As part of the Knicks’ summer renovation, perhaps the most beloved (if not the most important addition) of the bevy of 2nd Rounders is the shiny, aromatic coat of varnish they snagged with the 51st pick, Thanasis Antetokounmpo. Like most, you might know little about the twenty-two year old, save for the fact that he is the older sibling of Giannis, the Milwaukee Bucks’ gangly, smile-laden force of nature also known as “The Greek Freak.” The jury is still out on whether “Greek Freak 2.0” and “Greek Freak Jr.” will make for apt monikers, but Phil Jackson’s rolling with “Thanacity”–a pretty solid summary of his current skill-set.
Despite all our giddy excitement, for the bulk of the summer, it wasn’t clear where he’d be plying his trade. The front office continued to re-arrange the pawns at the back end of the roster, guaranteeing Quincy Acy‘s contract after acquiring him, and letting Toure’ Murry flee to the Jazz. With all 15 chairs filled, Antetokounmpo seemed the likeliest victim of the roster squeeze:
Thanasis Antetokounmpo, New York's pick, deciding between D-League Westchester or Spain/Italy deal, sources tell RealGM. Knicks roster full.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) August 7, 2014
But given the choice between a bushel of Euros and balling in the suburbs, RealGM’s Shams Charania reported:
After deciding on D-League's Westchester or Europe, Thanasis Antetokounmpo has agreed on Knicks' affiliate next season, sources tell RealGM.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) August 21, 2014
That news emerged after a bit of scuttlebutt suggesting that he would join the Knicks in training camp, but as P&T head honcho and friend of Knickerblogger Seth Rosenthal rightfully explained, the process is more complicated than simply welcoming the international draftee into the team’s pre-season program:
To come to camp with the Knicks, Thanasis would have to sign a contract (probably a non-guaranteed one). If the Knicks were to then cut Thanasis out of camp, they would forfeit his exclusive draft rights. So unless they really think a spot is going to open up for him, bringing Thanasis to camp just for funsies would be a waste of an asset. If the above is true, the Knicks are either up to something or they’re short-sighted.
So, yay! But for those who weren’t devoutly tracking the progress of the D-League’s Delaware 87ers in 2014, and for a grasp of where (or if) Thanasis will fit into the team’s long-term plans, I called in the services of opinions far more qualified and expert than my own.
Thanasis has all the tools teams look for in a wing defender in the NBA today, and he knows how to use them. He’s got the size (6-foot-6) to defend twos and threes, the quickness to stay in front of guards, the wingspan (7-foot) to be a pest in the passing lanes, and the leaping ability to challenge shots. To add to all that, he’s a relentless worker who seems to take defensive assignments personally and he’s not afraid to contest a shot at the rim or put his body on the line to make a play, which is what makes him unique. He’s not all there defensively (he sometimes falls asleep on coverages and gets caught ball watching) but it shouldn’t take much to iron out those creases.
With the 87ers, Thanasis’ three-point shooting was up-and-down all season long. He was a sub-30 percent shooter from three over the first three months and shot around 40 percent in the final two months. All in all, he’s proven the ability to knock down threes; just not over a huge sample size. But if he can develop a more consistent jump-shot (which isn’t out of the realm of possibility) and continue to fine tune the rest of his game, there’s no reason why he couldn’t work his way into a team’s rotation.
The issue is, however, if Thanasis can’t become a knockdown shooter, his ceiling drops dramatically. He’s not great in half-court sets, he’s turnover prone (mainly because he’s predictable offensively), and he has little-to-no in-between game. That’s why his future in the NBA hinges greatly on his ability to become, at the very least, a solid outside shooter. (For what it’s worth, in the seven games Thanasis scored 20 or more points last season, he made at least two threes in each; in the games in which he scored single digits, he combined to shoot 5-for-52 from three).
I’d encourage you to go ahead and read Scott’s pre-draft scouting report on Thanasis, penned for Ridiculous Upside in early June, too, a more thorough breakdown of his skills and weaknesses.
As for the skeptics who might imply that Thanasis did little more than ride the happy-go-lucky coattails of his younger brother all the way to the Barclays Center podium, Rafferty responded with this:
Giannis’ emergence certainly helped put Thanasis under the spotlight, but he did more than enough to prove himself worthy of a draft pick. Teams rarely get a lot of value out of a second round pick — a reason why they aren’t guaranteed a contract — so a team could do much worse than taking a gamble on an athletic freak who is willing to put the work in and work his ass off defensively… especially if said team is the Knicks.
Before you flock to the stores to load up on Antetokounmpo-based gear, consider that not everyone holds a disposition as relatively rosy as Rafferty’s. The Greek swingman’s tornado of flailing limbs are a serious tease, but his athleticism hasn’t been enough to gloss over a passel of raw, scattered play.
I have a hard time seeing Antetokounmpo making it to the NBA, even if his offense continues to improve. [As you mentioned,] he is 22, and he is behind development-wise of most other prospects, even those younger than him. There are two key things he can do if he wants to get to the NBA – become a consistent long-range shooter and learn to use his athleticism to be a pest on the defensive end. My biggest concern is something I mentioned, he is 22 and still raw in many ways. Even if the improvement comes, will he still be better than a lot of other prospects who teams can turn to? Probably not.
The biggest thing Antetokounmpo has going for him right now is he isn’t that skilled yet. It may sound silly to say, but he is still in a developmental stage as a player and he should have some great coaches around him to teach him what he needs to go with his physical ability. In Delaware last year, he showed flashes of being able to do a little bit of everything, though not extremely well and not consistently. If the Knicks are serious about him as a prospect, they need to take total control of his development to maximize it.
Isaacson also suggested that the Knicks’ new one-to-one ‘farm team’ relationship will need to establish a track record before receiving the faith and praise of scouts:
I want to say yes [committing to the Knicks’ affiliate was the right move], but before I can do that, I have to see how Westchester is set up and who is working with the players. If the Knicks can follow the model of other single-affiliate teams, like Houston, then Antetokounmpo will not only be developing as a player, he should be developing as a player that fits the Knicks’ system. There is still a lot to be seen yet with the [Westchester] team though.
As for Thanasis’ own short history with the NBA’s second tier, were his Delaware exploits enough of a motive alone for teams to take a flyer on his potential?
I highly doubt it. Looking back at his first D-League season, at his best he was average, though he was showing improvement by the end of the season. Even with the improvement, I think the Knicks, and other teams that were considering him in the 2nd round, are willing to take the chance that he can show some of what his brother has.
Dealing with the highs and lows of a developing prospect has been (to some extent) a foreign concept for Knick fans, and although Antetokounmpo arrives with an endearing, unfettered innocence and pogo-stick hops, the message remains clear: proceed with caution. The best case scenario for both club and player is that the next twelve months are especially fruitful, and Antetokounmpo can improve enough to merit a spot on what will be a very blank Knicks canvas as soon as the summer of 2015. At a minimum, he’ll be one of the more recognizable faces on the unimaginatively-named Westchester Knicks–a mere Metro North ticket away. More importantly, he’ll learn the Triangle and hopefully pick up a few tricks from the wise heads in the organization, both on the roster and in the front office. All in all, that is infinitely preferable to having to hijack a feed from the Slovenian Pro Leagues to see him in action.
It’s only natural to savor the fact that the Knicks even have draftees to discuss, and I’m not going to sit here (© Mike Woodson. Hi Woody!) and throw anyone under the bus that wants to take the Billy Mumphrey route on this one. Thanasis Antetokounmpo’s ceiling is more of a floating tarp than it is wood and plaster. He can be whatever you want him to be, without fretting about how his actual production might impact the win-loss ledger. For now, that’s more than enough.