Papagiannis carving out niche by focusing on one undervalued skill

Papagiannis carving out niche by focusing on one undervalued skill

“With the 13th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, the Phoenix Suns select Georgios Papagiannis,” commissioner Adam Silver announced on draft night.

The 7-foot-2 Papagiannis wasn’t an invite to the draft, but he sat in the stands wearing an impressive blue suit, waiting for his name to be called. He stood, hugged those around him, walked to the podium and shook hands with Silver, not knowing that he was already a Sacramento King.

Vlade Divac took plenty of heat for the selection. Why take a another center when you already had DeMarcus Cousins and Kosta Koufos on the roster? Why not take Wade Baldwin or Denzel Valentine at 13? Both players were available and the fan base had already bought into the selections.

It was a pull from left field. It was Peja Stojakovic over John Wallace. It was “He-d-yat Tur-ko-glu, who plays for the Efes Pilsner team in Istanbul Turkey.” It was a Geoff Petrie-esque move. Divac went with his scouting report over everyone else's and came away with a mountain of a boy.

Now, Papagiannis isn’t ready to live up to highwater marks of Peja or Hedo, but he is showing signs of life late in his rookie season and he might even give Divac a little bit of street credit when it comes to drafting foreign-born players.

After spending most of the season with the Reno Bighorns of the D-League working with Darrick Martin and his staff, Papagiannis is beginning to show his potential with the Kings in the post DeMarcus Cousins era. He can pass, shoot, rebound and has soft hands for a man his size, but so far in his rookie campaign, Papagiannis is showing an undervalued skill that might make him worthy of his high selection in the 2016 NBA Draft.

Before we get into the analysis, it should be noted that the 2016 NBA Draft is proving to be one of the worst in recent history. Only two players, Milwaukee's Malcolm Brogdon (10.3 points per game) and Sacramento’s Buddy Hield (10.1 points per game), are averaging in double-figure scoring on the season. It will take time to prove out the class, but the early returns are historically bad.

In 12 games since the All-Star break, the behemoth center out of Greece is averaging a modest 5.9 points and 4.4 rebounds in 17.5 minutes per game. He’s shooting 51.4 percent from the field and posting just over a block per game in his limited minutes.

Since his ascension to the rotation, an intriguing trend has developed. The Kings, without Cousins, Rudy Gay, Matt Barnes and Rudy Gay, have become a very good 3-point shooting team. While players are knocking down perimeter shots, many of them understand that Papagiannis is playing a role in the team’s 41.2 percent shooting from behind the arc over the last 21 games.

“Papa sets great screens,” Garrett Temple told NBC Sports California. “That’s big for a guy that’s only 19-years-old, to understand his role.”

It seems like such a small nuance to the game, but for a team like Sacramento that has struggled to find spacing for the last couple of years, having a big that is unselfish and frees his teammates for open shots is huge.

“I really like the fact that I’m going to make a screen for my teammates and they’re going to make the shot,” Papagiannis told NBC Sports California. “That’s what’s giving me motivation every time to set really good screens for them.”

Veteran point guard Ty Lawson has enjoyed the freedom to roam around the top of the key. He’s had plenty of breakout games since the All-Star break and Papagiannis has played a role in that. Lawson has seen this trend before and points to a specific reason for the rookie’s advanced understanding of setting picks.

“Normally players overseas, that’s what they do, they set great screens,” Lawson said. “Their plays that they do over there are more about the angles of screens and where they want the players to go. For him to come over here and do something like that at the speed of this game is pretty amazing.”

Papagiannis agreed with Lawson’s assessment. He began playing professionally in Greece at the age of 14. If he wanted to earn minutes, it wasn’t going to come as a scorer. Before his 17th birthday, Papagiannis signed with Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos, where his development continued.

“I got used to it the last three years when I was playing in Greece,” Papagiannis said. “My team was very cool about screens and I had really great passers on my team. As a young guy, they told me, set a really good screen for me and I’m going to get you the ball.”

While he has plenty to work on, the 7-footer takes pride in his ability to help his teammates free up for open looks. It’s a way that he can contribute as he refines the rest of his game.

“I’m trying to get the screener as far away from my players so they’re going to have more space to work with,” Papagiannis added. “I like it. It gives me fun, because they’re going to make the shot and that’s how we’re going to win the game.”

Papagiannis has a tremendous base, but it’s more than just getting in the way. He almost always positions himself in a way that the defender has no other option than to go over the screen, clearing the way for his guards to either pull up or make a run at the hoop.

He hasn’t mastered the art of the roll off of the screen, which Temple said that both he and Lawson have been working on. With the quality of screen he is setting, the defense is overplaying the guard trying to catch up, leaving Papagiannis a clear run to the hoop. Once he learns to let the screen go earlier and attack the basket, he will become a dangerous option in the offense with his size and ability to finish.

On the other end of the court, Papagiannis is still learning defensive calls, which leads his teammates into trouble.

“He’s a great screen setter, but sometimes if you don’t talk, I run into screens on the other end to,” Temple said. “He’s done a great job over the last two or three games of being a lot more vocal, so the progression is good to see.”

Temple pointed out that following games, especially on the road when the team boards a flight to a new city, the young players, including Papagiannis, have their iPads out studying the previous game. They ask questions from the veterans and they are always listening.

“They are receptive to teaching and coaching, that’s one of the biggest things,” Temple added. “They have to understand what they don’t know. Their time on the court and then learning, watching film, they are going to learn by doing that.”

Papagiannis is a work in progress. He still bites on the pump fake on the defensive end. He needs to redefine his body even further in the offseason and the speed of the NBA game is something he will have to continue to adjust to.

The tools are there. He is mobile. He has very soft hands and a soft touch from 20 feet. His passing skills are advanced for a player his age and he can both rebound and block shots.

It’s been a whirlwind season for the rookie big man, but he is showing signs that he belongs in the league. He is getting an opportunity to get his feet wet at the NBA, like fellow rookies Skal Labissiere and Buddy Hield.

“Everybody is having fun with the way we’re playing right now,” Papagiannis said. “We’re playing unselfish basketball. Everybody is passing the ball, we’re really enjoying playing with each other and the environment is great.”

It will take time to judge whether or not Divac made the right choice with the 13th overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft. If Papagiannis can develop under the tutelage of Dave Joerger and big man coach Bob Thornton, the Kings might have found another piece to their young puzzle. If not, at least they know they have a big that will come in and do the dirty work, even in limited minutes.

The Maloofs' colossal charity bet on Mayweather-McGregor circus act


The Maloofs' colossal charity bet on Mayweather-McGregor circus act

Gavin and Joe Maloof have gambled plenty in their lives, which is in part how they ended up losing the Sacramento Kings. They ran big, they hit a dry well, and they ended up selling the works.

So their decision to bet $880,000 on Floyd Mayweather in his “thing” with Conor McGregor for a $160,000 payout seemed the perfectly daft idea for two guys who were painted as perfectly daft when they were running the Kings and their other businesses into a freeway abutment on I-80.

In fairness, they are planning to donate their winnings to a number of charities in the name of their hangover drink (Never Too Hungover, although I might have gone with the more lyrical HurlNoMore), so it’s not like their hearts aren’t a place close to the mythical “right place.”

But it does beg the question, “Why don’t they just give $160,000 and skip the scam?” Because it wasn’t about charity, it was about promotion, and while there’s nothing wrong with promotion, attaching it to one of the seediest carnival events of the modern era makes it seem, well, kind of creepy.

Or maybe “creepy” is too strong. Maybe’s it’s just opportunism, which is more, well, Vegas-y.

Kings fans will remember the Maloofs as the family that saved the foundering team from the clutches of owner Jim Thomas, and then remember them as the family whose clutches Vivek Ranadive had to save the team from 15 years later. It’s the nature of most ownerships – you do good to eliminate a prior evil, and eventually become evil yourselves when the fans turn on you.

But the Maloofs aren’t evil – even their most strident critics will say that. They just saw an opportunity to scratch a bunch of itches at once – good-heartedness, advertising, gambling and Vegas’ most important product – selling you things you could never imagine wanting.

It almost makes you wonder if they harbor a secret itch to take the $160,000 and double down on behalf of the charities for another of their pet projects – the Vegas Golden Knights. If they put it on the Knights to win the Stanley Cup at 200-1, that’s $32,000,000. Then if they took that and . . .

. . . and before you know it, they’re trapped in the fantasyland of Las Vegas at its weirdest. Maybe it’s just performance art with more money than most of us can eat.

Top seven Kings' games to watch during 2017-18 season


Top seven Kings' games to watch during 2017-18 season

The Sacramento Kings released their 2017-18 schedule Friday afternoon. While the league has added 10 days to the calendar, the Kings schedule is still packed with 16 sets of back-to-backs and a season-long six game road trip during the month of January. It’s a whirlwind of excitement that begins October 18 with at the Golden 1 Center. Here are seven games to look forward to as the Kings embark on their 33rd season in Sacramento.

Opening night 2017-18 - October 18 - Kings v. Rockets - Hope spring eternal with the tip off of another season of Kings basketball. Of the 17 players expected on the opening day roster, 10 are new to the team, including De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Vince Carter and George Hill. It’s a young an exciting squad with only five players with more than two seasons of NBA experience. The Kings open their schedule at home against James Harden, Chris Paul and high-powered Houston Rockets.

DeMarcus Cousins comes home - October 26 - Kings v. Pelicans - After 6-plus seasons in a Kings uniform, the 3-time All-Star returns to Sacramento for his first game from the visitors locker room. He’ll bring along another familiar face in former Kings point guard Rajon Rondo, who inked a one-year deal in New Orleans over the summer. Expect a ton of emotion, both from Cousins and a packed full house of Kings fans.

The Process vs. The Rebuild - November 9 - Kings v. 76ers - The 76ers have spent the last decade working on a plan to accumulate great young players while piling up losses at an alarming pace. Sacramento pulled the plug on the DeMarcus Cousins experience, instead choosing to go with a full youth movement. Fultz vs. Fox will headline the night, but there is plenty of intrigue as two of the youngest teams in the NBA battle it out.

Fox vs. Ball - November 22 - Kings v. Lakers - The rivalry between these two young guards is only going to get better with age. Fox likely won’t start the season with the first unit, like Ball, but he’ll get plenty of opportunity to shine. For better or worse, it’s Ball’s show in LA. Let the trash talking begin.

Rudy Gay makes his return - December 23 - Kings v. Spurs - Rudy Gay took a huge gamble and an even bigger pay cut when he opted out of the final year of his contract with the Kings. He and his rebuilt Achilles tendon  landed in San Antonio on a two-year, $17 million deal. He’ll likely play for a playoff spot for only the second time in his 11-year career.

Dennis Smith visits Sacramento - February 3 - Kings v. Mavericks - The Kings jumped all over the chance to draft De’Aaron Fox with the fifth overall selection and in doing so, they passed on another incredibly talented young guard in Dennis Smith. Dallas may have stumbled on a superstar and Smith likely has a list of all of the teams that passed him over in the 2017 NBA Draft.

The Champs come to play - February 4 - Kings v. Warriors - The Warriors and Kings have taken turns being awful over the last 30-plus years. While the Kings are predicted to miss the playoffs for the 12th straight season, Golden State is the odds on favorite to take home their third ring in four years.With just 90 miles separating the two fanbases, it should be an interesting mix of purple and yellow in the crowd.

Here's the Kings' full 2017-18 schedule: