George Papagiannis says one of the most distinctive parts of the NBA Development League experience is flying commercial. Leg room can be an issue when you’re 7-foot-1.
The Sacramento Kings rookie center has spent much of his first professional season with the Reno Bighorns, Sacramento’s D-League affiliate. Though drafted 13th overall last spring by the Phoenix Suns, who traded his rights to the Kings, the 19-year-old Greek is still considered a raw talent — one, the Kings hope, that’s being honed in the minor leagues.
“It’s a great opportunity for me, actually,” said Papagiannis, who would ride the bench behind veterans in Sacramento.
Such is the case for all three Kings rookies. Papagiannis and former University of Kentucky star Skal Labissiere were recalled Sunday from Reno, where they had been assigned since Dec. 20, rejoining rookie shooting guard Malachi Richardson on the Sacramento roster.
As long as I’m playing and getting better, improving, I’m fine with it.
Skal Labissiere on shuttling between Reno of the NBA Development League and Sacramento
Labissiere has averaged 14.9 points and 7.6 rebounds in 17 starts for Reno. Papagiannis has played 13 games, averaging 10.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. Both are averaging about 30 much-needed minutes a game.
“Different nights are different,” Kings Coach Dave Joerger said of the reports he has received about the rookies. “The bigger thing is not to look at a box score to suggest if somebody’s good or not. It’s how are they communicating, how are the defensive rotations, and what are we learning about how to come off and read things.”
Joerger said the D-League can be especially challenging for big men because teams tend to play smaller lineups. Papagiannis said his athleticism often gets tested.
“There are a lot of undersized bigs that can shoot the three-point shot, so you have to get out and guard the three-point shot and then you have to switch with the guards when they make screens,” he said. “It’s a different game.”
Conditioning has been a priority to help Papagiannis chase smaller players and stay on the court longer. Papagiannis said Monday he arrived in Sacramento last June weighing 280 to 290 pounds but is now closer to 270.
“The first thing was to be in shape all the time because you never know. Maybe the team is going to call you, and you have to be ready for it,” Papagiannis said. “And, secondly, it’s all about the work I’m doing on the post and with my shot. I’ve even shot 3-point shots.”
And hoisted a few in games: He’s 2-for-3.
“It’s fun,” Papagiannis said, “because you’ve been working on it and can prove it on the court.”
Labissiere is on the slighter end of the spectrum — the Kings list him at 225 pounds — but his D-League web page is rife with video clips of emphatic dunks. A glimpse of that athleticism came partway through the Kings’ light practice Monday.
In a four-on-four scrimmage of reserves and coaches, Labissiere blew by his defender with a head fake and a dribble, executed a two-handed dunk and let out a yell turning back upcourt.
The 20-year-old, drafted 28th overall, said his biggest improvements in Reno have come on the defensive end and he believes he’s “getting a better feel for the game, just really staying in game shape.” The back-and-forth from Sacramento — he has been assigned and recalled three times — has not been an issue, he said.
“As long as I’m playing and getting better, improving, I’m fine with it,” Labissiere said.
Richardson’s situation could be seen as the alternative. The shooting guard, drafted 22nd overall, has been with the Kings since Dec. 13, but he has appeared in only four games since then for a total of 25 minutes. Bad weather derailed a plan to send him back to Reno last week.
Joerger said the Kings’ message when they send players to Reno is to “just get out there and play, get more experienced, understand the speed of the pro game and the length and athleticism.”
For many rookies, it’s part of the NBA learning curve.
“In the beginning it was tough, because it’s every player’s dream to play right away,” Papagiannis said. “But then you have to realize you’re a basketball player and you have to do whatever it takes to play on the main team, be in the starting five.
“To actually get some playing time here, that’s my next goal. My dream is to be in the starting five. But then you get used to it (the D-League). You get so much playing time that you don’t even think about all this stuff.”