Moraitis aims to help AEK after learning lessons on loan
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 the 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) - Dimitris Moraitis had a lot to look forward to at the start of the 2020-21 season. Not only was basketball back after a long break due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but he was also returning to the club he called home for a number of years.
While not officially a new acquisition for AEK, Moraitis still had some re-acclimation to do with the Athens club. The point guard spent the 2019-20 season on loan with Greek side Kolossos.
"I was loaned to Kollosos because AEK and I had a mutual desire for me to play more. So that's why we took that decision together," Moraitis said.
The 6ft 3in (1.90m) guard actually had some help in getting used to his new surroundings on the island of Rhodes. His former AEK teammate Georgios Tsalmpouris was also there.
"That helped me to adjust faster since we were teammates at AEK," Moraitis said.
The guard ended up having a solid season for his loan club, averaging 4.8 points, 1.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 14 minutes in 20 games.
"Coach Aris Likogiannis helped me a lot at Kolossos. I believe what helped me most was the fact that I had to take more responsibilities," said Moraitis, who turned 22 in early February.
One of the highlights of the season came on January 11, 2020 when Kolossos faced AEK for the second time. Moraitis collected 6 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists for one of his best games of the season.
"Yes, I had a good game that day. It's always nice and a great feeling when you play good and help your team," he said of the 79-70 loss victory. "Unfortunately the season did not finish since the Corona virus came."
The end of the season meant the return to AEK. Moraitis did not play for the club at the Final 8 to finish off the 2019-20 season. That didn't stop him though from setting a game plan for the up-coming season.
"My mind frame was to do as much as I could for AEK and convince my coach that I deserve his trust every time he plays me," the guard said.
Despite not being injured, Moraitis had a slow start to the season, playing just one game before December 20.
"It was coach's decision. I had to be patient since AEK had a plan for me," he said.
Since then though, Moraitis has steadily played more and more - playing more than 20 minutes in five of his last seven Greek league games and three times in the BCL.
"I believe I am helping the team with my game, and I am trying every day to do better."
Growing up idolizing the Greek stars
Moraitis is the son of a former first division player who played several years for Papagos Heracles and Olympiacos. He didn't start playing the game until he was 13 years old. And there was never a nudging coming from his father.
"Definitely my motivation was my father, but he never pushed me to be a basketball player, I wanted it too," Moraitis said.
He grew up in Athens and as so many young players, his favorite players were the megastars of Greek basketball: Dimitrios Diamantidis, Vassilis Spanoulis and now current teammate Nikos Zisis.
"They have talent, discipline and will. They work a lot, and they love to win," said Moraitis, whose brother Ilias Moraitis is two years younger and with Olympiacos.
Dimitris was a quick study in the game, as he showed at Athens-based club Panionios, where he was already playing games with the professional team during the 2014-15 season at just 15 years of age.
"It was so tough because Panionios is a team with a big history, and I had to adjust very fast so I could face the challenge. Definitely that experience helped me a lot," he said.
In 2015, Moraitis would make his jump to AEK, signing a six-year contract with the club.
"I signed with AEK because their people and specifically president Mr. Makis Aggelopoulos approached me and my family and was very convincing about how much they believed in me," Moraitis remembered.
During the 2015-16 to 2017-18 seasons, he really didn't get much playing time with AEK's top team - not necessarily surprising considering he didn't turn 18 until 2017. He was playing most for AEK's U18 and U21 teams.
But Moraitis get a major highlight in the 2016-17 season as he made his Basketball Champions League debut on January 25, 2017 in the final game of the Regular Season against Zielona Gora.
"I was very excited and tried to give my best as long as I played," said Moraitis, who played 3 minutes in front of the famed OAKA crowd. "It was a huge honour for me to play in a European game with AEK while being so young. I still remember the atmosphere that our great fans created."
Despite not playing much, Moraitis still had a chance to interact with some extremely high-level guards over the years, among them DJ Cooper, J’Covan Brown, Taurean Green, Nikola Ivanovic, Michael Dixon, Roko Ukic, Mike Green, Manny Harris and Kevin Punter.
"All of them were big players. I learned a lot from all of them. UKic was a player at my position so I tried to learn from him and always listen to him," Moraitis remembered.
Harris, Green and Punter were a major part of AEK winning the 2017-18 Basketball Champions League title. Moraitis played in three BCL games that season and of course was at the Final Four when the club won the trophy.
"Winning the BCL is something that I will never forget in my life. I feel great that I was a part of that team even if I did not play," he said.
The following season, Moraitis was on the plane to Brazil to play for AEK at the FIBA Intercontinental Cup. He played in both games and once again was able to celebrate claiming a trophy.
"It was a different experience, especially because we played against teams that we don't often the chance to face in a basketball career. I felt great and I won't forget that trophy either," said Moraitis, who picked up 3 points in nearly 3 minutes in the Semi-Final versus San Lorenzo and played 31 seconds in the Final against Flamengo.
The 2018-19 season saw him average 10 minutes in the Greek league and the BCL despite turning only 20 in February 2019.
"My development was good. I took the opportunities I had because we had injuries so I started playing more," said the youngster, who averaged 2.4 points, 1.0 rebounds and 0.9 assists in 10 minutes per game in the BCL that season.
Avoiding a Greek tragedy
All the years while he was trying to get playing time with AEK, Moraitis was becoming a regular and integral part of Greece's youth national teams.
His second summer playing for Hellas nearly ended in a Greek tragedy. Greece struggled at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2015 and were playing England in the game for 13th place. The loser of the contest would be relegated to Division B. Greece had played in Division A at the U16 level in every competition since 1987.
Moraitis and Greece held England to just two points in the third quarter and ended up winning by 25 points.
"It was a very difficult and crucial game. It's a big honor to represent your country, and you always have to give your best," said Moraitis, who averaged 17.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 4.9 steals including 8 points, 2 rebounds, 5 assists and 6 steals in the game against England. "The relief after the win was huge, and we were very happy about it."
The same thing happened three summers later in Germany at the FIBA U20 European Championship 2018. After losing to Italy in the Round of 16 and Great Britain in the 9-16 Classification, Greece beat Iceland and faced Sweden to stay in Division A. Moraitis and co. pulled away in the third quarter to win by 13 points - once again avoiding relegation to Division B.
"To play for this place in a tournament like this is not good. Personally, my first thought was about my country. Division B is not representative of Greece so we had to play as hard as we could," said Moraitis, who averaged 13.3 points, 2.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.8 steals in the event.
The team avoiding relegation meant that much more for Moraitis because he was one of six players playing one year younger, meaning he knew he would have to play in Division B in 2019 if Greece had lost that game.
"The next year was my year with the 1999-born players, so I was a little bit more motivated," he said.
Senior Hellas comes calling
Moraitis' commitment to the country and his gradual rise up the pro ranks was not lost on the leaders of Greece's senior national team. And head coach Thanasis Skourtopoulos nominated him for the FIBA EuroBasket 2022 Qualifiers window last month.
"When the coach called me and told me that I would be in the team I got so excited. I can't describe the feelings. I was so looking forward to playing and giving 100 percent," he said of the games against Bosnia and Herzegovina and Latvia in the bubble in Riga.
Moraitis played 12 minutes against the Balkan team and will always remember Skourtopoulos telling him to get into the game.
"When coach called my name, I was just thinking to play - enjoy the game and help my team and my teammates," he said about his performance of 4 points, 1 rebound and 1 assist.
He followed that with 6 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists in nine minutes against Latvia.
"I learned a lot of things. The most important one was the passion and the motivation we have as a national team. We have to be like that with our club teams as well," Moraitis said.
AEK face a tough next two weeks in the BCL with three road games within eight days - with the contests in France against SIG Strasbourg, Russia versus Nizhny Novgorod and Turkey against Turk Telekom Ankara. Moraitis hopes to help his team by using the lessons he learned playing for Greece's senior national team - as well as his season on loan.