Late in a blowout win over the Washington Wizards back in February, Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks snatched an opposing player’s dribble and sprinted the other way. Fans of the 24-year-old MVP front-runner knew what to expect next. Antetokounmpo spanned the court in just a few long strides, sidestepped the last unlucky defender between him and the rim, leapt and stretched out his 6-foot-11-inch, 242-pound frame (with its 7-foot-3-inch wingspan), and drummed home a one-handed dunk. The sequence belongs to that slightly disorienting category of athletic accomplishments only the NBA’s best players have access to. It was spectacular—a merging of reflex, strategic intuition, quickness, and power into five unimprovable seconds. But it was also familiar, verging on routine. Bucks season-ticket holders see something like it from Antetokounmpo probably 50 times a year.
What wasn’t familiar was Antetokounmpo’s reaction. “I’m the fucking MVP!” cameras caught him yelling as he stomped toward the courtside seats, flexing and thumping his chest. Over his six seasons, the native of Greece has earned a reputation for humility. He talks regularly about all he has left to learn, having come to the sport at the relatively late age of 12. He engages fans with such warmth that it sometimes moves them to tears. But however uncharacteristic, the celebration seemed to capture something important about the story of this season, in which Antetokounmpo has staked out a place near the top of the NBA hierarchy, and Milwaukee has opened the playoffs as the favorite to reach the Finals out of the Eastern Conference. In years past, despite climbing stats and All-Star accolades, Antetokounmpo remained a figure of potential. This year, he and the Bucks have announced that they’re ready to make good on it.