Canadian guard Kevin Pangos realizing lifelong NBA dream with Cavaliers

Sportsnet’s Michael Grange explains how Kevin Pangos never gave up on his dream to play in the NBA and will now play against his hometown team the Toronto Raptors.

There are a lot of firsts as an NBA rookie, even for a veteran pro who has starred at the highest levels of European basketball.

There’s your first game, first win, first bucket. The first time seeing various athletic marvels descend from the heavens to finish plays that only a handful of humans can think of making.

And for Kevin Pangos, an even more special one: he and his wife Katey became parents to their first son this past week, with baby Deklan joining his two-year-old sister Olivia in the household.

And as if that isn’t enough, the Cleveland Cavaliers guard from Holland Landing, just north of Toronto, will take the floor Friday night at Scotiabank Arena as an NBA player for the first time, putting an exclamation point on a dream that has been decades in the making, one that for a while seemed out of reach. You can watch the game on Sportsnet One tonight, starting at 7:30 ET/4:30 PT.

“When the schedule came out, all my family and friends messaged me and said, ‘November, you’re here,’ so it was brought to my attention very early,” Pangos said of his first game against the Raptors when reached by phone in Cleveland this week.

“I haven’t been back to Toronto much with everything that’s been going on but it’s definitely nice to come home and play in the – I want to say the 'Air Canada Centre,' but it’s not anymore.

“I’ll probably reflect back to the days when I watched the Raptors as a kid. We probably went to five-to-10 games there. I watched Kobe one time, LeBron, Nash, so it will be cool to walk into that arena wearing an NBA jersey for sure.”

No one – Pangos included – thought it would take until he was 28 years old.

Growing up, the 6-foot-2 guard was at the forefront of the wave of Canadian basketball talent that has washed over the NBA in the past decade.

As a teenager, in 2010 he was the leading scorer and playmaker on Canada’s u16 national team that won a bronze medal at the World Championships in Hamburg, Germany. The roster featured Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, who went to taken first overall in the NBA draft, in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Pangos made his senior team debut the same summer – at 16, the youngest ever to do so.

He was highly recruited, even while staying at home to finish high school at Dr. John M. Denison Secondary – hardly a basketball power. Pangos chose Gonzaga and instantly made a splash, dropping 33 points and a school-record nine triples in his second game as a freshman, setting the tone for one of the most accomplished NCAA careers a Canadian has ever had, leading the Zags to four straight NCAA tournaments and earning conference player of the year as a senior.

But after all that, the NBA never came calling. He didn’t hear his name on draft night in 2015, and even though friends and ex-teammates were showing up in the league seemingly by the dozen, he had to get his head around the reality that he wasn’t going to be one of them, at least for the time being.

“Initially, it was tough,” he said. “I think everyone looks at their situation and feels they deserve [to be in the NBA], but when you step back and look at it ... it’s an extremely small number of guys [that make it], and there’s thousands of guys each year that want to break through. And everyone should believe they can do it, but the truth of the matter is there’s just not enough spots.

“It took me some time to realize that and not play the game of ‘Why am I not there and why other guys are?’ and instead to think, ‘What do I need to do so I can get there?’ And when I did that, everything kind of changed for me ... I realized if I was supposed to be in the NBA I would have been there and I wasn’t, so I needed to make some changes to my habits, my routines, my mindset, everything.”

But the most trying moments came in the 2019-20 season after Pangos’s best year in Europe to that point. He played for Canada at the World Championships in China and a nagging foot problem – plantar fasciitis – that had bothered him throughout much of the previous season became a major issue. He ended up missing all but three games while playing for FC Barcelona in 2019-20. Not only were his NBA dreams on hold, so was his career.

But Pangos sees those seasons a steppingstone – part of the reason he was able to make the jump to the NBA now, rather than a factor in it taking this long.

He couldn’t run or jump because of his injury, so he doubled down on his mental skills training, incorporating meditation and breathing exercises and working closely with a sports psychologist. Given the chronic nature of his injury, he altered his training habits, diving into Pilates and other disciplines to help him strengthen and heal.

“All those struggles that I had, the ups and downs you could say, helped me become a better player and person, in general,” he said. “... I grew through that.”

It was evident on the floor. Pangos put together a superb campaign in 2020-21 playing for BC Zenit St. Petersburg. Injury-free for the first time in two seasons, Pangos averaged 13.5 points and 6.7 assists a game in while playing 29 minutes a game in EuroLeague competition, the second-best best league in the world. He shot 52.2 per cent from the floor and 39 per cent from three, and was named first-team EuroLeague all-star, a first for a Canadian player.

It was time to focus on the NBA. He reflected on conversations he’d had over the years with national team veteran Carl English who – like Pangos – went undrafted out of college and starred in Europe. English told Pangos he never found the right time or opportunity to give the NBA another shot, and in retirement it remains a regret.

“We had some meaningful conversations ... if anyone could relate to what I was going through, it’s Carl,” said Pangos “And we shared in common that we wanted to look back on our careers and never have any ‘what-ifs.’”

But for all his success overseas, coming to the NBA was a leap of faith. While the top teams in Europe were willing to make big offers with hefty guarantees to play a leading role, coming to the NBA meant taking a pay cut and sacrificing job security, all without any assurances about playing time.

Although multiple NBA teams inquired, it was the Cavs who came with an offer: one year at $1.67 million with a team option for a second year at $1.75 million. By comparison, players of Pangos’ stature in Europe are on multi-year deals for $2 million (US), but net of taxes and living expenses, reflecting a true value approaching $4 million a season in NBA terms.

Complicating matters is that the Cavaliers have two of the most promising young guards in the league in Colin Sexton and Darius Garland, each of whom can flip between both backcourt roles. In August, they traded for veteran point guard Ricky Rubio to be their primary back-up.

But Pangos scans the improving Cavs – who added rookie-of-the-year candidate Evan Mobley with the third pick of the draft this past summer – and feels like he’s in the right place.

“I think it’s a great core, a great organization, there’s a great atmosphere and, to me, that’s very important,” he said. “To me everything is heading in the right direction here ... I love it.”

Still, the path to cracking the rotation for a 28-year-old rookie on a short-term contract is steep and will require patience. So far, Pangos has appeared in just three of the six games he was dressed for (he was away from the team for three games to attend the birth of his son), and played just eight minutes total.

But Pangos is undeterred.

“Honestly, this is brand new for me, I’ve never dealt with anything like this in my career before,” he said. "[But] it’s not something I’m shocked about.

“This is what I knew I was getting into, so it’s not like I’m defeated or anything like that, I was excited for this challenge. So I’m going to take it day by day and do whatever I can to bring value to this team.”

In the meantime, there’s the satisfaction of a dream finally being realized.

“Every day for six years – I’m not lying – I’d check the [NBA] box scores to see how guys were doing, see how teams were doing, and think, ‘How am I going to get there? What’s going to be my path?’ For six years straight, that’s all that I could ever think about. Everything I tried to do was with that goal in mind.”

Tonight, at home and in front of friends and family, Pangos can take the floor at Scotiabank Arena for the first time as an NBA player with one goal accomplished, and doubtless more on the horizon.

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