Giannis Antetokounmpo is named NBA defensive player of the year and wants to share the credit

Matt Velazquez
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) reaches to block a shot by Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon.

Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo added to his trophy collection on Tuesday when he was recognized as the NBA's defensive player of the year for 2019-20 based on games played through March 11.

The announcement came live on TNT's "Inside the NBA," where host Ernie Johnson introduced Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, who was given the opportunity to bestow the award on Antetokounmpo as he sat beside him in a room full of Milwaukee's players and staff.

After Budenholzer feted Antetokounmpo and extolled his versatility and competitiveness, Bucks center Brook Lopez, who was seated on the other side of Antetokounmpo, passed the trophy to Antetokounmpo, offering a few slaps on the back while the rest of the team applauded.

Antetokounmpo proceeded to thank God, his family and Budenholzer before turning the attention to his teammates. As he did, he started to tear up, apologizing and drawing a laugh from them when telling them he had said he wasn't going to cry.

“Without my teammates this wouldn’t be possible," Antetokounmpo said. "I know that my name is on this trophy, but it could be any of these guys’ names on this trophy. I believe that defense is building trust and effort. We trust one another, we care about one another, we believe in one another – that’s why we’re the best defensive team in the NBA and we’re gonna keep it that way.”

Of course, everyone in the room already knew Antetokounmpo had earned the award. So when did Antetokounmpo actually find out about this honor?

He said that announcement also came from Budenholzer, in the locker room after Game 4 against the Orlando Magic on Monday.

"Usually, when Coach wants to talk to us after a game somebody messed up, somebody did something, right?" Antetokounmpo said in a Zoom call. "So, in my head I’m like, OK. I’m looking around like who did something because I know I didn’t do nothing. Coach was so excited, he was so happy. He told me I won defensive player of the year, jumped on the table – sorry Coach – he was extremely happy.”

While Antetokounmpo apologized, Budenholzer sheepishly told Antetokounmpo he couldn't tell that part of the story. But it should come as no surprise that a coach like Budenholzer, who brings everything back to the defensive end and stresses execution on that end more than anything else, would be overjoyed to hear one of his players was recognized as the best of the best defenders.

“He said I’m usually frustrated, there’s something that somebody’s done wrong," Budenholzer said. "Now there’s something somebody has done wrong. It’s not easy at 50 or 51 or whatever the heck I am, but when you’re excited and you’re proud of somebody the adrenaline rush is off the charts.”

Antetokounmpo became the first Bucks player to claim the award since Sidney Moncrief in 1983 and 1984. He also became just the fifth NBA player to be named both most valuable player and defensive player of the year in his career, joining Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Kevin Garnett. Antetokounmpo is the first player to win those two awards as well as most improved player, an honor he earned in 2017.

The voting itself wasn't all that close. The best defender on the league's best defensive team, Antetokounmpo earned 75 out of 100 first-place votes from the media panel that decides NBA awards. Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis finished second, edging out last year's winner, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. Lopez, who served as Milwaukee's anchor at the center of the Bucks defense, earned four third-place votes.

When Antetokounmpo was on the court this season, opposing teams scored just 96.5 points per 100 possessions, the lowest defensive rating among the more than 300 players who averaged at least 15 minutes per game. He held opponents to 36.5% shooting when they were matched up against him, again the lowest mark in the league.

If you keep looking at advanced defensive metrics, you'd consistently find Antetokounmpo's name at the top. He led the league in defensive rating – Lopez and Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo were behind him – defensive win shares and defensive box plus-minus.

Whether he was providing help from the weak side, defending along the perimeter, patrolling the paint, chasing opponents down in transition or defending opponents in isolation, Antetokounmpo proved to be a menace no matter who he was against. With his 6-foot-11 frame, quick feet, athleticism and long arms, Antetokounmpo posed problems to guards, forwards and centers alike.

And when opponents missed shots, Antetokounmpo was always likely to gobble up the rebound. His 11.5 defensive rebounds per game were the most in the league, something that made him effect not just on defense, but often also allowed him to push out on the break where he was nearly unstoppable as a scorer and playmaker.

“I never thought I’m going to be defensive player of the year," Antetokounmpo said. "I just tried to play hard. I just tried to go out there and compete. There’s other guys that try to come down and try to score on our defense and I’m just trying to make their job as hard as possible. That’s all. I just go out there and try to compete.

"Never thought, never thought that I’m going to be defensive player of the year, but as I’ve said if you work hard, play hard, go out there and compete and have fun, good things can happen.”

As he did on television, Antetokounmpo again brought the discussion of the award back to his teammates, noting that he could talk about everyone on the team and how they contributed to making him better and creating the most efficient defense in the league. He rattled off a few names, but Lopez's was the one that came up most.

For each of the past two years, Antetokounmpo has often praised Lopez for locking down the paint and cleaning up other people's messes. On Tuesday, Antetokounmpo offered to share the defensive player of the year trophy with him.

“I told him I’m gonna cut it in half and give him half so he can take it home because he deserves it as much as I do," Antetokounmpo said. "Brook’s my guy. … He’s always behind me. We’ve done this for two years now and it’s an unbelievable feeling to know a guy like Brook on the defensive end is always there to back you up and have your back.”

Later in the playoffs at a date to be determined, Antetokounmpo can add another trophy to his stash when the league announces this season's MVP. Should he win that as well, he'll be the first repeat winner since Stephen Curry in 2015 and 2016. Earning MVP this season would also make him just the third player to take home MVP and defensive player of the year in the same season, joining Jordan (1988) and Olajuwon (1994).

For now, though, he's just honored to be in the same conversation with those greats of the game, something he never anticipated. He's also focused on getting back on the court Wednesday for Game 5 and keeping the Bucks' historic season going.

Of course, that kind of mentality is what helped him go from a relatively unknown string bean from a tiny apartment in Athens to a dominant superstar in the NBA and now the league's defensive player of the year in the first place.

“Talking about my story, it’s hard work," Antetokounmpo said. "Believe in yourself. Wake up every day and try to get better, figure out a way to get better. There’s going to be down days, there’s going to be good days, but never lose track of what you want to accomplish. ...

“It’s been an unbelievable journey, but we got a long way to go.”

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