There is a special breed of athlete who rises to the top when on the very biggest stages. Olympiacos Piraeus forward Kostas Papanikolaou belongs to that special group and had his coming-out party five years ago at Sinan Erdem Dome in Istanbul. Papanikolaou was among the heroes of his team's epic comeback on that memorable night. He scored a game-high 18 points, his career-best at the time, as the Reds shocked CSKA Moscow and claimed the EuroLeague title.
Papanikolaou climbed early onto the big stage after having started his career among the most talented members in a generation of Greek players who dominated European basketball in multiple youth categories. He was only 21 years of age when he won the title in Istanbul, but was already in his fourth professional and third EuroLeague season. A year later, when Olympiacos repeated as champion, Papanikolaou was an irreplaceable piece of that success. Accordingly, EuroLeague head coaches voted him winner of the 2013 EuroLeague Rising Star Trophy.
He left Piraeus following that season, but after a year with FC Barcelona, with whom he reached the 2014 Final Four, and parts of two seasons in the NBA with Houston and Denver, Papanikolaou returned home last year and has since shined in the role that every Olympiacos fans loves to see him play. As a non-stop source of energy, Papanikolaou is one of those players whose three-pointers, dunks, steals and blocks are just a small part of what he gives to the team. He can take responsibility for just about any aspect of the game, but his defensive presence is part of the team's DNA. So are the intangibles he brings, such as savvy decision-making and the ability to understand what his team needs most in a particular moment or situation. As Olympiacos takes aim at its third EuroLeague title in six years, it is hard to imagine the Reds achieving such greatness without Papanikolaou at the center of the action.