REGENSBURG (David Hein's Eye on the Future) - Kostas Papanikolaou is a winner - that's all there is to it. And the Olympiacos forward, who is on his way back to the Euroleague Final Four, has proven all season that he's the worthy winner of the 2012-13 Euroleague Rising Star Trophy.
Papanikolaou follows in the footsteps of Real Madrid's Spanish star Nikola Mirotic, who had won the last two Rising Star awards and finished second to the Greek international in this season's voting.
The 22-year-old Trikala native played a huge role in helping Olympiacos to their first Euroleague title since 1997 in May 2012, leading the Greek powers with 18 points in a spectacular 19-point comeback in the final 12 minutes over CSKA Moscow. Papanikolaou and Olympiacos also finally broke through in the Greek league, winning their first league crown since 1997.
Papanikolaou had fully arrived on the professional stage after picking up a long list of youth trophies - gold at the 2008 U18 European Championship, 2009 U20 European Championship and 2008 Albert Schweitzer Tournament as well as silver at the 2007 U18 European Championship, 2009 FIBA U19 World Championship and 2010 U20 European Championship.
The lock-down defender graduated to the senior Greek national team in 2011 and played a solid role at EuroBasket 2011 in Lithuania and nearly helped Hellas to the 2012 Olympics with a superb performance at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) in Venezuela. And he will undoubtedly be a key factor for new Greek coach Andrea Trinchieri.
Despite not turning 23 until late July, Papanikolaou has also long become a staple in Olympiacos' success since arriving in Piraeus in 2009.
This season Papanikolaou started slowly - and not surprisingly Olympiacos as well, with two losses in first three games. After averaging 4.3 points and 2.0 rebounds in the first three games, Papanikolaou picked up his production with 13.1 points and 4.9 rebounds as Olympiacos reeled off seven straight wins to finish off the Regular Season.
Papanikolaou - as well as the whole Olympiacos team - was a bit up and down in the Top 16. But he stepped it up when it mattered most at the end of the Top 16 stage, nailing 4-4 from three-point land in scoring 16 points against Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul and then going a perfect 6-6 from downtown for 21 points along with 12 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks in the final game against Khimki Moscow Region for a spot in the Quarter-Final Playoffs.
Papanikolaou collected 6.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists in the Playoffs to get Olympiacos to their third Final Four in the past four seasons.
Most impressive about Papanikolaou's Euroleague stats line this season (9.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game) was his shooting 52.7 percent (49-93) from three-point range. That number is up from 33.3 percent last season in the Euroleague.
"In addition to team practice, you have to work on your own if you want to improve and help the team more. I worked the whole summer and during the season with our coaches, who have helped me a lot. I am trying to improve my game," said Papanikolaou, who had three-point showings of 5-6, 4-7, 3-3, 3-6, 4-4, 6-6 and 4-6 this season in the Euroleague.
Papanikolaou is hardly a youngster - especially in terms of winning hardware. But combine his performance at last year's Euroleague Final Four with the 2012-13 season and it's clear he is a winner.
Of course, the Rising Star Trophy is a nice individual award. But this winner is thinking bigger titles - and becoming the Euroleague's first repeat winner since Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2005 would be a great way to close the Euroleague season.
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