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The Long Journey Of Sofoklis Schortsanitis

The Clippers drafted Sofoklis Schortsanitis in 2003, and after seven years, it appears that the huge Greek player with the powerful post game will finally make the jump to the NBA this season.

The Clippers open Summer League in Las Vegas Monday night with five rookie draft picks on their roster.  But wait a minute, you say; the Clippers only drafted three players back on June 24th.  True enough, but in addition to Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Bledsoe and Willie Warren, the Summer League roster also features 2009 first overall pick Blake Griffin.  Griffin is still technically a rookie since an injury prevented him from playing last season.  Then again, Griffin is not going to play in Vegas (he has nothing to prove in Summer League), but he is officially on the roster and will be practicing with the team.

So that makes four.  Who else do they have?  The fifth is Sofoklis Schortsanitis, a 25 year old Greek player that the Clippers drafted in the second round of the 2003 draft - the same year they drafted Chris Kaman

Schortsanitis goes by many monikers, which is convenient since no one wants to type Schortsanitis over and over.  Big Sofo.  Baby Shaq.  Greek Shaq.  I myself took to calling him MBFGC on Clips Nation, short for My Big Fat Greek Center (although that gag was a little more timely when he was first drafted, given that My Big Fat Greek Wedding was the surprise hit of 2002 - a little dated now, I'll admit). 

If Sofo actually makes it to the Clippers this season (and it seems as if he will, although he does not yet have a contract), it will be one of the longer delays from draft to NBA debut in the history of the league.  One recent example is Luis Scola of the Rockets, who waited five years from the draft in 2002 until signing an NBA contract in 2007.  So Sofo's wait has been two years longer than Scola's.  In fact, the only example I can think of that is longer than Sofo's seven years is Arvydas Sabonis, who was drafted in 1986, but made his debut for the Trailblazers in 1995 as a 31 year old rookie.

Fortunately for the Clippers, Sofo isn't 31 - in fact, he's still only 25.  But he's already had quite a basketball journey.

Born in Greece to a Greek father and a Cameroonian mother, Sofo has been playing professional basketball in Europe since he was 16.  It's not hard to see how his game caught the eye of Clippers' scouts seven years ago.  Although he is a very large man (he didn't earn the nickname Baby Shaq for nothing), he has surprising quickness and agility for his size.  He's not nearly as tall as Shaq - the Summer League roster lists him at 6'9", but he may be closer to 6'8" - but he is a handful.  Think Glenn "Big Baby" Davis - and now double it. 

Why has it taken so long for him to get to the states?  Various reasons, really.  When the Clippers first drafted him in 2003, they knew he was a project and they fully intended to leave him in Europe to develop.  After three more seasons, he was coming into his own.  In the 2006 World Championships in Poland, the 21-year-old Sofo was a force off the bench for the Greek team that stunned LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and the rest of Team USA in the semi-finals.  The Clippers toyed with the idea of bringing him to the NBA that summer, but perhaps because they were feeling pretty confident coming off a playoff run to the Western Conference semi-finals, in the end they decided that it wasn't yet the right time.  Sofo signed a four year contract with Greek powerhouse Olympiakos that summer, but the contract included a relatively modest buyout, and it seemed that it wouldn't be much longer before he'd be in the Assoc.

Unfortunately, the plan went astray in 07-08 when Sofo's health and conditioning became a problem and his weight shot up.  It's hard to know for sure how heavy he got....  I've seen rumors that had him at well over 400 pounds.  Regardless of the exact weight, his club team insisted that he take a leave and enter a 'spa' in Switzerland (we might call it a fat camp).  Given the weight struggles of various NBA players from former Clippers John "Hot Plate" Williams and Stanley Roberts to Oliver Miller, it did not bode well for Sofo.  Invariably, they descend into a vicious cycle of injuries and weight issues that's impossible to break - the body breaks down from carrying too much weight, the player can't stay healthy enough to get in the work to actually slim down.  At the time he went to Switzerland in 2007, I had more or less written him off.

However, the spa accomplished its goal.  Sofo lost over 60 pounds and returned to Olympiakos where he got himself back into basketball shape.  Against long odds, he actually was able to compete in the Greek League playoffs, after missing almost the entire regular season.  Even more improbably, he performed well enough to earn a spot on the Greek Olympic team in Beijing in 2008, where he once again performed well.

For an idea of the transformation of his body during this time, follow this link and scroll down to some telling few pictures. Thousand words, yadda yadda.

Twelve months ago in the summer of 2009, the Clippers planned to have Sofo on their Summer League roster.  He had plane tickets in hand and was ready to head off to Vegas when FIBA, the governing body of international basketball, put the kibosh on the plan.  In the end Sofo was not allowed to play in the NBA summer league because he was still under contract to Olympiakos, a standing rule that is rarely enforced.

But Sofo is now a free agent, his Olympiakos deal done, and both he and the Clippers seem determined to get him to the NBA at long last.  He arrived in Los Angeles a little over a week ago and has been working out at the Clippers training facility in Playa Vista.  He started practicing with the other summer leaguers on Friday, and it appears that Monday night in Vegas he will make his debut as a Clipper.  After seven years, a few false starts and some significant ups and downs, he'll finally play basketball for the team that drafted him.

So what?  Can the guy play?

Sofoklis Schortsianitis dunk - Eurobasket 2009 Greece vs Germany (via jroidos)

In a word, yes.  After watching him in the 2006 World Championships, the 2008 Olympics, and the 2009 European Championships, there's no doubt in my mind that he can score in the NBA.  He is unbelievably big and strong; so strong that few players can handle him on the block one on one.  In his Greek League games he sees constant double and triple teams.  He has incredibly good footwork, and knows the low-post game like few American big men do these days.  His array of back to the basket moves would make Pete Newell proud.

Yet, despite his size, he's quick and agile.  It's hard to say how much of the quickness is "for his size" - he's so big, that the quickness he displays is truly unexpected - but he's certainly not slow footed.  In one play in the 2006 Worlds, he grabbed the defensive rebound, got the ball to the point guard, sprinted up court for an early post up, received the pass and got a dunk - outrunning Dwight Howard in the process.  He also has soft hands to go with his quick feet.  I'm telling you, he can play.

That is not to say that he's a sure thing.  He's a poor free throw shooter, a flaw that his Greek League opponents exploit by simply sending him to the line.  He's foul prone and turnover prone.  And surprisingly, he's not a very good rebounder statistically - a fact that has always confused me, given his size and good hands.  It remains to be seen if he can play NBA defense - is he quick enough to guard fours, is he long enough to guard fives?   

We'll start getting the answers to these questions Monday night.

Sofo has a busy summer ahead of him.  He has to report to practice for the Greek National Team on July 18, which happens to be the last day of Summer League.  Greece wll be among the teams playing in the World Championships in Turkey that being August 28, and Sofo will be representing Team Hellas against the best teams in the world.

Just another step on a journey that hopefully leads him to the NBA in November.