Controversial Draft Pick is All Greek to Knick Fans

Kostas Papanikolaou.

It certainly wasn’t the name New York Knick fans waited patiently for more than four hours to hear at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Thursday night.

But, whether they like it or night, Papanikolaou is prepared to become a Knick after New York surprisingly selected the 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward in the second round of this year’s NBA draft, with the 48th pick overall.

That could likely take some time however, as Papanikolaou is still under contract with Olympiakos (the 2012 national team in Greece that won the 2012 Euroleague championship), meaning he shouldn’t join the Knicks until the 2013-14 season, although his deal includes a possible buyout option next summer.

As expected, the instant reaction from the Knick faithful was a chorus of disapproved booing.

However, just because a player hasn’t been seen by many fans here in the United States, and his last name looks more like something that fans would expect to see on the last line of an eye chart than on an NBA roster, doesn’t mean he can’t play well at the NBA level.

The league is littered with international infusions who have ranged from at least serviceable contributors up to star players.

And, recall that New York’s selection of Italian forward Danilo Gallinari (taken sixth overall in 2008) was similarly jeered before Gallinari had a successful second season for the Knicks after an injury-riddled rookie season. Gallinari continued to grow and play well enough for New York the next year to become a major piece of bait that helped to land star forward Carmelo Anthony in a trade with the Denver Nuggets.

Granted, there’s a difference of 42 draft spots in talent evaluation and a two inches in height between Gallinari and Papanikolaou, but just as they did with Gallinari, the Knicks’ front office (revamped since the Gallinari pick) liked what they saw in their second-round selection this year.

A rowdy group of Knick fans in attendance at the draft hoped for one of the local products who were still on the board, such as former West Virginia small forward Kevin Jones (who expected to be a Top 40 pick), or with New York in desperate need of a player to run its offense, star college point guards Scott Machado (from Iona) or Tu Holloway (from Xavier).

Even the talented 6-foot-7, 215-pound forward Kris Joseph, who having played at the same school (Syracuse) which Anthony led to a national title in 2003, and who might have been taken under Anthony’s wing, seemed like a decent fit before he was selected by the Boston Celtics just four picks after New York chose Papanikolaou (ironically, with Anthony better known as “Melo,” the Celtics earlier took Joseph’s college teammate Fab Melo with the 22nd pick).

General manager Glen Grunwald however, divulged that picking as late the Knicks were, they couldn’t find any player available who would be capable of contributing as early as next season, and therefore were willing to take a chance on a foreign player like Papanikolaou, whom New York feels has improved recently and who will only continue to do so.

Additionally, the draft is never an exact science, especially when it comes to the second round – something that the Knicks know first-hand, as evidenced by their second-round picks from only two years ago. New York took guard Andy Rautins with the 38th pick in 2010 and forward Landry Fields with the very next pick in that same draft. Rautins played less than five minutes as a rookie with the Knicks before being traded last season to the Dallas Mavericks (who waived him five days later) and is now playing in Spain. In contrast, Fields, who didn’t crack the official 2010 NBA media draft guide’s list of the Top 108 prospects, became a surprise starter and significant contributor for the Knicks over his first two seasons in the league.

Only time will tell if New York made the right move this time. On draft night though, it was a choice that most Knick fans couldn’t read – one that for better or worse, was all Greek to them.

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