HERAKLION, Crete, Greece — One hundred and thirty minutes were left on the clock before Greece became the first developed nation to ever default on its obligations to the International Monetary Fund. It was late on Tuesday evening, and the country was about to miss a crucial, 1.7 billion euro payment, raising its overall debt to a staggering 326 billion euro. Banks had been ordered closed the remainder of the week to avoid further runs on cash and a daily ATM limit of 60 euro had been set for Greek citizens, with some machines facing long lines and others depleted of all their reserves. News-talk programs had been debating a July 5 public referendum on whether to accept austerity measures—likely to be in the form of a punishing bailout deal—or move to exit the eurozone altogether. The world looked on, wondering how much worse Greece's disaster-of-an-economy could get.
And yet, outside Heraklion Arena on this island in the Mediterranean, home to ancient Minoan ruins, scores of beachfront hotels and an equal number of abandoned-in-progress construction sites, the mood among Greeks was almost defiantly festive. They had just raucously supported their under-19 national basketball team to a 69-60 victory over Serbia in pool play of the FIBA Under-19 World Championship, and they poured out of the arena with their flags, banners (and in one self-appointed cheerleader's case, a trumpet) in tow. They had little-to-no-hope for a financial turnaround, but at least they had a still-undefeated basketball program.
A pack of Greek fans hovered near an exit door, waiting for players to emerge for pictures and autographs. Among the most popular targets was a center just three days shy of his 18th birthday, Georgios Papagiannis. They love him because he is the biggest presence on the team, at 7'1" and 260-plus pounds; because he just scored 10 points, blocked five shots and grabbed six rebounds against Serbia; and because he plays for Panathinaikos, one of the country's two most popular club teams. But he may not be playing for Panathinaikos much longer.
Papagiannis is facing a deadline of his own, one that a few sects of culturally blindered basketball fans care about more than they do his nation's economic crisis. What he's considering is leaving the Euroleague to play college basketball in 2015-16. Papagiannis is by far the highest-impact player left on the recruiting market, and as a European with little-to-no recent communication with the American media, he's become the ultimate message-board-speculation recruit: the five-star caliber center who might pledge his services to a school in early July, long after the conclusion of the late signing period, and miraculously fill some glaring roster gap.
Papagiannis told SI.com he's committed to making a decision soon—possibly by the July 5 conclusion of the U19s—but he hasn't fully committed to the NCAAs. "There's a chance I'll stay here, and there's a chance I'll go there," he said. "I have made a list with four schools: N.C. State, Kentucky, St. John's and Oregon."
Those college fanbases, as you can expect, are salivating over the idea of adding a potential one-and-done center. St. John's would make up for the loss of shot-blocker Chris Obekpa, and add to an intriguing international recruiting class that already includes Italian point guard Federico Mussini and Spanish power forward Yankuba Sima. Kentucky would get a low-post presence to pair with potential 2016 No. 1 draft pick Skal Labissiere. N.C. State would get a more reliable low-block scorer to pair with point guard Cat Barber. And guard-and-wing rich Oregon, which has a projected starting lineup with no one taller than 6'7", is desperate for a true center.
One good sign for Papagiannis heading stateside? His father, Kanellos, who works in the Greek mobile phone industry and was in the crowd waiting outside Heraklion Arena on Tuesday, stated a clear preference: "Go to USA."
After Papagiannis spent his junior year of high school at Westtown School in West Chester, Pa., as an exchange student, he opted to return to Athens and play for Panathinaikos this past season, and the adjustment to Euroleague, senior-level competition did not come easy. He appeared in just 11 games, and it's Kanellos' thinking that, "If Georgios plays more in college, and plays with guys his age, he's [going to be able to] show how good he is."
Another good sign for the Papagiannis-to-the-NCAA crowd: He told SI.com that it "it's one of my dreams to go to college. … From the beginning [when] I started loving basketball and saw all these great players on TV, I thought I want to go to college."
The counterweight is that Papagiannis is interested in exploring the 2016 draft, and if he's assured of more playing time at Panathinaikos this season, he and Kanellos think that might be a more direct, and less risky, route to the NBA. Whether Papagiannis can warrant those minutes in the Euroleague at 18, or be ready for the NBA at 19 is uncertain. What's evident right now is that he could contribute 20-24 quality minutes per game as a college freshman center. He may need to improve his conditioning, but he has the height and bulk—with a Jared Sullinger-sized backside—to be physical with college bigs, plays solid, wall-up defense around the rim, and while not a go-to-guy on offense, has a few developed moves and will collect garbage points on putbacks.
As for which college (if any) is most likely to add that piece to its roster, it's difficult to identify a clear leader. St. John's has an obvious hole to fill with Obekpa, has made a strong, late push since Chris Mullin was hired in April, and believes it has a real shot at Papagiannis. Kentucky is Kentucky, and has a legit need for more front-line depth. N.C. State was the most recent school to visit Papagiannis, with Mark Gottfried making a trip to Greece in April. Oregon also traveled to Athens and since has developed the most interesting angle into the recruitment.
Curiously enough, Papagiannis' roommate at the U19s is Tyler Dorsey, a five-star guard from Pasadena, Calif., who's committed to play for the Ducks in 2015-16, and was a last-minute addition to the Greek national team in June. During Oregon's visit to Athens, it came up in discussion with national team officials that the Ducks' prize recruit, Dorsey, had Greek blood (he says his mother, Samia, and one set of grandparents are Greek).
With help from Oregon and Dorsey's mother, the Greek national program began making a push to bring him into its fold. Dorsey traveled to Greece in early June to begin working out with the U19 team, secured a Greek passport on June 23, got FIBA clearance to play in the U19s on the eve of the tournament, and has been averaging 10.0 points and 4.7 rebounds per game thus far.
Dorsey has also been making a full-on recruiting push for Papagiannis, telling him about the campus, the facilities, and the Nike connections. "I've been talking to him every day about it," Dorsey said. "I don't know what he's gonna do, but I tell him he could come in and play a key role. We need him. Another big is what we're missing."
Pulling a five-star caliber big man out of a foreign country more than a month after the end of the late signing period is a coup under any circumstances, but if Oregon lands Papagiannis by working its Nike connections with the Nike-sponsored Greek national team, and by dropping in a roommate-slash-recruiter who was an American citizen as of a eight days ago, that would be an all-time coup. A decision should come in the next week, and so around the same time Greece votes on how to handle its latest, and worst, economic catastrophe and perhaps sets course for leaving the eurozone, fans of the Ducks, N.C. State, St. John's and Kentucky will be rooting for a Greek exit that's only relevant in their small pockets of America: that of one, 7'1" center, named Georgios Papagiannis.