ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Playing it safe was a real possibility for the Milwaukee Bucks with the 15th pick in Thursday’s National Basketball Association draft.
Get some help for a depleted backcourt. Take Shane Larkin or Sergey Karasev or Dennis Schroeder.
But Bucks general manager John Hammond had his eye on a potential all-star talent in 18-year-old small forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, dubbed the “Greek Freak” after his talents started to become known last winter.
And Hammond decided to roll the dice on the youngest player in the draft.
“There’s no question there were safer picks but nothing with this kind of upside, nothing close to this,” Hammond said. “That’s the key component of what we have here.
“How are we going to get our next all-star? I don’t want to put that on this kid’s shoulder, but I think he has that skill set to become that, if it all falls together for him.”
The Bucks consider Antetokounmpo a small forward at 6-foot-9 and 196 pounds, but he has ball-handling skills of a point guard. Some NBA scouts have called him a poor man’s Kevin Durant, comparing his game to that of the Oklahoma City Thunder star.
“This kid is built like him, long arms and big hands,” Bucks coach Larry Drew said. “When you watch him move up and down the floor, you’ll see some resemblance.
“But we can’t put that kind of pressure on this kid. We have a lot of work to do with him, which we will.”
The Bucks selected Larry Sanders at No. 15 in 2010, a move that paid off last season with the 6-foot-11 Sanders becoming a defensive force and finishing third in balloting for the league’s most improved player award.
But taking Antetokounmpo was an even bolder move.
“He is thin, there is no doubt about that,” Hammond said. “But he’s going to fill out just with natural maturation.
“From the offensive end of the floor, I think he could find a way to be on the floor right now, at 19 years old (in December), and play. I think he’s got to be a small forward.
“Defensively with the lack of strength, he is going to have some issues to deal with there. Maybe we try to help him a little bit on the defensive end, if he does get on the floor.”
But Hammond made it clear he wants the young player to be in Milwaukee next season.
“He loves the game,” Hammond said. “He has a great smile and a great skill set.
“There is a real transition period for him. You’re talking about a kid who has only been out of the country (Greece) one time. And that was a few weeks ago when he played with the Greek national team.
“He wants to have his family here with him, and we’re going to work hard to have that happen.
“The sooner we can get him on the floor, the better it’s going to be. You look at it and say, ‘Is it going to be a D-League type situation?’ I hope not. The best thing to do is just keep him right here with us, be around NBA players, NBA games, NBA travel. Let him grow and develop.
“If he hits, this kid could be special.”
Antetokounmpo was at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the draft and went to the stage to pick up his Bucks hat from NBA Commissioner David Stern.
“I know I’m not ready; I have a lot of work ahead of me,” Antetokounmpo said in a news conference at the Barclays Center. “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.”
Antetokounmpo is the son of Nigerian parents who immigrated to Greece and he was born in Athens. He played last season for Filathlitikos in Greece’s second division and averaged 9.5 points and 5.0 rebounds in 26 games.
But the competition was hardly at an NBA level.
Still, his name started to be tossed about in NBA circles last December when league scouts first started to catch on to his emerging talent.
Hammond took a trip overseas to watch him, and the Bucks kept following him. Director of player personnel Dave Babcock scouted him recently when Antetokounmpo played for the Greek national squad.
“We started watching him after Christmas and got excited about what we saw,” Hammond said.
“He’s 6-foot-9. I don’t know how much bigger he’s going to get. He loves to handle the ball. His favorite thing is to grab it off the glass, take it himself in transition and he has amazing vision.
“He shoots the ball well. We’re all giddy. Everybody is giddy on draft night. I remember when we drafted Brandon (Jennings) we said he had all-star speed and quickness.
“But I do think this kid has potential all-star talent. He has an older brother and two little brothers; they just live in the gym. I know he has a real passion for the game, and I know he wants to be great.”
Antetokounmpo signed a contract with a Spanish pro team in Zaragoza, but Hammond said that would not be a problem and a buyout would be done.
“He did sign a contract, but most every international player has some buyout clause they deal with,” Hammond said. “He has the same sort of thing. The league allows us to do our part, and he has to do his personal part. It’s basketball business.
“But he’s going to come right away.”
Hammond admitted the Bucks now must deal with their depleted backcourt after passing on a number of candidates. Schroeder went 17th to Atlanta. Larkin was selected 18th by the Hawks but was traded to Dallas and 6-7 small forward Sergey Karasev was picked 19th by Cleveland.
“We liked some of those players,” Hammond said. “We will answer that (the backcourt) in free agency. That’s what we have to do and we understand that.
“If it was about need and being safe, we’d take the backcourt pick. This was about taking the best player on the board.”
Drew said he will be patient with Antetokounmpo.
“I said John, ‘He will not be there at 15,”‘ Drew said. “This kid has a chance to be very special.
“He does defend. He is very rangy at 6-9. He has been taught some defense over the years. He gets down in a stance and moves his feet. And you can tell he really wants to learn.
“We’ve got to get him stronger and get him adjusted to playing against stronger guys. But I really think this kid will learn fast. He wants to prove he can get better.”