Consider that Antetokounmpo didn’t leave the franchise that drafted him for better weather and brighter lights. Consider that he turned around a forgotten Bucks franchise step by step rather than seeking out a superteam. Consider that, in some of the biggest moments of Milwaukee’s remarkable run, he ceded the ball to Khris Middleton without a hint of a tug-of-war. Consider, too, that his wide-ranging defensive impact was just as important as his scoring prowess.
With those factors in mind, Antetokounmpo starts to sound an awful lot like an early-career Tim Duncan, albeit with a vertical leap that eluded the San Antonio Spurs legend. Both are selfless franchise pillars. The Bucks don’t win this championship, their first since 1971, if Antetokounmpo hadn’t recommitted to the organization after back-to-back playoff heartbreaks. Antetokounmpo’s presence was the magnet that brought Coach Mike Budenholzer to town, kept Middleton in place as a sidekick and made it worth trading all those draft picks to acquire Jrue Holiday.
Antetokounmpo and Duncan share an aversion to the spotlight, although the former can trend toward goofy while the latter remained serious. Both are the furthest thing from high fashion icons, although at least Antetokounmpo favors trendy Nike sweatsuits rather than jean shorts. Both strongly prefer walking to talking and care about winning above all else.
While Antetokounmpo has found a way to break through to the masses — ranking among the league leaders in jersey sales and all-star votes while sporting his own signature shoe — the attention doesn’t motivate him. “I’m only here not to get fined,” he joked during a Finals news conference. Was he joking?
The key difference between Antetokounmpo and Duncan is that the Bucks drafted an unknown project from Greece while the Spurs landed the ultimate blue chip from the ACC. Duncan was an all-star in Year 1 and a champion in Year 2; Antetokounmpo has built himself up from a scrawny backup to a two-time MVP over eight seasons.
That journey included no shortcuts: Antetokounmpo climbed the mountain like Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dirk Nowitzki and Stephen Curry. He won without leaving first, unlike O’Neal, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and countless others.
Of course, many things had to break right for Milwaukee to reach the summit. Brooklyn Nets stars Kyrie Irving and James Harden got injured. Durant’s toe was on the line during a possible game-winner. Antetokounmpo’s knee injury miraculously healed in time for the Finals. Middleton and Holiday blended their talents together perfectly in a riveting Finals, while Phoenix Suns star Chris Paul faded as the series unfolded.
Antetokounmpo was unshakable through it all. The incessant heckling over his foul shooting. The scoring explosions from Durant that led Antetokounmpo to call him “the best player in the world” during their second-round series. The knee injury that made him scream in pain and required his older brother, Thanasis, to help him off the court. The agonizing two-game absence in the Eastern Conference finals, when all he could do was cheer on his teammates from the sideline. The many bad starts: the 0-2 hole against the Brooklyn Nets, the ugly Game 1 loss to the Hawks, the 0-2 hole and then the massive first-quarter deficit in Game 5 against the Suns.
“When you focus on the past, that’s your ego,” Antetokounmpo said during the Finals. “When I focus on the future, that’s my pride. … I try to focus in the moment, in the present, and that’s humility. That’s not setting expectations. That’s competing at a high level.”
By the end, Antetokounmpo’s approach paid off with the best night of his life in a closeout win and playoff averages of 30.2 points, 12.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists. The best historical comparisons for that postseason run belong to a pair of do-everything forwards — James and Larry Bird — rather than a big man such as O’Neal or Duncan.
If that’s surprising, consider that Antetokounmpo’s perfectly timed swat of Deandre Ayton’s dunk drew comparisons to James’s epic chase-down block of Andre Iguodala in the 2016 Finals. Or that Antetokounmpo was asked to be a key drive-and-kick passer throughout the playoffs. Or that he mixed in some Olajuwon pirouettes and Nowitzki midrange jumpers at key moments. When Antetokounmpo took a moment to snarl after dunking over Paul in Game 5, there was a little bit of Bird-like ruthlessness staring into the camera.
What makes him so fascinating, and so incredible, is his range. Jordan and Durant are better scorers. Bird and Nowitzki were better shooters. James is a better passer. Duncan was a better shot-blocker. O’Neal was more physical on the block. Olajuwon was more graceful. Yet Antetokounmpo can do a little bit of just about everything very well, and his robust package of skills — from finishing to playmaking to help defense to leadership — make him worthy of these lofty comparisons. And when the Bucks needed it most, Antetokounmpo even made his free throws, going 17 for 19 from the stripe in Game 6 to finish off the title run.
With two MVP awards, a title and a Finals MVP, too, Antetokounmpo is a certified Hall of Famer at 26. Remarkably, Jordan, O’Neal, James and Durant were ringless at 26. That’s the craziest part of all: Despite Antetokounmpo’s arduous path to date, he still has so far to go and so much left to accomplish.