Giannis Earned His Ring. The Next Step? Respect.
Updated: Oct 9, 2021
With Tuesday night’s Finals-clinching win, Giannis Antetokounmpo has reached another crucial benchmark in his journey towards NBA immortality: his first championship ring.
The Greek Freak’s path to the pros began as an 18-year-old, where he was drafted 15th overall in 2013. A shroud of mystery surrounded Antetokounmpo—after spending just two years in the semi-pro Greek B Basket League, he was about to be thrown into a fire of the world’s best basketball players. It had become increasingly popular for raw international prospects to remain overseas after being drafted to keep developing. But Antetokounmpo was ready to fight the flames.
“I know I’m not ready,” he told reporters on draft night. “I have a lot of work ahead of me. But I’m not afraid. I will give everything on the court, in the gym, and I will prove to the Milwaukee Bucks that they made the right choice.”
Like any season’s champions, the Milwaukee Bucks faced plenty of adversity on their road to the top. But perhaps the night that proved most trying was Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, when Antetokounmpo hyperextended his knee and left his teammates wondering if he would miss the rest of the postseason entirely.
What followed was nothing short of extraordinary. Living up to his superhero moniker, Antetokounmpo suited up for Game 1 of the Finals and obliterated the Phoenix Suns’ interior defense. He led both teams in points (35.2), rebounds (13.2), and blocks (1.8) per game, including an instant-classic Game 6 to the tune of 50 points, 14 rebounds, and five blocks. Oh, and he made 17 out of 19 attempts from the free throw line. This is the same man that converted just 55.6 percent of his free throw attempts leading up to Game 6 and 71.6 percent over his career, far below league average.
Antetokounmpo’s awe-inspiring performance deservingly earned a unanimous Finals MVP selection. This is yet another impressive award in his trophy case, and he has launched himself toward the pantheon of NBA greats. Antetokounmpo is now the third player in league history to win MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and Finals MVP. The others—Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon—are two of the best players to ever step foot on a basketball court.
Antetokounmpo should earn showers of praise from his peers solely for being in the same sentence as the Greatest of All Time. However, it seems that he’s been starved of recognition—at least on social media. Owen Phillips, creator of The F5 newsletter, tracked the number of times that NBA players mentioned their peers on Twitter. Since January 1, NBA players have mentioned Giannis 188 times on the platform. That seems like an impressive number until you compare it to that of other stars in the league. Stephen Curry (336), LeBron James (376), and Damian Lillard (400) all have considerably more attention from players, yet none of them advanced past the first round of the playoffs.
Even more shocking was the number of explicit mentions (or @’s) Phillips observed. James led the league with 247 mentions from current and retired players, followed by Lillard, Curry, and Bradley Beal. There were eight players that received at least 100, but Antetokounmpo was not one of them. Giannis received just 37 mentions, only seven more than his fellow Buck Khris Middleton.
What’s the reason for this disparity? I have two theories—the first being Giannis’ lack of interaction with the league’s upper echelon. Many NBA players forge lifelong relationships, perhaps the most famous being the “Banana Boat Team” consisting of James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony. Let’s just say that you won’t see Giannis in Cabo with another superstar this offseason.
“I know that because I’m a nice person, I’m going to start building relationships,” Giannis told Sam Amick of The Athletic. “I want to play for 20 years and just play, and then make friendships at the end.”
Antetokounmpo is no different on social media. You’ll see NBA players interacting on Twitter on a regular basis, mentioning each other and trading playful barbs. But Giannis is all business—since the beginning of the year, he’s mentioned his two brothers, Thanasis and Kostas, Eric Bledsoe (his former teammate), and James.
The second theory pertains to international NBA players. Plenty of U.S. players grow up together or become friends in high school after an AAU tournament or state championship. Thus, it can be difficult for players from overseas to form such close bonds with stars around the league. This can be seen in Phillips’ research: the Slovenian Luka Doncic has 38 direct mentions, which is 16th in the league. Doncic is already one of the best players in the NBA at just 22 years old, yet there are others like Draymond Green (49 mentions) receiving more attention than he is. And it’s not a knock against Green; it’s just an example of how relationships equal recognition in the NBA.
There’s no question that Giannis is on a trajectory toward becoming the best power forward of all time. Heck, he might even finish his career as a top-10 player in NBA history. His dominant Finals performance was a major step toward that goal. I have no doubt that the league’s brightest stars respect Giannis’ game, but it would be appreciated as a fan to see some love sent his way after such magnificent performances like Game 6.