With the recent explosion of international players into the NBA, teams’ international scouting departments have been crucial to the development of an organization. Just ask the San Antonio Spurs.
In 1996, the Cavaliers selected future two-time All-Star Zydrunas Ilgauskas and last season, draft deals brought Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic to Cleveland. International talent – and the ability to spot it – has increasingly become part of any NBA teams’ makeup, and Chico Averbuck is the Cavaliers man for the job.
From Prague to Istanbul, Averbuck, who’s been working with overseas talent for nearly 15 years, is one of the most well-respected – and downright nicest – individuals on any continent and he brings a wealth of international knowledge to the Cavaliers.
The father of three took some time to sit down with clevelandcavaliers.com to talk about the evolution of the international game, the infusion of talent into the NBA and his own hectic schedule traveling around the world, trying to find the next great baller from across the pond.
How do you plan your scouting trips to see certain players? What’s the schedule like?
Chico Averbuck: Internationally, there are events and there are leagues that, over a 365-day calendar period, go almost all year round. There’s always something going on.
And now with basketball being such a worldly sport, you don’t have countries taking two or three months off after the league ends. Their national team starts practicing, their junior national team starts practicing and their cadet team starts practicing (right after the season ends). You have teams traveling in the United States against some of our top AAU high school teams. So there’s always someone, somewhere to see.
But again you have to look at it and make sure the trip is going to be worth the trip. You can’t just go to Moscow to see one player and fly back to San Francisco. You have to make sure that the trip is worthwhile. So usually, my trips internationally – especially on the European side and South American side – can last between 12 to 14 days straight. There’s usually so many players in those areas that you need to get around to see everyone instead of making four, five, six trips for two or three days. That’s just not productive.
What are some of the Cavaliers international players up to this summer?
CA: Sasha (Pavlovic) is playing for the Serbia & Montenegro national team this summer for the European National Championships. Anderson (Varejao) has commitments with the Brazilian team that plays in Championships in the Dominican Republic. (The United States will send a team.) And Jiri Welsch will play with the Czech Republic Senior team this summer.
So those guys have very, very little time off. They practice twice a day and they play a ton of friendly games. But their “friendly” games are a little bit more than just practice games. (laughs) They take it a little bit more seriously. So those three players have summer commitments and they’ll be playing straight through.
How does the organization feel about their players going all year round?
CA: There’s really not much you can do because for an international player, the pride that they carry to represent their country and put the uniform on for either Brazil, Serbia or the Czech Republic, that means so much to those players that I think it would be difficult to for (the Cavaliers) to say you can’t play for your international team.
There’s really a sense of pride for international players to represent their countries no matter what the event is. It goes much, much deeper than basketball. I think it’s in their heart and in their blood to represent their country.
Are you sent to a certain country to scout a player? Who gives you the tip on a player or a team?
CA: I’m extremely fortunate that I am my own boss. I have to mind the international store for the Cleveland Cavaliers. (Of course, that may change with the dynamics of management.)
But I’m basically responsible for internationally knowing every single draft prospect along with any other players over 22-years-old. Maybe if they’re an international player or maybe it’s an American playing abroad. And so I sort of pride myself in making sure that I know international basketball leagues as well as, say, (Cavaliers interim GM, Mark) Workentien knows the collegiate leagues and which players can play. And it starts at the same age as when we begin to follow players here.
When they hit 14 or 15 years old and you see them in these cadet or junior tournaments, and you make a note of them – a scouting report – and if they really jump out on the page, you know you’ll be following up on them in two or three years to come and you can see their development. And in most cases, those players sort of rise to the top and are signed by the top 20 to 25 clubs internationally and so they’re already in an environment where it’s actually easy to follow them, almost as if they’re with North Carolina or Duke.
Is there a “hot” country or region where you do a majority of your recent scouting?
CA: I don’t think it’s a particular area. It would be more so countries trying to cultivate a grass-roots program, one that has the facilities and the coaches and in some areas, such as old Yugoslavia. Now, you’re seeing an influx from South America, with Nene, Varejao, (Leandro) Barbosa, (Manu) Ginobili, (Andres) Nocioni.
So there are some areas that are cut and dried. But the world is big and you have to make sure you cover it, because you can’t let one slip through the cracks that you didn’t know about.
I saw Sasha play in the United States for Serbia & Montenegro in something called the “Global Games” in Dallas four years ago and he played extremely well. So I knew then that he was a must-see prospect that I had to follow up on in the next eight to twelve months – which I did – and he continued to evolve into an NBA player.
So, you have to pick the places that you feel will produce NBA-caliber players and certainly in Serbia & Montenegro’s case it speaks for itself on how many players have played in the league from that country.
Some of the big spots now are China, Africa, South America, Europe, and New Zealand/Australia. The continents are now seeing the influx of basketball; that it’s now this worldly sport. It’s everywhere now. So you have know the entire globe and have people that you can trust in terms of evaluating prospects, cultivating relationships with coaches, assistant coaches and general managers.
And you’d be surprised at how much you can help them, because they’re trying to put a product on the court with maybe one or two American players, so it’s sort of reciprocal. If they have a question about a college player who may not yet be good enough to play in the NBA, they'll ask me: ‘Chico, how do you feel about this kid? How would he fit in? Could he help our team? What kind of person is he? Can you get me a video on him? Who can I talk to at the university?’
A few years ago, the Mavericks made one of the great all-time trades, sending Tractor Traylor to Milwaukee for an unknown named Dirk Nowitzki. Did that trade up the ante on recognition of international talent?
CA: I think Nowitzki might have been the pre-cursor to the international scene. I think more recently, the emergence of a guy like Tony Parker being picked 28th by the Spurs and who's now vying for another championship. I think this put up a flag with NBA teams that said, ‘We can’t let a Tony Parker slip to 28 or pass on Nowitzki in that type of scenario.’ I think it’s just more awareness with covering the world – you’re not just covering it, you’re targeting it – and I think that’s maybe what’s changed the most.
Is there one player out there that every international scout is keeping their eye on?
CA: I would say internationally, it’s not one. It’s a group of between 12 to 15 players, between the ages of 17 and 22 years old who have sort of separated themselves over the last six to eight months.
That group, you have to make sure you do your work on them. And that’s not to say that they’re definitely going to be in the draft – even if they are now, they may take their name out of the draft – there are just so many variables that affect players in that group becoming an NBA player immediately.
And I think most recently with the young international players over the last couple drafts have not immediately impacted it, like Darko Milicic – yet – and (Nikoloz) Tskitishvili in Golden State, being taken as lottery picks. I think you may see teams maybe looking back and saying maybe the 21- or 22-year-old international player may be able to step into an NBA game and impact it quicker than maybe taking a young 18-year-old and waiting for him to develop, like a Darko or a Skita.
So again, I wouldn’t say there’s one international prospect, but maybe a group of guys – maybe 12 or 15 or 18 guys – who over the last eight to 12 months have separated themselves as becoming NBA players.
In the last Olympics in Athens, Lithuania’s Sarunas Jasikevicius torched the U.S. team just as he had four years earlier. He played for U. of Maryland and was the best man in Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ wedding. Why has he chosen not to play in the NBA?
CA: He makes a lot of money. (laughs) And it’s just not him alone. There’s a group, I’d say of 15 to 20 international players that are over 22 years old that are in his same boat.
It’s not just Sarunas. There are American players playing abroad who have gotten better, who have worked on their weaknesses and have improved and are now playing at an extremely highly level. I think in Sarunas’ case, it’s a little more in your face because he’s done it against the United States. And he’s won championships in Europe. But again, he plays for one of the top clubs outside of the U.S. They treat him unbelievably well. He gets paid a lot of money. So it’s just a lifestyle preference and maybe he’s at a point in his career, where maybe he just doesn't want to test the waters of the NBA.
There’s a player named Dejan Bodiroga from Serbia who’s played in Greece and Spain. He’s won numerous championships. And he’ll go down as maybe the greatest player never to play in the NBA. (And he can play in the NBA.) But he loves the lifestyle there. The commitment of playing twice – or no more than three times – per week, the practice schedule, the pay scale might be better for him there than here.
Those are in-your-face examples. But again, there are a group of maybe 15 to 20 players today that are playing internationally that I think could immediately play the NBA game.
How has the rest of the world caught up to the States in terms of basketball to the point that America is not always a tournament favorite?
CA: I think over the last two or three years, how the U.S. has stumbled over international competition, not everyone is chomping at the bit, saying ‘We have to go to the United States to play basketball.’ There are some other areas that are cultivating and developing players just as well as we are.
So again, I don’t think the United States is on this pedestal where we can say we’re the basketball capital of the world. Because we’re not. A perfect example is what’s been happening in the last few years, of us competing against these other countries and not winning a gold medal, not winning and getting first place in some of these international tournaments.
And I would say the biggest difference goes back to your first question about the commitments that Jiri, Anderson and Sasha have this summer. They’re playing with guys that they’ve grown up playing with since they’ve been 12 or 13 years old. So when they become 21 or 22 years old, they’re still playing with the same guys they’ve played with for the last seven or eight years.
Sure, they may go away for six or seven months and play professionally for someone else, but really for the past eight years, this team has grown together, has matured together, has bonded together and has formed a team together. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The coaching side of things has been together for nine or ten years. So they’re not putting things together over a month-and-a-half period, which we have to do when we build our international teams. Their team has been a team together for eight years.
International big men are known to be able to hit the jumper, but aren’t known as bangers. Are there any skills that international players don’t have that American players do?
CA: If you can score, you can score. If you can rebound, you can rebound. If you can handle the ball, you can handle the ball.
In terms of the basketball skill, it’s going to carry over to no matter where you play. If it’s Egypt or Bejing, it doesn’t matter. It’s going to transfer to a court in the United States. Now in terms of athletic skills: how strong you are, how quick you are, how you move laterally. Those are the other areas that you have to start looking at and wondering, ‘Well, does he need time to get his shot off? Can he get his shot off against LeBron James? Can he maneuver around Anderson Varejao?’ And there are other variables that you start to look at when you’re considering how efficient and how productive they’ll be in the NBA.
David Stern came to Cleveland last year and predicted that by 2010, there could be as many as four international NBA teams. Do you think that’s a possibility?
CA: Absolutely. I just think the sport has taken off in such huge proportions internationally, especially in Europe. The European Final Fours, the attendance, the interest. It rivals the NCAA Final Four for us. It’s just amazing.
But in some countries that can’t house facilities with suites and the size or arenas, that’s a whole other aspect. Because internationally, they don’t have the space we have. In Rome, or Barcelona or Athens, it’s tough but they’re somehow able to do it. So I don’t think it’s far-fetched at all. In terms of transportation and maybe making things quicker getting across the pond, anything’s possible.
How long have you been doing international scouting?
CA: Internationally for an NBA team this will be my fifth year.
But in terms of me beginning my international experience, when I was 23, I coached a team in Greece, and that was sort of my eye opening as far as international basketball. I had seen it grow and I had some good contacts throughout Europe through that experience and I always stayed in contact with them. So when the international explosion – especially in Europe – happened, I think the transition for me to integrate myself back into it was easier because I always kept in contact with my friends I had made coaching in Europe.
I still wanted to know how the players that I coached were doing. I always stayed on top of it because I always believed that international basketball was going to get better, there was no question. I would say, it’s been at least 12 to 15 years of actually eye-balling the international basketball scene, but the last five, very specifically.
In your opinion, was there one event or one player who you can site for the international explosion?
CA: I’ve never really thought about it in those terms. It very well could have been in Barcelona, with the original “Dream Team,” the amount of interest in that team – probably the greatest team ever assembled – and then what it did internationally for other countries.
But those Eastern Bloc countries like Serbia & Montenegro, the Ukraine, Croatia – they had a long-standing history of coaching, of teaching and of producing players. Their ideals then came to Western Europe. Pretty soon Italy, Spain and France came around and the two meshed. Players would come from Eastern Europe to play in Italy, so that elevated the game in those countries.
The interest in those cities became much more in-tuned. And kids that were playing soccer at ages six, seven and eight are now picking up a basketball that usually wouldn’t. Just through a national progression – soccer will always be number one in Europe – but basketball is becoming a close second.
Is there an NBA player that you remember scouting years ago before he came to America?
CA: I would say the first one on my radar when I began working for the NBA was Pau Gasol. He had always been sort of labeled as a pencil-thin, string-beany player with great athletic ability but was a little bit inconsistent.
And when I saw him – right before he came into the NBA – he was still a little bit up and down, but he was just so head and shoulders above the competition athletically. The things he could do, and his size. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to figure out a seven-foot kid who could run and jump like he could, and the game came so easy for him, that if he was able to channel it and put in a more consistent game, that you had something really special with him.
Who are some of the American players you spoke of earlier who are doing well overseas?
CA: There’s a whole slew of collegians who maybe spent a year on the NBA bench and didn’t play, couldn’t find a home and went overseas.
They’re not household names, like Trajan Langdon – who plays on a team in Russia that’s just stacked with players. He’s carved out a nice niche for himself as a spot-up shooter. He’s played for Benetton-Treviso, one of the most storied clubs in Europe.
Tyus Edney has been a mainstay in Italy for many, many years. You’d be amazed by the names that came through the NCAA ranks, who were All-Americans and never found a home in the NBA, but have a lot of value and have gotten better and worked on their weaknesses and have carved out a nice living, playing in Rome, Italy or Istanbul, Turkey or Athens, Greece.
Some of these guys are local icons, they can’t walk out of their flat without being mobbed. Anthony Parker, drafted by Philadelphia but now plays in Tel-Aviv, he can’t walk the streets of Tel-Aviv without there being a Jordan-esque type of mob all around him. He’s viewed as a LeBron James-type figure there.
CA: Fran Vasquez – I think it comes back to he’s 22 years old and he’s played professionally for three years. So we’re not talking about an 18- or 19-year-old player who you’re taking based on two or three years with potential. He’s basically played four college years. He’s a known commodity who’s played at the highest levels in Europe. Fran has played and is playing and is the focal point of his club. He’s playing against guys who are 28-30 years old, so the advantages he has – his maturity – is much stronger than say a 19-year-old international player who hasn’t gone through that yet.
In terms of Andriuskevicius, it’s sort of a Catch-22 if you’re comparing him and Fran. Martynas is young, hasn’t played yet professionally at the highest of levels, but he comes from Lithuania which has produced guys like (Arvydas) Sabonis and (Zydrunas) Ilgauskas, so his pedigree is excellent. And the club he’s with right now is one of the tops – as far as teaching – in Europe.
Why are the strengths of international players over American players?
CA: I think the game itself is based upon one major, major, major premise; and that’s the premise of teamwork. They don’t have the great individual talented players who can, by themselves, take over a game. They do it as a group.
So you have a different mind-set when you walk into a gym say, in Europe, more so than in the United States is that the amount of work they do as a team, compared to our practices, where guys do a lot of work individually. But they also have a bigger amount of time to practice, whereas here there are rules that limit the amount of time, on the collegiate level, that you’re allowed to practice and what you can do in the summer. These guys practice as a team an entire year and sometimes twice a day for eight months for four or five hours.
They stress over and over again: teamwork, teamwork, teamwork.
What are some of the purely personal rewards of the job?
CA: In most cases I don’t get to see some of the more beautiful things about the places I travel to because I am there for basketball and I have to do my job. So I may not have time to sight-see as much as I’d like, but just to see and experience some of those places with your wife or children.
I took my nine-year-old son, Sam, with me to South Africa last summer. He has such vivid recollections of the things he saw there and he’ll be able to take those memories to his kids.
He loved South Africa. He’s in fourth-grade. My wife wanted to let the teacher know he was going to be out for a while. When he returned, Sam's teacher said she wishes he could take all 30 other kids with him. I felt good that she realized he wasn’t going down there to shoot jumpers with Zach Randolph and Samuel Dalembert and Malik Rose. When he came back he gave a report to his entire class, he showed photos to everyone – he probably stressed basketball a little too much. (laughs) He wanted to know when we get to go again.
That’s what makes me feel good about my job the most. Of course the basketball side of things is great. But the people I’ve met and the places and cultures I’ve seen, you just can’t put a price tag on that.