For Saudi fan, road to World Cup is a desert trek

As Abu Dhabi gets set to host the region’s first NBA games this Thursday and Saturday, stars of the Milwaukee Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks have vowed to put on a show at the Etihad Arena.

The Bucks and the Hawks – who squared off in the 2021 NBA Eastern Conference Finals before the former went on to win their first championship in 50 years – will get their preseason campaigns up and running with two sold-out clashes on Yas Island.

Both teams held open practice sessions at Etihad Arena on Wednesday and spent some time talking to the press. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from an exciting media day in the capital.

A 50-point game from Giannis?

Milwaukee superstar and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo initially laughed off the idea he would score 50 points against the Hawks on Thursday before adding: “But you never know though, never say never.”

The Greek Freak then shared what he thinks fans can expect from him and his teammates.

“A good game with a lot of intensity, a lot of excitement, a lot of threes, a lot of dunks and hopefully the Bucks win,” said Antetokounmpo.

While Atlanta guard Trae Young would not promise any half-court shots, the two-time NBA All-Star predicts a high-octane battle with the Bucks, after spending a full five days enjoying the sights in Abu Dhabi while upping preseason training with his team.

“I’m definitely going to come out here and try to put on a show for the fans,” said Young.

“I know this is big for the people out here and what’s going on for the game.

“From our team you’re definitely going to get a competitive side, I know Giannis is going to do the same for his team, the Bucks. It’s going to be competitive but at the same time we know what the long run is and we’re trying to build and trying to get better still.”

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer hopes his team’s values shine through when they take to the court for these two games.

“Hopefully the fans will see a team that plays with a lot of passion, that plays hard, that plays unselfishly; it’s got great energy,” he said.

“There’s probably nobody that’s got more passion than Giannis and I think it’s infectious, the whole team kind of plays similarly so hopefully they’ll see a team that plays hard, plays together, and hopefully does some special things.”

Trae’s ‘unreal experience’

You don’t often see players from opposing teams in professional sport decide to train together during the offseason, but that’s what Young and Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry did over the summer.

Two of the best shooters of the game, Young, 24, and Curry, 34, spent a week working out together and honing their skills for the new season and it was an experience Young says he’ll never forget.

“That was an unreal experience. For me, just knowing how he’s changed the game, and what he brought to the game; I’m always a sponge and learning new things, so there are a lot of things that he’s done that I’ve never seen or I’ve never been a part of,” said Young on Wednesday, heaping praise on Curry.

“So just being a part of workouts and getting on the court and actually playing some games with him was actually really fun, so I’ve actually learned some things.”

Dejounte Murray, who joined the Hawks from the San Antonio Spurs in June, also rubbed shoulders with an all-time great during the offseason. Murray had “a really great workout” with LeBron James this summer and got a brief but close look at some of the things that make the four-time NBA champion a strong contender in the GOAT debate.

“He’s not just one word, he’s a great,” said Murray of the 37-year-old James, considered one of the Greatest of All Time players.

“Longevity, 20 years, that means he takes care of his body, his diet, the food he eats, he works on his game, in the weight room, however you want to put it; he’s the whole package. We’ve got to appreciate guys like that. Those are guys who you honor and look up to when you’re trying to be a basketball player.”

First look at Young and Murray

Since news broke that the Hawks had acquired Murray from the Spurs, the anticipation has been building to see how he and Young will look to share the back court this upcoming campaign.

The guard mates sound excited about teaming up and Hawks coach Nate McMillan is keen to see what kind of chemistry they will have in their first game together on Thursday.

“We’re excited about bringing Murray on with us to join our roster. I think he’s just going to add so much to the team on both ends of the floor; the offensive end of the floor as well as the defensive end of the floor,” McMillan told Arab News.

“His ability to defend, (he’s) one of the top defenders in the league, which is the area we felt that we needed to improve on; he will help us establish our defense.

“Offensively, the combination of Trae and Murray in the back court, they both will be able to play off of each other. It’s really been good in training camp; we’re excited to see it for the first time tomorrow night against Milwaukee and we’ll be able to learn from that game the things we can do with those two guys now playing in the back court together.”

Young will understandably need to make some adjustments with the arrival of Murray but is not daunted by that prospect.

“It’s going to be fun, it’s not going to be, say a challenge. I think the only challenge is just learning how to play off the ball a little bit with him and just kind of getting a feel. You’ve got a new teammate, you’ve got to learn how different things feel, so that’s going to be the only challenge,” said Young.

“Besides that, we’re both competitors, we’re both very smart, we can pass, score; we have a lot of similarities. The connection is already there, it’s just now you’ve got to get some game reps and get it going.”

They’ve already gone on camel rides together in the Abu Dhabi desert; that’s definitely a good start.

‘The mind is infinite’

He’s already shaping up to be one of the best to ever play the game but what makes Antetokounmpo even more intriguing is the fact he hasn’t even come close to hitting his ceiling yet.

“I think that’s the most special thing about Giannis when we think about him today, it’s how much better he can get,” explained coach Budenholzer.

“I don’t think we ever want to put a ceiling on him. He’s very special, very unique and we look forward to watching him grow.”

The big man from Greece says he has put the Bucks’ 2020-2021 championship-winning season behind him and insists it’s time to create new memories and hit new milestones with the team.

Antetokounmpo has dominated a lot of the conversations between players and the press so far in Abu Dhabi, with Young noting his passion for the game as the Greek’s most standout attribute, while Giannis’ older brother Thanasis hailed his “unselfishness.”

Giannis spoke about how much attention he gives to preserving his mental health and described the constant work he does with his sports psychologist as the “best investment” he’s ever made.

“We invest in real estate, we invest in stocks, we invest in whatever people invest in, but the biggest investment you can do is with yourself and it’s okay to not be okay,” said the 27-year-old.

“The stigma around young athletes, or anybody in general, when they say something is wrong with them and they’re being labeled as weak, it’s got to stop.

“For me, daily or every other day I talk to a sports psychologist; that helps me a lot. I believe in my body, you can improve until a point; you can jump this high, you can be this quick or whatever, but mentally, your mind is infinite.

“You can always improve, you can always learn something new, you can always develop good coping mental mechanisms to cope with your life and it has helped me to become a better father, a better partner, a better son, a better teammate, just a better human being. So the best investment you can do is that.”

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