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.

Calipari sees Labissiere's progress during rookie season: 'I give Sac credit'

Calipari sees Labissiere's progress during rookie season: 'I give Sac credit'

Nothing has come easy for Skal Labissiere. He survived the earthquakes in Haiti. He moved to the United States speaking only only French and Haitian Creole as a young teenager. And his lone season at Kentucky he went from a top five prospect to a player that nearly fell out of the first round.

The knock on Labissiere coming out of Kentucky was that he didn’t like contact. Maybe it went farther than that, but there was no question that when he left for the NBA, he didn’t exactly walk away on the best of terms with head coach John Calipari.

When the Kings took on the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center in the final week of the regular season, Calipari sat in the stands watching a small group of his former players. During the telecast, NBC Sports California’s Kayte Christensen caught up with the legendary coach and he couldn’t stop gushing about his Wildcats alums, specifically the play of Labissiere.

“I look at Skal and the progress - I give Sac credit,” Calipari told Christensen. “These guys are working with him. He’s playing more confident. They’re putting him in positions he can have success. I didn’t do as good a job as they did.”

Labissiere went off for 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting against Los Angeles. He added three rebounds and two blocks, but the Kings stumbled down the stretch, allowing the Lakers to come away with the 98-94 victory.

In his freshman season at Kentucky, Labissiere scored more than 19 points just once, a 26 point outburst in his second game of the year against NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology). His highwater mark in his rookie season for the Kings was a 32-point, 11-rebound performance against the Phoenix Suns on March 15.

“He’s getting stronger, he’s growing, you can see him maturing physically, which was a big part of it,” Calipari said. “He had a good season with us, but, I used him wrong. Now I see him now, it’s amazing he’ll speak for me after I’m watching him play like this.”

The 21-year-old power forward has a smile that lights up a room. He even uses it as a defense mechanism when things get uncomfortable. Speaking about his time in Kentucky seems uncomfortable for the 6-foot-11 forward.

“Coach Cal, he does a really good job of getting guys ready for the next level,” Labissiere told NBC Sports California. “I appreciate him.”

Labissiere is looking ahead, not backwards. He is a an incredible talent and he is thankful for the job that Dave Joerger and his staff have done with him during his first season in the NBA.

“Coach Joerger, every since I was drafted here, he’s always believed in me,” Labissiere said. “He’s always putting me in the right positions, making me work on different things that normally I didn’t do in college. He’s making me do different things and believing in me. I love playing for him.”

Kentucky has produced some of the best big men in the game, including DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns. It’s a hotbed for talent, but specifically for centers and power forwards that take their game to the next level in the pros.

Labissiere would love to be included in that list, but he isn’t trying to be someone he’s not. His focus is on improving and helping his team win games.

“I don’t know, I’m just working for myself, doing what I’m supposed to do,” Labissiere said. “If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’m just going to keep doing my thing.”

The Kings have big plans for Labissiere and the rest of their young core this summer. Labissiere will likely join the team’s three other 2016 first round picks in Las Vegas for Summer League in July. Another two or three rookies from the 2017 NBA Draft will likely join them as Sacramento attempts to build some early chemistry amongst.

Following Summer League, Labissiere is scheduled to travel to Haiti where he will hold a basketball camp in his home country. It’s the first time he’s been back to Haiti since moving to the US following the earthquake in 2010.

Labissiere wasn’t the only Kentucky product on display for Sacramento against the Lakers. Willie Cauley-Stein spent three seasons under Calipari before going sixth overall in the 2015 NBA Draft.

Cauley-Stein put up solid numbers in front of his former coach, finishing the game against the Lakers with 14 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in just 23 minutes of action.

“Willie is doing what he does,” Calipari said. “He’s flying up and down that floor, he’s blocking shots. He seems to have some freedoms to do some of the stuff he does well.”

Cauley-Stein is a completely different player two season removed from his time at Kentucky. He finished strong down the stretch for Sacramento, showing a newfound confidence in his scoring ability.

“It’s a great feeling, I don’t think he’s watched me play like that since I left,” Cauley-Stein said. “It was cool to get a chance to see him and show him things I’ve worked on and I’ve gotten better. It was really satisfying, [him] telling me I got better, so I know I’m [going] in the right direction.”

It’s clear that Labissiere and Cauley-Stein had a very different experience at Kentucky. The end result might work out just fine for the Sacramento Kings. The duo played alongside one another for plenty of games down the stretch as the team’s starting frontcourt. It’s a look Kings fans might get used to seeing going forward.

 

Source: Kings hire Perry as Executive VP of Basketball Operations

Source: Kings hire Perry as Executive VP of Basketball Operations

SACRAMENTO -- The changes keep coming in Sacramento. NBC Sports California has confirmed that the Kings have hired former Orlando Magic executive, Scott Perry, to fill the role of Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations.

Perry will report directly to Vlade Divac, who will retain final say in player personnel decisions.

Perry spent the last five seasons in Orlando as Vice President of Basketball Operations and Assistant General Manager. He was let go from the Magic last week following the dismissal of General Manager Rob Hennigan.

Perry, 53, began his career as an executive with the Detroit Pistons where he held the position of Director of Player Personnel from 2000-2007. He briefly left the Pistons, joining the Seattle Supersonics organization as an Assistant General Manager of the team for the 2007-08 season, before spending another four years as Detroit’s Vice President of Basketball Operations from 2008-2012.

Highly regarded around the league, Perry adds another experienced basketball mind to the Kings front office.

During his postseason media availability last week, Vlade Divac spoke openly about his willingness to accept additional help.

“We’re open always to improve - the team, the front office, everything is open for improvement,” Divac said. “I’m very happy and confident in what we have right now, but like I said, we should be open if something can you better.”

With the addition of Luke Bornn on Wednesday to head up the team’s analytics department, and Perry on Friday, the Kings appear to be building a stronger infrastructure as they move into a full youth movement.

Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical was first with the information.