While New Orleans sets a foundation in hopes of becoming a title contender down the line, the Milwaukee Bucks might be a perfect place to draw insight from on how to navigate such a path.
Few players have graced the NBA with physical makeups as unique as reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and rookie Zion Williamson. Sure, it took The Greek Freak some time to fill out his frame, but they don’t call him “freak” without reason. Nothing happened overnight for the Athens, Greece native when the Bucks drafted him in 2013. However, we’re currently seeing what can blossom in nearly a seven-year span with a focus and commitment both individually and collectively to winning. With patience, the hope is that’s a path Williamson will soon have the chance to recreate.
“I was like 185 when I got in the league; [Zion]’s 280,” Giannis laughed. “But when you’re younger, taller than everybody, have more length than everybody and you’re stronger and all that, it’s easy when you’re in high school and college. Now when you get to the pros, you have to be able to get your skillset and fundamentals right, be sharp and get your footwork right. Eventually, he’s going to get all of those things and when he does he’s going to be really good.”
Milwaukee acquired now two-time All-Star forward Khris Middleton via trade just a month after selecting Giannis in the 2013 draft. During their first season together in Cream City, the duo won a mere 15 games which was good for dead last across the league. Instead of panicking, the Bucks instilled a belief, plan and vision into an emerging two-man core that soon funneled championship aspirations.
New Orleans is already a few steps ahead of where the Bucks started in that regard. Even so, it’s still a brick-by-brick process, day in and day out, to climb the NBA’s food chain — one Middleton has become familiar with over the course of his professional career.
“I’d say what helped me the most was confidence,” Middleton reflected. “Just knowing that even though we had that terrible season they saw something positive in us that they could build on with us here. Work is what it’s all about. To be great in this league, you have to put in the work every day.”
Following up on that 2013-14 season, the Bucks went 41-41 in their next campaign to earn a playoff berth and their first postseason victories in five years. Today, they lead the Eastern Conference with a 43-7 record and are 3/1 favorites to win the 2019-20 NBA Finals (h/t Vegas Insider). Only two players have been there for the entirety of that trajectory: Middleton and Antetokounmpo.
This is actually the first season in that span Milwaukee has a rotation dominated by players with three years or less experience within the franchise. Not every draft pick or deal made along the way was a hit by any means, but it took a number of roster shifts to find the right fit that turned into the dominant product currently on display.
Narrowing down the cast outside of two players who seem to have already established their claim, Williamson and first-time All-Star Brandon Ingram, will be a priority going forward. But are the Pelicans even close to knowing what they have yet? 13-year NBA veteran and Fox Sports analyst Antonio Daniels says that’s going to take much longer. Not only for the front office to have faith making tough decisions on a supporting cast for the future, yet also for Zion to figure out how to use his uniqueness to the ceiling of its potential.
“[Zion] needs time to figure it out,” Daniels stressed. “He’s one-of-one in NBA history. You can’t think of anyone with that type of size, strength, athleticism, explosiveness and agility all in the same package. It’s going to take him a minute the same way it took Giannis a minute to figure his skillset out. New Orleans has to find out what it has first, though. It’s one thing to say you want to build, but you need a much bigger sample size to pick out what goes around them.”
The Pelicans are in it for the long haul with Williamson and its idea of how this team can mature to relative heights as the Bucks. When asked about the biggest difference between the leap from 15 wins, to a playoff team to title contention, Antetokounmpo’s answer was straight and to the point in relation to what the Bucks have been able to build. Listen, New Orleans:
“We have better players around us now, better coaches and ownership that wants to win,” Antetokounmpo said. “There’s nothing more to it than that. Everybody has to want to win.”