MILWAUKEE — In his never-ending quest to improve, Giannis Antetokounmpo connected in the offseason with one of the NBA’s retired greats.
No way was the Milwaukee Bucks star going to be late for a summer workout with Kobe Bryant.
But showing up three hours early? That sends a message.
It’s all part of an effort by Antetokounmpo to help get the Bucks take another step in the postseason.
“I just wanted to show him I’m not here to mess around … I’m here to get better, simple as that. I think he understood that,” Antetokounmpo said. “It was an amazing day. It was a dream working out with Kobe.”
Expectations are on the rise in Milwaukee after three first-round exits over the last four seasons. The Bucks are moving into a new downtown arena, the Fiserv Forum, and new coach Mike Budenholzer has experience winning playoff series.
The Bucks hope they’ll be able to get a top-four seed. Whatever the case, they believe they have the talent to get out of the first round.
It’s just the type of growth that the ownership group envisioned after buying the team in 2014.
“When you look at what’s happened, every year has gotten better. Look, there are a lot of expectations on us … from the fans, from the team, from the coaching staff,” co-owner Marc Lasry said. “I think our goal is you want to keep on evolving and you want to keep on getting better.”
SPACING IT OUT
Boxes outlined in blue tape lined spots around the 3-point line of the Bucks’ practice court on the first day of training camp, a sign of one of Budenholzer’s philosophical priorities. He wants his team to shoot 3s.
The hope is that proper spacing also helps open more 1-on-1 opportunities for Antetokounmpo to do what he does best: get to the lane for a dunk or a foul call. The Greek star also has the ability to dish to a teammate for an open shot, too.
“I think it’s the best thing for Giannis to use his ability to just beat people 1-on-1,” forward Ersan Ilyasova said. “That’s why we try to give him more space and be in those blue boxes.”
The offensive philosophy goes hand-in-hand with the focus on transition defense at camp. A missed 3 means the Bucks need to get back quickly to prevent a quick bucket by the opponent.
“That’s where your defense starts. If you’re not good in transition, then you’re probably not going to be good, or you’re going to be taking it out of the net and playing a lot of offense,” Budenholzer said.
AT THE CORE
Antetokounmpo is still only 23, but he’s entering his sixth season in the NBA. In his seventh year in the league, Khris Middleton is coming off his first season in which he averaged more than 20 points while playing all 82 regular-season games. Point guard Eric Bledsoe is going into his first full season with the Bucks after being acquired in November in a trade with the Phoenix Suns. Both Middleton and Bledsoe are going into the last years of their contracts, though Middleton does have an option in 2019.
Third-year player Malcolm Brogdon is healthy again after missing much of last season with a quad injury, returning just in time for the first-round playoff loss to Boston. The absence of the 2017 NBA rookie of the year deprived the Bucks of one of their best two-way players. Expected to start in the backcourt next to Bledsoe, Brogdon can hit 3s and handle the ball. He also offers a fearless presence in driving to the rim.
The Bucks’ biggest offseason addition was the hiring of Budenholzer. General manager Jon Horst made less splashy moves in free agency with the signings of Ilyasova and 7-foot center Brook Lopez, though their additions could be just as important. Drafted by the Bucks in 2005, the 6-foot-10 Ilyasova is in his third career stint with Milwaukee. Lopez, an 11-year veteran, figures to start at center. Both will be asked to contribute from the perimeter.
LAST SEASON: 44-38, lost in Eastern Conference first round.
COACH: Mike Budenholzer (first season, sixth NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTINGN FIVE: G Eric Bledsoe (17.8 ppg), G Malcolm Brogdon (13.0 ppg), F Giannis Antetokounmpo (26.9 ppg), F Khris Middleton (20.1 ppg), C Brook Lopez (13.0 ppg)
KEY LOSSES: F Jabari Parker, G Jason Terry
KEY ADDITIONS: Lopez, F Ersan Ilyasova, G Pat Connaughton, rookie G Donte DiVincenzo
PLAYER TO WATCH: What’s next for Antetokounmpo playing under a new system with a new coach? Budenholzer is stressing spacing and perimeter shooting, which could open up more 1-on-1 opportunities to the lane for the 6-foot-11 forward with freakish athleticism. With LeBron James leaving Cleveland for the Lakers, Antetokounmpo could emerge as the best player in the East.
OUTLOOK: Expectations are up with the Bucks moving into a new arena and a new coach taking over with a track record of winning in the playoffs. The Bucks have made the postseason three out of the last four years. To take the next step, they must secure a top-four seed and/or at least advance out of the first round. Core players Middleton and Bledsoe are also entering the last years of their respective contracts, though Middleton has an option for 2019.