take tougher shots and longer shots,” Morris said.

Van Gundy agreed with the assessment.

“(If you give him the first step) you’re done. He’s got such length to go up over everybody; he’s a two-way player,” Van Gundy said. “I asked our staff yesterday: ‘Is he growing still?’ I watched him in the Cleveland game and I said, ‘Wow, he looks bigger every time I see him.’”

“He’s a really good player and I’m sure he’ll be in the All-Star Game this year — and deservedly so.”