Loan to Kolossos gives Tsalmpouris confidence in return to AEK
To encourage the development of more young local talents, the Basketball Champions League requires its teams to register at least 5 Home Grown Players on the game score sheet (if 11 or more players listed, otherwise 4 if roster has 10 or fewer players). Many of these players are considered top level talents in their respective countries and I will be taking a look at some of them over the course of the season.
ATHENS (Greece) - Sometimes the best path from point A to point B is a detour to point C. And consider a six-month stay in Kolossos as point C for Georgios Tsalmpouris in his quest to playing a solid role for reigning Basketball Champions League champs AEK Athens.
The 22-year-old Tsalmpouris has helped AEK get back to the Quarter-Finals as a big man off the bench in averaging 2.2 points, 0.7 rebounds and 0.5 blocks in 8.0 minutes over 11 games, including a game with 8 points against JDA Dijon.
Opponents do not have it easy trying to shoot over Georgios Tsalmpouris
"We are really excited to be back to the final eight for a second year. The team has shown consistency this year. I believe we are one of the top teams in the league, and we are very excited about the rest of the season," Tsalmpouris said.
The hopes of now returning to the Final Four might even be a bit bigger for the 7ft 1in (2.16m) center than some other AEK players. That’s because even though he was officially with the Athens club, Tsalmpouris spent last season starting in December 2017 on loan with Greek top flight side Kolossos Rodou.
"I just wasn’t playing as much with AEK as I thought at that point of the season so I talked to my coach and the team and we decided it would be the best for me to go somewhere else to get more minutes and get my confidence back for the next year. And that’s what we did," said Tsalmpouris, who had averaged 2.3 points and 1.0 rebounds in 6.0 minutes over three games with AEK before the move.
The big man went to the island of Rhodes and averaged 4.5 points and 1.9 rebounds in 12 minutes over 15 games, including a 12-point performance in a playoff game against Panathinaikos.
"Being part of the Kolossos team was really helpful. I was getting good minutes every game and had to play against very good players and had to perform to help my team win every night. It’s definitely the season that gave me all the boost to come back to AEK and prove myself and have a real role in the team," he said.
Following Final Four run from afar
All the while at Kolossos, Tsalmpouris was following AEK and their magical run to the title. But he really didn’t have any bitter feelings about watching it from afar.
"It was not difficult because even if I had been with AEK I would not have been a huge part of this success because I wouldn’t be playing much. So I was happy with my decision to move to Kolossos. I knew it was for the best," he said.
Tsalmpouris ended up watching the Final Four with his teammates from Rhodes but he played with the idea of travelling to Athens for the big event.
"I actually thought about flying to Athens for the final game against AS Monaco but unfortunately I couldn’t make it," he said. "I just watched it and I was happy for my teammates and coaches for making such an achievement."
Georgios Tsalmpouris was happy for his AEK teammates about the title - even though he was not there
Tsalmpouris road to - or actually back to - Athens started near Thessaloniki, where he was born in Veroia as the son of a former basketball player and coach.
"I started playing pretty young. I don’t really remember not playing basketball. My father was a coach so I was on the court at like 2 or 3 years old," he said. "I really didn’t play any other sports growing up. My family was a basketball family. All of them played at some point. I didn’t really have a choice."
Decision to head to college in US
One real choice did come in 2014 until which point he had grown up in the Archelaos Pierikos system. Tsalmpouris had played for Greece at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2012 and the FIBA U18 European Championship 2014 and was drawing interest from colleges in the United States.
"It was a very tough decision. It was not something I was planning years before. It was something that happened within a few months. Schools really got interested in me and I started thinking of it as an opportunity to go play overseas and combine sports with school," said Tsalmpouris, who ended up picking Iowa State University.
"It was very great. We played in a 15,000-seat arena. It was sold out almost every game no matter who opponent was. That made it really special and I loved it," said Tsalmpouris, who collected 1.4 points and 0.8 rebounds in eight games as a freshman with the Cyclones.
The big man said he really didn’t experience much of a cultural shock. The main thing for him to deal with was the weather.
"I was coming from a place that had really nice weather throughout the whole year and I had to live in Ames, Iowa, which gets really, really cold in the winter. But I got used to it."
He also got used to a winning team. The Cyclones went 25-9 in the season and then knocked off Kansas to win the Big 12 conference tournament title.
"My college year was full of great memories. The fact that we won the Big 12 tournament against Kansas was a great achievement. It’s a moment that I will never forget in my life," said Tsalmpouris, who also played in the NCAA Tournament where Iowa State lost in the first round.
That great moment was followed in June and July 2015 by Tsalmpouris playing for Greece at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2015 - and that at home in Greece in Heraklion.
"It was a great experience playing in front of the Greek crowd even though we didn’t manage to get a medal," said Tsalmpouris, who averaged 3.7 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.0 assists for the Greek team that lost in the Semi-Finals to the United States and the Third-Place Game to Turkey to finish in fourth place. "But the team really did its best."
Shortly thereafter came another tough decision for the then 19-year-old. Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg had left the school and signed with the Chicago Bulls of the NBA, and Tsalmpouris was unsure what his future in Ames held.
"Fred Hoiberg was the coach that picked me for the team the previous year and by the end of the season he let us know that he would be going to the NBA, so I really didn’t feel that comfortable going back to a new coach (Steve Prohm) who I didn’t know and he didn’t know me. I thought it was a risk so I talked about it with my family and we decided to not go back," he said. "It was a very tough decision, maybe the toughest of my life so far because I really wanted to go back. I loved it there, I loved the team, I loved the city. I had very good friends there. So it was a very, very difficult decision for me. But I had to take it."
Iowa State’s loss was then AEK’s gain as Tsalmpouris agreed to a five-year contract with the Athens club.
"It was a very big deal for me. AEK is a very historic club - one of the greatest in Greece - and it was an honor for me to be part of it. But AEK had three or four very difficult years of playing in the third and second division and the people really wanted to elevate AEK to the top level, and they made me want to be part of it," Tsalmpouris said.
Tsalmpouris’ start in professional basketball did not go as well as he hoped as he missed nearly the entire 2015-16 season with injuries. That made his 2016-17 season all that much better as he collected 3.5 points and 1.2 rebounds in 7.2 minutes of 13 Greek league games. He also picked up 3.1 points and 1.0 rebounds in 8.3 minutes of 8 games in the Basketball Champions League - his debut coming against Szolnok.
Georgios Tsalmpouris in action in the BCL in 2016-17
"I remember I was really nervous because it was my first European game. But when I got in I was really pumped and I was trying to make the best of it. And it’s really a memory that will last forever."
Playing alongside role model
The 2016-17 season also meant a chance for Tsalmpouris to play alongside one of his biggest role models growing up, Loukas Mavrokefalidis, who was with the team in 2015-16 and then returned to the club in February 2017 after starting the season in China.
"It was really a dream come true to be his teammate and play against him in practice and learn from him," said Tsalmpouris, who was also shown a lot of tapes of Toni Kukoc by his father growing up.
Mavrokefalidis is not with AEK this season, but Tsalmpouris is again - something that pleases the big man.
"I was happy coming back to AEK. I knew the staff, I knew the coaches. I knew most of the guys. It wasn’t really hard for me to come back. I had only been gone for six months. Not that much had really changed. I was really excited to get back on the team," he said.
2018-19 - already a season full of highlights
This season has already had some big highlights for Tsalmpouris. One of them came in January when his former club Kolossos came to Athens and he collected 15 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists.
"I tried to face the game against Kolossos like every other game. It happened to be a good night. I played well and I didn’t feel that I had to prove anything to anybody. I face every game the same. That’s what I did that night too," he said.
Another special moment came last month when Tsalmpouris took the trip with AEK to Rio de Janeiro for the FIBA Intercontinental Cup.
“Brazil was a great experience. You don’t get a chance to play the FIBA Intercontinental Cup every year. It’s something that might only happen once in your lifetime. We were really happy to make it and win the trophy,” said Tsalmpouris, who picked up 2 points, 1 rebound and 1 assist in 14 minutes over the two games.
Home sweet home
The BCL Round of 16 showdown with PAOK was also a special moment - and not only because it was European playoffs showdown. It was a chance for Tsalmpouris to return home.
"It gave me extra motivation, playing next to my home city. A lot of my friends came to watch the game. My parents and the rest of the family was there. It was exciting," said Tsalmpouris, who picked up 3 points and 1 block in the two games.
And now AEK are just two wins from getting back to the Final Four - which would be Tsalmpouris’ first.
"It would mean a lot for me to play in the Final Four this year. It would be a great deal for the team to make it there for the second year in a row and it would be the first one for me. And why not make it a successful one too?"
Tsalmpouris is still a role player for AEK. But it is thanks to his detour to point C at Kolossos that the role is as big as it is.
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