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Bucks rookie Antetokounmpo learning on the job

Antetokounmpo

Larry Drew brought 33 years of NBA experience to the Milwaukee Bucks when he took over as coach last year.

It would take a teenager who didn’t speak English very well just one day to pick out a mistake in his playbook.

Long before Giannis Antetokounmpo was a bright spot in a bleak season for the Bucks, before we discovered that he was a hard worker and the personal champion for his immigrant family, he was a complete mystery to his own coach.

Drew barely had the keys to the Cousins Center when he walked by the NBA draft board and saw the name: Antetokounmpo.

“I didn’t know this kid,” said Drew.

Director of scouting Billy McKinney gave Drew a highlight tape of an 18-year-old player from Greece who could play above the rim but who also tethered the basketball while running up and down the court. Drew figured he was 6 feet 1 inch “because he’s doing things like a guard.”

Antetokounmpo was 6-9.

And the Bucks made Antetokounmpo their first-round draft choice a month later.

That’s a tough assignment for any coach — to take over a struggling team and then take on a total stranger. Drew couldn’t help but wonder — what do I have to work with?

At a summer tournament in Europe, Drew got his answer when Antetokounmpo took a rebound off the glass, sprinted to the other end, faked out one defender at the top of the key, drove by traffic in the lane and threaded the needle with a bounce pass to the open man.

“That sold me,” said Drew. “That play there was an NBA play. My wheels got to turning.”

On the first day that the Bucks assembled as a team last fall, Drew handed out his playbook. It was a big book, a booster seat for a toddler at the kitchen table. The players collected the materials and dispersed. Hours later, Drew was at home.

“Giannis texted me and told me he was going through his playbook,” said Drew. “Now, I would guess that he was the only one from the team that picked that playbook up on Day 1. He was going through, page by page by page by page and caught an error in one of the offensive plays.

“And he corrected me. I made a mistake, in the playbook. I was shocked that he was able to discover that.”

This is how Drew and Antetokounmpo began down their road together — doing what they knew how to do, but also studying each other. When Giannis turned 19 in December, Drew decided he had to adjust his coaching a little. The coach remembered playing a season in Italy, in the middle of his professional career, and the solitude, the different food, the different culture. “It was tough,” he said.

He felt empathy for his rookie.

So Drew made sure the kid had his cell phone number so he could text him anytime. And early on, Antetokounmpo did.

“A lot,” said Drew.

A father to three boys, Drew thought of sending one of them away to another country at Antetokounmpo’s age. He would want a coach to be a father figure to them, and so he started to feel protective of Antetokounmpo. His approach became a little less demanding and a little more instructive.

“I’m not a screamer but I can lose my cool sometimes,” said Drew. “I try to be a little more selective with him when I’m correcting. I don’t want to show favoritism but I have to recognize the fact that this kid is only 19 years old.”

Drew and his staff have caught themselves throwing out names and plays and instructions so fast in a game, or in practice, with Antetokounmpo nodding along — but maybe not really caught up.

“There’s something he might be missing,” said Drew. “We have to keep reminding ourselves that we’ve got a guy that doesn’t speak fluid English and he doesn’t understand fluid English.

“I just keep reminding myself, he’s 19 years old. I’ve got a 19-year-old here.”

That’s a good reminder for all of us. Though he averages 7.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists and represented the Bucks at the all-star break as a rising star, at the Cousins Center, Antetokounmpo finished practice, the last one to leave the court for the second time this particular week, after working on his post moves and free throws. He’s a hard worker but still a kid in some ways, showing coaches a clipboard with a drawing of a simple house on it.

“I penned this,” he said.

He is young, but his time to develop ran out when the Bucks were hit with a ridiculous amount of injuries at the start of the season. Antetokounmpo’s ready smile lacks the usual weariness of older NBA veterans. While the Bucks have been punished with the worst record in the NBA and sections of seats at the BMO Harris Bradley Center are abandoned, he’s been a reason to watch. He’s a popular interview request, including one more on this day.

“No,” he says, cornered between the weights and the locker room.

“Three minutes I will talk, that’s all,” he says. “Maybe four.

“Four and a half.”

He takes a seat with a heavy sigh, cutting his towering height in half. He has grown an inch this season, to 6-10.

He speaks English pretty well and he’s patient in conversation, but when he doesn’t understand something, he doesn’t fake a response or an answer — he asks for an explanation. He wants to understand everything.

And it starts off with the fact he’s bulked up a little with the Bucks’ strength and conditioning routines. Drew said he’s caught Antetokounmpo checking himself out in the mirror.

 Culled from jsonline.com

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