Georgios Papagiannis begins practicing with the Kings on Monday, and I want to see him in uniform before formulating a first impression. I want to see him play. I want to watch him move, cut, run the floor and compete against at least a few teammates who are expected to make the 2016-17 roster as they prepare for summer league in Las Vegas.
The annual NBA draft chatter is only that. Chatter. Talk. Speculation. Prognostication. This is the league’s gossipy version of a roll-the-dice craps game, one that often makes many insiders look foolish when report cards are delivered two or three years later, particularly regarding prospects who walk into NBA interviews and workouts with question marks and paper-thin résumés only to emerge as legitimate players.
That paper-thin résumé? Those question marks? Papagiannis, known affectionately in Greece as “Big George,” only recently began filling in the holes.
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Kings general manager Vlade Divac was praised for swapping the No. 8 pick and veteran Marco Belinelli for three first-round selections. But Divac was roasted for failing to address backcourt needs with his lottery pick and, at No. 13, adding Papagiannis – a 7-foot-2 center projected for the late first, or even second, round – to a roster already crowded with big men.
Divac shrugs off the criticism. He knows in two or three years he will either look like a genius or just the latest Kings GM to flop in the draft. Thomas Robinson and Jimmer Fredette represent the end of the Geoff Petrie era. Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas are linked to the more recent failed regime of Pete D’Alessandro and Chris Mullin.
Divac, hired midway into the 2014-15 season as a combination basketball-business executive, slid into the GM spot when D’Alessandro and Mullin departed and has no intention of giving away the keys to his office. He drafted center Willie Cauley-Stein a year ago, and although the former Kentucky standout might never be a star – his offensive skills and stamina must develop significantly – he already is a productive player and popular community presence. For the Kings, that’s a start.
Divac became intrigued with Papagiannis a year ago at the under-18 European tournament, and monitored his progress after a prod from Peja Stojakovic – a former Greek league MVP. Several scouts say Papagiannis’ value increased significantly during his individual predraft workouts in Boston and Detroit and with his performance in the intense Greek league playoffs between Athens rivals Olympiacos and Panathinaikos.
Though he played sparingly during one season with Panathinaikos, he received substantial minutes and affected the final three games of the tournament, particularly on the defensive end.
“Boston, Detroit, several NBA teams began scouting him very heavily toward the end of the season, so you knew interest was increasing,” said Nick Papaioannou, the Athens-based editor of MSN Greece and longtime writer for NBA Greece. “George is just a kid, but he played for a very tough league against men – much harder than playing a season in college. I think it’s a joke when people say he is ‘soft.’ And I know some people thought he was drafted too high, but I think this is a great pick. He is not a secret here in Greece. He is the biggest thing since Giannis (Antetokounmpo) was drafted by Milwaukee (2013). I have watched him grow up, too, and he gets better and better. Believe me. Sacramento is going to fall in love with him.”
The reports from scouts, agents and respected publications offer little consensus. The observations are all over the globe, as they say. Some question his athleticism and motor and note the league is trending away from conventional 7-foot big men with limited mobility, despite their post skills and interior presence. Others contend Papagiannis is very mobile and athletic for his size and point to his excellent hands, right-hand hook shot and improving defensive rebounding, passing and conditioning.
While Papagiannis, who turns 19 Sunday, has been compared to a young Marc Gasol, Tom Angelakis, the Greece-based agent who works with Mark Termini’s agency, sees more similarities between Papagiannis and former Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star center Brad Daugherty.
“George has a big butt and is wide through the hips,” Angelakis said, “which enables him to (seal) position down low. We are talking about a young kid here, and I emphasize that the transition from European style to the NBA is very hard. He still has baby fat, but he works hard and has gotten much better very quickly. He also is very coachable, will play team defense, and is a positive in the locker room. And we all know Sacramento needs that.”
The tapes and the analytics compiled by teams and scouting services, along with YouTube videos, only offer hints about a draft pick’s prospects, his strengths and his weaknesses, and the two body parts – the head and the heart – that often dictate who becomes a legitimate NBA player.
But Papagiannis, who considered accepting a scholarship offer from Oregon before signing with Panathinaikos, has two advantages. His parents, Maria and Kanellos, both former basketball players, are moving to Sacramento, along with his 14-year-old brother, Minas.
Big George also figures to benefit from his relationship with Stojakovic, who has a somewhat similar background and whose children attended the same school in Athens. Stojakovic, drafted at 18 by the Kings in 1996 only to be pressured by his father to remain in Europe for two more years, applauds the timing for the Kings and their pick.
“I don’t know if my dad was right,” Stojakovic said. “I was one of those kids who matured very early. I thought I was ready. But that was 20 years ago. This is a very different time. Kids have a very different approach to life. I told George, ‘This isn’t Europe, where you play two, three hard games a month and then pace yourself. In the NBA, you have to bring it every night. You have to come in, work your (butt) off, and prove yourself.’ I think he’s ready for the challenge.”
Papagiannis, whose weight hovers around 270 pounds and who appears more fleshy than overweight, clearly needs some sculpting. He is all of his listed 7 feet, 2 inches, with a wide reach and keen instincts, but his frame is neither muscular nor toned.
“I’m definitely going to start out with my body,” Big George acknowledged. “I’m going to find out what weight I need to be, see what my training is, and get more muscle in my upper body. But I think I’m ready. I play on the post. I’m a good passer. I think I’m athletic for my size. And I love to block shots. I think the most important thing for me is defense, because then the offense comes naturally, and because that’s how you win.”