Giannis Antetokounmpo has always been one for competition. He made waves in December when he told The Athletic he had no desire to work out with rivals and refused invitations from LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony to spend time practising with them.
That kind of drive is what helped him win the MVP in 2018-19 after averaging 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists while helping the Bucks to the No. 1 seed in the East and an appearance in the conference finals.
It's a kind of drive his team-mates rave about, and at the United States' practice session on Wednesday at the Mendenhall Center on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton couldn't deny the respect they have for the 7-footer, even if they would be his rivals at the upcoming FIBA World Cup.
“There are just so many possessions, so many dunks, but the vision, the unselfishness that he has, it’s just so impressive for a superstar of his talent,” Lopez said. “And his work ethic is just what amazes me the most, it’s really second to none.”
“Every night he steps on that court, you know he’s going to give it his all,” Middleton added. “You know he’s due for one of those big plays.”
Middleton and Lopez will not be Antetokounmpo's team-mates at the World Cup. Giannis will be leading a Greece team that has had high expectations of late, but just hasn't quite been able to meet them. Greece was a favourite to medal at Eurobasket in 2015 but fell to the eventual champion Spain in the quarterfinals. Then it failed to qualify for the Olympics in 2016 when it lost to Croatia after playing just three games.
But that was three years ago. Antetokounmpo has three All-Star appearances, three All-NBA selections and an MVP award since then. This is a different Antetokounmpo and a potentially very different Greece team. It's a matchup Middleton would like to see happen.
“We’ve spent hours in practice against each other and it will definitely be fun to get it in a real game,” Middleton said. “That’s my team-mate, my brother and wish him the best but hopefully not too good against us.”
There is no guarantee Middleton will get a chance to match up with Antetokounmpo, but it's not out of the realm of possibility, either. The U.S. is in Group E and Greece is in Group F. If both teams finish in the top two of their pools, they could get a chance to face off down the line.
It's something Lopez says the team isn't planning for yet, but he admits it would be a difficult task on defence, just like it was for every NBA team this past season. “It would be a total team job,” Lopez said. “All five guys have to be on the same page all doing our job.”
The U.S. is dealing with a somewhat limited team this year for the FIBA World Cup. A lot of players have dropped out, including All-Stars Anthony Davis, James Harden and Damian Lillard.
Despite those subtractions, the U.S. remains the favourite to win the tournament, which will be played from August 31 to September 15 in China. But, the Celtics were favoured to win the East this year and Antetokounmpo made sure that didn't happen.
Lopez and Middleton know first hand just how tough the 24-year-old can be to beat when he sets his mind to something. Seeing talent like that in person can be intimidating, but it's not something that will keep his team-mates from wanting to compete. In fact, they would welcome the challenge.
“He’s the most competitive guy I know, so going against him would be an amazing experience," Lopez said. “It really would be a lot of fun.”