Giannis represents best hope for Bucks since Kareem

MILWAUKEE -- Five-time MVP and six-time NBA champion Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is wearing a bright-orange vest, a construction helmet and gloves on a frigid January day as he helps show off construction progress on the Milwaukee Bucks' new palace. In a matter of months, the Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center will open for business, becoming the shining new home for one of the NBA's brightest young stars, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

In this moment, as Abdul-Jabbar glides through the construction site followed by a group of media and Bucks staffers, he serves as a human bridge between the franchise's past and the future.

"I think it's great that they have a player and a team that can contend and give them some reason to come to the arena and cheer," Abdul-Jabbar told ESPN. "You get kind of worn out cheering for perennial losers. Giannis has made quite an impact in that area. I'm happy for the fans here. Year in, year out, I run into people wherever I am, people from Wisconsin that saw me play and really appreciated it. So they got great fans here, and I hope that they get it together to the point where they're contending and all of this bears fruit."

As the Bucks get set to move out of the Bradley Center and open the NBA's newest jewel next season, their strategy in linking the past and future is clear. The 2017-18 season has served as a year-long celebration of the franchise's history, including playing a game at The Mecca -- the team's first home arena -- for the first time in 30 years. The Bucks have frequently worn throwback jerseys, and their promotional schedule is littered with giveaway items that call back to the team's past and celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Abdul-Jabbar, who represents the heights the franchise reached -- leading the Bucks to their only championship, in 1971 -- helped lay the groundwork. Now, it's up to Antetokounmpo to bring the organization back to prominence.

No one knows the tale of the Bucks' ups and downs as a franchise better than Jon McGlocklin. He was an All-Star during Milwaukee's inaugural season, one in which the Bucks won just 27 games. He then played a supporting role in the team's meteoric rise that coincided with the drafting of Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, with the No. 1 pick in 1969. Two years later, the Bucks were NBA champions. They reached the Finals again in 1974, but they quickly fell off after Abdul-Jabbar's departure from Milwaukee in 1975.

McGlocklin retired a year later but stayed connected with the Bucks and is now in his 53rd year in professional basketball. Serving as a member of the Bucks' broadcasting team, he has the unique perspective of having played with Abdul-Jabbar and getting a front-row look at Antetokounmpo over the past five years.

"They don't play at all alike, but in their own styles and different ways, [they're] both dominating and demanding in terms of demanding what the defenses have to try to do against them," McGlocklin said. "I only played with one but could certainly play with the other in terms of just enjoying being a teammate of his."

As McGlocklin points out, it can be a bit skewed to compare the two players at the same point in their NBA careers, because Abdul-Jabbar came into the NBA after three years at UCLA, where he became one of the most accomplished college basketball players of all time. Still, there are certainly hints of what Antetokounmpo could become. In this, his age-23 season, he's averaging 26.3 points per 36 minutes on 53.1 percent shooting while posting a PER of 27.7. In Abdul-Jabbar's age-23 season -- which just so happens to be the lone season in Bucks history that ended with a title -- he averaged 28.4 points per 36 minutes on 57.7 percent shooting with a PER of 29.0.

That's lofty company for someone who was drafted 15th overall and came into the league as basically a blank slate, a little-known player out of Greece's second division.

"We didn't know how good he could be," McGlocklin said. "They thought he was going to be good, but they didn't know how good."

Now, in Antetokounmpo's sixth season, those around the league have a good idea of how good he could be -- and it's as good as Milwaukee has ever seen.

"He's going to be like an MVP, a champion," said Magic Johnson in comments that led to the Lakers' being fined $50,000 by the NBA for tampering. "This dude, he's going to put Milwaukee on the map. And I think he's going to bring them a championship one day."

Bucks president Peter Feigin doesn't shy away from those comparisons.

"The Kareem/Giannis parallel is pretty incredible," Feigin said. "Kareem happened to be a cornerstone of a championship team, so when we talk about our objectives to win a championship, we happened to have a 7-footer who's the cornerstone of our current team. These individuals that are so charismatic, so determined and really the cornerstones of what we think are going to be two championship eras."

Bucks guard Jason Terry has played 19 seasons in the NBA, and he still can't believe what he sees on a regular basis from Antetokounmpo, his teammate for the past two seasons.

"It takes a special skill set to pick up different pieces of everyone's game," Terry said. "He's got the fadeaway now that's kind of like Kobe. He shoots off one leg sometimes like Dirk. What he does in the paint I've never seen other than Wilt Chamberlain, being able to take on three guys and then just finish with a power dunk. What he's going to add and what he's working on now is the hesitation pull-up from 3, which is kind of like Tracy McGrady."

Matthew Dellavedova has the unique experience of having played with LeBron James in Cleveland and now Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. When asked for comparisons between the two, the young Australian couldn't help but smile.

"I get asked that question a lot," he said. "You don't want to compare the two because they're both so unique in what they can do, to change the game on both ends of the floor. What [Antetokounmpo] started out doing this year is incredible -- you see the work he puts in every day. It looks like he's got a lot stronger from last year as well, and that obviously helps him when he's absorbing contact on his drives and postups going to the rim."

The scary part in Dellavedova's eyes is just how much better he thinks Antetokounmpo can become.

"Obviously, the sky's the limit," Dellavedova said. "You don't need me to tell you that, but it's pretty obvious. It's going to be really exciting to see what he can do over the next, hopefully, 10, 15 years."

Not content to rest on becoming the Bucks' first All-Star starter since Sidney Moncrief in 1986, Antetokounmpo shares the sentiments of his point guard.

"I think my jump shot could get a lot, lot better," he said. "I could become a really big threat out there. Of course, I know by growing older, I'm going to become stronger, smarter and know the game better. Leadership-wise, I think I'm moving forward in [that area]. I'm going to get better, become more vocal, more talkative on the court. There's a lot of things I can improve, and that's the scary part of it. I'm 22. Who knows how I'm going to be when I'm 26, 27, 28?"

In the short term, Antetokounmpo's goal for this season is to lift his team to the 50-win mark, but he doesn't shy away from the opportunity to win an MVP award one day, something Abdul-Jabbar did six times in his career.

"Of course that's one of my goals as a player," Antetokounmpo said. "One day, I might achieve it. I'm not in a hurry. I wish I could just turn [the conversation] off and not share nothing about that, just focusing on basketball. It's hard, it's hard to like turn on the TV and just see your face -- but my goal is to be the MVP of this team ... help this team win during the season. And everything will take care of itself."

Terry has no doubt that if Antetokounmpo maintains that work ethic over time, he will end up with the same kind of accolades Abdul-Jabbar had.

"The ceiling is to become a champion and into the Hall of Fame," Terry said.

Though the Bucks certainly hope Antetokounmpo will match Abdul-Jabbar's success with the team, they prefer it comes along with a much different ending. The NBA legend, after all, played in Milwaukee for just six of his 20 seasons.

In Abdul-Jabbar's day, becoming a star meant playing in one of the league's biggest markets, which he eventually did after being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975. But in today's NBA, as players such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant and even Antetokounmpo himself have proved, it's possible to become a star in a small market. Even McGlocklin believes things might've ended differently for Abdul-Jabbar in Milwaukee if things had been more like they are now.

"To be fair, you got to look at the country overall, the differences, the communication, technology, the social media, the coverage," McGlocklin said. "We didn't even televise every game back then. So, the world -- certainly the American world -- has changed greatly ... if Kareem came in today with the same credentials, oh, he'd blow the socks off of the world because of the way everything's covered now."

Antetokounmpo could become a free agent in 2021. But his love and loyalty to the city has fans and team personnel hoping he will decide to stay in Milwaukee for the entirety of his career.

As Abdul-Jabbar watches from a distance, he can't help but appreciate the steps Antetokounmpo is taking to make himself both a better player and more comfortable as the face of the franchise.

"I haven't noticed that Giannis has any traits or habits that would inhibit him," Abdul-Jabbar said. "He's an intelligent young man. He has the discipline and work ethic that you need to do well in this game. [I would] just tell him keep doing what you've been doing and be patient."

The challenge of being both the team's best player and the face of an entire city doesn't seem to faze Antetokounmpo. After all, he represents an entire country -- Greece -- every time he steps out on the floor.

"I know by playing hard and trying to [do] whatever it takes for my team to win, that's going to come with it," Antetokounmpo said of the attention that comes with being a star. "Of course, if the team is winning, there's some benefits in that, like being the face of Milwaukee. But it's fun. It's fun walking around Milwaukee and seeing everybody enjoying it."

Bucks Chief Marketing Officer Dustin Godsey still remembers walking with Antetokounmpo through Milwaukee's Summerfest after he was drafted and fans struggled to pronounce his name. A few years later, he has become one of the most recognizable names in the sport.

As the Bucks try to navigate the future, they're hoping Antetokounmpo's talent can re-energize a fan base that is starving for a winner.

"Now we've got this guy who is an unbelievable talent, multiple-time All-Star, leader of the team," Godsey said. "Now it's setting the sights higher and creating a really cool bookend to kind of this first chapter of Bucks history. It started with, in the third year of the team, winning a coin flip and getting Kareem -- literally a coin toss -- and then kind of ending this chapter with somebody who nobody knew who he was, certainly couldn't pronounce his name when he got drafted, and then three years, four years later has turned into this global superstar."