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Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo, all 6-feet-11 of him, is reviving the franchise

Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo drives against Nuggets guard Will Barton during a game Feb. 3.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s intrinsic feel for basketball play struck onlookers soon after he unwound an 18-year-old body of tree limbs in his NBA debut for Milwaukee in 2013.

At 6-feet-11, Antetokounmpo appears to show the stride and speed of a cheetah. The ball disappears into his foot-long hand width like a stranger’s handshake. His outstretched arms would cover Kristaps Porzingis head to toe, making the Bucks’ “Greek Freak” even more of an outlier because he often plays point guard.

Each dimension to Antetokounmpo’s game is special, but his mental makeup proved as valuable as his physical form for chasing dreams.

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Growing up in Greece, the chase was about peddling items on an Athens street near the Acropolis to help pay for the family’s next meal or pending bill. He had to hustle and has yet to stop. He still works like he does not have a $100-million contract starting next season, or a starting spot for the Eastern Conference in next weekend’s All-Star game.

Antetokounmpo recently tried to explain his driven mind-set to Bucks teammates when they urged him to loosen up before games.

“I approach the game like I’m always chasing something,” Antetokounmpo said he told teammates. “It’s the way I grew up. We always had to chase something. Some people grew up having fun and playing basketball. Other people play basketball just to survive and leave to chase something.”

His parents were chasing a better life when they emigrated illegally from Nigeria to Greece before the birth of Giannis, the middle child amid five brothers. Their quality of life slightly improved several years later after his brother, Thanasis (now a pro basketball player in Spain), coaxed Giannis from the soccer field to the basketball court.

“Basketball always felt natural to me,” Antetokounmpo said.

The brothers were groomed in the Filathlitikos club, where they played one Greek League second-division season. Giannis’ buzz as a draft-and-stash project averaging 9.5 points in a tiny gym became the irresistible lure of a player who could change a dormant franchise.

Bucks General Manager John Hammond drafted him 15th overall in 2013. An unlikely friendship was set up when then-assistant video coordinator Ross Geiger was sent in a limousine to pick up Antetokounmpo from Chicago before training camp.

Geiger is five years older, a foot shorter, and their lives were world apart, but the pair clicked. Antetokounmpo moved into a condominium across from Geiger’s, but often slept on Geiger’s couch anyway that first year.

Geiger drove him to and from his rookie season’s home games, feeling like a father discussing how the game went for a teen being eased into the NBA. His youthful competitiveness overflowed from the limits of his role as a wing often lurking in the corners.

“He was a little kid,” Geiger said. “We went to Red Robin and he barely sat at the table and ate because he was playing the crane game on a $20 bill. Every two minutes, he’d bring over another plush toy. We had eight of them.”

Antetokounmpo is like the crane game of the NBA, with a giant claw clutching the ball and enough maneuverability to get anywhere. What made those traits unique is how they coupled with his basketball instincts.

“He was always two to three steps ahead when we’d watch games,” Geiger said. “He’s not a ball-watcher. He loved DVR and always rewound it to point out things, like, ‘If that guy would’ve skipped the ball instead of swinging it, he would’ve had an extra second to shoot.’ For him to see it and explain it with broken English was really impressive at 18. He was way ahead of the curve.”

Antetokounmpo remains that way at 22, although his English progressed as rapidly as his game by watching dozens of movies with Geiger. “Coming to America” was among his favorites.

That innocence won over fans. He swooned on Twitter over his first taste of a smoothie, the Costco food court $1.45 version. Milwaukee hit the lottery, not only for his talent, but in how he embraced a struggling franchise in a small-market town.

Antetokounmpo improved statistically across the board each year to become the Bucks’ first All-Star since Michael Redd (2004) and first All-Star starter since Sidney Moncrief (1986).

“He has the right mind to know what he has to do to be a great player,” teammate Mirza Teletovic said. “Everything’s about basketball for Giannis. He knows when to relax, but he’s always thinking about how to get this team better.”

His game already features finger-roll drives, post-up hooks and the ability to catch an outlet at the opposite three-point line, take two dribbles and double-clutch dunk. Antetokounmpo is on pace to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocked shots and steals for the season. Only LeBron James, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett and Dave Cowens have done that.

He is helped by the tutelage of Bucks Coach Jason Kidd, a likely Hall of Famer who appreciates his star’s versatility to defend the perimeter and protect the rim.

It still is not easy for him, though, to speak up to older teammates, like Jason Terry, 39.

“It’s hard because I’m a low-profile guy who likes to stay in my room watching movies so I can prepare my mind for the next game,” Antetokounmpo said.

With Antetokounmpo, 21-year-old co-star Jabari Parker and a new arena under construction, Milwaukee could have a formidable long-term future in the East, though Parker tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Wednesday night and might be sidelined for a year.

To become a playoff team, it will take more of Antetokounmpo’s growing leadership and assertiveness to get there.

“That’s why he’s an All-Star,” Kidd said. “He understands the moment.”

sports@latimes.com


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