By: Sam Meyerkopf / @HoopLikeDrazen
Last year Kostas Papanikolaou at the ripe ole age of 21 put on a legendary Final Four performance in Istanbul. He didn’t miss a shot from the field, was instrumental in Olympiacos’ second half comeback in the Championship game versus CSKA Moscow, and he became a Greek hero over the course of one weekend. Probably the most impressive thing about his Final Four performance (13.5 ppg and 4 rpg), was Papanikolaou’s veteran like presence. Nothing seemed to phase him.
In the Championship game, Olympiacos had clawed their way back from down 18 in the third quarter to down just three late in the fourth. CSKA scored a quick four points to push their lead to seven. With three minutes left and Olympiacos scrambling for points, Papanikolaou got a pass on the wing with Andrei Kirilenko closing out him and popped a quick three pointer. Splash. CSKA’s lead was now four. No fear. Then with a minute and 40 seconds left Vassilis Spanoulis jacks up a three and Papanikolaou comes charging in over the CSKA trees to grab the rebound and goes right back up with the ball to draw a foul. He makes one of two to keep the deficit at four. Olympiacos kept clawing. With ten seconds left Papanikolaou was fouled and he calmly knocked down two free throws to get the lead down to one.
Then as we all remember with the clock winding down, Spanoulis passes to a streaking Georgios Printezis on the baseline for a running floater to win the Championship. And all of that was made possible by young Kostas’ historic coming of age performance.
So who has the chance to have a Papanikolaou like breakout performance this time around? Let’s meet the candidates.
The young Spaniard splashed quickly back into our lives with his 21 points effort versus Maccabi in Barcelona’s last game of the Top 16. With his quick shot release and ultra confident offense, Abrines was a revelation for a Barcelona team missing Pete Mickeal and looking for offensive answers. He went on to average five points in 14 minutes a game in the Playoffs versus Panathinaikos. Abrines has the young gun-slinging confidence that Papanikolaou possessed last season and if I were to put my money on someone under the radar to go off from deep like Kostas did last year, it’d be on Abrines
You might say, well Kaun’s had a great year, how does he even qualify for this? Papanikolaou was a solid performer for Olympiacos last year, he just had his biggest moments in Istanbul and was appreciated much more after. Something Kaun could emulate. Kaun has been an absolute animal protecting the rim and finishing plays for CSKA Moscow this season. He leads the Euroleague in FG percentage and is fourth in blocks. What he’s proven to be is a crucial piece for CSKA and a guy who un-sat All-Euroleague First Team-er Nenad Krstic from his starting role mid-season. Galloping down on the fast break Kaun has one objective, catch anything thrown his way and jam it down your throat. Few big men play with such efficiency and tenacity as Kaun, look out London.
You don’t have to look too far here. Papanikolaou’s teammate on Olympiacos was part of the Reds celebration last year, even if he played a very average Final Four. This year with more playing time opened up, Sloukas will be counted on to score and distribute. He’s shooting 45.7% from three for the season and can get hot at any moment. If defenders are closing out hard on Papanikolaou and Vassilis Spanoulis, there will be room for Sloukas to get open looks at the rim. The lefty did hit the three pointer to start the fourth quarter and help fuel Olympiacos’ comeback in last year Championship game, so we already know he isn’t afraid of the big moments. There are minutes and shots available, let’s see if Sloukas can take advantage.