Why Nick Calathes might be key to Greece's chances in China
ATHENS (Greece) - Most people think that Giannis Antetokounmpo's presence at the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 makes Greece a title contender in China. They wouldn't be wrong. But arguably just as important to the team's chances may be Nick Calathes.
It has been three summers since Antetokounmpo and Calathes have played together for Hellas - when they lost to Croatia in the 2016 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in early July to miss out on the Rio Olympics.
Antetokounmpo was still five months shy of his 22nd birthday and he had not yet developed into the star that arrived in Greece's World Cup training camp as the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player.
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The Milwaukee Bucks leader will be playing in his fifth international event for Greece - at either the youth or senior level. And Calathes has recently said Antetokounmpo getting back into FIBA play will be of major importance for Greece, who are teamed up with Montenegro, Brazil and New Zealand in Group F in Nanjing.
"Sure, obviously it's a different style. I think he knows, he understands it, he's a smart player. For him to get used to it will judge how far we'll go. He's the leader, he's our guy. We will follow him and see what happens," Calathes told TalkBasket.
Calathes will be seeing a much different Antetokounmpo than the one he played alongside at the 2014 World Cup, FIBA EuroBasket 2015 and the 2016 OQT. But the 30-year-old Calathes has come ways himself since 2016.
The Florida native before the OQT had finished his first season back in Europe after two campaigns with the Memphis Grizzlies. And his standing in Europe grew even higher and higher as one of the elite playmakers on the continent at the club level.
And while he shared the backcourt with veterans Nikos Zisis and Vassilis Spanoulis at EuroBasket 2015, Calathes took over the main playmaker duties in 2016. Two years ago, Antetokounmpo was forced to pull out of EuroBasket 2017 just days before the competition with an injury. Greece struggled in the Group Phase in Helsinki with losses to France, Slovenia and Finland to set up a do-or-die game with Poland.
Calathes stepped up in a major way with 24 points and 10 assists after averaging just 8 points and 3 assists in the first four games of the tournament. He continued to carry Greece in the Knockout Phase, picking up 14 points and 6 assists in a Round of 16 win over Lithuania before his 25 points and 7 assists were not enough in the Quarter-Finals loss to Russia.
He played in three games in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers and excelled at the highest level, averaging 19.0 points, 7.0 assists and 3.7 rebounds, including 31 points, 8 assists and 5 rebounds against Georgia in September 2018.
And just like a fine wine, Calathes also just seems to be getting better with time after an outstanding 2018-19 season with Panathinaikos Athens. For the second consecutive season, Calathes led both the Greek A1 league and the EuroLeague in assists.
"I've coached against Magic Johnson, Bird, some of the great guards – Maurice Cheeks, Isaiah Thomas – in the game ... Nick Calathes is the best passer I've seen in my lifetime," said now former Panathinaikos head coach Rick Pitino, a Hall of Fame coach who coached decades in the NBA and NCAA before arriving in Greece in December 2018.
"What happens is that everybody fears his passing so much, when he goes down the lane, everybody runs to their man to stop an easy basket, and he goes on uncontested because of his passing ability," explained Pitino.
The last time he played together with Antetokounmpo, Calathes showed his unselfishness, dishing out 16 assists in three 2016 OQT games - all the while taking just 17 shots.
Calathes has an excellent understanding of the weapons he has around them and when he may or may not have to score the ball. And it will be of major importance to Greece's chances in China that Calathes and Antetokounmpo can get on the same wavelength right away.