The date was June 27, 2013, the place: Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. This was the setting for the NBA Draft. NBA Commissioner David Stern, announcing his final 30 first round picks as the league’s boss, steps up to the podium for the 15th time on the night, with the Milwaukee Bucks on the clock. In the Bucks’ war room back in Milwaukee, General Manager John Hammond sits with head coach Larry Drew and other front office personnel in anticipation, waiting for the announcement of the selection of who they hope will be Milwaukee’s next superstar. Stern emerges from behind the stage, not knowing that he was about to make the first move in sending a relatively unknown player from on his way to stardom.
“With the 15th pick of the 2013 NBA draft, the Milwaukee Bucks select… Giannis Antetokounmpo, from Athens, Greece.”
The date was April 23, 2005, the place: Radio City Music Hall, New York City. This time, the NFL Draft is taking place. In the Draft’s green room, a young man sits and waits to hear his name called. He was once under serious consideration for the #1 pick. However, that honor went to Utah’s quarterback, Alex Smith, who was selected by the San Francisco 49ers. “No matter,” he thought to himself, a belief reflected by the ESPN personalities covering the event, “I’m sure I’ll still go in the top 10.” He didn’t. Top 15? No. Top 20? No sir. His free-fall was well documented, turning him into the pity story of the afternoon. Finally, it happened. He stood up with a look of relief on his face and went out to represent his new team for the first time.
“With the 24th pick of the 2005 NFL Draft, the Green Bay Packers select… Aaron Rodgers, Quarterback from the University of California.”
The development of Giannis Antetokounmpo from an 18-year-old draftee with freakish physical traits and seemingly unlimited potential into a borderline top 10 player in the entire NBA in just his 4th season in the league has been one of the most exciting Wisconsin sports stories in recent memory. From his rookie season, his minutes per game have increased fairly significantly from year to year; 24.6 in 2013-14, 31.4 in 2014-15, 35.3 in 2015-16, 35.5 in 2016-17. This has led to a not so coincidental increase in the Greek Freak’s scoring; 6.8, 12.7, 16.9, 23.2 in those same years, respectively. In addition, as we here at Cream City Central have discussed in previous articles, he has also become one of the league’s most dynamic playmakers, averaging 5.4 assists and 1.7 steals per game along with his scoring output.
However, the journey was not easy.
Just a few years before being drafted, you could find a teenage Giannis Antetokounmpo on the streets of Athens, Greece, selling trinkets along with his brothers in order to help put food on the family table. He had barely touched a basketball by this point, and the sport took a back seat as his family struggled to get by, the NBA a likely unattainable dream.
Then, he got to work.
Aaron Rodgers has had himself quite the rise to stardom as well, while maybe not as out of nowhere as Giannis Antetokounmpo. After setting records in high school, Rodgers still didn’t attract much attention from Division 1 colleges. As a result, he spent one year at California’s Butte Community College before making his way to the University of California. Rodgers would be a fairly solid player for the Golden Bears, recording a 63.8 completion percentage with 5,469 yards, 43 TD and 18 INT in 2 years in Berkeley. He even tied an NCAA record with 23 consecutive completions his junior season against USC.
Giannis worked and worked to improve his game. Eventually, he found himself as a member of the senior team of Filathlitikos, a team in Greece’s basketball second division. This tenure is where Giannis’ raw, but unique, skills really began to attract attention. In 26 games in which he averaged just 22.5 minutes, he averaged 9.5 points, 5 rebounds and 1 block per game. Just after turning 18 in December of 2012, he signed on with CAI Zaragoza in Spain, passing over larger teams including Barcelona (Spain) and Efes (Turkey) in the process. However, Giannis never suited up for Zaragoza as he declared for the 2013 draft. At that year’s combine, he did not participate in any drills, with Chad Ford of ESPN citing that he had reportedly been given a first-round guarantee position. That guarantee became a reality when the Bucks selected him at #15. Coming into the draft at 6’9” and just under 200 pounds, the question arose of whether Giannis would past his lanky body, and grow he did. By his third season in the league in 2015-16, he was listed at 6’11” and just over 220 pounds, adding a significant amount of muscle to his frame, particularly in his upper body. This physical change made Giannis one of the hardest small forwards in the NBA to guard.
Rodgers was projected as an early pick in the 2005 NFL draft after his impressive junior year and stellar combine (4.71 40-yard dash, 35 Wonderlic score). At the end of the day, as mentioned before, he would slip to #24 and into the hands of the Green Bay Packers. For his first few years in the league, he would be forced to sit behind Packers legend Brett Favre while he learned the system and shored up his mechanics, as he often held the ball much higher to his head on dropbacks at Cal. When he got his first shot, entering for Favre against the Cowboys in 2007, he showed signs of promise. Completing 18 of 26 passes for 218 yards and 1 touchdown, Rodgers turned a 17 point deficit to just a field goal before ultimately falling 37-27.
In the second half of the 2015-16 season, head coach Jason Kidd gave Giannis the keys to the Milwaukee offense as what was effectively a point forward, and the Greek Freak used that key to open a number of new doors for the Bucks. Suddenly, Giannis was one of the biggest matchup nightmares in the NBA, as opposing coaches struggled to pick which players would defend him on the floor. This led to a glimpse of the superstar that Giannis had the potential to become. In the 28 games after the All-Star break last year, Giannis averaged 18.8 points to go along with 8.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists. In 2016-17, he has been even better, with averages of 23.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game to go along 1.7 steals and 2.0 blocks (as of 3/9/17). With the Bucks’ new arena scheduled to be open for the 2018-19 season in just over 19 months, Giannis certainly provides the Bucks with a franchise cornerstone to take them into that future.
His first full season in 2008, Rodgers threw for 4,038 yards along with 28 touchdowns with 13 picks. This would mark one of only two times in Rodgers’ career so far that he would throw more than 10 interceptions (he threw 11 in 2010). However, just like Giannis, he would save his greatest early act for his fourth year. This would generate one of the greatest QB seasons in recent memory, with Rodgers passing for 4,643 yards, 45 touchdowns and just 6 interceptions with a 122.5 quarterback rating on his way to his first Most Valuable Player award. Since then, Rodgers has picked up a second MVP (2014) and also holds various NFL and Packers passing records, including the highest career QB rating at 104.1 (for comparison, his 2015 rating of 92.7 is his lowest of his career).
All of this, and as Rodgers himself has said, a high school teach laughed in his face and told him the NFL was just a dream. Just as, for Giannis, the NBA once seemed like a dream. However, that’s one of the beautiful things about sports and about life; with hard work and determination, dreams can become reality.