SANTA MONICA, CALIF. - During the 2013 NBA draft, analyst Fran Fraschilla introduced Giannis Antetokounmpo, a raw and relatively unknown 18-year-old from Greece, as the evening's "most mysterious" prospect. Six years later, the Milwaukee Bucks forward earned a significantly more prestigious superlative: most valuable player.
PHOTO GALLERY: See scenes from the 2019 NBA Awards ceremony in a gallery at the end of this story
The NBA announced Monday that Antetokounmpo had claimed MVP honors by beating out Houston Rockets guard James Harden and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George, his fellow finalists. The league made the announcement at its annual awards show, held at the Barker Hangar.
Antetokounmpo, 24, averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game - all career highs - while leading Milwaukee to a league-best 60 regular season wins. His first career MVP award marked another step in a steady ascent for the three-time All-Star, who was named first-team All-NBA and All-Defense last month. Antetokounmpo became the first Bucks player to be named MVP since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1973-74.
Whereas most of his contemporaries began appearing on the NBA's radar early during their high school careers, Antetokounmpo slowly attracted attention while playing in Greece's third division. The hype around the "Greek Freak" - a long-striding forward who excelled in transition and covered ground like few NBA players - propelled him to the 15th pick in 2013 and a bench role as a rookie.
Antetokounmpo's step-by-step advance continued from there: He became a full-time starter in 2014-15, a lead scoring option in 2015-16, the NBA's most improved player in 2016-17 and a clear-cut franchise player in 2017-18. This season, his first under coach Mike Budenholzer, Antetokounmpo led the Eastern Conference in All-Star votes, guided the Bucks to their most regular season victories since 1980-81 and delivered the franchise's first playoff series win since 2001.
If Antetokounmpo began that journey as a shy and foul-happy teenager who famously had never tasted a smoothie, he has become a fearsome and versatile presence who dunks like Shaquille O'Neal, runs the break like LeBron James and leads quietly like Tim Duncan. The sixth-year pro was the central force of Milwaukee's third-ranked offense, driving hard to the basket to set up his teammates' outside shots, and the linchpin of its top-ranked defense. Antetokounmpo was also one of three finalists for defensive player of the year, an award claimed by Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert.
In the playoffs, Antetokounmpo led Milwaukee to a breezy sweep of the Detroit Pistons in the first round and a five-game thumping of the Boston Celtics in the conference semifinals. After claiming a 2-0 lead over the Toronto Raptors in the conference finals, the Bucks lost four straight games in stunning fashion. Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, the eventual NBA Finals MVP, switched onto Antetokounmpo in the defining adjustment of the series.
"It's just the start of a long journey," Antetokounmpo said after that loss. "We're going to get better. We're going to come back next year and believe in who we are, believe in what we've built this year, and hopefully we can be in the same situation and be the ones moving forward."
Harden, the 2018 MVP, placed second in this year's voting after averaging a career-high 36.1 points per game, the highest average since Michael Jordan in 1986-87. Although the 29-year-old guard carried the Rockets to 53 wins during an injury-plagued regular season for the team, Houston was eliminated by the Golden State Warriors for the fourth time in five seasons.
The 29-year-old George was an early MVP favorite before fading down the stretch because of a shoulder injury that led to surgery this month. After surprising many observers by re-signing with the Thunder in July 2018, George averaged a career-high 28 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists while being named first-team All-NBA and All-defense. The Thunder's season ended with a thud when the Portland Trail Blazers eliminated them in the first round.
In addition to crowning Antetokounmpo as MVP and naming Gobert the defensive player of the year, the NBA handed out its other major annual awards. Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic was named rookie of the year, Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams was named sixth man of the year, Raptors forward Pascal Siakam was named most improved player and Budenholzer was named coach of the year.
Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal received the NBA Cares Community Assist award for his work with Washington's Ron Brown College Preparatory High School. Beal, who was presented with the award by teammate John Wall, donated sneakers, held movie screenings, led a tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and served as a mentor for the school's students this season.