“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.