When Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced the signing of 6’8” forward Kostas Papanikolaou, it was hard not to be skeptical.
If Kostas was that good, why had his arrival been met with so little fanfare and hype? Why was he taken in the latter half of the second round in 2012?
There are, of course, a couple obvious reasons to these questions. First off, European prospects are often slept on due to contractual obligations to fill with their euro clubs. For instance, before Clint Capela could join the Rockets, Houston had to pay his euro club $500,000.
Kostas was acquired as part of the Thomas Robinson trade that sent Robinson to the Portland Trail Blazers. Prior to that, he and been selected by the Knicks in 2012. Now, some two years later, Kostas is set to make his NBA debut with the Rockets.
He’ll also see a substantial pay increase as an NBA player. The Rockets will pay him $4.8 million next season, and the team has an option for a second year at $4.6 million. He’s no longer bound by the rookie pay scale, which gave Kostas’ agents some room to negotiate a sizable contract.
It very well may be worth it, though. Kostas is a two-time Euroleague Champion, twice named Greek League’s Best Young Player, and Euroleague Rising Star in 2013. Last season marked his first year in the Spanish league, and he averaged 6.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game in about 25 minutes per contest. His career highs in the Greek league came in 2012-13, when Kostas posted 11.7 points and 8.7 boards in 23.8 minutes per game.
While Kostas is big, he has a typical Euro feel to his game. He’ll function most as a small forward on offense, but will moonlight at power forward. His career three-point percentage is 42.5 percent, and in 2012-13 with Olympiacos, he shot 52.1 percent from behind the arc. While the distance is slightly shorter than the NBA mark (22’2
in FIBA play vs. 23’9” in the NBA), it is still over a foot further than the NCAA line.
His percentages will still be high, and he could be one of the better defense stretching bargains in the league. The Orlando Magic just paid Channing Frye over $8 million for a similar role.
Accordingly, there are two sides to the argument of Kostas’ contract: One is that it is too pricey to pay an unproven Euro player over $4 million a season. The other is that his skill set is exactly what the Rockets need and he’s already shown he is capable of playing at a high level on winning ball clubs. Watching a mixtape (such as the one above) of Kostas shows his shooting ability and how well he runs the court.
Both of those traits lead to success in Kevin McHale’s offense. The ease with which Kostas shoots the ball, in addition to his high release point, will make him a threat immediately in the Houston offense.
NBADraft.net compares Papanikolaou (That is so painful to type), or Kostas, to Bostjan Nachbar. Nachbar had a short but success NBA stint, in which he averaged 7.1 points and 37.5 percent three-point shooting over five seasons. The Rockets will hope for at least that much from Kostas. His build is similar to Nachbar’s, and both are 6’9”, but Kostas finishes better than Nachbar did.
Kostas’ jumper looks pretty, and it’s always hard not to be biased against southpaws. The slight element of unorthodoxy to a lefties’ game is always hard to pinpoint too. If he puts the ball on the floor enough and develops a better feel for shooting off the dribble, Kostas could be better than projected.
He can handle the ball well enough to vary his shot selection and get to the basket. He’s deceptively quick and has exceptional footwork.
His athleticism has allowed his quick ascent as a player. It is what has driven his ability to defend on the perimeter, but chasing NBA players around screens is a lot tougher than it is in Greece.
Kostas’s offensive confidence cannot be taught, as he feels he should be a rotation player in the NBA. Kostas knows he can score, and that’s the start of a good career.
The fact that Kostas is a class “tweener” will hurt some, in theory. But he may be best suited to eventually becoming a full-time small forward. He’s proven to be a capable defender thus far in Euro action, and he may be one of the better defensive players to hail from Europe in recent history. If he proves to have the lateral quickness to cover NBA small forwards, he’ll be perfectly adapted to the league.
One thing is certain, he won’t be receiving over $4 million this season without an ample opportunity to showcase whether or not he is worth it. The hope, of course, is that he develops into something special and replaces the void left by Chandler Parsons.