The Kings’ final game before the All-Star Break was a forgettable 23-point blowout loss to the Warriors – except to George Papagiannis, who experienced one of the highlights of his first professional season.
Papagiannis, a 19-year-old center from Greece, has more stints with the Reno Bighorns of the NBA Development League than games played for the Kings in his rookie season. He made his NBA debut Nov. 11, scoring two points in six minutes, but over the next two months played in just two more games for the Kings for a total of four minutes.
With the Kings getting blown out at Golden State on Feb. 15, Papagiannis checked in at 7:32 remaining in the fourth quarter and played the rest of the game, recording a modest line of four points, four rebounds and one blocked shot.
“It was a great experience,” Papagiannis said Friday. “Even if it’s just seven minutes in a blowout, it gives you just an opportunity to show your coach and teammates what you’ve been doing.
“Getting those four rebounds in seven minutes was a great thing. Because that’s what my team is going to need one day.”
For Papagiannis, the 13th overall pick in last year’s draft, this season has been all about gaining experience – in a new country and a style of basketball much different from what he knew in Europe. It is why Papagiannis was on the court Friday night at the Golden 1 Center for the Bighorns against the Santa Cruz Warriors, banking D-League minutes that he and the Kings hope will help him grow into a productive NBA center.
At 7-foot-1 and 240 pounds, Papagiannis was seen last June as a project with intriguing upside who would need time to develop. In fact, Papagiannis said Friday he first had to adapt to an NBA game in which players of his size are asked to do more on offense than just set screens for teammates and rebound.
“I’m a whole different player,” he said. “I used to be a young guy who’s going to screen the point guards and get some lobs or just sometimes get the hook shots. Here it’s very different. They don’t care about how old you are. It’s just, if they give you the ball, they want you to score. That’s the most important thing.”
Overall, the U.S. game is faster. Some questioned Papagiannis’ conditioning last June, particularly his ability to defend smaller and quicker players away from the rim. While Papagiannis said his exact weight fluctuates during the season, he appears notably more toned now than when he first arrived.
Reno coach Darrick Martin said Papagiannis has “really embraced” the importance of conditioning, with one result being that Martin sees him getting more “out-of-position” rebounds that don’t come directly to him.
“I think the biggest growth he’s made is understanding how to use his size and strength on both ends of the floor,” Martin said. “He’s getting more confident in his left and right shoulder hook offensively and also moving his feet defensively.
“He’s getting better at understanding professional coverages, as far as showing on pick-and-roll, how to play pick-and-roll defense. I think he’s making good progress.”
Before Friday’s game, Papagiannis was on the floor working with Reno assistant coach Rico Hines on his footwork near the basket. Hines said he has focused on Papagiannis’ jump-hook shot and simply learning to use his size, “basically just holding people off and being strong.”
“He has a unique skill, to be so big, and he can move,” Hines said. “He has great feet, and he’s really athletic. He’s just young. It’s just going to take him some time to grow and get better.
“He’s a really hard worker, man. He wants to be good.”
In 18 games in Reno before Friday, Papagiannis was averaging 12.8 points on 50 percent shooting, 8.2 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 31.1 minutes. With All-Star DeMarcus Cousins gone, Kings coach Dave Joerger mentioned the possibility of Papagiannis playing more for Sacramento the rest of this season, but he did not use Papagiannis in the Kings’ win over Denver on Thursday night.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Papagiannis said. “When it’s going to happen, I’m going to be ready for it – that’s all I can say.”