Can Giannis pass LeBron as the face of the NBA?


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In the moments after the conclusion of the All-Star Game, the two teams lined up amid a sea of cameras at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center. High-fives and hugs were shared as the players went through the ceremonial rite of congratulating each other for a game well played.

Eventually, the two team captains met. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks’ upstart who has taken the league by storm the past few years, crossed paths with LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the most recognizable athletes and greatest hoopers in the world, as well as one of the men Antetokounmpo has admired most throughout the years.

The two captains, a decade apart in age, slapped hands and embraced. As they did so, James shook his head in admiration and uttered words that shocked Antetokounmpo.

“I love everything about you, man,” he said.

It was clear from the look on Antetokounmpo’s face that James’ words touched him. His eyes lit up in pride, amazement and confusion as if to say, “Who, me?”

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But the line kept moving. That five-second interaction was over. They went their separate ways.

“At the time I didn’t realize,” Antetokounmpo said. “I heard that he said it, but I didn’t realize, like, I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t putting two and two together. …

“But he’s one of my role models, he’s one of the guys I looked up to. He’s one of the best players in the league. I tried to make my game similar to his, play kind of the same. He’s a legend — coming from him that he loves everything about me, that’s amazing.”

Antetokounmpo and James will meet again Tuesday night at Fiserv Forum as the Lakers make their annual trip to Milwaukee. As they do, they’ll be leading teams going in opposite directions.

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The Bucks own the best record in the NBA at 52-18 and are poised to compete for the Eastern Conference crown. James owned it for eight straight years but abdicated by leaving Cleveland for Los Angeles last summer. Antetokounmpo has played a huge role in Milwaukee’s success, averaging 27.5 points, 12.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists while establishing himself as one of the most dominant two-way forces in the league and spending the entire season in the thick of the MVP debate.

“You just look at every single year how he’s been able to evolve as a player, obviously his physique has evolved, his mental approach has evolved and the franchise has evolved since his first year,” James said of Antetokounmpo before the two teams played in Los Angeles in early March.

“I think it’s all going in the right direction. I greatly appreciate to see someone that gives their all to the game. When you do that the game automatically gives back to you and that’s the result of what Giannis has been doing these last few years.”

The Lakers, meanwhile, have sputtered to a 31-39 record, never recovering from a swoon when James missed 17 consecutive games in December and January with a strained left groin. Now, with the playoffs out of sight, several Los Angeles players have been shut down for the season by injuries and James isn’t playing in back-to-back contests anymore.

James is still putting up fantastic numbers — 27.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game. Those statistics are essentially assumed at this point, with James, a four-time MVP and three-time Finals MVP, in his 16th season of playing incredibly consistent, masterful basketball. As great as he’s been, James’ 11-year streak of first-team All-NBA selections is likely to end this season, something that’s due in part to Antetokounmpo’s rise. Milwaukee’s star is a shoo-in for one of the forward spots on the All-NBA first team, at least this year taking that mantle from James.

“I think if there’s a lessening of the gap it’s Giannis is getting better and better,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “It feels like LeBron is just as good, if not better than ever. I think it’s a credit to Giannis how much he continues to grow and improve.”

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There’s no doubt Antetokounmpo is closing the gap between himself and James, the man he has studied and fashioned his game after for years. Antetokounmpo’s numbers don’t stack up to James’ first six NBA seasons — James had an NBA Finals appearance, five All-NBA nods (three first-team) and earned his first MVP in year No. 6 — but Antetokunmpo also didn’t enter the league lauded as a king awaiting coronation.

When James landed his first Sports Illustrated cover in February 2002, Antetokounmpo was in the midst of a difficult childhood as the son of Nigerian immigrants across the ocean as a 7-year-old in Greece. A scrawny, lanky kid from the streets of the Sepolia neighborhood of Athens, Antetokounmpo and his brothers had to sell trinkets on the streets to supplement his family’s income.

He later used the perseverance he learned as a child to defy the odds and shape himself into one of the league’s most fearsome players. Antetokounmpo has stacked up three All-Star appearances and two second-team All-NBA honors, but he also hasn’t gotten out of the first round of the playoffs. His numbers compare well with those James put up in his sixth season and could similarly earn him his first MVP trophy.

While the gap between Antetokounmpo and James is getting smaller, the 24-year-old rising star — as competitive as he is — never thought he could catch James. Even with all his progress, he refuses to lend credence to that idea.

“I didn’t expect myself to be getting that close and tight with LeBron James because he’s (expletive) LeBron, (expletive) LeBron James, man,” Antetokounmpo said. “Coming into the league, I never saw myself as one of the best players in the league and being that LeBron type of player. 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.”

When it comes to James’ fame, there’s more than just what he does on the basketball court. He’s a household name across the globe, Michael Jordan’s heir atop the Nike brand, a renowned philanthropist, a movie star and the face of the NBA.


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Antetokounmpo’s personal brand has been growing along with his on-court success. A documentary about his road to the NBA ran as the feature on TNT leading up to All-Star Saturday night. He has endorsement deals in his native Greece, including a safety video for Aegean Airlines and his own fragrance, not to mention the Metro by T-Mobile commercial you’ve undoubtedly seen if you’ve tuned into an NBA game over the past month.

Of course, Antetokounmpo is also in line to release his own signature Nike shoe at some point, something many fans have eagerly awaited for more than a year.

He’s risen from an unknown player with an unpronounceable name to become one of the league’s most recognizable stars and one of the faces of the league. James will likely remain the preeminent player in the league for as long as he plays, but Antetokounmpo could occupy that space when James eventually does retire.

A generally private person despite his outward charm and charisma — he wasn’t raised in the spotlight like James — Antetokounmpo has spent time pondering his added popularity and what may come of it in the future.

“A lot of people say that I can be the face of the league,” Antetokounmpo said. “Lately, people have told me … the closest people, you know, my family, my girlfriend, my mom, my brothers, people say that I cannot be the face of the league because I’m not American, I don’t have the American culture in me.

“I sat back and thought about that. Should I have a little bit more American swag, should I come with a suit to the game, should I be more Americanized? But, man, if I can’t be the face of the league being me, I don’t want to be the face of the league. That’s pretty much it.”

As much as that’s been on Antetokounmpo’s mind, it takes a back seat to the here and now. More than anything, Antetokounmpo wants to be a champion and he’s dedicated to doing whatever it takes to reach that pinnacle. He’s coming off a career-high 52 points  in a loss Sunday to the Philadelphia 76ers that was emblematic of his willingness to put the team on his broad shoulders and carry it as far as he can.

There may be nothing but love and mutual admiration between Antetokounmpo and James, but when they step on the court Tuesday night, neither will be holding back.

Matt Velazquez writes for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network.


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