American professional basketball fans may scratch their heads when hearing names from faraway places but NBA teams are already in the know, writes Mike Tierney.
NBA: Drafting international players is no longer a foreign concept
ATLANTA // Danny Ferry's awareness that basketball talent knows no borders dates to 1990, when he played professionally in Italy.
A decade later, he began a three-season stint in uniform with the San Antonio Spurs, the NBA pioneers for thinking globally in assembling a roster. His conscience was further expanded during two years in the franchise's executive offices.
So when it came time for Atlanta to use the 16th and 17th picks in this summer's draft, it came as little surprise that the Hawks general manager, instead of plucking a pair of collegians more familiar to the team's fans, reached outside the United States for two anonymous picks.
Lucas Nogueira, a centre from Brazil, and Dennis Schroeder, a guard from Germany, were the Hawks' picks, two of the record 19 international players chosen in the 60-player draft.
A dozen of those 19 had never played a game on US soil; the other seven had already gotten a taste of hot dogs and apple pie while competing on university teams.
"You'd be crazy not to uncover every possibility to draft a good player," Ferry said of casting the widest possible net.
His passport is stamped with evidence of three overseas scouting missions prior to the draft. The Hawks assigned a full-time scout to exclusively evaluate international prospects, and his input is supplemented by consultants from around the world.
"This is the norm throughout the NBA," Ferry said.
As a result, what once were hidden treasures known only to teams such as the visionary Spurs have become players recognised throughout the league. The American public might scratch their heads upon hearing the name of a young player from a faraway land during the draft, but teams are in the know.
"They are putting more and more resources into international scouting," said Fran Fraschilla, a former university coach who serves as the ESPN network's draft expert on foreign players. "There are very few mystery guys anymore."
Nor is it a mystery why teams no longer think provincially in rounding up players. They began broadening their scope when Americans who once developed their skills over several seasons on the college level were allowed to turn pro directly out of high school. Now, the league makes the kids wait a season before they can join the league, and most play one season for a college team. Either way, most are uncut diamonds upon entering the NBA.
Meanwhile, the league's talent judges grew aware that overseas players, particularly in Europe, were honing a wider array of skills than their US counterparts. Big men, especially, were being taught to shoot from longer distance, even from behind the three-point arc, and dribble everywhere.
The head start enabled foreigners to gain a foothold. Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, a 7-footer (2.13 metres) from Germany with a deep bag of basketball tricks, broke down the door.
The bulk of international players tend to be centres and power forwards, which Ferry attributes to a simple case of supply and demand.
"There are only so many 6-10 to 7-foot people in the world," he said. "They are drawn to basketball. And scouts are drawn to them."
Most international players come from Europe and the stereotype has long been that players from the continent were soft and did not like physical contact. Marc Gasol, a Spaniard and a brute of a centre for the Memphis Grizzlies, is one of the players who has shattered that stereotype.
"These guys are rough," Fraschilla said. "That [image] has kind of gone out the window."
Another factor that has opened the pipeline is increasing familiarity with spoken English in all corners of the world, thus reducing communication issues as a barrier. Fraschilla labels English as the universal language for the sport. "Almost all players understand it at least rudimentarily as it relates to basketball," he said.
Drafting a player from outside the US can provide flexibility for teams. Because his league rights are retained long-term, they can allow the player, perhaps not immediately NBA-ready, to continue playing, and developing, in his home country. Maybe their rosters do not have a vacancy at his position or they are too close to the salary cap to afford paying him.
That is why most of the 12 players from the recent draft who are currently playing outside the US are unlikely to hear their names announced on opening night in NBA arenas next season.
"You can draft them and often leave them over there," Ferry said.
Observers are hesitant to predict that the NBA's percentage of drafted players from outside the US will remain on the rise. Only one was chosen in the first round of the 2012 draft, though the second round was loaded with seven more.
The higher number last month was partly a function of a down year for the US crop, which prompted more foreign players than usual to declare themselves eligible. (Forward Dario Saric of Croatia, projected as the leading candidate, bucked the trend by withdrawing his name.) Thus, a deeper pool of American collegians in future years could reduce the number of foreigners.
Moreover, luminaries such as Nowitzki and the Spurs standouts Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili might give a misleading impression that the rest of the planet is teeming with future NBA all-stars.
"Many of them are not ready," Ryan Blake, the league's senior director scouting, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune before the draft. He noted that "they are not good enough to be picked high and there is a risk for some teams when they don't come over right away. If you have only one pick and you're up high, you need immediate help".
In contrast to four overseas players scooped up in the lottery portion of the 2011 draft, the first foreigner tabbed this time was not until No 15, the forward Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece, by Milwaukee.
For a team like the Hawks, who are in a rebuilding mode and will not contend next season for a title, opting for two raw-but-rising teenagers made sense.
"The market for [foreign] players will only get bigger," Ferry said. "I think it will continue to grow as this next generation of players comes along and adds more depth to the fan base in these countries."
Utah was another team that looked abroad, obtaining the French centre Rudy Gobert and the Spanish guard Raul Neto. Both came via pre-arranged trades.
"Basketball started as an American game," Ferry said, "and it is becoming more of a global game."
One day after Ferry's comments, the Hawks went old school within this new-wave way when they announced the signing of a back-up centre with 14 seasons of pro experience in five countries, none of them the US.
His name: Pero Antic. His birthplace: present-day Macedonia.
Theree rising international NBA players
The three most promising drafted foreign players who had not played in the USA:
The Greek teenager, born of Nigerian parents, is a 6ft 9ins (2.06 metres) small forward with the wingspan of a man 7ft 3ins. He was hardly a stat-stuffer playing on his country’s modest second pro level, but at age 18 and still growing, has considerable upside. Because of undeveloped offensive skills, he likely will remain in Greece. He is further advanced with defence and rebounding.
The NBA always has room for a shooter, and the 6ft 7 ins left-hander from Russia, above, can shoot the lights out. The small forward, 19, has textbook form that will need minimal adjustment by Cavs coaches. Rebounds well, given his slight frame. Lack of athleticism could inhibit him on defence. He might stay overseas for another season.
No draftee is considered more NBA-ready than the 19-year-old point guard from Germany, and he is expected to join the rebuilding Hawks this season. A good shooter who also can handle the ball and get to the rim. At 6ft 1in and 168 pounds (76.2 kilos), he might get overpowered on defence, so weight gain is required. Meantime, his quick hands will help.
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