|Papanikolaou, star of the triumphant U20 Greece team, wants to be on the same plane to Lithuania with his childhood heroes|
By Jeff Taylor
Representing a country at an U20 European Championship can be a career-boosting experience.
Kostas Papanikolaou is living proof of that.
Papanikolaou was a leader in both of those teams.
He was the MVP of the 2009 U20 European Championship and then made the all-tournament team last year.
The performances raised eyebrows, and greatly contributed to Papanikolaou having a place in this year's Olympiacos team.
"You have seen him in the junior teams and I think very soon, you will see him in the big national team," Greece great Theo Papaloukas said.
Papanikolaou, who doesn't turn 21 until July 31, admits the experience with Greece at youth level was a turning point for him.
Without those two terrific summers, he probably would not have received the chance to be teammates with players he has looked up to since his boyhood days.
"For me, it's something amazing to play with these guys," Papanikolaou said to Basketball World News.
"In the last years, I'd watch them on TV and couldn't imagine that I would play with them one day.
"Now, for me to be on the court with them, it's a big experience.
"They help me every day very, very much."
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The battles in the U20 European Championships served as perfect preparation for what Papanikolaou faces now.
He routinely goes up against the best players on the continent in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague.
"Every game in the Euroleague is a tough game, and is important down to the last possession," he said.
"All of the teams are of a very high level, so you have to be very focused."
What Papanikolaou has in common with so many of his basketball-playing compatriots is that each had heroes on the hardwood.
For Papaloukas and his generation, the inspirational figures were Nikos Galis and Panagiotis Yannakis, the men who reached the top of the EuroBasket podium in 1987.
In 2005, when Papaloukas was leading Greece to the EuroBasket gold medal in Belgrade, Papanikolaou was a fan, seeing him work his magic on television in the victories over Russia in the Quarter-Finals, France in the Semi-Finals and Germany in the gold-medal game.
"I have a lot of memories from the famous Greece players," Papanikolaou said.
"The biggest memory was the three-pointer by Dimitris Diamantidis in the last seconds against France.
"I remember Papaloukas had a great tournament, and also Vassilis (Spanoulis) having a great tournament.
"There are a lot of memories of those guys and for me, I feel very proud to play beside them."
Now, Papaloukas is offering Papanikolaou instruction in the middle of games just as he did back in 2005 in Belgrade to his Greece teammates.
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While admitting Papanikolaou's future is bright, Papaloukas says the youngster is also facing struggles that anyone else at his age would come up against.
"Kostas is a great talent, but he's over-stressed because he needs to help us, he wants to help us, he wants to play good," Papaloukas said to Basketball World News.
"Sometimes, he plays well but sometimes, it (the stress), sometimes it's not helping him.
"So we try, everybody, to tell him that we need his energy."
If some players don't like hearing where they have gone wrong, Papanikolaou is not one of them.
"They give me advice and show me the way," he said.
"When you make a turnover or do something wrong, they will fix it for you. It's very good to have them."
If Papaloukas and Spanoulis are good advisors, Olympiacos coach Dusan Ivkovic is better.
"He's an incredible coach," Papanikolaou said.
"Every word that comes out of his mouth is like a lesson for us.
"He can teach you amazing things, from the most simple to the most complicated."
To be successful at the highest level, a player most importantly must have the right attitude.
Papanikolaou had the right attitude under his U20 coach Kostas Missas and still does under Ivkovic.
He is keeping his feet on the ground.
When asked about his desire to play for Greece's senior team in the future, he answered: "It's extremely competitive. You have to work as hard as you can every day.
"Okay, I've had some playing time this year but this can mean nothing.
"If you don't work on the court, maybe you can take nothing.
"So every day, I have to prove to my coach that I can do the job on the court."