SANTA MONICA, Calif. — During the 2013 NBA draft, analyst Fran Fraschilla introduced Giannis Antetokounmpo, a raw and relatively unknown 18-year-old from Greece, as the evening’s “most mysterious” prospect. Six years later, the Milwaukee Bucks forward earned a significantly more prestigious superlative: most valuable player.
The NBA announced Monday that Antetokounmpo had claimed MVP honors by beating out Houston Rockets guard James Harden and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George, his fellow finalists. The league made the announcement at its annual awards show, held at the Barker Hangar.
Antetokounmpo, 24, averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists — all career highs — while leading Milwaukee to a league-best 60 regular season wins. His first MVP award marked another step in a steady ascent for the three-time all-star, who was named first-team all-NBA and all-defense last month. Antetokounmpo became the first Bucks player to be named MVP since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1973-74, and he dedicated the honor to his family and his father, Charles, who died in 2017.
“Two years ago, I had a goal in my head to be the best player in the league and become MVP,” Antetokounmpo said, fighting back tears during an emotional acceptance speech. “I want to thank my dad, who is not here with me. Every day I step on the floor, I think of my dad. I want to thank my amazing brothers. I want to thank my amazing mom [Veronica]. She’s the foundation of this family. You’re my true hero.”
Whereas most of his contemporaries began appearing on the NBA’s radar early during their high school careers, Antetokounmpo slowly attracted attention while playing in Greece’s third division.
The hype around the “Greek Freak” — a long-striding forward who even then excelled in transition and covered ground like few NBA players — propelled him to the 15th pick in 2013 and a bench role as a rookie.
Antetokounmpo’s step-by-step advance continued from there: He became a full-time starter in 2014-15, a lead scoring option in 2015-16, the NBA’s most improved player in 2016-17 and a clear-cut franchise player in 2017-18. This season, his first under Coach Mike Budenholzer, Antetokounmpo led the Eastern Conference in all-star votes, guided the Bucks to their most regular season victories since 1980-81 and delivered the franchise’s first playoff series win since 2001.
“I’m extremely blessed,” Antetokounmpo said. “I want to thank my teammates. It takes more than one person to win 60 games. I want to thank the coaching staff, front office and ownership for believing in me when I was 18 years old back in Greece. They allowed me to lead this team, trusted me.”
If Antetokounmpo began that journey as a shy and foul-happy teenager who famously had never tasted a smoothie, he has become a fearsome and versatile presence who dunks like Shaquille O’Neal, runs the break like LeBron James and leads quietly like Tim Duncan.
“We are beyond proud of Giannis,” Bucks General Manager Jon Horst said in a statement. “Giannis propelled the Bucks to great heights last season with his leadership, drive and unselfish play. His grace on and off the court has made him one of the most admired players in the world.”
The sixth-year pro was the central force of Milwaukee’s third-ranked offense, driving hard to the basket to set up his teammates’ outside shots, and the linchpin of its top-ranked defense. Antetokounmpo was also one of three finalists for defensive player of the year, an award claimed by Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert.
In the playoffs, Antetokounmpo led Milwaukee to a breezy sweep of the Detroit Pistons in the first round and a five-game thumping of the Boston Celtics in the conference semifinals. After claiming a 2-0 lead over the Toronto Raptors in the conference finals, the Bucks lost four straight games in stunning fashion. Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, the eventual NBA Finals MVP, switched onto Antetokounmpo in the defining adjustment of the series.
“As my dad told me, always want more, but never be greedy,” Antetokounmpo said. “My goal is to win a championship, and we’re going to do whatever we can to make that happen.”
Harden, the 2018 MVP, placed second in this year’s voting after scoring a career-high 36.1 points per game, the highest average since Michael Jordan in 1986-87. Although the 29-year-old guard carried the Rockets to 53 wins during an injury-plagued regular season for the team, Houston was eliminated from the playoffs by the Golden State Warriors for the fourth time in five seasons.
George, 29, was an early MVP favorite before fading down the stretch because of a shoulder injury that required surgery this month. After surprising many observers by re-signing with the Thunder in July 2018, George averaged a career-high 28 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists while being named first-team all-NBA and all-defense. But the Thunder’s season ended with a thud when the Portland Trail Blazers eliminated it in the first round.
Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic was named rookie of the year, Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams was named sixth man of the year, Raptors forward Pascal Siakam was named most improved player, Budenholzer was named coach of the year and Horst was named executive of the year.
Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal received the NBA Cares Community Assist Award for his work at Ron Brown College Preparatory High. Beal, who was presented with the award by teammate John Wall, donated sneakers, held movie screenings, led a tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and served as a mentor for the school’s students.