MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo set to continue where Hakeem left off

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For African basketball fans of a certain age, Hakeem ‘The Dream’ Olajuwon has long been the greatest ever player from the continent.

His feats on the grandest stage of them all, the NBA, were a marvel as he slayed numerous rivals on his way to becoming one of the greatest athletes Africa has ever produced. Now new dawn for African talent has risen and one of the brightest stars looking to emulate Olajuwon has arrived in Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

There are a lot of similarities between Hakeem Olajuwon and Giannis Antetokounmpo, with both tracing their roots back to Nigeria. They have incredible footwork, they have size and speed as their key athletic attributes, they are smart basketball players who use their unique skills to give them advantages.

There is also a lot that separates them too. Olajuwon was a back to the basketball type player who muscled and Dream Shaked (or is that Dream Shook?) his way around the post, Antetokounmpo is an unstoppable point-forward who barrels his way to the rim with ball in hand. Olajuwon had a fluid shot and was a capable marksman from mid-range, Giannis is yet to master that skill but can’t be stopped when he’s near the hoop.

Critically, the one achievement that will forever bind them is that both have won the NBA’s most prestigious individual player award, the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. That is the accomplishment that marks them out as a couple of the very best to have ever played the game at the highest level.

At the end of the 1994 NBA season something special happened, the Houston Rockets’ Nigerian Centre Olajuwon became the first player of African descent to win the MVP award. The 1993-94 campaign was a stellar season for him, he averaged 27.3 points per game, 11.9 rebounds per game, 3.6 assists per game, 1.6 steals per game and 3.7 blocks per game.

The Dream leads his team to a historic first-ever NBA title, won NBA Finals MVP, won the Defensive Player of the Year and was named in the All-NBA First Team and All-NBA Defensive First Team. It would take 24 years before another player with African lineage would take the MVP gong, as the Milwaukee Bucks’ Nigerian-Greek Forward Antetokounmpo was the next person to clinch the big award. Giannis’ MVP season saw him average 27.7 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 1.3 spg and 1.5 bpg. 

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Those numbers are comparable to Hakeem’s, showing just home much Giannis has grown as he became the regular season MVP. The Greek Freak didn’t stop there in 2019, he also topped the Eastern Conference votes for the All-Star Game in Charlotte where he captained Team Giannis against Team LeBron.

He was named in the All-NBA First Team as well as becoming an NBA All-Defensive First Team selection. But only one of these players is a two-time champion and that is something that Giannis and the Bucks will be eager to change this season.

Some of the African continents have questioned Giannis’ “Africanness” as he wasn’t born or raised in Africa. Although Antetokounmpo was born in Athens, Greece and goes by the nickname ‘The Greek Freak’ he very much sees himself as an African.

His Nigerian parents took the family to Greece before Giannis was born and he was raised on the streets of the Greek capital where he was raised with African sensibilities and an understanding of what his Nigerian heritage meant. He is quick to remind people that Nigeria still courses through his veins. 

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Antetokounmpo took part in the first-ever NBA Africa Game held in Johannesburg in 2015 as part of Team Africa and was very proud to do so. It’s this pride that is another similarity with Olajuwon who has always carried his love for his home continent in his heart and has expressed his love for Africa consistently.

24 years is a long time to wait for another African winner of the award, but Giannis’ MVP win was richly deserved, and he could go on to make similar waves to those made by Olajuwon. Hakeem ‘The Dream’ would have hoped that his award-winning feat would have been equalled many times by other Africans during the 24-year gap between his victory and Giannis’ but many false dawns have followed.

Many of the African players that came after Olajuwon couldn’t live up to his stature as they didn’t have the same combination of skillset and drive. That is until Antetokounmpo stepped up for the Bucks the last term. Giannis, ‘The Greek Freak’ doesn’t have Olajuwon’s 7-foot height, but coming in at slightly shorter 6-foot-11 with a massive 7-foot-3 wingspan he’s no shrinking violet. 

It’s not just the size similarities or the heritage that ties these two players together there is a sense of determination and single-mindedness that they both possess. It is that which makes many believe that Giannis will go on to follow in Hakeem’s footsteps to win a championship.

Bucks fans will hope that is the case as they head into the 2019-20 season. Hakeem was a real legend in Houston and in Milwaukee, Bucks fans really love their MVP and they come in their droves to see him light up Fiserv Forum. The fans will be willing Giannis and the team on as they chase the championship.

The signs are there that Antetokounmpo will be the one that gets them over the line to snatch glory. Giannis believes this too. A championship will really cement Antetokounmpo as the heir apparent to Olajuwon’s title of Best Ever African Player. Africa is watching.

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