MVP Ladder: Antetokounmpo stakes early claim to hardware

MVP Ladder: Antetokounmpo stakes early claim to hardware
Milwaukee, WI - OCTOBER 26: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks handles the ball against the Boston Celtics on October 26, 2017 at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jeff Phelps/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Sekou Smith NBA.com

Khris Middleton saw it coming, months ago.

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s blazing start to this, his fifth NBA season, rose from the glorious ashes of his breakout fourth season in a Milwaukee Bucks uniform.

"The Greek Freak" has been on a steady rise, he debuts at No. 1 on the first Kia Race to the MVP Ladder of this season, is calculated and rooted in his unwavering focus on the right here and right now.

Middleton can attest to as much, having witnessed the meteoric rise from the inside.

“He’s working at it constantly, every second of every day,” the Bucks’ swingman said earlier this week from a corner in the visiting locker room before a Sunday (Monday, PHL time) matinee at Philips Arena. “Look at him, he knows what’s at stake right now, that he’s gone to that next level. And he’s hungry for more. We all see it. It’s been going on for a while now, nonstop through the offseason, in camp and right into the season. It’s crazy to see where he’s at right now compared to where he was a couple years ago.”

Middleton spoke while Antetokounmpo went through a vigorous stretching routine just a few feet away, his eyes locked in on the flat screen showing highlights of a Hawks team that would become the victims of yet another one of his early-season barrages.

While the rest of the locker room was relatively laid back 90 minutes before the game -- a normal sight before an early Sunday game (Monday, PHL time) after a night off in Atlanta -- Antetokounmpo was locked in. Thirty-eight minutes (and 33 points, 11 rebounds, six assists) later, it all made sense.

“For me personally, I just wanted to set a good tone,” Antetokounmpo said, “come out aggressive, play hard so everyone could see that and play hard and be aggressive.”

That’s the way he started the season. Though the first three games, Antetokounmpo set a blistering pace, averaging 38.3 points on 67 percent shooting to go along with 9.6 rebounds, five assists and 2.6 steals, one block and a week’s worth of highlights packed into each outing.

He joined Shaquille O’Neal and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to score 115 or more points and shoot better than 65 percent through the first three games of their team’s season. After four games he was alone, the only player in league history to pile up as many points (147), rebounds (43) and assists (21) as he had.

Antetokounmpo fired the first shot in this season's MVP chase while many of the usual suspects were trying to work out roster kinks or recover from a championship afterglow in an abbreviated training camp and preseason.

Maybe the words of others has helped fuel his fire. Kobe Bryant issued his own MVP challenge during the summer. Front-office types around the league had nothing but praise for him in NBA.com’s annual GM Survey. And, perhaps best of all, reigning Finals MVP Kevin Durant admitted that Antetokounmpo, 22, is his favorite player to watch and suggested he could be the the best to ever play.

"The Greek Freak, I think, is a force. I've never seen anything like him," Durant said. "His ceiling is probably -- he could end up being the best player to ever play if he really wanted to. That's pretty scary to think about."

Middleton, who has been there to see it all from the beginning, insists we’d all be wise to believe the hype.

Last season, after Antetokounmpo became just one of five players in NBA history to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks for an entire season, there was no turning back.

Now that his strength has improved to the point where he can’t be so easily knocked off his spots offensively and he can score in so many different ways, without coming close to mastering his stroke beyond the three-point line, he’s basically unguardable.

“Giannis is truly a student of the game,” Middleton said. “He listens to the coaches, they show him film and he’s always in the gym working on his game and trying to find ways to get better. And right now, as you can see, it’s paying off. You can see his growth and maturity day-by-day, and on the inside and it’s crazy. So I can only imagine how crazy it must be to you guys on the outside looking at it.

“But trust me, what you are seeing … it’s real.”

* * *

The top five in the first edition of the 2017-18 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Season stats: 31.3 points per game, 10.6 rebounds per game, 5.3 assists per game

His MVP case: Antetokounmpo and the Bucks needed a day off after two rough outings: a home loss on Halloween (Nov. 1, PHL time) to the Oklahoma City Thunder and a tough loss in Charlotte a night later. His energy should be sky-high for tonight’s (Saturday, PHL time) Central Division road showdown against the Detroit Pistons. For a player as dialed-in as Antetokounmpo has been to start 2017-18, you can bet he’s studied his first subpar shooting game of the season (14 points on 5-for-16 shooting vs. Charlotte) and will have a response ready. After eight games, it’s clear that no matter how good he is on his own -- and he’s been spectacular -- the Bucks need to make sure Antetokounmpo is supported with more of what Khris Middleton gave them (43 points) against the Hornets.

2. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 26.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 9.2 apg

His MVP case: Harden was supposed to have superstar help this season in the form of Chris Paul. But outside of Paul laboring through 33 minutes in the season-opening win over the Golden State Warriors with a bulky knee, Harden has had to do more of what he did last season. He’s perfectly capable of leading the Rockets in every way imaginable. Houston's 6-3 record heading into tonight’s (Saturday, PHL time) road game against the Atlanta Hawks is a testament to Harden’s ability to lift the team up. We won’t get to see he and Paul in action again until sometime later this month, at the earliest. Only then will we know exactly what Harden and these new-look Rockets are capable of.

3. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 19.6 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 11.9 apg

His MVP case: Westbrook’s triple-double pursuit fueled his Kia MVP campaign last season. With Paul George and Carmelo Anthony around to share the load this season in Oklahoma City, the theory was Westbrook wouldn’t have to grind like he did in 2016-17. And yet he’s already collected four triple-doubles and has come up one assist shy of a triple-double in two other games. He’s leading the league in assists while still getting comfortable with his new crew. The only chase Westbrook is interested in these days is the hunt for that top seed in the Western Conference. If reaching that goal means piling up more assists (he’s leading the league in assists per game) and rebounds while sacrificing some scoring, so be it.

4. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans

Season stats: 30.1 ppg, 13.0 rpg, 5.9 apg

His MVP case: This is space usually reserved for New Orleans' superstar big man counterpart, Anthony Davis. He's off to a fine start this season as well. But it’s "Boogie" Cousins who, save for Monday’s (Tuesday, PHL time) rough outing in a home loss to Orlando, has been the most consistent force for the Pelicans. He followed up his historic 41-point, 23-rebound, six-assist performance in an Oct. 26 (Oct. 27, PHL time) win against the Sacramento Kings with a triple-double (29-12-10) two days later in a 22-point home romp against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The urgency of this season in New Orleans is clearly on his mind and not only is Cousins playing like it, he’s raised the tenor of things for Davis and the rest of the Pelicans. The only way this ends properly is with the Pelicans fighting for a playoff spot.

5. Blake Griffin, LA Clippers

Season stats: 22.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.7 apg

His MVP case: If you don’t think the competitor in Griffin wasn’t energized entering 2017-18, you haven't been paying attention. That's especially true after a summer in which the Clippers watched Chris Paul, J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford all leave. Simply put, Griffin has started this season like a man on a mission. He’s already nailed a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Portland, is shooting a career-best 43.2 percent from three-point range. And, he's playing his point-forward role to perfection. Even with back-to-back losses to the Detroit Pistons and Golden State Warriors, Griffin woke up this morning as the ringleader on a Clippers team that sits atop the Western Conference standings. There is more fight in Griffin and these Clippers than anyone gave them credit for after Paul’s departure.

* * *

Next five:

6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

7. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

8. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

9. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

10. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

And five more ...

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies

Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

* * *

Next up?

An inside look at Victor Oladipo (from an Eastern Conference advance scout):

“When the trade went down and Oladipo and (Domantas Sabonis) were sent to Indiana for Paul George, it took me a few days to pick my jaw up off the floor. There was no way you watch those guys in Oklahoma City last season and think the Pacers are getting anything close to value for a player like Paul, who is one of the handful of best two-way players in our league. But both Victor and the Sabonis kid have been outstanding for the Pacers so far. Things will change as teams get a chance to see them a bit more and figure out how to take away some of the things that they’ve been rolling with early. That said, I can see Oladipo’s confidence growing with every outing.

"He’s more comfortable when he’s operating as the first option than when he’s trying to figure out how to play off of someone else. He and Russ [Westbrook] never really fit well in Oklahoma City. Russ was never going to sacrifice his game for Victor the way he will for George and Carmelo [Anthony]. Give Nate [McMillan] credit, he’s put the ball in Victor’s hands and is allowing him to play with freedom that he never has had in his previous stops. Granted, it’s a small sample size. We need to see more, much more. He’s shooting the cover off the ball from deep, though, and that really does open up his entire game. He’s going to get all of the shots he wants on this team. Sustaining this elevated level of play is the key. If he keeps it up, check back with me at Christmas, this could be a game-changing season for him.”

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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