Game Changers: How MVP Antetokounmpo becomes greater

NBA.com Global on Oct 11, 2019 07:57 AM
Game Changers: How MVP Giannis becomes greater
Photos c/o NBA.com

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of features that spotlights innovative, unique figures around the NBA who could change the league forever.

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MILWAUKEE -- More than two hours before tipoff, Giannis Antetokounmpo already is working. Ten minutes after that, he’s tugging at the shoulder strap of his white athletic shirt, wiping sweat from his face.

Fans aren’t even in the building yet as Antetokounmpo grinds through a battery of shooting drills. He starts out basic, flipping a yellow, weighted ball through the rim as he takes a step backward after each shot. Then the Milwaukee Bucks’ star and the NBA’s reigning Kia MVP moves through specific stations -- foul line, baselines, mid-range wings -- while a few teammates shoot at the same end of the court. A cluster of staffers handle the rebounds.

The music in the arena bowl is loud. Photographers are setting up their equipment. Eventually the anthem singer comes out for a trial run. There are, frankly, a couple dozen possible distractions at Fiserv Forum more than two hours before the Jazz-Bucks preseason game Wednesday. And yet, as far as Antetokounmpo is concerned, it’s just him, the ball, the rim … and Bucks assistant coach Ben Sullivan.

Sullivan is the tall, bearded fellow in team gear who puts the franchise’s guy through these paces before games, after practices, sometimes on random weekend nights in the offseason when Antetokounmpo feels the itch to work. The term they use in Milwaukee is “taking your vitamins” -- it’s a daily commitment.

For all the attention heaped on the NBA’s global vision this week, Antetokounmpo and Sullivan represent one of its upsides, bringing together an earnest, soft-spoken native of Portland, Ore., and a ridiculously gifted young man from Athens, Greece. Thirty years ago, they might never have met. These days, they labor at all hours in various gyms, to little fanfare, in hopes of delivering a championship to an underdog organization in a town where some folks wear cheese hats made of foam.

That’s for later. The shorter-term goal is simple: Constant improvement by Antetokounmpo, at the prodding and watch of a guy who needed a day job seven years ago because his coaching gig wasn’t paying the bills.

“I could work with him for another 20 years,” Sullivan said shortly after Antetokounmpo’s shooting session, “and we’d still be working on this stuff.” As he said it, he looked heavenward, made the sign-of-the-cross and smiled. When you’re living the dream, you don’t want to jinx a thing.

“He’s a great shooting coach,” Antetokounmpo said, “but he’s not just a shooting coach. We work on my post game. We work on my ball skills. Just becoming a better overall player.”

'Something I needed to do’

They got to the NBA a year apart. Antetokounmpo was a skinny, knobby kneed 18-year-old who spoke halting English and had been considered a reach by former Bucks GM John Hammond as the No. 15 pick in the 2013 Draft. Now, “The Greek Freak” ranks as one of the top three or four players in the NBA, a basketball-without-borders success story to rival those of NBA legends Hakeem Olajuwon, Dirk Nowitzki or Yao Ming. The Bucks are pinning their hopes for an NBA title on Antetokounmpo’s talents, work ethic and relentless pursuit of greatness.

Sullivan? He was a 28-year-old then, wrapping up his first NBA season breaking down game film in the San Antonio Spurs’ video room. The season before, he stayed busy driving from his home in Portland up to Vancouver, Wash., to work as an office manager for a construction firm. Come 3 p.m., he’d head back down to Lewis & Clark College as an assistant coach for the Pioneers, the Division III school’s hoops team.

Without the first job, Sullivan -- a graduate of the University of Portland who played professionally for a spell in Germany, China and Chile -- couldn’t have afforded to give so much time to the second.

Now the Bucks are pinning their hopes for an NBA title on Sullivan’s talents, work ethic and relentless pursuit of Antetokounmpo’s greatness too. However deep into spring Milwaukee plays, the contributors will range from “The Greek Freak’s” elite skills and MVP notoriety to Sullivan’s relative anonymity (you might glimpse him in sideline shots sitting a few seats away from Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer).

“Giannis is such a great player,” Budenholzer said this week, “the more we can push that envelope of him continuing to improve, that’s super-important to us. And that’s a great strength of Ben’s. He’s got a good way of helping players take progressive steps in their games. A lot of times, if we have somebody where we’re spending extra time on shooting, he gets tasked with the majority of that.”

If it sounds as if Budenholzer has Sullivan’s back, there’s a reason: they climbed the same ladder, learned the NBA game the same way, in the same place, and plugged their way to all they’ve achieved.

Budenholzer, out of Pomona College, famously was hired by the Spurs to work in their video department a quarter century ago after pestering Gregg Popovich for the opportunity. He worked his way onto the bench, was around for four championships, then got hired by the Atlanta Hawks in 2013 for a five-year run.

Sullivan had been dumped in Budenholzer’s lap the year before he left, hired by GM R.C. Buford with a recommendation from player-turned-coach Ime Udoka (Udoka and Sullivan were fixtures on the Portland hoops scene.) The timing couldn’t have been better for Sullivan -- the Spurs went to The Finals that season and the next, suffering from Ray Allen’s famous corner 3-pointer in Game 6 in ’13, then beating Miami for rings in ’14. When Budenholzer got an opening that summer, he called Sullivan.

“The dream was always to just get a job in coaching that could pay my bills,” Sullivan recalled. “It didn’t happen till I got to the NBA.”

Initially, Sullivan wasn’t sure whether to heed Udoka’s advice, so he sought a second opinion. He didn’t need a third.

Said Sullivan: “I had a coach I’m close to tell me, ‘Do whatever you have to do to get that job. The amount of stuff you’ll learn and the people you’ll meet, it could be the best thing to ever happen to you. If you have to take out a loan just to finance it, do that.’ When he said that, I knew this was something I needed to do.”

The long, slow climb

The video department of an NBA team is like the boiler room of a luxury cruise ship. It’s as unglamorous as the league gets, with long hours spent in windowless rooms into the wee hours. Few of the coordinators and assistant coordinators plan to be in those jobs very long. And the reason they can dream like that is, what they learn there makes them so valuable in other roles.

“You really learn to see the game and train your eye in a much, much different way,” Budenholzer said. “Lots of times you actually have to see all 10 guys on the court and understand, are they doing what they’re supposed to be doing? Sometimes you have to be creative and think, what is it they were supposed to be doing?

“I can tell you, those video guys are truly trained to see the spacing, the timing, how offenses progress, what are teams doing defensively. There’s an attention to detail that you learn in the video room that, I don’t want to say you can’t get anywhere else, but it’s a huge part of their foundation.”

Frank Vogel, coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, got his start in Rick Pitino’s video room at Kentucky and later when Pitino coached the Boston Celtics. Colleagues from Sullivan’s Spurs stint are scattered on benches throughout the NBA: Bret Brielmaier in Brooklyn, Will Hardy out front in San Antonio, Chris Babcock with Philadelphia.

They grab the lowest rung on the coaching ladder, then the next and the next. The climb is made possible by the know-how, the feel, the networking, all gleaned from that demanding, immersive environment.

“Going into the Spurs’ video room was like getting your doctorate in basketball,” Sullivan said. “You’re not doing it for the money. You’re doing it for the knowledge and the basketball experience.”

Budenholzer’s call from Atlanta got Sullivan climbing. His first season with the Hawks, the team won a franchise-record 60 games while he worked with proven NBA players, including current Bucks shooter Kyle Korver. Atlanta reached the playoffs three times in his four seasons. When Budenholzer parted ways with the franchise in 2018 and snagged the Bucks job, Sullivan was among the staffers he brought to Milwaukee.

Sullivan mentions coaches in both San Antonio and Atlanta -- Chip Engelland (with the Spurs), Chad Forcier (now with the Bucks) and Kenny Atkinson (now the Nets’ coach) -- as mentors. When asked what he’s learned or borrowed from Engelland, one of the league’s most respected “shot doctors,” the Bucks assistant said: “Everything. Like, am I going to get sued for plagiarism? The amount of stuff I learned from him and Pop and Bud, I could never repay.”

He can, however, pay it forward in his tutelage of Antetokounmpo. All he must do is help a reigning MVP still shy of his prime at just 24 improve on the performance he gave in 2018-19 and boost his team to six additional playoff victories next spring.

That’s a lot to ask from a player who averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game, while hitting 57.8 percent of his shots and earning All-Defensive first team honors. Might as well try to tweak the smile on the Mona Lisa, right?

“He still has a lot of growth,” Sullivan said, “and that’s what gets me excited. His passing, his handle, his pick-and-roll play, his one-on-one play. Playing off the ball. Then on defense, he can be more engaged. He has some areas he can really grow in. I think that’s scary for everyone else.”

“He wants it, man. He wants to be great. He wants to drive us. He wants this to be the last team standing. He’s a driven man.”

Earning a superstar's trust

The job as Antetokounmpo’s sorta-kinda guru/tutor/coach was open because the fellow who’d previously held it, Sean Sweeney, got cleared out when the Jason Kidd/Joe Prunty regime ended in 2018. Sweeney, who had been devoted to Antetkounmpo’s development since arriving with Kidd in 2014, works now for Detroit.

No one spent more time working with “The Greek Freak” than Sweeney over his four seasons in Milwaukee. They forged a relationship that transcends team affiliation, though logistics and their daily demands keep them apart these days.

Thinking of those years, Antetokounmpo said of his helpers then and now: “They’re similar. One thing I’ll say about Sweeney is, he literally lived in the gym. He didn’t go back home. Ben has kids [Penny and Walker with wife Bailee]. But whenever I’m texting him -- ‘Coach, meet me at 8:30 or 9 p.m.’ -- he’s always there. Ready.”

Building a new relationship with a player, particularly a superstar, can challenge an assistant coach. Trust is the cornerstone. Can the coach really help the player improve? Does the player even want to be coached?

“In my experience,” Sullivan said, “if you are genuine and passionate and real, if you have good attention to detail and you’re focused, I think if you bring that to the table, players will respond and respect that.”

And if they don’t, well, no one wants to be the assistant coach who pushed the franchise star too hard, for fear it might push him away altogether. Though that apparently isn’t a worry for the Bucks with Antetokounmpo.

“That’s another thing that makes Giannis special,” Sullivan said. “His desire to be great. And then his willingness to be coached -- one of the best I’ve ever seen. He knows what he has inside, and he knows he needs help. Bud coaches him, I coach him, [fellow assistant] Darvin [Ham] coaches him. He’s that driven to be better. He wants to be pushed.”

The way Antetokounmpo works through his warm-ups and tutorials, a coach is more likely to tire out himself than wear out the versatile 6-foot-11 star. While Sullivan observes, assistant video coordinator Schuyler Rimmer -- a former Florida forward who stands 6-foot-10 -- joins in to play post defense against the Bucks’ star. There’s a whole lot of banging going on.

“Every player has holes in his game,” Antetokounmpo told NBA.com. “You try to fill all holes up as much as you can. Ben is doing a great job.

“I definitely want to be challenged by my coaches. I told Sullivan that. I said, ‘Coach, tell me what I’m supposed to do and I’ll try to do it as hard as I can. Do not try to be nice with me. Just fire away. No BS. Tell me what to do. That’s how we’re going to get better. If I’m BS-ing in a practice, tell me right to my face.’ ”

Sound harsh. What about a coach’s bedside manner, doesn’t that matter?

“Being nice?” Antetokounmpo said. “There are times when you’ve got to be nice. But in sports, you’ve got to be real. Sometimes when you’re real, that hurts. But if it’s for your own good or the team’s good, it doesn’t really hurt. Because I want to get better. Help me get better.”

That gets us to the Holy Grail of Antetokounmpo’s burgeoning game: His shooting. It’s the one skill that, as league GMs and coaches have said for years now, lags behind the rest of his blossoming on both sides of the ball. If he were to boost his jump shot to a reliable accuracy and stretch it to (gasp) 3-point range, he might be downright unstoppable.

Antetokounmpo’s field-goal success is built largely from his dunks and baskets at the rim. Once he’s out to three feet or farther, he shoots at about a 35% rate. He’s a career 27.7% 3-point shooter, which includes 25.6% last season.

There still are awkward moments when opponents leave Antetokounmpo unattended -- if he has picked up his dribble, anyway -- almost daring him to shoot from mid-range and beyond. As Milwaukee lost the final four games to Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals in May, the 3-pointers he did launch (he went 7-of-21) seemed to come from the frustration of running into the Raptors’ defensive wall.

Conventional wisdom says Antetokounmpo shouldn’t need much of a jump shot, given Milwaukee’s many 3-point threats. The idea, after all, is to spread the defense primarily so he has lanes to the basket. That happened last season, with the Bucks ranking second in the NBA in both 3-pointers taken and made.

But Sullivan flipped the thinking.

“His shooting is not just for him, it’s also for his teammates,” Sullivan said. “If Eric Bledsoe and Khris [Middleton] are in the pick-and-roll and Giannis is in the corner, if they kick it to Giannis, that’s a situation where he has to be ready and willing to take that shot. He’s physically capable of making it, no problem, but the mental aspect has to be ‘This is a shot I’m gonna do.’ ”

Fluidity and structure

The public notices the mechanics of Antetokounmpo’s jump shot, which often looks to be just that: mechanical. He lifts the ball high, out in front of his face more than above his head. Tilting back, he looks as if he’s peeking over a fence. When he sends it toward the rim, the fingers of his enormous right hand are spread wide in follow-through. None of that is a problem in Sullivan’s view, though it’s still a little paint-by-numbers.

“I’m not sure if I heard this somewhere or where it came from,” the coach said, “but shooting is a balance of fluidity and structure. All the great shooters have some sort of balance. We’re trying to carve out and find the perfect balance for Giannis, what his fluidity and structure is.”

His real breakthrough will come when outside shots are equal options in Antetokounmpo’s repertoire.

“The term I’ve heard is ‘shooting psyche,’ ” Sullivan said. “Even more so than technique, I think mentally he’s really starting to understand the impact [his shooting] can have on everybody. When Giannis comes in, he’s going to the rim and trying to dunk on people. Which is right. So deciding to shoot is secondary.

“But he needs to mentally grow in that area, of ‘attack with the jumper, shoot a pull-up here, shoot a three there.’ We want him to play completely to his strengths, and then whenever a shot’s available, take it.”

By the way, Sullivan isn’t only a shooting coach. He works with other Bucks players, same as Antetokounmpo gets coached by Budenholzer and his other assistants.

“Ben’s always out there, working as hard as any guy on the court,” said center Brook Lopez, who stretched his 3-point range with Sullivan’s aid last season.

“He lets guys get out there and kind of experiment, thinking how to elevate their game. He doesn’t have you doing the same stuff to be the same player. He really helps people become better players.”

And yes, that includes a dominant player who is being measured mostly against himself and, OK, maybe some legends.

“He’s going to continue to improve because that’s who he is,” Lopez said of Antetokounmpo. “He’s not satisfied at all with the player he currently is. He sees himself as someone who can be a whole ‘nother player by leaps and bounds.”

As Antetokounmpo’s daily regimen of catch-and-shoots, off-the-dribble 3-pointers, pull-ups and post moves ended, he made sure to seek out and slap hands with each of the staffers and ball kids who helped rebound for him.

When this all comes together in Antetokounmpo as both an inside and outside scoring threat -- and it might happen more quickly than folks anticipate -- the highest five will belong to Sullivan.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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