Late lifts, The Rock and why Giannis is envious of Pat Connaughton

Pat Connaughton and Giannis Antetokounmpo forged a friendship that began with preseason after-hours workouts as the journeyman and MVP candidate displayed their common bond through their work ethics. Aaron Gash/AP Photo

MILWAUKEE -- Before this season, Giannis Antetokounmpo had been accustomed to turning the gym lights on at night.

Around 7 p.m., hours after the coaching staff had left and most of the players had retreated to their separate corners of Milwaukee, the Bucks forward would return to the team's practice facility. Since he was a rookie, the evening sessions had been a private time for a fastidious man to think and to practice a few more fadeaways, just one more 3-pointer and a handful of midrange jump shots.

As training camp wound down and the weather began to cool last September, Antetokounmpo made his customary trip. But he had unexpected company.

"I went there and Pat was shooting," Antetokounmpo said. "I was like, 'Oh wow. OK.'"

Pat Connaughton, a fourth-year backup guard, recalls being equally surprised to see Antetokounmpo. Why, Connaughton wondered, did Milwaukee's $100 million franchise player need to come in for extra work? Connaughton was a journeyman who had signed with the Bucks on Aug. 1 and was fighting for playing time. Antetokounmpo, on the other hand, rivaled Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers as the most notable Wisconsin athlete.

At first, the evening sessions were coincidental. Then, Connaughton would text Antetokounmpo to let him know what time he planned to get his nightly shots in.

Night after night, they both returned.

Between shots, they would talk about real estate. Antetokounmpo was preparing to move from his downtown apartment to a house 15 minutes away from the Bucks' arena. Connaughton was getting settled after making the trek east from Portland, Oregon, where he had spent the first three seasons of his NBA career.

Eventually, assistant coaches began to join in on the late-night workouts.

"And then lockout days were instituted," Connaughton said.

Lockout days. Head coach Mike Budenholzer wanted players to rest. Taking a break was mandatory -- the idea behind it being that players need to give their bodies some time to recuperate.

"I didn't listen to that," Connaughton said. "I got in a little bit of trouble for that. But it is OK to get in trouble for working too hard. As lockout days got more serious, it became, 'Well, Coach, can I come back and lift?'"

Budenholzer relented.

And so, instead of shooting together, Antetokounmpo and Connaughton worked out in the weight room together. In January, they filmed a video challenging Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

It was the evolution of a friendship between the team's MVP candidate and a role player. They are the Bucks' odd couple, as different as Connaughton's trusty Jeep Wrangler and Antetokounmpo's sponsor-issued BMW. Their backgrounds, skill sets and tastes in cars are divergent, but they share a bond that symbolizes a team culture that's helped Milwaukee reach the second round of the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2001.

Neither player was a lottery pick. Antetokounmpo was picked 15th by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2013. Connaughton, who put his baseball career on hold to pursue hoops, was selected by the Brooklyn Nets on behalf of Portland in the second round of the 2015 draft.

Antetokounmpo spent his first two years in the league sprouting a few inches, adding muscle, drinking milkshakes for the first time and working to get his feet under him. His breakout didn't come until his fourth season, when he earned his first All-Star selection and won the Most Improved Player Award.

A conference away, Connaughton was just trying to get some playing time. His role with the Trail Blazers increased significantly from Year 2 to Year 3, but it was inconsistent at times. Still, it seemed as though he could come off the bench after not playing for two or three games and drop jaws with his vertical leap.


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Connaughton brought those dunks when he signed with Milwaukee, and Antetokounmpo got a taste of them during their shared nightly sessions. Milwaukee guard Eric Bledsoe was already familiar with Connaughton's jumping ability.

"He dunked on me," Bledsoe laughed, recalling his Phoenix Suns days. "I was warned he had hops, but I didn't believe it. I am surprised he's never brought it up."

Even Antetokounmpo, the NBA's most prolific dunker this season, suffers from occasional bouts of envy of Connaughton's vertical leap, which was famously measured at 44 inches during the 2015 NBA draft combine. Those close to Antetokounmpo say he is awed by Connaughton's ability to sky straightaway when he enters the gym, without needing a proper warm-up.

"Yes, yes that's true," Antetokounmpo said, cracking a huge grin. "But when I'm 50, I'll be more athletic than him. He won't be able to jump no more! ... I'll just be able to drop it in."

But it's not just basketball. Connaughton can throw a baseball over 90 mph and a football 80 yards.

On practice days, the Bucks hold a competition to see who can hit the most free throws. At a practice between Games 1 and 2 in the Bucks' first-round playoff series against the Pistons, Connaughton nailed free throw after free throw, much to the delight of his teammates.

"Maybe his new nickname should be 'Playoff Pat,'" an onlooker mused.

Connaughton has not always played steady minutes this season. In the fall, he was routinely called off the bench, but in January and February, his minutes yo-yoed. This isn't uncommon in Budenholzer's system -- he often takes turns giving different role players a chance.

All the while, Connaughton kept up his twice-a-day gym habit.

And it's paid off.

Connaughton averaged 27.8 minutes per game in Milwaukee's first-round sweep. In Game 2, he was the first player called off the bench and he posted 18 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 blocks. Budenholzer joked that Connaughton has become the Bucks' "best power forward with a jump hook."

"There is so much more success I can have in the league if I continue to work for it," Connaughton said.