Bucks are an NBA surprise approaching All-Star break

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Six-foot-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo will start concentrating on dunks after Wednesday.

The first priority for the Milwaukee forward is to help his team beat the Sacramento Kings in the Bucks' last game before the All-Star break. Then he can focus on mapping out his plan as one of the participants in the All-Star weekend dunk contest.

Antetokounmpo is thinking big, just like the rest of a team that has been one of the NBA's pleasant surprises this year.

"After the (Kings) game I will be like, 'Ah, dunking all over the place!' I will let you guys know," said the Bucks' emerging, 20-year-old star.

At 29-23 going into Wednesday night's game, the Bucks are already one win away from doubling their victory total from all of last season.

New owners took over last April and coach Jason Kidd joined the team over the summer. Jabari Parker was drafted with the second overall pick out of Duke to join Antetokounmpo as young franchise building blocks.

All that change generated new energy around the club. Even so, most prognosticators picked the Bucks to finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. They were written off again after Parker went down with a season-ending knee injury in mid-December.

Instead, the Bucks have only gotten better.

They're 16-11 since Parker was lost for the season. Milwaukee is also comfortably nestled into the sixth seed in the conference race, seemingly a postseason lock in the mediocre East.

General manager John Hammond is among many in the organization who did not expect the team to be approaching 30 wins at the break.

"I think this is a great story of overachievement of our guys," Hammond said Tuesday.

Under Kidd, the Bucks are one of the best defensive teams in the league, bolstered by the length and speed of young players like Antetokounmpo and point guard Brandon Knight.

Hammond has also brought in veterans Jared Dudley and Jerryd Bayless to add experience and bolster depth. Dudley, especially, seems to be a vocal but calming presence in the locker room.

Dudley said that there was "a lot of trust in J-Kidd and how he coaches and the way he goes about his business."

The better-than-expected success has Dudley rethinking goals.

"For us, it's to stay at the 6 spot or move up," Dudley said about playoff positioning after the 103-97 win Monday night over Brooklyn. "For us, we would love to get a get a first-round series at home."

The timing couldn't have been better for an organization hoping to generate statewide support for a new downtown arena.

The sale of the team last April from former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl to a group headed by New York investment firm executives Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry included a contingency that allowed the NBA to take possession of the team if a new arena wasn't built by 2017.

That means the Bucks would likely move from Milwaukee. Governor Scott Walker's budget proposal this year calls for issuing $220 million in state bonds to help pay for the new arena.

"We think we're a year ahead. It accelerates interest. It accelerates enthusiasm," team President Peter Feigin said. "We're going into (season ticket) selling season and renewal season, so it couldn't be better to have a winning record, when everybody's expectations were so low."

But don't expect the team to change course from its long-term rebuilding blueprint. The goal is build a championship contender built to last, not just to make a one-year push.

"I think we're all aware that's not who we want to be," Hammond said. "Right now, anything we're looking at today is still hopefully going to be focused on maybe acquiring a piece or adding a piece that can be future-to-long term players for this organization."

The NBA trade deadline is Feb. 19.

Also Tuesday, Hammond said there are has been no determination from the NBA on when center Larry Sanders could return from suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Sanders has been out since Dec. 23 for personal reasons. He was suspended by the NBA for a minimum of 10 games starting Jan. 16.

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