By Joseph Santoliquito
WEST CHESTER, PA (CBS) — Georgios Papagiannis, or “George” as he’s called by those closest to him, just turned 17 in July and he already has a Wikipedia page. At 14, he attracted so much curiosity that NBA scouts traveled to Greece to see him. He hasn’t played a minute of high school basketball in the United States yet every major school from the ACC, Big East, Pac-12, Big 12 and Big 10 have ventured out to the bucolic Westtown School campus, which sits in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
There’s a reason.
The 7-foot-1, 250-pound junior could arguably be the best high school center in the country. He could already be the best center in the Philadelphia area—and that includes the NBA’s young, rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers.
One thing seems certain, it looks like Papagiannis is heading in that direction.
Westtown coach Seth Berger has seen the best and coached some of the best high school basketball players that have come out of Southeastern Pennsylvania, one of the most fertile hoops areas in the country that’s produced some of the greatest that have ever played (Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant just to name a few).
Berger is not ready to say Papagiannis is the next “Wilt Chamberlain” or the next “Kobe Bryant.” But in his seven years of coaching at Westtown and in his nine years total at the small high-academic Quaker school, Papagiannis is the best he’s coached.
“I think he’s the best player I will ever coach until I’m 80 years old; he has a legitimate chance to be a top five pick in the 2016 NBA draft,” Berger said. “George is a one-and-done for sure. He’s that once-in-a-lifetime kind of player.”
Papagiannis possesses a unique blend of athleticism and skill that belies someone his age—and most important—at someone his height. He can put the ball on the floor. He handles the ball well both in halfcourt sets and in transition. He moves incredibly well for someone his size.
Berger stresses that George cracks the stereotypical European mode of highly skilled big men that are “soft.”
“George is just the opposite, he’s skilled and tough,” Berger said. “He’ll initiate the contact and takes up space. He’ll keep in contact with his defender. He’s very comfortable being the center.
“George also moves like someone who’s a foot shorter than he is. He does everything well. He’s big, strong, coordinated and talented. Around the basket, he has the ability to be as talented and skilled like Hakeem Olajuwon and around the mid-post, he has the ability of Tim Duncan. He can play for a number of major college teams right now. We’ve been getting tons of interview requests, but right now he wants to be a high school kid and that’s it. George wants to be a high school kid who enjoys playing high school basketball.”
Berger continued to say that the biggest surprise he’s found is how well Papagiannis shoots the ball.
“I didn’t think he would have as good a touch from 15 to 20 feet for someone as big as George is,” Berger said.
George is from Amarousio, Greece, which just outside of Athens. His father played professionally and the two visited Westtown earlier in 2013 to check out the campus. The family wanted a private school environment that provided a demanding curriculum and played a high level of basketball.
Westtown fit perfectly into Papagiannis’ plans. It helps that 20-percent of the Westtown student body is international and six of Berger’s 12 players are from outside the United States.
It also helps that Papagiannis speaks very good English.
George has acclimated to Westtown quickly.
“George’s parents have done a great job raising him,” Berger said. “I like his humility; he’s a grounded kid who’s a great student. He’s respectful and polite. I’ll tell you he’s actually a lot different than a lot of world-class superstars that are his age. This kid really works hard every day in practice. He doesn’t take days off, he doesn’t take practices off. He doesn’t get down on his himself, but he has really high expectations and he knows how hard he has to work to get there.”
Quaker games this winter will no doubt be hosting burgeoning crowds. All to see “Big George.” He’s already received a deluge of accolades from the hardcore international basketball community and his stature is sure to grow toward the mainstream as he begins playing games.
In the meantime, Papagiannis is absorbing his new world and continues to adjust to his surroundings. Having a magnetic, endearing personality is helpful. His childlike wonder, and great sense of humor keeps the Quakers loose.
During a recent weight training session, the Quakers were told by the conditioning coach to grab a dumbbell appropriate to their strength level. George lugged over a massive 75-pound dumbbell in one hand.
Everyone fell over one another laughing.
“It helps that George can laugh at himself and that he is a great practical joker,” Berger said. “The most important thing to remember is these guys are all kids. At the end of the day, I want George to be the best player he can be. But he’s 17. He’s a 17-year-old player. I want this to be challenging and fun to George.
“You have high-ability players who have high expectations. It’s about how they deal with it. George has dealt with it well since he first started getting noticed. We have a really talented group of kids around him. Any set I want to draw, they can execute. I mostly try to stay out of their way. They know how to play and they’re really good. I just let them play.”
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.