Nikolaidis: Lavrio the perfect place for me to develop
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.
LAVRIO (Greece) - Alexandros Nikolaidis knows he has plenty of work ahead of him before he can become a high level player. But the 19-year-old guard is also aware that playing in the Basketball Champions League with Lavrio Megabolt fits perfectly with his plan to take the next step.
Nikolaidis has helped the BCL debutants to two wins in their first four games in Group C, averaging 3.3 points, 1.5 rebounds and 0.8 steals in 15 minutes per game.
"I think we are very good right now. We just need one win to reach the next round. I am confident we will get another win," said the young playmaker, who has struggled with eight turnovers to just one assist in the four games.
Still, Nikolaidis values greatly the chance he is getting in Lavrio.
"Lavrio is the best team for young players to play. Coach (Christos) Serelis gives opportunities to players, not just young guys. I wanted to play and thought that Lavrio was the best choice for me," said Nikolaidis, who is actually on loan with the club from Greek powers Olympiacos Piraeus. "I knew I wouldn't get the minutes with Olympiacos this season, and the most important thing was to play and not just stay on the bench."
This is Nikolaidis' first season playing full-time in Greece's top flight. He spent the past two campaigns playing for Olympiacos' first team, but the Reds were competing both of those years in the country's second division.
And the Thessaloniki native really made a big push from his first season in the club in 2019-20 to last year. His numbers jumped from 4.2 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists to 14.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists in 2020-21. The reason for the jump is simple: facing some of the best players in the continent every day in practice, including his idol.
Only Spanoulis - right from the beginning
Nikolaidis first got his hands on a basketball when he was 4 years old in Thessaloniki, his father Sotiris Nikolaidis playing 15 years in the game, including for PAOK, Maroussi, Iraklis and AEK. He also helped Marouss to win the Saporta Cup 2001 with the game-winning free throws with 15 seconds left.
"My favorite memory on video was his game-winning free throws in the Saporta Cup," said Nikolaidis, who was 7 years old when his father retired from the game to become a coach.
From the very beginning, the younger Nikolaidis only had one role model - Vassilis Spanoulis.
"Everything about Spanoulis: his mentality, his style, the way that he played the game, that he wanted to win in everything. That's why I love Spanoulis, and he is still my role model and will be forever."
Spanoulis and his father actually played together one season at Maroussi, when Spanoulis was 19 years old. Still, Alexandros had never met Spanoulis before joining Olympiacos.
The Nikolaidis family moved from Thessaloniki to Athens in 2003 when the father joined AEK Athens. The family stayed in the Greek capital while Sotiris also played outside of Athens. They ended up returning to Thessaloniki when Alexandros was 10 years old. While in Athens, Alexandros played for Maroussi and then for HANTH and then Mantoulidis in Thessalonki.
"That's where I grew up and played as a man in the third division in Greece," Nikolaidis said of Mantoulidis, which is also where Greek national team star Kostas Sloukas had played a couple years before.
"It was motivating for me. I wanted to do the same thing that Sloukas did, and that's why I tried very hard every day," Nikolaidis said.
National team disappointment
Nikolaidis' play grabbed the attention of the Greek youth national team leaders. After playing at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2018, he played a year younger at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2019 in Volos, Greece. Hellas knocked off Finland and Lithuania to reach the Semi-Finals, where Nikolaidis had to accept a loss to Spain. More frustrating though was losing to Slovenia in the third place game.
"It was a very nice tournament for me because I played well, but it was very disappointing because we lost to a Slovenia team that we beat by 18 points in the group stage," said Nikolaidis, who averaged 11.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.4 steals. "The lesson I learned is that you have to play from the first moment to the last at 100 percent. You cannot be relaxed. That's why we lost to Slovenia - because we thought we would just win because we beat them in the group by nearly 20 points. You cannot relax."
Meeting his idol
Nikolaidis' disappointment would soon turn to absolute joy. His play in Volos with the U18 team caught the eye of Greek giants Olympiacos, and the two sides agreed on a six-year contract in 2019.
"I signed with Olympiacos because of the second team - that they would be playing in the second division. That's why I signed there," Nikolaidis said.
Olympiacos played their 2019-20 domestic league games in the Greek second division after they had been relegated the previous season for forfeiting two league games - including a league playoff game - over a dispute between Panathinaikos and referees.
Joining Olympiacos of course meant Nikolaidis would be joining the club with Spanoulis. He remembered being very nervous as a 17-year-old meeting the then 37-year-old star in the Olympiacos locker room.
"It was a dream come true for me. I had goosebumps when I shook his hand," Nikolaidis said. "I just said 'Hello' and he said: 'I know your name. Alexandros, nice to meet you.' It was very fun."
During the training camp for the 2019-20 season, Nikolaidis practiced with the pro team, which was solely playing games in the EuroLeague. Head coach David Blatt left the team in October 2019 due to health reasons. And when Georgios Bartzokas took over in January 2020, he demanded the club allow Nikolaidis work with the main team every day and he would only play with the second team.
"It was very tough every day to guard Spanoulis. It was a great experience,' he said. "I learned a lot from him about a winning mentality. Every day you get on the court you have to prove that you belong there and that you deserve to be there. That's what I remember from him."
A moment Nikolaidis will never forget came on February 4, 2020. The youngster was traveling with the first team for the first time and was in Lithuania for the EuroLeague game against Zalgiris Kaunas. Coach Bartzokas called on Nikolaidis with 3:34 minutes left in a 94-69 loss to enter the game.
"It was an amazing moment. As a team we lost but the only thing I remember is that I played," he said about the game in which he missed two shots and grabbed 1 steal. "It was something unbelievable and a dream for me when Coach Bartzokas said 'Alex get up, you're going in.' I was very happy to play in the EuroLeague."
Nikolaidis played 2:21 minutes in the next EuroLeague game, a 72-59 win at home versus CSKA Moscow. And then in Round 25 on February 20, 2020, he got to play 17:02 minutes of a 77-68 win over ASVEL Villeurbanne. He totaled 6 points on 1-of-2 shooting and 4-of-4 free throws, 5 rebounds and 4 steals …
"… and four turnovers," Nikolaidis interjects when he is read his stats for the game. "You also have to say the bad things. That's why I made four steals - to balance the four turnovers."
About his big highlight he said: "It was amazing. I played like that because Coach Bartzokas believed in me. He told me after practice that I have to be ready because I was going to play. 'You have to help the team. We don't have many players so you will have to play a lot of minutes.' And I did what my coach asked from me."
Big jump in 2020-21
Nikolaidis played his second season with the second team as well - still in the Greek second division. And once again, he practiced solely with the pro team and played his games in the second division. His numbers saw a major jump across the board.
"I just played one game very good against Pagkrati and scored 22 points and from then I played like that every game," he said about averaging 14.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.7 steals. "It's all about confidence, and I believed in myself a lot and that's why I played like that the whole season."
The 2020-21 season also included the moment Nikolaidis called his biggest disappointment of his young career. Olympiacos faced Appolon Patras in June with the A2 league crown at stake. The Reds had won the first game against Apollon by three points but ended up losing 70-63 to give the Patras the top spot in the league and a spot in Greece's top flight.
"If I had one wish I would turn back time and play that game again to try to take first place," said Nikolaidis, who had 19 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists in the loss.
Olympiacos would end up booking their return to the Greek A1 league in the promotion playoffs, beating Maroussi 93-87 in the final game with Nikolaidis collecting 22 points.
No chance to face Spanoulis in a game
That promotion game would be Nikolaidis' last game for Olympiacos for some time as he then moved to Lavrio for this season.
In addition to the 2021-22 season seeing him move on loan to Lavrio, this year also meant the end of an era as Spanoulis retired from the game. That meant Nikolaidis would never get a chance to face his idol in a game.
"It was very disappointing for me, but I played against him every day in practice. That made it okay," he admitted.
Nikolaidis actually would not have played against Spanoulis in the October 10 game at Lavrio anyhow. As part of the loan agreement, the youngster was not allowed to play. It's unclear if he will play for Lavrio in the game in Piraeus on January 22, 2022.
"It would be very fun for me if I would play," he admitted.
Not ready for Olympiacos return at the moment
Nikolaidis still has three years left on his contract with Olympiacos after this season. He is unsure at the moment about what next year will bring.
"Right now I am not ready 100 percent," he said about a return to Olympiacos for next season. "By the end of the season I think I could be ready to play for Olympiacos next season."
When asked what he needs to work on to get to that level, he said: "Improve everything: offense, defense, get stronger. The most important thing is to have experience. That's what I don't have."
That's why he is in the perfect spot right now with Lavrio in the Basketball Champions League.