Six years ago, Giannis Antetokounmpo was still an unknown quantity even among the most experienced basketball minds. A gangly, 6-9 teenager born to Nigerian immigrants in Greece, he was relatively new to basketball and it was anyone’s guess what he would become when the Milwaukee Bucks selected him 15th in the 2013 NBA draft.
What he has become, after six years in Milwaukee, is the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for the 2018-19 season.
That accomplishment became official on Monday night at the NBA Awards in Santa Monica, Calif., where Antetokounmpo — surrounded by his family — took home the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. In earning the honor, he beat out last year’s MVP James Harden of the Houston Rockets as well as Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Antetokounmpo etched his name in the history books as the Bucks’ first MVP since 1974 when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — winner of an NBA-record six MVPs — took home the award. During the NBA Awards show, it was Abdul-Jabbar who introduced Antetokounmpo as an MVP finalist. Antetokounmpo also joined Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria), Tim Duncan (U.S. Virgin Islands), Steve Nash (Canada) and Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) as the only international MVPs.
The storybook rise from selling sunglasses and trinkets in the streets of Sepolia in Athens, sharing sneakers with his brother Thanasis and often sleeping in the gym to becoming the league’s MVP didn’t happen overnight. Rather, the transition came the way Antetokounmpo runs the court, with long stride after long stride that make onlookers question what they’re seeing.
The foundation of every step, though, was clear. Antetokounmpo has spent his whole career — if not his whole life — working hard and pushing himself to the limit.
In his first year, Antetokounmpo arrived in the United States as an 18-year-old away from his family for the first time. He was lonely and dealing with a tremendously difficult transition.
Yet, he didn’t let that detract from his mission at hand to establish himself as an NBA player. On many occasions, then-coach Larry Drew would get to the Cousins Center early to get in a workout by himself only for Antetokounmpo to come sauntering into the building before anyone else, hungry to develop his body and skills.
In that first season, Antetokounmpo grew two inches and got stronger, beginning his development from a string bean to one of the league’s most relentless forces. He’s now nearly 50 pounds heavier, chiseled with muscle and a high-flying highlight machine.
“I see things on a nightly basis where it’s just, ‘Wow,’ ” Bucks teammate Brook Lopez said. “Each and every game he does something that amazes me, that I’ve never other players do or can’t even think of another player that could do that.”
Driven by his desire to improve, Antetokounmpo continued to earn more opportunities, each time demonstrating that the Bucks needed to continue to focus their rebuild around him. Over time he developed into a do-it-all superstar, earning three straight All-Star berths, including the captaincy of his own All-Star team in February. This season, he was unanimously voted to the All-NBA first team after carrying the Bucks back into the conversation among the NBA’s elite teams for the first time in decades.
While Harden, the defending MVP, put up incredible offensive numbers with 36.1 points per game with stellar efficiency this season, Antetokounmpo was astounding in his own right. He averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals. His player efficiency rating was a league-best 30.9, buoyed by his 73.7% shooting inside the restricted area — the place on the court everyone knows he wants to go, though they can’t stop him from getting there.
Within Mike Budenholzer’s new system, Antetokounmpo became the focal point of Milwaukee’s new-look offense and proved himself to be capable enough as a passer to find shooters and facilitate the Bucks’ let-it-fly attack.
“What’s made him so good this year — and it’s continued in this series — is his passing,” Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said during the playoffs. “If all he did was lower his head and drive … you’d be able to sink in, help, take charges. You wouldn’t feel good in the morning, but you’d do it. But his passing is just really good.”
Along with his offensive gifts, Antetokounmpo also stood out at the other end. A first-team All-Defensive selection, Antetokounmpo was the best defender on the NBA’s best defensive unit. He was strong and agile enough to defend virtually every position and often roved along the back side, stepping in with perfect timing for dozens of blocks and steals along with countless contests with his massive outstretched arms.
Antetokounmpo’s hard work and impact all over the court is what made him the MVP this season. It’s what helped him accomplish the challenge set out for him by Kobe Bryant in the summer of 2017. It’s also what put him into the conversation with superstar LeBron James, who like Antetokounmpo, won his first MVP award during his sixth season at the age of 24 in 2008-09.
“Coming into the league, I never saw myself as one of the best players in the league and being that LeBron type of player,” Antetokounmpo told the Journal Sentinel in March. “That’s the truth. I could say, ‘Yes, I always thought I could be like LeBron James or better or whatever,’ but that’s not the truth.”
Any further comparisons to James will now entail team success. The Bucks led the NBA with 60 regular-season wins, but they bowed out of the playoffs short of their ultimate goal with four straight losses to the Toronto Raptors after going up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals.
Antetokounmpo, firmly in the MVP conversation all season, has consistently balked at opportunities to talk about himself. Instead, he’s always pointed to team success — particularly a championship — as the only thing he cares about. Earning the league’s MVP award is an incredible accomplishment, but the hard work won’t end for Antetokounmpo now that he’s won it.
And there’s still more work to do.
“Obviously, during the year I did whatever it took to help my team win,” Antetokounmpo said on the red carpet before the event.&nbs “It’s just going to be hard work that paid off (if I win the MVP). But if I don’t win it, I’ll be back next year trying to win it again.”
Full list of NBA awards
Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Rookie of the Year: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers
Most Improved Player: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Coach of the Year: Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year: Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
NBA Cares Community Assist Award: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
NBA Sportsmanship Award: Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
NBA Hustle Award: Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Lifetime Achievement Award: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird
Sager Strong Award: Robin Roberts
Executive of the Year: Jon Horst, Milwaukee Bucks