Get Ready to Love Thanasis Antetokounmpo
There’s this memory that will always linger in the back of my mind for the rest of Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s career. The minute that Giannis was selected 15th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in last June’s Draft, player-turned-personality Jalen Rose could not get past the audacity of Giannis’ last name. The extent of Rose’s analysis was, more or less, that Antetokounmpo would be called ‘Po from the first day of practice and that would be that.
Less than twelve months later it seems bizarre to limit discussion about Antetokounmpo to the length of his surname. As Summer League turned to preseason, collectively the NBA realized that the Bucks had selected a player of seemingly limitless potential, with limbs long enough to match. It was theorized that, were the 2013 Draft to be re-held today, the first overall selection would be Giannis.
But Antetokounmpo’s rookie year came to mean a lot more than his glimmers of avant-garde athleticism. It meant a lot more than his meager 6.8 points per game for the 30th-best of the league’s 30 teams. We all fell in love with Giannis.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a basketball player unlike any we’ve seen so far. This is true of his all-encompassing skill-set, it’s true of his preposterous physique. Mostly, though, it’s true of his personality. Giannis is unlike any other professional basketball player because he is entirely devoid of pretensions, because he has a limitless supply of optimism, because he so earnestly prefers the cocoon of his family to the unsavory independence of NBA road life.
As the NBA’s youngest player, Giannis also did the best job of keeping the NBA in perspective: although the Bucks’ torrential losing season had to feel demoralizing more nights than not, the losing never deterred Giannis’ daily efforts to improve his game, and the losing never tempered his verve and joy for life.
And now there is Thanasis, Giannis’ older brother by two years, interviewed here at last week’s Draft Combine:
Thanasis clearly shares Giannis’ prodigious and unrelenting work ethic. The Antetokounmpo brothers are capable of imbibing a cardboard-texture cliche like “always giving 100%” with enough earnestness and honesty that the phrase is born anew with rich meaning.
You might notice, though: while Giannis calmly smiles his way through the world, there are brief fissures of anxiety and doubt on Thanasis’ face—especially in the brief pauses between questions. I think I recognize those micro-expressions of confusion, of pessimism. I think I recognize them coming from my face, as an older brother who loves his younger brother, as an older brother in awe of his younger brother’s prodigious talents while trying to figure out where/if I fit in the world. The introverted and pensive older sibling, the bubbly and expressive younger sibling: it’s a theme as classic as Shakespeare and as modern as the conversation around your Thanksgiving table.
Thanasis is shorter than Giannis, and deemed to be less skilled as well: while Giannis took his lumps for Milwaukee in the big show, Thanasis spent his 2013-14 season with the Delaware 87ers, averaging a modest 12.0 points per game. (The 87ers finished with a 12-38 record, meaning that the Antetokounmpo brothers, in their first year in America, were on the worst basketball teams in two separate leagues.) With Giannis already at the center of his team’s nucleus, Thanasis is projected to be a second-round pick, a designation that will leave him exposed to non-guaranteed contracts, rapid and impersonal trades across the league, and, of course, appointments to and from the Development League. Yes: even after being drafted, Thanasis could find himself playing in the same half-empty arenas across suburban America once more.
Nonetheless: get ready to love Thanasis Antetokounmpo. I already find it easy. No amount of trading and cutting and demoting will temper his passion for self-improvement, and no fate will prevent him from loving his brother or his family any less than he already does.
Next season, Thanasis’ first minutes on the NBA floor will probably be infrequent and awkward. But I’ll be pulling for him as hard as I’ll be pulling for any player in the NBA, because if the Antetokounmpo brothers succeed, something will feel joyously right with the world.