Let’s be honest, before Giannis Antetokounmpo, we didn’t pay that much attention to NBA players from Greece. But the Greeks have quietly been contributing to the basketball canon for many years. Now that Giannis is arguably the best player in the game and playing on the biggest stage, it’s time to take a look at all of the top NBA players in league history who have Greek heritage.
After a few impressive seasons in Europe, the Greek-born Papanikolaou was drafted by the Knicks in 2012 with his rights ending up with the Rockets.
He played one season in Houston and another in Denver, playing 69 games with seven starts. Papanikolaou averaged a modest 3.6 points per game before returning to Greece.
Calathes is of Greek descent despite being born in Florida. He was a McDonald’s All-American in high school and a star during his two seasons with the Florida Gators. In fact, he went straight to the Greek League after his two seasons with the Gators, spurning the NBA.
Of course, Calathes eventually returned stateside and played two seasons with the Grizzlies, averaging 4.6 points per game. Obviously, he could have had a better NBA career if he stayed rather than returning to Greece, but he’s surely one of the best NBA players of Greek descent.
While he was born in Georgia when it was still part of the USSR, Tsakalidis was raised in Greece and represented the Greek national team. The 7’2’’ center also got his start playing in the Greek League for AEK Athens before catching the attention of the NBA. He would end up playing seven seasons in the NBA for the Suns, Grizzlies, and Rockets.
Tsakalidis was actually a semi-regular starter early in his career, averaging 7.3 points and 5.6 rebounds during his best season in Phoenix during the 2001-02 campaign. In the long run, he’s largely forgettable, but he did make one of the most successful transitions from the Greek League to the NBA.
Most people know Rambis as a head coach, but he is of Greek descent and went to Greece to play for a year after the Knicks waived him soon after selecting him 58th overall in the 1980 Draft. He helped AEK Athens win the Greek League title in his only season while playing under the name Kyriakos Rambidis.
That one season in Greece helped Rambis earn his way back to the NBA, playing four seasons and winning four NBA championships with the Lakers during the 1980s. Rambis also played with the Hornets, Suns, and Kings, averaging 5.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game over his 14 seasons, which remained the best career by a player of Greek descent until Antetokounmpo came along.
Let’s face it, nobody born in Greece will ever top what Antetokounmpo has already accomplished in the NBA. Not too many players are known by just one name, and it’s not just because Antetokounmpo is impossible for Americans to say. After joining the Bucks in 2013, Giannis was a perennial all-star by 2017 when he was also the league’s most-improved player.
In 2020, Giannis stitched his name in history by becoming just the third player in NBA history, along with Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. Even with many great years ahead of him, he’s the best Greek of all time.