Bulls

Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo flourishing in unique point guard role

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Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo flourishing in unique point guard role

Teammate Jerryd Bayless said he has “a chance to be really special.” Greg Monroe described his skill set as “pretty rare.” Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg already dubbed him “truly one of the superstars in this league.” And now, 21-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo is showing off yet another facet of his ever-expanding game as the Bucks’ point guard.

The 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo is hardly a point guard in stature. For the first two-and-a-half seasons of his NBA career his incomparable blend of size, length and quickness allowed him time at shooting guard and both forward positions. But the Bucks’ most versatile player – on a team full of them – the “Greek Freak,” as he’s been aptly nicknamed, is now showcasing his abilities as the team’s main distributor.

And it’s more than just a gimmick, or a desperate move from head coach Jason Kidd to shake up a roster that has fallen short on preseason expectations. Antetokounmpo, the prized jewel of the 2013 Draft, is thriving in his new role, which began two weeks ago. It’s given life to an offense ranked among the league’s worst, freed up shooters on the wings and given Kidd more options to use at his disposal. And the rising star looked the part in Monday’s 100-90 loss to the Bulls, scoring 12 points and handing out 10 assists in 37 minutes.

“Playmaking,” he said when asked what he liked most about running the offense. “Making the right play. Sometimes it’s going to be a shot for me, sometimes it’s a pass for my teammates. That’s what brought me in this league when I was younger. Finding the open guys. I love doing it right now.”

[RELATED: Pau Gasol's triple-double helps Bulls grind out win over Bucks]

Prior to the All-Star break Kidd moved point guard Michael Carter-Williams and center Greg Monroe to the bench. With natural shooting guard O.J. Mayo taking Carter-Williams’ spot in the lineup, it left the Bucks offense without a true point guard. And while Antetokounmpo doesn’t fit that bill, his role as the team’s main facilitator has been pronounced.

From Feb. 22, the night Antetokounmpo logged his first career triple-double, Antetokounmpo has touched the ball an average of 95.4 times per game. That’s fifth in the NBA, and a considerable amount higher than the 59.0 touches per game he received up until that point.

His 70.1 passes per game are 7th in the NBA in that span, up nearly 30 passes since before he took over point duties. He’s averaged 8.9 assists per game as the team’s main distributor, and only the league’s four leading assisters have averaged more in that frame (Rondo, Wall, Westbrook, Paul).

“He has intangibles you can’t teach. As big as he is, the things that he can do, nobody else can really do,” Bayless said. “It’s very rare. You don’t see guys do what he can do. It’s a rare skill set and we’re lucky to have him here.”

The Bucks are just 3-5 since Antetokounmpo’s first triple-double – he’s added two more since then – and are now 12 games under .500 following Monday’s loss. But progress on Antetokounmpo’s part has also yielded dividends for the players around him.

Chicago native Jabari Parker is averaging 20.5 points over his last eight games, including a career-best 36 points on a night where Antetokounmpo logged 11 assists. Khris Middleton, the Bucks’ leading scorer, has averaged 23.5 points. The Bucks’ offense has been more than four points per 100 possessions better since then, a considerable jump for the league’s eighth lowest scoring teams.

"I'm noticing it. Especially Jabari, he's getting more open shots, more open looks. He's getting more open lanes and that's what I'm trying to do. Trying to get other guys to be better (and) have more open looks."

The on-the-fly transition for a kid who celebrated his 21st birthday three months ago Sunday has been aided by one of best tutors he could have asked for. Kidd spent 19 seasons in the NBA as a point guard, ranking second all-time in assists. And the future Hall of Famer has been a major factor in Antetokounmpo’s growth in such a short time.

“Having J-Kidd talking to me at practice, before the game, after the game, it’s great. He’s one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game,” he said. “I don’t feel really comfortable but he talks to me, he gives me tips every day, to improve in spots. Having him is great. It’s like having a cheat code.”

Antetokounmpo’s presence has become a cheat code of sorts for the Bucks. He handed out four assists in the first half to four different Bucks. He finished a pair of highlight reel dunks and, despite the cold shooting night, knew when to distribute, tallying six more assists in the second half. In addition to his new role at the point, he spent his 37 minutes on the other end of the floor guarding just about everyone, from Taj Gibson to Derrick Rose. He finished with three steals and a block.

“I think he’s doing a good job of making the right decisions,” Monroe said. “Knowing when to attack, knowing when to find people. It’s a big adjustment for him probably more than anybody, asked to play a new position, probably the toughest position in the sport.”

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It's a position he'll remain in likely for the remainder of the season. Earlier Monday the Bucks announced that Carter-Williams would miss the rest of the season following left hip surgery. Bayless is more of a shoot-first player, a point guard in position only, and Tyler Ennis has appeared in 28 games. That leaves Antetokounmpo to continue running the Bucks offense, which has ranked 15th in efficiency since Kidd gave the reins to his young forward.

He’s still adjusting to the way defenses are playing time – Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio guarded him on Friday, while Thunder forwards Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka drew his assignment Sunday night in Milwaukee – and is still ironing out the jump shot aspect of his game – he went 1-for-5 on shots not at the rim. And while he still doesn’t feel comfortable in the new role, a role he’s been in for two short weeks, he looks every bit the part for a Bucks team getting a spark from its budding star.

“My teammates and coaches help me every day and show me the right things, talk to me on the court,” he said. “I think it’s coming day by day more naturally and as I move forward I’ll get more comfortable.”

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

This is part of a four-part series looking back at the historic career of Michael Jordan and the legacy he left on the game of basketball. It all leads up to Saturday when we unveil his top 5 moments on his 55th birthday. Here are 55-4544-23, and 22-6.

5. Jordan wins fourth title and finishes greatest individual season ever, June 16, 1996

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Jordan accomplished during the 1995-96 season. We’ll try:He won his fourth championship, was named NBA Finals MVP for a record fourth time, won All-Star Game MVP, won a record 72 games, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, was the league’s leading scorer and became the Bulls’ all-time leader in games played. So when he dropped a casual 22 points in Game 6, it marked the end of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Oh, and Space Jam came out a few months later.
 
4. Jordan hits six triples, scores 35 points in first half against Blazers, June 3, 1992

During the 1991-92 regular season, Jordan never made more than three 3-pointers in a single game. In fact, the most 3-pointers he had in any two-game stretch that year was four. So when he began burying triple after triple in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, even Jordan couldn’t believe it, giving a shrug toward the NBC announcers as if to say, “I don’t know, either.” Jordan finished the first half with six triples and scored an NBA-record 35 points. The Bulls cruised in the second half, so Jordan finished with only 39, but his shrug remains one of the most iconic NBA Finals moments in history.
 
3. Jordan battles the flu, scores 38 in Game 5 on his way to fifth title, June 11, 1997

The Flu Game. Jordan was battling a nasty illness in the lead-up to a pivotal Game 5 in Utah, and there were concerns about whether he would even suit up. Hours before tip Jordan got out of bed and made his way to the arena, looking to halt Utah’s momentum after it had taken Games 3 and 4 to tie the series. The Jazz came out red-hot while Jordan looked sluggish, but he responded with 17 points in the second quarter alone to give the Bulls a halftime lead. Jordan then keyed a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a Jazz lead, and he hit a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead. The Bulls hung on, and Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms walking off the floor. His final line? 38 points, 13 of 27 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Two days later the Bulls won the title in front of a sellout Chicago crowd.

2. Jordan scores 63 points against Celtics in playoff loss, April 20, 1986

Jordan had just turned 23 years old when he took to the Boston Garden floor to face Larry Bird in his prime and the Celtics. These Celtics had gone 40-1 at home, led the NBA in field goal percentage defense, started FOUR future Hall of Famers and had a fifth come off the bench. They would ultimately go down as one of the all-time greatest teams, and Jordan made them look absolutely silly. He played 50 minutes in the double-overtime thriller, shooting 22 of 41 from the field and making 19 of 21 free throws, including the last two with no time on the clock and the Bulls trailing by two at the end of regulation. He scored 54 in regulation, added five in the first overtime and four in the second. He also led the Bulls with six assists. It still stands as the NBA record for most points in any playoff game. Twenty-three years old. Twenty. Three.

1. Jordan scores 45 in final game with the Bulls, securing sixth championship, June 14, 1998

Jordan’s final game with the Bulls was iconic. Like so many of these moments, die hards know exactly where they were. The 45 points were majestic, and while he only had one rebound and one assist he affected just about every possession on both ends. But what we’ll remember most is the final 37 seconds. Jordan drove to the basket for layup that cut Utah’s lead to one, then stripped Karl Malone from behind on the next trip down. That gave the ball back to the Bulls with 20 seconds left. Jordan let the clock tick down to around 9 seconds before making his move from the left wing, driving right on Bryon Russell, (maybe pushing off) and pulling up for a jumper at the foul line. The shot was good with 5.2 seconds remaining, and John Stockton’s ensuing 3-pointer was off the mark. It gave Jordan and the Bulls their sixth NBA title, and marked the perfect ending to his Bulls career: getting it done on both ends, in the clutch, and finishing with a victory. Because it encapsulated so much of his 14-year career in Chicago, it’s our top Michael Jordan moment.

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn have moments in highlight-filled rising stars challenge

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn have moments in highlight-filled rising stars challenge

LOS ANGELES—Kris Dunn wanted to have some fun in the Rising Stars game while Lauri Markkanen wanted to get a win.

Both accomplished their goals, being on opposite sides for the first time as the best first and second year players were divided into U.S. and International teams, with the World Team winning 155-124 Friday night at Staples Center.

It wasn’t set up for either Dunn or Markkanen to truly stand out considering the presence of Lakers and Celtics players who were more notable and flashy, along with the spectacular exploits of rookies Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Dennis Smith Jr (Denver).

Those two certainly wowed the crowd at times with half-court alley-oop passes, giving a preview of what Saturday night will look like, considering both will be in the dunk contest.

Dunn scored nine points in 18 minutes while Markkanen scored 15 in 22 minutes. Both came off the bench, ceding to the likes of Sacramento’s Buddy Hield (29 points) and Bogdan Bogdanovic, who turned the game into his own 3-point showcase with 30-foot bombs, hitting seven triples for 26 points off the bench.

Boston’s Jaylen Brown led all scorers with 35 points and 10 rebounds, playing for the U.S. team, showing his entire bag of tricks with spectacular dunks and dribble moves for jumpers.

Markkanen had his moments in the “game within a game” category. When prompted by World coach Rex Kalamian that the first player to get a block would get $100, Markkanen tipped the next shot at the rim and pointed to the scorer’s table, but wasn’t credited with the block.

However, he felt like he got his pound of flesh with Dunn on a tip-dunk. The two didn’t have their moment

“I almost jumped over his head. That counts,” he joked.

Dunn made sure that although he and Markkanen were on opposite sides that he remained Markkanen’s biggest fan.

When asked who was his pick for rookie of the year, he repeatedly said “Lauri Markkanen”, over the likes of Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma from the Lakers, another standout rookie.

His reasoning was simple.

“Why? He hit eight threes in Madison Square Garden,” Dunn said, half-jokingly.

Half-jokingly.

“For Lauri to be a rookie and have so much confidence in himself and to play in big time games, especially at Madison Square Garden. I’m gonna keep bringing that game up. Because He had eight three’s. You don’t see that too mnay times. Lauri is a big player for us,” Dunn said.

Markkanen probably won’t win the award but to see Dunn so steadfastly support his teammate in this way is a good sign for a budding relationship, despite the light moments of competitiveness where Dunn said he wanted to take advantage of Markkanen on the perimeter.

Markkanen’s game has been aided by Dunn on the floor and one could see how the quality of looks Markkanen had in the past few weeks suffered with Dunn out due to a concussion.

Dunn’s turnaround directly led to the Bulls turning around their season in December, and he remembers what he was doing this time last year at the All-Star break when he wasn’t selected to be part of the rookie challenge.

“Thibs had me in the gym,” Dunn said.

It seemed unlikely but he’s rebounded nicely, being a shoo-in for 15 points, eight assists and two steals on a nightly basis. Turning the corner has been a bright spot in the season.

“I wouldn’t say a specific game but each and every game I started to get more comfortable, not with myself but with my team,” Dunn said. “Being a point guard, you gotta build that chemistry with your teammates and try to figure out where everybody needs the ball. How you can be aggressive and lead at the same time.”