MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo was all smiles but had no jokes.
The Milwaukee Bucks‘ All-Star forward was more business this time around: While he didn’t indulge reporters by opening his media day session on Monday with a gag, as he had done in previous years, Antetokounmpo still flashed an infectious grin.
Things are looking up for the Milwaukee Bucks as they move into a new arena this fall, with a new coach leading a team headlined by one of the NBA’s bright, young stars.
The organization once had billboards around the city that read “Own the Future.” That future is here.
“You could make an argument that we’re number 1, 2, 3, or 4” in the Eastern Conference, co-owner Marc Lasry said when asked about where the Bucks might fit in the conference picture. “I mean I think if we stay healthy and we play to our potential, we’d be one of the top two or three teams, so I think we’re there.”
The Bucks have made slow, steady progress since an ownership group including Lasry bought the team in 2014. They’ve made the playoffs three of the last four seasons. They’ve finished above .500 in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2000-01.
The Bucks hope they’ve positioned themselves to take another step forward in a more wide-open East, with LeBron James having left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Toronto Raptors sporting a new look.
The team also signed guard Pat Connaughton and drafted guard Donte DiVincenzo in the first round out of Villanova. Ilyasova, Connaughton and DiVincenzo could each with long-range shooting, a problem area last season for the team.
But the Bucks’ biggest change in the offseason was the hiring of Mike Budenholzer to take over as head coach. The relationship between Budenholzer and Antetokounmpo may be paramount to the success of the team.
It looks like they’re off to a good start.
“Coach (Budenholzer) has been amazing. He’s letting us play, He’s letting us be basketball players. What he’s putting out on offense and the way we’re going to play this year is going to be free,” Antetokounmpo said.
Having a 6-foot-11 forward with generational type-talent like Antetokounmpo can help bail out a team too when all else fails. Budenholzer has seen glimpses of Antetokounmpo’s work ethic while watching him at pickup games and having offseason conversations.
“One of the things you always hear about Giannis whenever you’re talking about him and fortunate enough to be put in this position, is his work ethic,” Budenholzer said. “I would say it’s met or exceeded all of my expectations. He wants to be great, he puts in the time and effort.”
Budenholzer had a winning record during a five-year head-coaching stint in Atlanta, including a 60-win season in 2014-15. He’s also a former assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, one of the league’s standard-bearers for long-term success.
The first practice is Tuesday at the Bucks’ state-of-the-art training facility, which just opened a year ago. It’s located across the street from the gleaming, new Fiserv Forum, which replaced the three decade-old Bradley Center.
“With Bud and with Giannis, I feel like we truly have a path. With Giannis you can pick a style of play, you know the type of players that fit, the type of culture you want to create in the locker room,” general manager Jon Horst said. “We have a direction and a path that we can follow and can take us to success.”