CHICAGO — As the praise for Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to grow throughout the NBA, so do the comparisons between what the 23 year-old is doing on the floor and what Hall of Famer Magic Johnson did during his Hall of Fame career with the Los Angeles Lakers. The combination of size, speed and the ability to take over a game in different ways is what has set both men apart from their peers. As Johnson watches from afar, he can’t help but see and enjoy the parallels between his game and that of the Bucks big man.
“Oh yeah,” Johnson told ESPN recently. “With his ball-handling skills and his passing ability. He plays above the rim I never could do that. But in his understanding of the game, his basketball IQ, his creativity of shots for his teammates. That’s where we [have the] same thing. Can bring it down, make a pass, make a play. I’m just happy he’s starting in the All-Star game because he deserves that. And he’s going to be like an MVP, a champion, this dude he’s going to put Milwaukee on the map. And I think he’s going to bring them a championship one day.”
When told after Sunday’s win over the Chicago Bulls about Johnson’s comments, Antetokounmpo spoke with a sense of pride while describing what it meant to him to hear those kind of compliments coming from one of the game’s all time greats.
“The craziest thing is that I believe that,” Antetokounmpo told ESPN of winning a championship in Milwaukee. “But it’s even more believable when other guys see that, like Magic. Especially Magic seeing that, that’s big. Because it’s almost like, “OK, he sees that.” So I’m on the right path, I’ve got to to do what I’m doing.”
Johnson, who has long been an ambassador of the game, and currently serves as the Lakers president of basketball operations, is a big fan of the young Greek’s transformative talents. Antetokounmpo is in the midst of his best season as a pro, averaging career highs in points, 28.4, and rebounds, 10.1, on the year, to go along with 4.7 assists per game.
“He’s special,” Johnson said. “A man that can handle the basketball like he can and be a great — he’s probably the greatest athlete we have in the league today. And then his understanding, his basketball IQ is off the chart. He not only can score for himself, but also he can pass that basketball like a point guard. So when you think about all the skills that he has, block shots, rebound, can put the ball on the floor, can score, can assist, can make the pass. We’ve never had anybody in the league like him. And also too, he’s like the number one — he’s right up with LeBron, with KD and Steph [Curry] as the entertainer. He’s an entertainer so people will go see him.”
Antetokounmpo has said in the past that he watched tapes of Johnson growing up as he continued to develop his own game. The Bucks All-Star was clearly appreciative of Johnson’s words.
“It’s big, man,” Antetokounmpo said. “A compliment like that coming from Magic, that’s huge. We grew up watching Magic, I personally grew up watching Magic making those passes, all that stuff. Just trying to be Magic. There was a stage when I was younger that I was trying to be Magic, I was trying to smile when I was playing, make all those plays. But a compliment like that from Magic, it’s big. But for me, I just got to stay focused, keep working on my game and try to get better.”
Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played with Johnson in Los Angeles and also won a championship in Milwaukee, can’t help but see some of the comparisons between the two players as well.
“I remember I came and saw a game of his in his rookie year and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, that guy’s supposed to be a forward,” Abdul-Jabbar recently told ESPN. “He got the ball off the defensive board and took it the whole length of the court and is making behind the back passes and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, he’s 6’11 and he doing all this stuff.” It’s pretty amazing. But I think that that [comparison between Johnson and Antetokounmpo] was inevitable because the big guys, they want to play all aspects of the game too. And little guys get to handle the ball. It used to be the little guys handled the ball and the big guys rebounded. But that’s all mixed in together now. So you got people doing what heretofore they weren’t doing, they’re doing that now. So you got guys handling the ball and little guys going and getting rebounds. It’s a crazy world, but I think it’s been good for the sport.”
Antetokounmpo says he was able to meet Johnson during the All-Star break of his rookie season, but is hopeful the pair can sit down and speak at length at some point in the near future.
“I would love to have a talk with him and see the way he thinks about the game,” Antetokounmpo said. “And I know he’s a guy that’s willing to do that with young guys in the league. I definitely would love to sit down and talk with him. Just have a conversation and see how he views the game and what he thinks.”
In the meantime, Antetokounmpo is focused on controlling what he can control in the present. He knows that a lot is expected of him as he continues his ascent towards superstardom and he is confident that he’ll be able to accomplish what he wants during his career. Johnson’s words serve as more motivation to keep working towards the realization of bringing a title back to Milwaukee.
“Hey, that’s the goal,” Antetokounmpo said. “That’s the goal, man. That’s what I’m playing for. But as I said, it takes sacrifice. You got to work every day hard, get better every day. If you don’t get better this day, you get worse. My goal is to get better than what I was today. Better than what I was yesterday. Keep pushing, because I know if I do that I’m going to help my team in a good way and hopefully one day we can bring a championship, as I’ve said in the past, [to] Milwaukee. And put Milwaukee on the map.”