How one NBA scout discovered Giannis Antetokounmpo

Editor's note: "The Giannis Draft," a three-episode series, is available on The Woj Pod. The 2020 NBA draft is Wednesday, Nov. 18, at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.

In the late-night hours of Oct. 25, 2012, New Orleans Hornets international scout Yarone Arbel opened an email inside his Tel Aviv home to discover the sweetest siren of the scouting life: the suggestion of an undiscovered star. A Greek agent was pitching a buoyant 17-year-old Athenian point guard with long arms and a longer backstory, Giannis Ugo Antetokounmpo.

"Nobody knows about him," Georgios Dimitropoulos wrote Arbel.

Antetokounmpo had no citizenship and no passport as the son of Nigerian immigrants. He had no résumé with Greece's national team program. The kid played in the second division, which barely registered as professional basketball.

Antetokounmpo had the patronage of two respected Greek agents and a highlight reel that ran 9 minutes, 46 seconds. Arbel clicked on the video and watched Antetokounmpo grab a rebound, dribble up the court, spin and deliver a left-handed dunk. It wasn't particularly explosive, but the outline of a frame, the movement, stopped Arbel cold.

After watching the end-to-end dunk, Arbel forwarded the email to his boss in New Orleans, assistant general manager Tim Connelly. It was 3:39 a.m. Israel Standard Time, the official moment Antetokounmpo had reached an NBA franchise's front office.

"We follow a vast majority of the 17-year-olds for two, sometimes three years, but there was nothing on him," Arbel tells ESPN. "There were 150 views on the YouTube link, which means basically only friends and family.

"Nobody knew of him."

Antetokounmpo was navigating a three-hour round trip on trains, buses and foot to reach practices and games for Filathlitikos on the eastern edge of Athens.

Around this time in the autumn of 2012, Greek agent Giorgos Panou met Antetokounmpo for lunch inside the restaurant of a downtown Athens hotel. His older brother, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, had brokered the meeting. Panou had been watching Giannis, had a distinguished background coaching for the Greek national team and said something that sounded preposterous: "You might be an NBA player next year."

Outside of Kobe Bryant, Giannis knew little about the NBA -- and even less about how a poor, skinny kid from the Sepolia section of Athens would find his way there.

"The real NBA?" Antetokounmpo responded. "The NBA I see on TV?"

When Antetokounmpo recalls the conversation now, he thinks of the burger, the stack of fries, the giant Sprite. In those times, to eat a lunch like that was unforgettable.

Before long, Arbel would travel to the island of Crete to scout Antetokounmpo. He fouled out in 15 minutes, scoring one basket. Soon after, Connelly landed in Athens and watched practices and games.

More NBA executives started to make the trip to Athens. Milwaukee GM John Hammond traveled in March 2013. Danny Ainge of the Boston Celtics passed through in April. The Atlanta Hawks' Danny Ferry saw Antetokounmpo in January, then sent assistant general manager Wes Wilcox to Athens and assistant coach Kenny Atkinson to France for further examination.

The kid kept getting better. Like Antetokounmpo himself, the possibilities kept growing. Some executives were intrigued but wanted to keep him as a developmental project in Europe. Others were adamant he could be the next Magic Johnson or Dr. J.

All things considered, eight months after that email was sent, something extraordinary happened: The Milwaukee Bucks selected Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick of the 2013 NBA draft.

"I didn't know the draft," Antetokounmpo said. "I didn't know the process. I didn't know nothing."

That's the romance of the story, the innocence of it all.

Before he had started an NBA game as a rookie in Milwaukee, I remember visiting Antetokounmpo for a story. He had a three-bedroom apartment overlooking Lake Michigan, where he gave me a tour and proudly showed me the properly made beds he had prepared for his parents and brothers -- even if immigration laws meant they were months away from joining him in America.

Down the street in a Milwaukee suburb, we grabbed dinner, and I listened to Antetokounmpo go on and on about getting to cover LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony as a teenager. Every day was an adventure. Every day represented growth. "At the beginning, Mike Dunleavy -- he bust my ass!" Antetokounmpo declared over the restaurant din.

And then he started laughing, remembering it had been only a little over a year since he had been playing second-division pro ball in Greece -- and barely busting those guys.

Throughout these seven years with the Bucks, the apartment became a home, the bench minutes became back-to-back Most Valuable Player trophies, and Antetokounmpo transformed into one of the great stories in the sport.

It started with an email from Athens to Tel Aviv: I've got someone here. A secret. Nobody knows about him. Eight years ago this week, New Orleans Pelicans scout Yarone Arbel traveled to Greece to see the prospect for himself.

"He had a terrible game," Arbel says with a laugh.

That 2013 draft resembles the 2020 NBA draft on Wednesday night in one recognizable way: The No. 1 pick is unsettled -- and almost anything could happen.