New beginnings for Panathinaikos: a mid-summer review

Uygar Karaca
2022-07-21 15:30
Credit: BNS
Credit BNS

We are right into the strange times of the summer. Transactions gained pace with an incremental rate, and there is not one day passing without any exciting name crashing into the latest rumors section of the European basketball community. The seismic waves of change are felt in the bones of the EuroLeague.

When it comes to Panathinaikos, things are even more intense. Just a few weeks after my colleague Giorgos Kyriakidis wrote a piece about the imminent rebuilding phase, we can suggest that the Greens are in the middle of crosswinds.

While Paris Lee became the first signing at the beginning of July, Nate Walters, Marius Grigonis, Panagiotis Kalaitzakis, Andrew Andrews, Derrick Williams, and Arturas Gudaitis were all announced in quick succession in the past 6-7 days.  

Points this season

Points made: 74,4
Accuracy: 45,7%
Place in standings: 13
Record max: 95
Record min: 48
Best scorer: Nemanja Nedovic

While reinforcements were raining down, the Greens parted ways with two important players: Nemanja Nedovic and team captain Ioannis Papapetrou.

Was it worth making that bargain, what could be the possible results of these tradeoffs, and what is happening here?

To make more sense of all theses, we appealed to local expert opinion from various journalists in the Greek media, like Vasiliki Karamourza from Like many other people and the fans, she is also confused about letting Papapetrou. 

"I still can't wrap my head around that decision," she says.

"Papapetrou played in OAKA for 4 seasons. He was the team captain, a very experienced [player] with more than 200 EuroLeague games, and a Greek National Team member.

The only reasonable explanation I can give is that there were financial differences between the player and the club (I don't know that for a fact, though, just guessing), and/or Papapetrou wanted to test new waters and a new challenge."

Indeed, other sources confirm that Papapetrou sought a new adventure. Besides, the new GM Argiris Pedoulakis and incoming head coach Dejan Radonjic were convinced that removing his wages would open up new additions, not for one but multiple positions.

Papapetrou was not the ultimate superstar for sure, but he was the 'glue guy' type of player.

And what Panathinaikos got in return is also interesting: some more tough wings, space makers, and perhaps better shooters. 

One of them is Panagiotis Kalaitzakis, who had quite a remarkable season at Lietkabelis. While they failed to win a historic domestic title against Rytas, Lietkabelis famously forced Zalgiris out in the LKL playoffs.

After a convincing regular season in the EuroCup, they could not move further from the Last 16 (lost to eventual winners Virtus) as well. Still, Kalaitzakis added much variety as swingman (SG and SF) positions and had his best season offensively (13 points, 3 rebs, 2.8 assists, 1.04 points per possession).

Kalaitzakis' 2 FG averages are nearly the same in the last two seasons (around 55%), while he shot 37% beyond the arc in EuroCup. The same rates for Papapetrou were 53% and 25% (!) in the EuroLeague.

Not the fairest comparison because of different leagues, but still, the latter's points per possession was below 0.90 in the last two seasons.

Of course, Papapetrou's contributions are felt much more intensely on the defensive end. But, we must not forget that Panagiotis Kalaitzakis was among the rare players who stopped Shane Larkin throughout the season. Thanks to that ferocity, Greece won against Turkey in both games. 

Meanwhile, Marius Grigonis is a swingman, so it would not be a clear-cut decision to deploy him at small forward right away. That gives a lot of options for Radonjic.

It is fair to suggest that the Lithuanian had a stall in his career at CSKA after coming up as a leader in Martin Schiller's Zalgiris.

Certainly, this was due to various reasons: his long-term injury, COVID destabilizer, and Russia's attack on Ukraine. It all added up for an unsatisfactory and shortened season. 

But many would know that at some point, he was the primary pick&roll ball handler at Zalgiris alongside Thomas Walkup, and he is a hard-nosed defender.

Certainly, Grigonis does not have the most explosive first step and sometimes suffers from a high frequency of turnovers, but he was always good with decisions, court vision, and outside shooting. It is also worth noticing that clumsy turnovers were trimmed over the years. 

Grigonis' addition should also be considered in parallel with the other incoming guards, who just had their career seasons: Andrew Andrews (Frutti Extra Bursaspor) and Paris Lee (Monaco).

That brings us to another trade-off. How did the club's front office decide to part ways with their star guard, Nemanja Nedovic? 

"When it comes to Nedovic, the situation is more clear, in my opinion," Karamouza suggests. "He wanted to return home and possibly got more money from Crvena Zvezda, so it was a win-win situation for him."

"From what I heard, there was a release clause in his contract if he didn't play a certain amount of games last season, and with the cancelation of the games against the Russian teams, that limit wasn't reached. That gave Red Star the ability to pay the buy-out and sign him," she clarifies. 

In a big club like Panathinaikos, making some moves is one thing, and making people convinced about them, is another. Comparisons, expectations, and criticism is a never-ending circle. 

When Nedovic left, there was some disappointment, as the Serbian guard was a fan-favorite player. However, when Grigonis was signed, many people expressed their belief that this was actually an upgrade, especially on defense and his versatility to play in both shooting guard and small forward positions.

But let the numbers talk:

With the departures of Nedovic, Macon, and Papapetrou, PAO lost most of their firepower in the offense," Karamouza notes. "To put it down in numbers, those three players averaged 39.4 points of the total 74.4 points per game that Panathinaikos scored, so around 53%. "

Besides, sources tell that Howard Sant-Roos is not in the plans of Dejan Radonjic, and it would be a surprise if Stefan Jovic remains in the club, despite the option to extend the contract for the upcoming season.

It means that a brand new perimeter group will seek to erase the gap that occurred after Nemanja Nedovic's departure. What are the odds? 

It would be unrealistic to expect Andrew Andrews, Paris Lee, and Nate Walters to fill the Serbian guard's shoes right away. The first two are relatively new to the EuroLeague level and will need some time to adjust.

Firstly, Andrew Andrews showed everyone that he can be his team's go-to guy, as he elevated his level on both ends of the court, especially in the offense.

Until Allerik Freeman left for CSKA, Andrews was producing merely 9.2 points per game, 3.4 assists, and 0.89 points per possession.

In the post-Freeman era, Andrews was unleashed with 17.9 points, 4.5 assists, 1.15 points per possession, and 44% 3PT per game. It is obvious that if he finds the right environment, he can contribute a lot more than expected. He just carried Bursaspor to the EuroCup final. 

Perhaps, that is why his former coach at Bursaspor, Alimpijevic, vouched for him and stated that the player is ready for the EuroLeague level. 

Likewise, Paris Lee had a breakthrough year in his first EuroLeague season, especially after Sasa Obradovic came to the driving seat. His skills as a point-of-attack defender and a pass-first playmaker are an effective combination. 

Nate Walters is the one that needs the least explanation; he was always a tough defensive guard and a natural leader. Besides, Radonjic knows the player very well, from two different stints at Zvezda. Totally sensible addition. 

All these three could enrichen Panathinaikos' offensive schemes compared to last year, where Nedovic's contribution was vitally important. Without a center of gravity like the Serbian, Panathinaikos could diversify the options to sustain more stability in the offense.  

But the gains are more discernable on the defensive side of things, where PAO suffered badly last season.

True, Giorgos Papagiannis produced 1.72 blocks per game, but that is not all. According to the stats, his protection around the rim and the short-mid range was even better than Walter Tavares.

Thanks to his improved footwork, he became eligible for switch defense. But PAO needs a more complete defensive set up to record some real improvement. Last season, they let the opponents shoot 37% from deep. With the new perimeter group, that can change. Now, the defense can move as a more compact unit. 

"Last season, coach Priftis and coach Vovoras stated multiple times that the team's starting point should be defense, something that wasn't accomplished in the best possible way," Vasiliki Karamouza acknowledges. 

"With the addition of Wolters and Grigonis in the perimeter and with Gudaitis in the center position behind Papagiannis, I expect better defensive results. I think we should wait to see a few games to have a more clear image, but I want to believe that PAO will be more balanced in the upcoming season," she adds.

When we think about the recent seasons, including the very last one, it is quite understandable. A significant shift was certainly needed because PAO is a way too big club to be content with a neverending circle of mediocrity. They need to win, and they need to win now. 

If we review the grit and grind identity of Crvena Zvezda, many of the PAO moves make sense. The perimeter is made of aware defenders and hard-working team players. That all gives the impression that things are in the same line as what we would expect from a Dejan Radonjic team.   

The Montenegrin coach repeatedly showed everyone how to build a team with an identity, and he did that without spending much money at Crvena Zvezda. Their talent ceiling was not limitless, and the roster went out of gas in the most decisive stages at the top of the European elite.

But Radonjic made sure that they fought to some extent in every game. He will be the ace card of the greens, with his steel-made principles and defensive philosophy. 

Besides, he will have the luxury of coaching the players he knew before, like Derrick Williams and Nate Walters.

Can the same thing work in PAO? Will he have the full backing of the club's front office? 

The Greek sources that I talked to are optimistic. Dimitris Priftis and Georgos Vovoras were left in the middle of the Panathinaikos crisis after Giannakopoulos announced his financial backing would be no longer available.

When the results were not going well, the credits to the coaches were exhausted rapidly.  

Now, the case with Dejan Radonjic is a clean slate. Dimitris Diamantidis and Nikos Pappas are gone and this time Argiris Pedoulakis is back as a GM. Radonjic's contract is at least 2 years long, and the tandem with Pedoulakis seems to be in full charge.

It is good that Radonjic has some acquaintance with some players, but the goal was also to sign players with EuroLeague experience, so it was not the only criteria. 

One thing Radonjic could feel happy about is perhaps the center rotation. Last season, he was trying hard to make the most of Ognjen Kuzmic/Luka Mitrovic, and he did a  decent job on that. But neither of them could exert a physical dominance as much as an in-shape Arturas Gudaitis and Georgios Papagiannis could do. 

Radonjic has a proven track record of working with bigs, like Bojan Dubjlevic in the past, and later on, Mike Zirbes was great in the 2015-16 season. He also got productive results with Danilo Barthel and Devin Booker in Bayern.

Even the Papagiannis-Gudaitis combo could be used together on the court in most extreme cases, as the former has range and could be deployed as a 4. That offers promising variety and physicality.  

Despite all these moves, are Panathinaikos done for the roster movements? Well, the power forward position still needs some further review, and the club is seeking one more addition, according to sources.

Radonjic, who carried Derrick Williams to new heights at Bayern, would be more than happy to reconnect with his ex-player. But despite the athleticism and much improved 3 FG accuracy, Williams' flamboyance, unpredictability, and struggles with decisions at the key moments, make one scratch the head. 

"The gap Papapetrou left needs to be filled, so I would go for another foreign forward to complete Derrick Williams and Panagiotis Kalaitzakis," noticed Karamouza. 

"Both Nikos Chougkaz and Lefteris Mantzoukas need to gain their playing time gradually, especially through the Greek Basket League. I don't feel they are ready to play heavy minutes in Euroleague yet," she added. 

But if one foreigner is added to the power forward position, then PAO would have 7 foreign players, exceeding the Greek League quota. 

"I am not sure that Panathinaikos are willing/aiming to have more than six foreigners (the maximum they can have in the domestic league) because that trick didn't really work last year," Karamouza reminds. 

"Some names that are on the table are Giorgos Kalaitzakis if he doesn't find an NBA contract and Dinos Mitoglou if there is progress regarding his penalty after that positive result in the anti-doping control last March," as she reviews possible options.  

Giorgos Kalaitzakis formerly expressed that PAO was a school like him, and the Greens would gladly welcome him back. But if he comes back, that would surely be in a more significant role, the Greek sources reckon.

Also, he needs to re-transform his body and game vision to switch back to European basketball. It should also be noted that Argiris Pedoulakis is very much fond of the player and trusts him. But the proceedings remain to be seen on his possible return. 

Mitogluo's return could really fit in this scheme because he is relatively mobile, apt to play horns schemes with pick and pop options, and capable of corner shooting, which could offer a chance for PAO to go big without packing the paint zone. Radonjic likes the players who give him variety, like Nikola Kalinic did last season. 

But the hesitation about him stems from the possible length of Mitoglou's ban. After an illegal substance was identified in his sample, Mitoglu cut the season short at Milan.

Sources tell that PAO are monitoring the situation closely, and if the ban is no longer than 12 months, they would be interested in signing him. In that case, he should be available at the end of February. But if the ban is longer, he won't be able to play for an entire season. 

After all, the biggest question remains: Are the fans satisfied so far with the moves? It is not easy to make them pleased after the disastrous campaign in the previous season, and some thick clouds of doubt might still hover around the OAKA. 

"Panathinaikos fans were definitely shocked by the exit of Nedovic and Papapetrou, and it's understandable because both of them had another year in their contracts," Karamouza reviews. "The fans would also love to see Nick Calathes returning to Athens. Some high hopes were created there, but things didn't turn out very well. "

"Other than that, I am sensing some restrained optimism because most of the acquired players have EuroLeague experience (unlike last season with Macon, Perry, and Ferrell), which is very important for their adaptation to the club and its demands," she concludes. 

So far, PAO's summer moves gave us so much to think about before the upcoming season. But one more proceeding that is yet to be officially announced is vital.

A deal between the club and the Greek government is expected to be announced about OAKA Arena's exclusive usage rights for Panathinaikos for 49 years. That indicates big prospects for further investments and some further revenues for the club. They could even get name sponsorships in the arena, build some lodges and suits, and make seat changes.

The last few years were not the greatest times for PAO, but is there some light on the horizon for the Greens? Definitely.

However, the pressure will pile up even further each day because the community that misses the glorious days dearly cannot afford to have one more losing season. 

Panathinaikos OPAP Athens

Position Player Status
PG Paris Lee (story) Signed until 2023 +1
PG Stefan Jovic Signed until 2022 + 1
PG Nate Wolters (story) Signed until 2023
PG/SG Andrew Andrews (story) Signed until 2024
SG/SF Panagiotis Kalaitzakis (story) Signed until 2024 +1
SG Marius Grigonis (story) Signed until 2024
SF Howard Sant-Roos Signed until 2023
SF/PF Lefteris Mantzoukas
Signed until 2025
SF/PF Derrick Williams (story) Signed until 2023
PF Nikos Chougkaz Signed until 2025
C Giorgos Papagiannis Signed until 2023
C Arturas Gudaitis (story) Signed until 2023
Coach Dejan Radonjic (story)
Expired contract Vassilis Kavvadas (will not return), Giorgos Vovoras (will not return), Peyton Siva, Lefteris Bochoridis, Leonidas Kaselakis (will not return), Jeremy Evans, Nemanja Nedovic (will not return), Daryl Macon (will not return), Ioannis Papapetrou (will not return)
Rumored to leave Stefan Jovic
Interested Lefteris Bochoridis, Nick Calathes (story), Andrew Andrews (story), Georgios Kalaitzakis (story)


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