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Antetokounmpo no longer just a diamond in the rough

by Sam Smith

Giannis Antetokounmpo probably is the least favorite player of NBA writers.

Just imagine trying to write “Antetokounmpo” on deadline. And that often.

Antetokounmpo led his team in every major statistical category this season, points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. He is the fifth ever to do so in league history. And as his Milwaukee Bucks battle for the upset of the Toronto Raptors in the first-round playoff series, Antetokounmpo leads his team in all five statistical categories.

Russell Westbrook’s record triple-double season?

Impressive.

Antetokounmpo —the Greek Freak, as he’s mostly known in the U.S. for simplicity these days — could be the first ever NBA player to record a quintuple-double.

If his name is frightful to spell, his game is a joy to watch.

The just 22-year-old, fourth year pro is on the way to becoming one of the best and most unique players in the history of the game, perhaps the first perfect square of a player, a 211-cm man with a 211-cm reach. His strides are so long, opponent P.J. Tucker in the Raptors series joked he’s always one stride away from dunking wherever he is. It didn’t seem that much of an exaggeration. When he dunks his body is so elongated that his toes still are touching the floor.

In the sport in which the players are getting bigger and faster and longer and even more poetic in their movements, when you thought you’d seen it all, here comes someone you couldn’t have drawn up.

He’s a center playing point guard, some sort of freakish — and we mean that in only the most positive and celebratory ways — a combination of LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippen and Andrei Kirilenko. He runs down players with the octopus reach of Pippen. He’s not quite like his coach, star point guard Jason Kidd, on offense quite yet, but coming at you in transition like James and is the center of his team’s offense.

We thought pterodactyls were extinct.

Antetokounmpo is the favorite for the league’s Most Improved Player award this season, having gone from good to elite. He’s probably going to be the first Most Improved winner ever to be league Most Valuable Player.

His story is truly amazing and inspiring, the son of immigrants whose parents because they were illegal from Africa rarely went out when they were in Greece for fear of deportation.

How bad were things back in Nigeria that Greece with all its economic woes was a relief?

Antetokounmpo and his brothers thus could not even become citizens. He became a street peddler to help support the family, selling items to tourists, singing or entertaining.

Growing to 211-cm tall with hands larger than that of Kawhi Leonard or Michael Jordan, a man who could palm Sunday, as it’s said, helps with economics. He quickly jumped into European professional basketball, and then in 2013 the Bucks took a chance on this gangly, awkward teenager with the 15th pick in the NBA Draft.

Milwaukee is a nice, little city about 145 km along Lake Michigan north of Chicago.

Well, nice if you like freezing, barren wastelands. OK, not quite that bad, but it’s a numbing climate with a quiet downtown area.

It’s not an NBA destination. It’s not the worst NBA city. Oklahoma City is the most desolate city center, a place the NBA never thought about until some oil men hijacked the Seattle SuperSonics.

Black players have often stayed away from Salt Lake City for its religious Mormon culture that doesn’t always treat people the same.

So how do you ever get better in Milwaukee?

Bucks GM John Hammond decided not only through the draft as the Bucks have had numerous top-10 draft picks in recent years like Yi Jianlian, Joe Alexander and Brandon Jennings.

And free agents don’t even return their calls. Sometimes a reach. NBA execs had seen this unique player looking interesting in a Nike camp.

But who had he played against?

Where had he played?

Antetokounmpo averaged 6.8 points for the 15-win Bucks as a rookie and looked lost.

Who wouldn’t?

But he was a delightful kid finding a new world, or, really, the world. He loved pumping gas in his own car. He exulted about hamburgers.

Kidd came in as coach and the Bucks went to .500. They suffered setbacks with the ACL tear of Jabari Parker, and again this season when Parker suffered a second such tear.

But then Antetokounmpo went on a tear. Even with top shooter Khris Middleton out much of the season with an injury and Parker lost again, Antetokounmpo took charge. He became the leader and dominant player on offense, the leader and dominant player on defense, his chase-down blocks already becoming the stuff of legend like James’; like Antetokounmpo made on Kyle Lowry in the first-round playoff series.

Players suddenly began looking everywhere for Antetokounmpo coming on defense, and then getting out of the way of his amazingly long strides on offense. He’s still not a great shooter, but improving, and after the All-Star break the Bucks were one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference with Antetokounmpo becoming the first Bucks All-Star in more than a decade.

He was the first Bucks’ player to start an All-Star Game since Sidney Moncrief more than 30 years ago.

LeBron is going on 33; Giannis (now that’s easier) has signed a four-year extension and declared he wants to be a Buck for life.

How long before the road to the championship goes through Milwaukee?

And if you are a fan of basketball, you have to love Antetokounmpo.

Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”