Raptors-Bucks is a reminder of how quickly perception can change

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Perception is not often reality, but in the NBA, it seems to be a team or individual’s most frequent opponent.

When the 2018-19 season began, the Milwaukee Bucks were expected to be much improved by upgrading from Jason Kidd to Mike Budenholzer, but there was never an expectation going in that they would finish with the top seed and dominate teams the way they did on both ends of the floor. Now, having done so the previous season before bowing out in the Eastern Conference Finals with four straight defeats, time is ticking on whether they can prove they’re worth their most prized asset’s future.

The Toronto Raptors are the defending champions who have already been dismissed from title contention. No team has had their Finals MVP depart immediately after winning the title, so how could they possibly contend? Seeing is believing as they say, so no one will deem it possible unless it actually happens.

But look up and down the Raptors and Bucks rosters, and there are several examples of players who have refused to allow their perception to become reality, beginning with Giannis Antetokounmpo.

According to Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress, a U-20 game between Greece and Croatia in 2013 featuring the league’s future MVP had a “substantial contingent” of the 50 or so NBA scouts leave with 6-8 minutes left in the game.

His lack of experience was evident. He had a number of rebounds ripped away from him, didn’t always finish strong around the basket, and air-balled a 3-pointer on one occasion … All in all, Giannis probably didn’t impact his draft stock significantly in either direction.

Giannis and Siakam are prime examples of ignoring the haters. (Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports)

And look at where we are now. OK, the air-balled 3-pointers are still a thing today, but Antetokounmpo has made himself an incredible rebounder and a ferocious finisher at the rim by bulking up. The length and athleticism was always tantalizing, but so much of what the Bucks superstar has become after being selected 15th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft is a direct result of his passion for basketball, his desire to get better.

On Saturday night, he will stand across from the NBA’s Most Improved Player, Pascal Siakam, and likely see another manifestation of someone who continues to rise rapidly because of a complete disregard for what others have to say about him.

When Siakam was drafted, ESPN’s first response was, “Deyonta Davis is still left behind.” Siakam was seen as an energetic big guy with good length and someone whose NBA skill was earning his team extra possessions because he can rebound. Even after breaking out of a bench role and looking like one of the most versatile players in the game, Siakam’s own opponents struggled to recognize that he’s got serious game.

Now, to be fair, this tweet is mostly about a player sticking up for his then teammate, but it illustrates another important point about labels.

Logic now would suggest that someone averaging 28 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists while shooting lights out from beyond the arc and being able to turn every matchup into a mismatch is someone you can start your team with over D’Angelo Russell. Looking back on when the tweet was initially put out — before Toronto’s incredible playoff run — it probably would have been fair to wonder if Siakam could be more than a secondary piece. Believing Russell to be a primary piece is another story for another day (tl;dr: he’s probably not), but the gap between the two players is far different than what it was in early March.

And that’s the point. How much do we really know about these players before they themselves have understood the depths of their game? For every Giannis there is a Bruno Caboclo, for every Siakam there is a Deyonta. As human beings, we compartmentalize till we face conflict, and so the older, more simplistic theories of “the energy big” or the “floor general” are going to eventually get challenged by the newer theories of a Siakam or Steph Curry.

The NBA as a whole has struggled to build consistent success through its draft. Look at Toronto’s roster starting with Kyle Lowry. Selected 24th overall in 2006, he is arguably the best player from the draft class. Would he and his career be viewed differently if he was selected in the lottery? In the top 5? Maybe a “sexier” game that was just as highly effective and translated to winning just as much would garner a better applause.

One might argue that’s the reason Malcolm Brogdon is no longer a member of the Bucks, but here he is averaging 22 points, 11.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 38.1 percent from beyond the arc. While the Bucks asked Giannis to become all he could be, they asked Brogdon to play a role and him doing so, so admirably, meant they struggled to see him as more than that. No one likes to admit they’re wrong, but hey, history only tells us what’s happened in the past.

Fred VanVleet went from undrafted to earning a Finals MVP vote, Terence Davis is his protege. Brook Lopez looked like a big going extinct until he mastered the 3-point shot and became a vital cog in a Milwaukee machine that won a league-high 60 games last season. The Raptors won’t be contenders in the eyes of outsiders until Siakam’s perceived as a superstar or they acquire one. They don’t care.

Those stories and their respective evolutions are so very different, and so the boxes we often put players in serve as more of a sample size of what we don’t know than what we do.

Basically, a contest between these Raptors and these Bucks is a good reminder to ignore the haters.

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