‘Big George’ Fulfills NBA Dream
Less than an hour north of Athens, in a small suburb on the outskirts of Greece, Georgios Papagiannis shelved his soccer cleats for basketball high-tops at age 11, dreaming of following in the footsteps of “The European Michael Jordan” – EuroBasket MVP and Kings legend Peja Stojakovic.
Seven years later, “Big George” – by then, a two-time gold-medalist in his homeland – unfolded his 7-foot-2, 270-lb. frame from a lower-level seat inside Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. upon hearing his name voiced by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, embracing family members and friends who proudly waved Greek flags in the stands.
“Being drafted by the Sacramento Kings was a dream come true, because my first NBA jersey was from Sacramento,” Papagiannis revealed at his introductory press conference. “As a little kid, it was my dream to play for the same team. I’m happy to be here.”
Before his plane landed in a fan-congested terminal at Sacramento International Airport, three days after his proudest career moment to date, Papagiannis’ unique basketball journey took him from Southeastern Europe – where he became the youngest player (14) to debut in the modern era of the Greek Basket League – to a private boarding school in West Chester, Pa.
Already on the radar of both stateside scouts and overseas recruiters who flooded Westtown School’s tucked-away, suburban campus, Papagiannis – on the heels of 10 points and a team-high-tying eight rebounds in the 2013 Jordan Brand Classic International Game – drew favorable comparisons to NBA MVP centers as a high school junior.
"I think he's the best player I will ever coach until I'm 80 years old,” Westtown Head Coach Seth Berger told MaxPreps.com in 2013. “He's that once-in-a-lifetime kind of player.
"George also moves like someone who's a foot shorter than he is. He does everything well. He's big, strong, coordinated and talented. Around the basket, he has the ability to be as talented and skilled like Hakeem Olajuwon, and around the mid-post, he has the ability of Tim Duncan."
Despite garnering serious interest from a number of powerhouse Division I NCAA programs, ranging from Kentucky to St. John’s, No. 13 opted to return to his native country and remain with the historic, Athens-based club Panathinaikos following his senior year, determining top-division international competition would better prepare him the inevitably arduous adjustment he’d face as an NBA rookie.
“Before I made my decision to stay in Greece, it was actually 90 percent (certain) I was going to come here and play (in) college,” he says. “But I had a conversation with the (Panathinaikos) president, the owner, with my new coach, so I decided to stay one more year … I said, ‘I’m going to stay there and be ready for the NBA.’”
Displaying his mobility, graceful footwork and imposing back-to-the basket game, as well as a soft mid-range touch, in FIBA competition, Papagiannis averaged 12 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per outing en route to leading the Greek National Team to the 2015 U18 European Championship gold medal and earning All-Tournament Team honors.
Continuing to excel as a rim-protector and exhibit the incandescent physical tools to be a difference-maker on any level, Papagiannis, playing a year up in the U-19 World Championship, recorded the second-most blocks (2.6 per game) and ninth-most rebounds (7.7) of any player in the event.
“I think defense is the most important thing for me, because that’s where you start,” says Papagiannis, whose staggering 7-foot-6 wingspan is on par with shot-blocking stalwarts DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond. “You start from defense, and then the offense becomes natural.”
Among the spectators who took in the spectacular all-around FIBA performance that vaulted the 18-year-old from a perceived NBA project to near-certain first-rounder, was Kings VP of Basketball Operations and General Manager Vlade Divac.
“I was very impressed last year, (watching) the under-18 championship that he played in,” says the FIBA Hall of Famer. “He’s a tall guy who’s very active covering the pick and rolls, helping point guards, and running up and down the floor. (He was) probably the best big guy that I saw. I’m very happy that he’s going to be here, developing his game.”
The Divac-led Sacramento front office joined two-thirds of the League’s executive staffs for the big man’s individual workout in Chicago, Ill., an eye-opening showcase which further solidified his rapidly ascending Draft stock.
“I worked out for Phoenix, Boston, Detroit (previously)… but the Pro Day (was) the most important thing for me because 20 teams came,” says the 13th overall selection. “I got great feedback from everybody. I knew I would be (drafted in the) top 20. I didn’t know where exactly (where), but I think it’s going to be the best fit for me, being in Sacramento.”
While the two-time Greek Cup winner associates his multifaceted game with six-time All-Star Pau Gasol’s, and Divac has already likened the Kings draftee to 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol, Papagiannis – mature far beyond his 18 years – recognizes the patience, commitment and countless hours in the gym required to reach such lofty accolades.
“I think I have a similar game (to) both Gasol brothers,” he says. “I’m going to try to be better than (Marc), or similar to him, but he’s an All-Star player. You cannot compare yourself right now. You’re going to compare yourself in (future) years.”
Similarly to the Gasols, the versatile phenom has proven he’s not only an imposing force down low, but an impactful passer in half-court sets and in transition. No. 13 credits Panathinaikos teammate Dimitris Diamantidis – a three-time Euroleague champion and the competition’s all-time assists leader – for teaching him the game’s nuances and helping to develop his sharp court vision.
“It was a blessing to be his teammate because even though you’re not playing the same position, you have to know how to pass the ball,” says Papagiannis. “That’s why I think I’m a great passer … I think I know how to read the game.”
An area where Papagiannis – who registered 20.1 points per 36 minutes on an efficient 68 percent from the field during the 2015-16 regular season – further differentiates himself from many of his counterparts is his outside range, aiming to provide floor spacing and lineup flexibility for the Kings by spotting up from behind the arc.
“I can shoot three-point shots,” he says. “Maybe nobody has watched me shooting three-point shots in a game in Greece or in a practice, but I can do it.
“It’s going to be easier for the team to have four or five players on the court who can shoot the ball during the game.”
As he prepares to make his Kings debut in Las Vegas Summer League, Papagiannis – whose main offseason focus centers on strengthening his upper body and improving his conditioning – anticipates that much like Stojakovic nearly two decades prior, his diverse skill set and insatiable work ethic will soon make him a household name in Sacramento.
“They’re going to get to know me,” he says. “I’m a guy who’s going to give a lot to the team … I’m a guy who’s going to play hard in every single game because I want our team to win. As I heard, Sacramento fans are crazy about basketball, so I’m going to be the best for them.”