Leave the kids in Europe!

Leave the kids in Europe!
Dec 24, 2004, 10:31 pm
It's impossible not to notice the massive body of Pavel Podkolzin sitting just behind the Mavericks' bench. He's the latest representative of the big wave of international guys who arrive to the NBA with a load bag of promises and very few chances to crack his team's rotation.

And despite his situation, or despite what is happening with players like Andris Biedrins, Nikoloz Tskitishvili or Darko Milicic, it seems this year's draft crop might feature another bunch of heavy candidates for prolonged benchwarming status, like Nemanja Aleksandrov, who has already declared, Martynas Andriuskevicius or Johan Petro.

I'm sure I'm not the only one here who believes this can't be good for anyone, but for the players' (and agents') short term bank account. The team is investing a high draft pick and paying a guy who doesn't contribute at all, while the player himself can't play and sees his development as a basketballer limited.

In Podkolzin's case, it's even worse. We have here a guy with some skills, like a decent shot and handles. The kind of skills you get practicing on your own. He's also quite strong and has some decent athleticism, rather good if we consider his huge frame. To put it clearly, hitting the weight room isn't a priority for him.


But he has little experience as a basketball player, and he's still learning the game. Therefore, his priorities should be to learn the five-on-five game, to get some real playing time, and to make the best of the team practices. And that's exactly what an NBA franchise can't do for him.

The story for other Euro youngsters isn't much different as much more polished as they might be. Those guys have barely played against grown men, or they are midway through the process of adapting to it. It's true they are usually even rawer from a physical point of view, but the difference maker for them to be able to contribute to a NBA team is far beyond a number of extra pounds of muscle they could get with one of those intense weight training programs.

So why not leave them overseas? It seems that the NBA teams are afraid of leaving their investments in the hands of strangers. They fear that the kid won't develop as he might by practicing with the pros. In the words of an NBA scout, On an NBA team he'll be taught by the best coaches in the world every day in practice to play in the right way.

Now I wonder which is the way basketball is taught in other parts of the world. So let's take a look at the international guys without NCAA experience that have fully succeded in the NBA lately:

Predrag Stojakovic was selected in the 1996 draft, but didn't make the league until the 98-99 season. Meanwhile, in the previous season playing for PAOK, he averaged 23.9 points at the tough Greek League, leading his team to the finals with a buzzer beater trey in the fifth and last game of the semifinals against Olympiakos, just to lose in the finals against Panathinaikos, but forcing all five games to be played.

Dirk Nowitzki had helped his team get promoted to First German Division right before being selected in the 1998 draft. During the lock-out, he kept on playing with his old team at the new division. When he left he was the league's top scorer with 21.4 ppg and third rebounder with 8.4 rpg.

Pau Gasol's dominance in the ACB League during the 2000-2001 season has very few precedents in Spain, none since Arvydas Sabonis departure to Portland in 1995. He earned MVP honours at the King's Cup, repeating achievement at the ACB Finals, leading F.C. Barcelona to a perfect 9-0 record during the playoffs.

Andrei Kirilenko earned MVP honours during his last season in the Russian Superleague. He also averaged 19.2 points and 8.7 rebounds for Russia at the European Championships in the summer of 2001.

Yao Ming was having Chamberlain-esque stats in China the season before he was chosen by the Rockets with the first pick, averaging 32.4 points (with 72% on FG), 19 rebounds and 4.8 blocked shots, and leading the Shangai Sharks to their first CBA title.

Manu Ginobili won all kinds of tournaments (including Euroleague, Italian league and Italian Cup) and MVP trophies during the couple of seasons he spent in Bologna playing for Virtus, just before joining the Spurs in 2002. That very same summer, he led Argentina to a silver medal in Indiannapolis, getting probably just an injury short of the gold medal, but making history after beating USA badly.

The odd man here might be Tony Parker. During his last season in France with Paris Basket Racing (2000-2001), he only averaged 14.7 points and 5.6 assists. While those aren't bad numbers, it wasn't a MVP performance. The summer of 2001 in the European Championships, he scored just 8.7 points per game. He didn't really have his coach's confidence. I had the chance to see him that summer, in a preparation game for that tournament against Spain, and as soon as he got on the court, he drove Raul López absolutely crazy with his quickness. We have to consider that Tony Parker, like the majority of French prospects, was a very good athlete, more in the mold of an American player.

Anyway, it's easy to see a pattern here: we have a bunch of big accomplishers, developed guys contributing to their overseas teams, even making them win, while generally facing very good competition. They surely haven't learned to play the game in the NBA, and it doesn't seem like they had been playing or developing in the wrong way. I won't even start mentioning national team competitions.

What's the point of adding a ‘former Euro benchwarming star' like Nikoloz Tskitishvili to your roster if you can leave him developing somewhere else? You've guessed it: none. What about Darko Milicic? Yes, he was far readier than the Georgian, but he still wasn't in the position to see barely any playing time in Detroit. Can anyone really think that he has improved more during the last season with the Pistons than he would have done staying in Europe?

Yeah, I know. He practices day-in and day-out with the best players of the world in Detroit. If that were true... The NBA teams barely have time to have real practices with so many games and long trips, while in Europe, teams only play once or twice a week and much more frequently near home.

When you sign such underdeveloped youngsters that likely won't step on to an NBA court anytime soon, you risk cutting the player's progression, undermining his spirit with an endless bench status and losing the player just to see him blossoming somewhere else, like Primoz Brezec is doing in Charlotte, for example.

I know; you can't miss the next Dirk Nowitzki, you can't ignore those kids' immense potential. But are they going to be capable of living up to it being thrown to the NBA with their level of maturity?


Let's make the bold movement, let's go ahead everyone. I want to see some team draft a guy like Andriuskevicius or Aleksandrov, and have the guts to leave him in Europe. The NBA franchise should talk with the kid's club and reach some kind of agreement first. For example, the players would remain in Europe for a couple of seasons at least, while the NBA team would have something to say about the player's developing, like the position he should usually play or the skills to work with.

The Euro team would retain the draftee for some extra seasons, and likely would enjoy one huge year of the player, while cashing in on the buyout when the kid is gone. The NBA team would have its investment gaining experience, improving the way they want him to, saving all kinds of headaches caused by benching the high pick, while not expending one single dollar on unproductive years.

Even for readier players, it would be the better move if they are in the right situation. Take Tiago Splitter for example. He's playing for Tau Vitoria, the club where Andrs Nocioni came from, and where Luis Scola plays. It's well known the great reputation this team has for coaching its players. The team itself is a powerhouse in Europe, and they face the best competition possible playing in the Spanish ACB League and in the Euroleague. Why not leave the Brazilian there for another year? Instead of a bench replacement, you could receive a solid starter, or even a young star.

I know it can't always be done. Sometimes the player's eagerness to start his NBA career is too strong. Other times the competition he faces overseas is too weak. Or sometimes it's just agents wanting to get the clock started on their client's 4 year rookie contract so he will be younger when it (hopefully) comes time for that big payday. But as complicated and difficult as it may be to get it done, just ask yourself this question: do I really want to deal next season with a player like Andriuskevicius who is currently averaging 1.4 points and 1.2 rebounds in the Euroleague?

Let's get real, let's face the situation. This strategy of drafting and signing immature European teenagers will come back to haunt many teams. I say, let them learn the game first. I suggest leaving the kids in Europe.

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