Two months later, a 19-year old boy from the small city of Kastoria was introduced to the now substantially less popular Greek league, the A1. Dimitris Diamantidis, a tall point guard, with an interesting all-around game and some athletic abilities signed with the middle-tier A1 team Iraklis and began his fairy tale there.
Diamantidis needed a long time to make a name for himself in Greek basketball. In his first season, he needed to impove his body and settle down in the bigger city of Thessaloniki. He also started working on his game more regularly, with guys who were bigger and stronger than him. Playing more as the last player of the squad, he was only given limited minutes in just nine games, when he averaged 1.8 ppg and an interesting 1.9 rebounds.
It was more than clear that this player would never be an offensive superstar, but Diamantidis started slowly improving his game in a more all-around way than other players did. He was focused on the defensive end and was also improving his passing skills and team-oriented mentality. In the summer of 2000, he was invited in the U-21 National team of Greece for a series of games during July. He was slowly starting to acquire international experience.
Returning from these games, Diamantidis was given a chance as Iraklis' third point guard during the 2000-01 season, behind the recognized Russian PG Vassili Karassev and the youngster Haris Markopoulos. It is however important to explain that Iraklis was then trying to create a very strong two man punch, led by superstar shooting guard Nikos Hatzivretas and promising 20-year old center Lazaros Papadopoulos.
Diamantidis made some noise during that season, gaining playing time in the second round, even edging out Karassev as the PG with the most minutes during many of the last ten games. He had one 15-point game and a 10-rebound one. He finished the season, averaging 3.3 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.7 apg and a promising 0.8 spg. During the same summer, he played for the first time in the men's National Team, in a refreshed squad during the Mediterranean Games of 2001.
In 2001-02, Karassev was gone, but Iraklis couldn't trust Diamantidis with the starting PG spot. The American Roderick Blackney was given the starting job, but Diamantidis continued to earn more and more minutes with his play, providing the team with a hard-working all-around PG who was quickly included in a three-guard system. Missing starting center Papadopoulos, who had since transferred to Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos, the team became more of a perimeter-oriented one, accomplishing the best season of its recent history. Led by AI superstar and top scorer Hatzivretas and his heroics, the team seemed to be one a promising one over the years.
In a summer, full of changes in World Basketball, with the loss of the U.S. team to Argentina, Greece was absent from the World Championships that changed history and teams in A1 were struggling to gain any money from investments. The situation was more than tragic and when a player was given the opportunity to leave Greece for a recognized team from abroad, they never rejected it.
So, Hatzivretas, Iraklis' franchise player was gone that summer, going to Russian Powerhouse CSKA Moscow, while Diamantidis was becoming a regular in the problematic PG position in the National Team. He was backing up Theo Papaloukas.
In the meanwhile, Iraklis was having a terrible season financially and decided to build around the only starter returning for the 2002-03 season. Diamantidis, who had finished 9th in A1 in steals and 17th in assists, also finished the season with 6.2 ppg.
Playing for a team that hadn't even purchased a foreign player, Diamantidis immediately became the team's leader. While the team was originally projected to finish last in A1, Diamantidis progress was so immense and impressive, that it was actually a huge surprise they didn't make the playoffs. Diamantidis suddenly became a star in A1, leading the league in steals and finishing second in assists. He was among the MVP favorites, with the most impressive stat line ever seen in A1. 12.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.0 apg, 2.6 spg, 0.9 bpg.
Diamantidis returned from an important, yet not so successful summer from Sweden, where he was sharing time at PG in the National Team squad. He was by no means providing the National Team with the complete all-around presence that he was known for at Iraklis, though. He still had a lot to learn.
Returning from the 5th place finish in the 2003 Eurobasket, Diamantidis, now Iraklis' captain, found returnee Lazaros Papadopoulos, who had two not very successful years in Panathinaikos. Diamantidis and wing guard Savvas Iliadis helped Papadopoulos become a part of a three-player punch that pushed Iraklis to a memorable year. The team came one win shy from the A1 Finals and Diamantidis again led the A1 in steals and finished 2nd in assists and 11th in scoring, rebounding and blocks! His stats, once again miraculous: 14.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 4.0 apg, 2.2 spg and 0.8 bpg. Diamantidis was the unanimous MVP of A1, as well as the Defensive Player of the Year.
His summer with the National Team was once again not very good, as the player was overshadowed by Papaloukas' impressive tournament and Diamantidis lost the starting job for good.
However, his transfer to Panathinaikos, which once again demonstrated Iraklis' incapability of keeping its franchise players (Papadopoulos also left for Dinamo Moscow), gave Diamantidis the chance to play for one of Europe's best teams and start competing for more playing time and shots again, in a team that includes stars Jaka Lakovic, Vlado Scepanovic and also his old teammate in Iraklis Hatzivretas.
Diamantidis is now taking fewer shots than he used to take in Iraklis three years ago. However, a strong and steady top-16 round in Euroleague, along with a nice teaming with fellow guard Lakovic, have helped him establish a strong reputation in European basketball. Four days ago, he was voted the "Defensive Player of the Year" in the Euroleague and this Friday, he will appear for the first time in his career in a Euroleague Final Four.
Only weeks from his 25th birthday, he has now completed an extremely unique and unselfish basketball game. He is strong, quick and competitive. He is probably the best player in Europe, concerning his ability to guard space, as he has excellent timing in blocking, he is a very efficient rebounder, a fine passer and a guy whose slashing abilities allow zero flaws.
His main drawback is his mid and long-range shot. Despite his improvement in that field under legendary coach Zeliko Obradovic (he shot 17/37 from outside in 23 Euroleague games this season), he still has a lot of room to improve. As for the concerns on his inability to play well for the National Team, they will probably disappear this year, after the Eurobasket in Serbia. Diamantidis will be one of a handful of players that will be tracked closely by NBA scouts in the Euroleague Final Four starting this Friday. His name could end up popping up in discussions regarding NBA free agency this summer, as long as a new collective bargaining agreement is signed between the players union and the NBA owners of course. We will keep you posted of course. For our North American visitors, The Final Four will be broadcasted on NBATV starting at 9:10 AM EDT. The Finals will be broadcasted on May 8th at 8:40 AM EDT.
Check out the official site, Euroleague.net for more information on the upcoming Final Four.