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Giannis Antetokounmpo’s first NBA All-Star appearance is just the first step in a promising career

The ‘Greek Freak’ shows signs of being the best — and he’ll have a chance to prove it in New Orleans

In 1996, a 22-year-old second-year Dallas Mavericks guard named Jason Kidd was “scared to death” to be starting in his first NBA All-Star Game alongside elite superstars such as Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal.

Now 21 years later, the Milwaukee Bucks head coach is coaching a young superstar living the same NBA All-Star reality in 22-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks forward will start with LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving in his first NBA All-Star Game on Sunday in New Orleans.

“It’s going to be great,” Kidd told The Undefeated. “I shared my experience with him about my first All-Star experience in San Antonio with Michael and Charles and being voted on. I was scared to death. I was voted in as starter at 22 years old. I was going against MJ, Shaq and David [Robinson] and Charles. This was the best.

“It does help with your confidence to say, ‘Maybe I’ve arrived at 22?’ But also you’re nervous because you don’t want to embarrass yourself. It’s a great experience for him to go be around the best players in the world.”

It’s been a long time since the Bucks could say they had one of the best players in the world.

Antetokounmpo is Milwaukee’s first NBA All-Star since Michael Redd in 2004. The 6-foot-11, 222-pounder is also the first player from the Bucks voted in as a starter since Sidney Moncrief in 1984, which was more than 10 years before he was born. Only James of the Cleveland Cavaliers received a higher combined score from the voting fans, media and players as a starting Eastern Conference frontcourt player.

“It’s huge for him. But it’s huge for the franchise because now we feel like we are doing something right,” Kidd said. “He has to believe that he is doing something right because it’s not just the fans who voted him in. Now you look at all the parts of the people who vote. You have players and the media and he was right behind The King [James].”

While ardent NBA fans surely know who Antetokounmpo is, the NBA All-Star Game will be a coming-out party for him worldwide for the casual fan and those who have not seen the Bucks play much. He said he is comfortable with his growing rise in popularity.

“Definitely more people are going to know who I am and more fans are going to know who I am for sure. Players and people from the league already know who I am. I am proud,” Antetokounmpo said.

So what made Antetokounmpo so popular with the voting fans, media and players?

Antetokounmpo plays an exciting brand of basketball using his length and 7-foot-3 wingspan to block shots, nab steals and jump from nearly the free throw line for rousing dunks. The third-year NBA player entered Wednesday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets averaging a well-rounded 23.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.7 steals. The 15th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft has a growing offensive game that included a career-high 41-point outburst in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 10.

“Last year after the All-Star break I started putting a lot of work in,” Antetokounmpo said. “It was a tough year for us. I decided that no matter what happens I have to get better every day. Things just clicked that I did.

“I don’t fear anybody. I just did what I was supposed to do and it started clicking.”

It’s easy to assume Antetokounmpo is as excited as Kidd was for his first NBA All-Star appearance and starting nod. Well, not exactly. He’s more focused on the Bucks’ subpar record that has his franchise outside of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

When a reporter asked him to talk about what it means to be an All-Star during the Bucks’ morning shootaround on Feb. 1 for a game against the Utah Jazz, Antetokounmpo responded with straightforward focus.

“No. I don’t want to talk about the All-Star Game. I’m just focused on tonight,” said Antetokounmpo, hours before the Bucks lost 104-88 to drop to a 21-27 record.

When asked to elaborate on his reluctance to discuss All-Star weekend, Antetokounmpo said: “You want to win whether you get All-Star or get awards. You want your team to win and it feels a lot better when your team is a winning team and everyone feels a part of it.”

To make matters worse for the Bucks, the talented young forward Jabari Parker is out for 12 months after having surgery Tuesday to repair his left ACL. Parker averaged 20.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game in 51 games before the injury, all career highs. He also missed most of his rookie season after tearing the same ACL on Dec. 15, 2014.

So if the Bucks sans Parkers are going to make it back to the postseason, Antetokounmpo must lead them there. Along with playing in stellar fashion, he said, he needed to be more vocal in games and practice and not panic by switching things around.

“It’s kind of tough, but we got to deal with it,” Antetokounmpo said. “Every team goes through it. We have to be mentally tough moving forward and keep doing what we’re doing and be positive. We have to stay in our team habits and moving forward we will be fine if we have that team attitude.”

Kidd said his heart was “beating through his chest” when he started in his first All-Star Game, but he eventually calmed down, realized he belonged there and dished 10 assists. Kidd said he had been preparing Antetokounmpo for being selected as an NBA All-Star since early this season.

“Before all the voting stuff started I said, ‘You’re going to be an All-Star, man.’ He said, ‘Yeah, right.’ I wanted him to relax and just to keep playing how he’s playing. But now we have to figure out how to win,” Kidd said.

Now that Antetokounmpo is an All-Star, it will be interesting to see if he relaxes when he steps on the floor. Durant believes Antetokounmpo deserves to be among the NBA’s best, but doesn’t necessarily agree with comparisons made between the two players.

“He definitely deserves it,” Durant told The Undefeated. “He was a player that has grown so much in this league. He’s just a load to deal with. I’m happy for him. We’re different. We have similar body types, but he is going to be stronger, he’s longer and more athletic than me. I think our skill sets are totally different. But he’s a freak of nature.”

Could the freak of nature nicknamed “The Greek Freak” eventually be the NBA’s best player? Kidd believes so because. He says Antetokounmpo has the body, athleticism, growing game, work ethic at a young age.

While the challenge to be the best is extremely daunting, it is actually a goal for the NBA’s newest superstar, Antetokounmpo.

“I can see myself being one of the top players in the league,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s definitely a goal of mine. If it’s not a goal of mine, why am I playing basketball? I am not playing just to play basketball. I am not playing just to chase goals. I am playing to win. By doing that, everything will take care of itself.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.