The fact that the new Turkish Airlines Euroleague champion, Olympiacos Piraeus, managed to lift the trophy with so young a roster came as a shock to many observers - but maybe it should not have. Olympiacos, the Euroleague team with the longest streak of playoffs appearances, had made the Final Four in 2009 and 2010 thanks to an influx of star signings. Last season, Olympiacos had on its roster four former Euroleague champions, three players who were either full-season or Final Four MVPs, and seven total who had been on the All-Euroleague team at least once. Nonetheless, that team failed to reach the Final Four despite having opened the best-of-five playoffs with a record-breaking victory. In the shadow of that disappointment, the Reds changed everything last summer, bringing back Dusan Ivkovic as head coach while keeping only three players who had averaged more than 14 minutes. To fill the roster, Olympiacos loaded up on young players. From the outside, it looked as if Ivkovic was going to have a long-term rebuilding job. Looking back, it was a calculated risk that has paid off beautifully.
It is clear now that one of the smartest things that Olympiacos did was go young by reuniting four of the top prospects in Greece at the perfect moment in their careers. Kostas Papanikolaou, Kostas Sloukas and Vangelis Mantzaris were all born in 1990 while Dimitrios Katsivelis, the youngest of them, was born in 1991. Papanikolaou had been a full-time starter already, but the other three had less than 25 minutes of collective Euroleague experience coming into this season. Sloukas was sidelined with an injury for the team's Euroleague opener, but Papanikolaou and Mantzaris were in the starting lineup. Katsivelis would also start four of the first eight Euroleague games, while Mantzaris missed four in the middle of the regular season. Soon enough, however, they showed as a group why have been groundbreakers with Greece's youth teams. Three of them averaged 12 minutes, then 17 and then 20 as Olympiacos won its last three regular season games to reach the Top 16. It was the first sign of the impact they would have on a miracle season.
Their ability to play together well was something that Olympiacos management realized with great foresight from watching the country's youth national teams. Sloukas and Papanikolaou were the first to get medals for Greece, back in 2007 at the European under-18 final in Madrid. Serbia rallied to beat Greece 89-92 behind 32 points and 14 rebounds from another young Euroleague star, Milan Macvan. Sloukas had 18 points in the title game, but it was one of the few times he and the others would settle for silver. In 2008, all four players paced Greece to its first European under-18 title, downing Lithuania 57-50 in the final. Sloukas scored 16 points and was chosen to the all-tournament team with averages of 15 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4 assists. Papanikolaou averaged 9.3 points and scored 4 in the last 44 seconds of the gold-medal game. Also in 2008, Mantzaris, Sloukas and Papanikolaou led Greece to victory in the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Tournament, downing Turkey 96-82 in that title game.
Their success continued in 2009 as all four played at the 2009 World under-19 championships in New Zealand. Again, they made it to the gold-medal game before losing to the United States 80-88 despite 17 points from Sloukas and 12 from Papanikolaou. Later that summer, Sloukas, Papanikolaou and Mantzaris led Greece to another first, the European under-20 title, by beating France 90-82 in Rhodes. Tournament MVP Papanikolaou had 15 points and Sloukas 14. In 2010, Papanikolaou, Mantzaris, Sloukas and Katsivelis reached the European under-20 final, although this time France won the final, 73-62. Again, Papanikolaou was chosen to the all-tournament team.
Whatever they did before, their role in the Olympiacos miracle at the 2012 Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four showed that these young players are here to stay. In just one weekend, Papanikolaou went from a top prospect to a bona fide star. In major upsets against both Barcelona and Olympiacos, he didn't miss a shot from the floor - going 3-for-3 on two-pointers and 5-for-5 on threes - while playing season MVP Andrei Kirilenko to a virtual draw in the final. Papanikolaou's 18 points and 22 performance index rating were both highs for Olympiacos in the title game.
On the other hand, both Papanikolaou and Final Four MVP Vassilis Spanoulis were off the floor when Olympiacos, down 53-34 to CSKA with 12 minutes to play, began its incredible comeback run. Mantzaris finished the third quarter with a three-point shot and Sloukas opened the fourth with another, making it suddenly a 10-point game. By the five-minute mark, when Sloukas left the game for good, they had combined for 7 points, 4 fouls drawn, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and a steal, helping Olympiacos get within 55-48. In the last 4 minutes, Mantzaris added another assist, rebound, foul drawn and a key steal while defending former MVP Milos Teodosic, who had 4 turnovers, 3 missed three-pointers and 3 fouls in the last quarter.
Papanikolaou was not only back by then, but his 6 points in the final 3 minutes set up the thrilling last moments that made all four champions. He also got the game's last rebound, handing it off to Spanoulis for the now memorable finish over the final 10 seconds, ending with Georgios Printezis scoring the game-winning shot with seven-tenths of a second left.
What that sets up for the future of Olympiacos, with four players 22 or younger who were key parts of an unexpected title team, only time will tell. But if you are a Reds fan, with one Euroleague trophy already and the young guns just getting started, the future is looking mighty bright.