Ailene Voisin

Kings’ young Georgios slimming down as his career is looking up

Kings center Georgios Papagiannis (13) looks to make a play against the Orlando Magic at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento on March 13.
Kings center Georgios Papagiannis (13) looks to make a play against the Orlando Magic at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento on March 13. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Georgios Papagiannis is not the man he used to be. Let’s start with that. According to his passport, the Kings rookie is not even a man yet, still enjoying the final months of teenage life.

Lives at home. Eats his mother’s meals. Checks on his younger brother. Likes to sleep late.

So what exactly do the Kings have here? Is Papagiannis one of those underrated draft picks who shock the experts, perhaps evolving into his generation’s Marc Gasol? Is he an old school, 7-foot-1, 240-pound center destined to be a career backup because of physical limitations? Is he a player with a low motor that doesn’t accelerate?

Just a suggestion here, but don’t sleep on “Big George.” Not yet. Let’s see what he looks like – what his game looks like – when he is old enough to buy a beer at a local brewery. The best approach is probably to remain skeptical while retaining an open mind. Again, I say this only because Papagiannis, whose early selection (13th overall) by Kings general manager Vlade Divac was widely panned, has shown enough progress to be included in a three-year plan.

“Georgios is continuing to surprise people,” Kings veteran Anthony Tolliver said. “He’s blocking shots, getting rebounds, making his jump hooks, using his size. He is getting in shape and showing he belongs.”

After shuttling between the Kings’ Development-League team in Reno and Golden 1 Center for much of the season, Papagiannis and fellow rookies Skal Labissiere, Buddy Hield, and the injured Malachi Richardson were summoned back to Sac for a longer taste of the big leagues and to provide the front office with a peek at the future.

Labissiere is generating excited whispers. The Kings cautiously utter “potential star” under their collective breaths. Hield, who was obtained from New Orleans in the midseason DeMarcus Cousins swap, is performing at his highest level as a pro. Richardson was aggressive and intriguing before being being injured. Papagiannis?

The Kings are throwing the big fella to the Wolves, the Clippers, the Warriors, etc. One night he has DeAndre Jordan reaching over his back for rebounds, the next night he has Rudy Gobert exploding for dunks, and the night after that he is introduced to slickster Nikola Jokic and his no-look, over-the-shoulder passes.

Papagiannis is a project, and far from a finished product. Slow but steady is synonymous with Georgios – who introduced himself as George, but now asks that his name be pronounced “YOUR-gos.” In his last five games, he has averaged 9.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.0 blocks and 2.0 assists in 18 minutes. The far more significant numbers pertain to his conditioning, with the noticeable physical changes contributing to his upward-angling career arc.

Slow and woefully out of shape when he arrived at the Las Vegas Summer League, Papagiannis has shed 30 pounds of fat and added approximately 5-10 pounds of muscle. Kings executives are as encouraged by his ongoing body makeover as they are his skill set. Often joined by the other rookies, a non-game day routine consists of a pre-practice a weight lifting session, activation exercises involving a medicine ball and bands, and isokinetics exercises involving a squat machine.

“Conditioning was a priority with Papa,” said Ramsey Nijem, the Kings’ strength coach, “so after practice we’ll grab him and put him on the treadmill or elliptical, then have him run some sprints and intervals. The second part of this is about nutrition. A big thing we address is portion control. We didn’t want a strict diet regime. It was more about allowing him to enjoy food, ‘but let’s just eat a little less.’ And he has done a great job with that. He says he feels a lot stronger and quicker, and you can see the difference on the court.”

The slimmer Papagiannis, who has exceptionally long arms and large, soft hands, is more agile and faster between the baselines. His point guards are urging him to sprint downcourt more quickly and to run straight to the rim instead of slowing near the 3-point line. “I tell him, ‘just keep going,’ ” said guard Ty Lawson. “ ‘I’ll get you the ball for dunks, like with Willie (Cauley-Stein).’ 

Other areas of note: Papagiannis is rebounding and contesting shots, even raising an arm and challenging shooters away from the basket, and using his wide frame and long arms for high-percentage right-hand hook shots.

“Papa has a pretty good hook shot,” said Divac, “but I told him the other day, ‘You’ve got to develop other moves. Now everybody knows about your hook. We know. The whole world knows you’re going into the middle.’ He also has to get stronger, and his lateral quickness needs to improve. But he is really showing some potential. And remember, he is only 19.”

Papagiannis, a soft-spoken, gentle giant of a man/child with a wry sense of humor, turned pro at 14. He was earning paychecks before he was shaving. After enrolling in a Massachusetts prep school for a year, he returned to Greece and resumed his pro career with Panathinaikos, one of Europe’s storied franchises. Two seasons later he finds himself in Sacramento, on a team in the midst of rebuilding.

But here is another reason to pause before making Divac wear the dunce cap or projecting Papagiannis as (a) the next Gasol or (b) just another immobile 7-footer doomed to be a career backup: Unlike many NBA rookies, he appreciated his time with the D-League and believes the experience furthered his development both by improving his skills and emphasizing the importance of conditioning. He is not averse to work.

“I was disappointed when I was here and not playing,” he said the other night. “In the D-League I got to play, and I learned a lot. It was a great atmosphere, great experience for me. Now I listen when the guys talk to me, mostly A.T. (Anthony Tolliver) or Kosta (Koufos). They help me a lot. But this summer is when I’m going to get a lot better, work on my left-hand hook, play in the summer league, and then the Greek national team.”

With a grin, he added, “I have to serve my country.”

Then it will be Year 2, and time to serve the Kings.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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