Giannis Antetokounmpo: the rise of an NBA legend and MVP prospect

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Opening thoughts

It’s fair to say that non-American NBA stars have really come into their own over the last decade. Much like in many other American-centric sports, it’s rare that stars can emerge from other continents and genuinely become megastars in the NBA. Sure, there have been exceptions to this rule, ranging from Yao Ming to Steve Nash – but the majority of players in the NBA and the Hall of Fame, up until very recently, have been almost exclusively from the US. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of a cluster of top non-American NBA stars who have genuinely become elite players in their own right. Alongside Joel Embiid, Luka Dončić, Nikola Jokić and the almost inevitable passing of the torch to Frenchman Victor Wembanyama, overseas NBA players are setting the standard at the moment. 

Many believe the “Greek Freak” Giannis was the trailblazer in this regard, as he is now widely considered one of the greatest players of his era – but today, we’re going to see where it all began and how a star was born. 

Early days and the draft

Just like other American sports, the draft protocol helps the lesser teams pick the better upcoming players and establishes a level playing field. All of the sporting differences between US and UK top-level sports, whether it’s the NBA or NFL draft, help to create balance, unlike the English Premier League, where a cluster of three or four teams has dominated throughout this century. 

The NBA and NFL drafts are such colossal news that many gambling companies even have markets open to see which players will end up where. These gambling markets have continued to grow, and even from Giannis’s first season in 2013 to now, both the NBA and NFL draft odds have drummed up phenomenal interest for bettors. Back then, you’d have had incredible odds for the then-15th pick to become one of the finest and most well-rounded power forwards to grace the league.

Within his first year, it became abundantly clear that Giannis was destined for the very top of the game. His breakthrough year in 2013/14 set the foundation for what was to come – and just like Steph Curry, another fellow great of his era, their non-eventful drafts look outrageous in hindsight. However, as NBA fans know all too well, some of the most remarkable rookies can disappoint, and some of the lowest-ranked draft picks can surprise and go on to carve out a great career in pro basketball. 

2016 onwards

In the mid-2010s, Giannis broke through from a promising rookie to one of the greatest of his era and became a bona fide NBA legend. Giannis is only one of three players to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year at the same time, in 2020. The last player to do this was Michael Jordan in 1988, when he was the centerpiece of the Chicago Bulls’ greatest-ever team – and one of the greatest NBA teams ever compiled. This should indicate just how well he has entrenched his legacy in NBA folklore.

To top off Giannis’s unbelievable rise to the top, he was then named to the NBA 75th Anniversary team, fending off genuine challenges from some of the finest power forwards of all time. His journey from rookie to prospect to elite to NBA icon seemed to happen over such a short period – but NBA fans and analysts unanimously agree that he is one of the greatest players of all time. 

Can Giannis become the GOAT?

The final frontier for the precociously talented Greek/Nigerian to conquer is the GOAT mantle. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and fellow Milwaukee Buck Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are names often thrown into the GOAT debate, with Steph Curry also being a name that pundits bring into the equation. It may, however, be a little too soon for Giannis, as he is only 29 and could easily have another six years of his prime ahead of him. 

It’s not out of the question that he could put his name into this debate, if he continues hitting the numbers he has hit so consistently since the mid-2010s, keeps his spot in the All-Star team and continues on his march to global sporting mega stardom. One of the true tests of genuinely elite talent is consistent, high-level numbers and dominating performances in the biggest games, such as the playoffs.

Final thoughts 

Despite his astonishing skillset, Giannis only has one NBA title under his belt, and given that he turns 30 this year, this could be the aspect that ultimately means he isn’t considered in the same bracket as the GOATS of the sport. But is he an NBA legend who has paved the way for overseas players to reach the pinnacle of the sport? Absolutely. He’s a phenomenal talent who has already guaranteed his HOF place. There could be a few more chapters to his story yet.

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