The smile on Thanasis Antetokounmpo’s face prior to the Knicks facing the Suns reached from ear-to-ear. It was a long time coming for the older brother of the Bucks’ Giannis, but the elder Antetokounmpo, the Knicks’ second-round draft pick in 2014, finally made his NBA debut at Madison Square Garden on Friday night.
“I’m happy first of all, I’m excited,” he said as he stood in front of his locker for his first official media scrum as an NBA player. “Basketball wise, fit wherever I can fit to stay. Do whatever the team needs me to do. Support as much as I can support.”
Antetokounmpo signed a 10-day contract with New York on Friday, but his journey to the Garden’s famed hardwood has been an arduous one. Antetokounmpo played one season in the D-League after being drafted – turning down lucrative offers from European leagues in the process – before being invited to Knicks’ training camp last October. He again failed to make the regular season roster, and has been with the team’s D-League affiliate in Westchester this season.
The 23-year-old averaged 10 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 assist per game in the D-League. He shot 55 percent from the floor and 28 percent from beyond the arc.
Despite the long road to the NBA, Antetokounmpo said he never lost confidence that he would reach the League again.
“For sure, you know, you have to take risks and you have to be patient,” he said of his journey. “Sometimes patience is a virtue. It’s really hard for someone to have a lot of patience, to stick to what he’s doing and somehow knowing that he’s going to get to where he wants to go.”
Antetokounmpo entered the game with 2:11 left and the Knicks up by 21 points, to cheers from the crowd. He scored on his first possession (a layup), and finished the night 1-1 from the field.
Knicks’ coach Derek Fisher admitted to reporters that Antetokounmpo’s signing was a result of circumstance as the Knicks were banged up and missing three starters on Thursday.
“(His defense) was a part of it but the reality is we just need bodies as well,” Fisher said at Knicks practice. “I think all teams are trying to use their D-League teams responsibly and this is another way for us to continue that as well.”
On Friday, Fisher told reporters pregame that he wasn’t sure what kind of growth Antetokounmpo had made in his game since training camp.
“We’ll find out, if he gets in the game,” he said. “That’s the only time we can see if he’s grown.”
The man who drafted Antetokoumpo, Knicks’ President Phil Jackson, reached out to the Greek on Thursday for a bit of Zen advice.
“Mostly he told me what the team needed from me and if it doesn’t matter if I play two seconds or 12 minutes, just be a good teammate,’’ Antetokounmpo said. “Play hard, be smart, make smart plays and help the team defensively.’’