Anastasia Papapetrou was crying. Her sobs filled the living room as her son Ioannis packed his belongings. His plane ticket was printed and resting on the coffee table that Monday evening. As the fall began to creep up on summer, Ioannis had a flight from Athens, Greece bound for Austin, TX, on Tuesday morning.
“I had my ticket and I packed all my stuff and I was leaving. I was going back to Texas,” Papapetrou recalls.
That’s when the phone rang. Euroleague powerhouse Olympiacos had been courting Papapetrou ever since his impressive showing in the 2013 adidas Eurocamp. He showcased his ability to stretch the floor with a smooth jumper and a knack for creating for his teammates from the perimeter. The club had previously made three offers to Papapetrou, but he remained spiritedly committed to Rick Barnes and the Texas Longhorns.
His father handed Papapetrou the phone. Olympiacos’ fourth offer was something the now 20-year-old, 6-8 swingman couldn’t refuse, doubling the money from their previous negotiation. With Greece’s current financial crisis, he had no choice but to spurn Barnes just hours after he phoned the longtime coach confirming he would be in Texas for the 2013-14 campaign.
“I know it broke his heart and it really hurt him to tell us that,” Barnes says. “We were fully aware that when he [played in the Eurocamp], he might not be able to come back because we knew how much he improved.”
Papapetrou had been focused on Texas’ rebuild. A rising sophomore, he was penciled in as arguably the Longhorns’ most essential returning piece to the program. Then, after signing a five-year contract with Olympiacos worth about $2 million per season, Barnes and his staff found themselves scrambling to fill the hole Papapetrou regretfully left.
Ioannis Papapetrou was born on March 30, 1994 to Anastasia and legendary Greek national team member Argirios Papapetrou. Argirios played 12 years professionally in Greece, winning the 1986 and 1993 Greek Cup titles with the club Panathinaikos. He was a key cog in the Greek national team’s fourth-place finish in the 1994 FIBA World Championship.
With basketball in his blood, Ioannis has dreamed of playing in the NBA ever since he was a child.
“It’s always been my dream to go to the NBA,” Papapetrou says. “I’ve always told my parents and my friends and my brother that I wanted to be in the NBA one day and play in the NBA.”
As Ioannis grew up playing for the club Ilysiakos’ junior teams in Athens with his older brother Georgios, he developed into one of the most intriguing young prospects in Europe. Papapetrou drew comparisons to an NBA player with Greek roots, Peja Stojakovic, mostly for their identical shooting mechanics.
Revisionist history’s tendency to shrink players’ NBA impact to their most recognizable skill has forced many to remember Stojakovic as only a sharpshooter. But he possessed a feel for how all five parts of his teams moved cohesively on the floor, similar to that of Manu Ginobili. Papapetrou seemed to always be one step ahead of the other junior players as well.
“I always liked to pass the ball,” he says. “I’m not gonna lie, it’s a great thing when you score, but it’s a better thing when you know you made a good pass and you make your teammate better. I’ve always believed that a good pass makes people happy and if you score, you just make yourself happy.”
Argirios and Ioannis recognized the youngster’s potential and hatched a plan to get him on the NBA’s radar.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, 6-11 Russian center Sasha Kaun was celebrating the 2008 NCAA National Championship with the Kansas Jayhawks. The title capped off a journey that began with Kaun immigrating to the US and attending Florida Air Academy in Melbourne, FL, for his final two years of high school. The move allowed Kaun to draw attention from every single major college program in America after posting 15.3 points and 12.6 rebounds per game as a senior.
Kaun was soon drafted in the second round of the 2008 NBA Draft, 56th overall by the Seattle SuperSonics. He was the last draft selection the organization ever made in Seattle.
Papapetrou saw the path as a welcomed adventure and made an international call.
“He found us online,” Florida Air head coach Aubin Goporo says. “Our school is well known because we have a lot of kids that come here and end up playing overseas.”
Goporo estimates there are 12 Florida Air alumni currently hooping professionally overseas, even though he’s never recruited a soul. Kaun, the most successful of his former players, has made quite the living playing for CSKA Moskow.
The school has several foreign-born players in college today as well, including Kaspars Brencans at Purdue Calumet, Rita Acevedo at Florida Tech, Jamie Kaplan at Tulane, and William Ygette, who just helped Florida to the Final Four before graduating this spring.
Papapetrou joined Goporo at Florida Air in the fall of 2010. He was a scrawny 15-year-old struggling to fill out his long frame.
“I saw the passing and said, Damn, he can pass, but he’s weak,” Goporo says. “When I met him and saw he was 6-8, I was thinking he was an inside player, but when I saw him play and bring up the ball and play the point and shoot the ball, I said, Oh, he’s not a big man. He played shooting guard for me in high school.”
Papapetrou wanted to be coached. He craved Goporo challenging him in the gym every day. Following a successful junior year, he stayed in Florida over the summer, deferring a return trip home to work on his body and his game.
“He taught me how to play hard, not just on the basketball floor but in the weight room. It was a big change for me because when I first came to the USA, I was a European-type of player: Real skinny and more soft,” Papapetrou says. “I realized that I had to do a lot of work on my body first before I could get on that level of speed and athleticism that the rest of the guys were at and be able to play on the same page that they were playing. He taught me about mental toughness.”
Papapetrou says he gained 40 pounds of muscle over the grueling three-month stint. The results in the winter were astounding. Soon he was drawing attention from all the major college programs across the country.
“The two years he played with me, he became physical. The kid was strong. He’s not your typical European,” Goporo says. “He plays better when someone challenges him, when the crowd or an opponent is talking to him and stuff like that. He loves those situations; that’s when he plays the best. And the kid can shoot. The kid. Can. Shoot.”
His senior season attracted every powerhouse program across the nation. Goporo remembers his recruiting process as “the craziest” the coach has ever encountered. For perspective, Papapetrou’s final top four schools included Florida, Kansas, Texas and Duke.
Papapetrou couldn’t care less where he played. He took primary interest in each school’s playing style, the coaching staff’s approach to teaching the game and the competitive atmosphere within the program. His visit to Texas, the last along his recruiting trail, convinced Papapetrou there was only one decision.
“Texas was great. The campus, Austin, is a great city, great place. But I didn’t care about the place so much. I didn’t care about the weather. I would play anywhere,” he says. “I just like the way they played. I liked playing fast, I like running and being in a fast pace. The coaches from Texas did a great job. They supported me knowing that I’m from another country and didn’t really have anyone.
“They made me feel really comfortable and I told my high school coach it was a no-brainer to choose Texas.”
The Texas Longhorns went 24-11 during the 2013-14 season, appearing in the third round of the NCAA Tournament on Cameron Ridley’s buzzer-beater that memorably deflated Arizona State’s bench. Still, throughout the success, Barnes couldn’t help shake the thought of what could have been.
“All year, I never even talked about it, but I always knew in the back of my mind, as well as we were playing last year and as good as we were, how Papi would have been a perfect fit with those guys and obviously how much better we would have been,” Barnes says.
The 2012-13 season, Papapetrou’s lone campaign in Austin, didn’t go as planned for the Longhorns. After finishing 16-18 and seventh in the Big 12 at 7-11 in conference, it was the first time the program failed to appear in the NCAA Tournament during the first 15 seasons of Barnes’ tenure in Austin.
“My first year at Texas, we kind of failed,” Papapetrou admits. “We didn’t make it to the Tournament. People can make excuses and say we had a young team and everything, but we failed at the end of the day.”
Sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo’s NCAA investigation didn’t help matters. Kabongo only appeared in 11 of Texas’ 34 games that season, making his debut in early February after finally being cleared to play. Papetrou managed to averaged 8.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.2 assists in just 24.3 minutes per game amid all the adversity.
By season’s end, rumors swirled that Barnes job would be on the line during the ‘13-14 season. The few players set to return rallied around the coach that spring, vowing to right the suddenly dilapidated program’s ship. Papapetrou led the charge.
“I wanted to be back at Texas and help rebuild the team and make it to the Tournament the next year,” Papapetrou says.
Barnes says Papapetrou set the tone for the program during the team’s open gym time in the spring. He was the catalyst in revamping the team’s old winning culture.
“He was very vocal. He challenged guys to get in the gym as much as he was. He knew he really wanted to work hard improve his shooting, get more consistent shooting the ball, and he spent a lot of time in the gym,” Barnes says. “He put time in, but the way he encouraged when we were in the gym as a group, he made it very competitive, he wanted guys to compete and they realized he was all about winning. He wanted to make a difference and he was determined we were going to have a great year this past year.”
And while Papapetrou was suiting up for Olympiacos thousands of miles away, Barnes credits the youngster for jump-starting his tem.
“Even though he didn’t play, he still had a hand in it because of what he did last spring,” Barnes says. “I felt that’s where the success from this past year started: The work ethic of the returning players and Papi lead that at the beginning. Looking back, maybe for us it was a blessing in disguise where those guys had to step up on their own because Papi had become the leader.”
When Olympiacos called Papapetrou with their take-it-or-leave-it offer, he immediately called Barnes for advice.
“Coach Barnes told me himself, he said, ‘Just go. If you were my son, I would tell you to go.’ He understood,” Papapetrou says. “He was more of a dad to me than anything else. He told me to come here. He understood the reasons, it wasn’t because I didn’t want to be at Texas.”
Not only did the contract provide an incredible playing opportunity against some of the world’s most talented and experienced players, but it provided Papapetrou’s family with financial stability in the midst of a historic financial crisis in Greece.
“A lot of people in Greece would kill to be in the situation that I was in. To me, the money’s not really important,” Papapetrou says. “But it was definitely a big help for my family financially.”
Olympiacos’ offer wasn’t just about dollars and cents either. The club sold Papapetrou on the plan they envisioned for him with an end game of transforming him into one of the most dynamic players in Europe by the end of his contract.
This season, his role was limited offensively as primarily a spot-up jump shooter where he knocked down 48 percent of his three-pointers in Euroleague play. He looked poised as he floated around the perimeter and rotated efficiently within Olympiacos system. Now up at around 225 pounds, he showed flashes of his ability to take smaller defenders in the post as well.
“To play against older guys, that’s a difference to me. I’m playing with guys here who are 30 years old, 52 years old, 28 years old, older guys who have families and kids,” Papapetrou says. “Looking at them and how they go about their practice, guys like, Vassilis Spanoulis, who also played for the Houston Rockets, some of these guys, I learn from them every day. I think experience is a good thing. I think as far as experience and as far as how these older guys go about this business, I’ve been able to improve my game.”
Upon signing a professional contract, he immediately became eligible for the 2014 NBA Draft. Goporo has believed Papapetrou would hear his name called by the NBA commissioner ever since he saw him step foot on a court.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he gets drafted. The kid is very, very talented,” Goporo says. “He could shoot, could pass, could dribble. He was an all around player, so I’m not surprised at all. He was the number one player I’ve ever coached.”
Papapetrou has the make-up of a perfect draft-and-stash candidate. He won’t turn 21 until next March and still has two guaranteed years left on his deal with Olympiacos. According to Papapetrou, the fourth and fifth years of the contract are team options and a $1 million buyout materializes after the third year.
Papapetrou’s combination of talent and continuing development with Olympiacos is something Barnes feels should interest every NBA team.
“I know this, if I were an NBA team, I would certainly want him as part of mine,” Barnes says. “He’s young, he’s willing to work, he’s versatile, knows how to play very competitive and he’s just going to continue to get better.”
He’s never going to blow people away with his athleticism. He’s far from the freakishly athletic marvel of his countryman Giannis Antetokounmpo. But he’s still one step ahead of the defense, just like playing against the juniors.
Papapetrou’s favorite aspect of the game? Digging in defensively to force a stop and get out in transition.
“I like to rebound and play good defense because, most of the time, good defense leads to a fast break or the team being able to get the ball and run up the court,” he says. “I like to play defense because I like to run the fast break and be able to handle the ball and make plays, not to score, but pass.”
The selfless M.O. rings bells of Boris Diaw, not Peja Stojakovic. Barnes sees Papetrou as a stretch-4 type in the NBA, a guy who can play multiple positions and create matchup problems for opposing defenses.
“Wherever he plays, he’ll be able to play the role that that coach will ask him to play,” Barnes says. “I’m sure he must’ve had a terrific year over there because a lot of teams have called us about him. But he knows that in that league and at his size, he does need to shoot the ball consistently and stretch defenses.”
Papapetrou is excited for the chance at getting drafted. He recognizes many Americans’ fears of European players never venturing to the states and the NBA.
But suiting up in the League has always been his dream. Ioannis Papapetrou will be an NBA player some day, even if he thinks he still has a long way to go.
“All my life I try and be humble. Sometimes whenever I turn on the TV and I watch NBA games, I look at some guys and I thought I’m better than them and I thought if they’re in the League, I can make the NBA,” Papapetrou says. “But I’ve never said that I’m an NBA player because I want to prove it first. I’ll get there and I’ll prove that I deserve to be there and then I’ll say I deserve to be an NBA player.”