By Peter F. Stringer
Thursday, May 24, 2007
After talking about the process of how teams attack the draft and how scouts and teams evaluate players in Part I, and then evaluating several of the top players in this year's draft in Part II, we wrapped up our discussion with Celtics General Manager Chris Wallace talking about International basketball's growing impact upon the NBA. Wallace explains how he sees the NBA merging with the International game, what obstacles must be overcome, and goes into detail about the differences in the international player development system.
You've spent quite a bit of time overseas scouting the International game. What do you see as the next step as the NBA and international game continue to merge?
"Right now you have two distinct sets of rules and two disparate games in a sense. The NBA game is 48 minutes long, the International game is 40, there's a difference in the three-point line; there are no defensive rules in the International game. I'd like to see somewhere down the line all of the major forms of basketball competition, American college, NBA and International, come together with a unified set of rules. That may not be possible because each group has its own unique needs, but to have uniformity for the game at all levels would really enhance the ability of players to switch back and forth to the different levels. But the international game is clearly a very important component of the overall NBA. Not just in terms of promoting our game worldwide, but the participation of players in the NBA."
It really seems like the league's growth in terms of international representation has happened over the last 4-5 years...
"This past season, the international ranks comprised roughly 18% of the league. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but I did a study and 10 years ago, I think that number was under 10%. But the number of countries that make up the international player pool has risen dramatically over the last 10 years, so its an increasingly important source of talent for us. If you took all of the international players out of the NBA, it would be virtually impossible to duplicate the quality of those players domestically in the United States. If Utah doesn't have Mehmet Okur, or Dallas doesn't have Dirk Nowitzki, or the Spurs don't have Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, I don't see where you go domestically to replace those guys. I think it's really enhanced the NBA in so many aspects."
So what's next as the NBA continues to cultivate international talent?
"The next horizon, and I don't have any timetable for this, but Commissioner Stern has commented on several occasions about the prospect of actually having NBA teams abroad (Editor's note: The NBA opened a London office about two weeks after this interview was conducted). I don't think that's something you're going to see tomorrow, but I do believe that somewhere in the next two decades that will become a reality. I'm eagerly awaiting that date because I would love to see an NBA Championship sometime with the Boston Celtics playing Macabe Tel Aviv in the Finals. That would be fantastic. I think that would have so much attraction worldwide, I think that only thing that would supercede it would be the World Cup. There's no other major sports league that has the capacity to have that type of worldwide presence. The line goes, "The sun never sets on the British Empire", but I'd like to see day when the sun never sets on the NBA's empire. It's a realistic goal down the road."
And the NBA brand is alive and well overseas already...
"In my travels, well over 30 times to Europe and abroad, it's really interesting when you talk to the man on the street in these countries, guys who drive you in a cab, or restaurant workers; I'm not talking about being around basketball people, just people, but when they find out you work in the NBA, and particularly for the Boston Celtics, they are well-versed on the team and the league as a fan would be in Melrose."
That's surprising...I wouldn't expect that people would be so well-versed.
"Every place I've been, they know everything about your team, your personnel, the players in the league, and they've got 1,001 questions about what's going on. There's an enormous amount of interest in the NBA worldwide that you can't appreciate until you travel abroad. For example, the Panathinaikos team that just won the Euroleague championship in Athens, they have a shamrock logo, so they sort of unofficially refer to themselves as the 'Celtics of Greece'. Their fans wear green and white with a shamrock and have tremendous affinity for us."
When you look at a team like Toronto that seems to have employed something of an International philosophy, bringing in an Assistant GM (former Benetton Treviso general manager Maurizio Gherardini) from overseas and quite a few roster players from the International game, do you see that as an emerging trend in the NBA?
"We're a copycat league, and when people see what is working, whether it's a particular strategy or a trend in players...For example, Kevin Garnett went at five [in the '95 Draft], and then Kobe Bryant went at 13 [in the '96 Draft] and these were the first high school players drafted in a couple of decades. From that point on, everybody was all over the high school kids.
"We follow the leader, and Toronto has had tremendous success with International players and bringing an American player, Anthony Parker, back from abroad. I don't think there's any secret that every team was looking at that market before, but because of their success and the ease of the transition into the NBA of their players, that has enhanced everyone's interest in the International game. All 30 teams are doing that, so it's no secret."
Basketball insiders certainly understand the International system, but does the average American fan really understand how it works overseas?
"The fans are getting more and more insight into the International game, but I don't think they understand, when you talk about a player coming from Panathinaikos, what that really means. They understand when a guy is coming from Boston College or Florida. But there is a rich tradition and a whole body of work that a player has to put into his development that's every bit as great, and in some ways more compelling that what happens in the college game. For example, these players don't participate in school sports. They are pros as teenagers, and there is no [scholastic sports system]."
So how do they go about finding kids?
"If the Celtics were a European team, we would be a club, and we'd have youth programs, so that any kid who was interested in playing basketball would have to come to our club, or go to another club. There's some smaller level clubs too, but the big clubs have tremendous tentacles. So that's how they find their players. It's not connected to the schools; there is no AAU basketball, and it's all in the clubs. So the clubs enter competitions in a wide range of competition levels and funding, and levels of interest among fans in a particular country. But at the highest levels, it's very, very intense. There's a tremendous amount of pressure on the teams and coaches to fare well. Just because you're a known American player doesn't guarantee you success in Europe.
"I'll give you an example, a former Celtic, Tony Delk, a guy who was a first round pick and had a good career here [in the NBA], he scored 50 points in a game and played 10 years here, he went to Greece this year for the first time and played for Panathinaikos. In the semifinal and final games over the weekend, he didn't get in until deep into the third quarter. I think he played at most like five minuets in one shift during both of the two games. So he was not a major factor in those games."
And younger European players over there don't get into the game very much?
"You have to understand, there's a tremendous amount of pressure to win. There's no long-term development. It's not like a guy comes into an NBA situation where a team decides to go young or a three-four year program like in college. When you take over a program in college, generally the guy in front of you failed and you've got to turn this thing around and ramp up the recruiting. That doesn't exist internationally. It's more analogous to baseball where the top teams are the big spending teams and they expect an immediate return on the product. They'll move players around, fire coaches much quicker than here in the United States. And there's an age disparity. The guys we're drafting are 19-22; they're among the youngest players on the team. In college basketball the age is 22. And then there's some contractual issues; some teams are trying to hide a player."
So that they don't get seen by NBA scouts?
"Or they'll make player sign a longer deal with a big buyout. Or maybe the player and his agent have balked at that proposal so they're not in good favor with the club so he is not playing because of it. The average European coach has a greater comfort level with veteran players and suspicion of younger players than their American counterparts.
"For example, if an American player goes to Europe, he's got to be able to score to have high value and have a long-running career. You can't be a specialist. In the NBA you can be a successful player and not necessarily be a scorer. You can be a defender, a shot-blocker, an energy guy off the bench, but it's very difficult to have success over there if you are not a scorer. It's an entirely different type of game; it's not as athletic and out in the open court as the NBA game. It's much more of a halfcourt, more physical game than the American game. You're not going to be able to get to the free throw line over 10 times a game like the big scorers in the NBA. It puts more of a premium on outside shooting."
You mentioned it being more physical, but there's been this idea, and maybe it's a misconception, that European players are somehow "soft"?
"I think some of that misconception is because it's more of a face-the-basket type of game, or as I would call it, empty post. You don't see as much classic back-to-the-basket play. They have the trapezoid lane as well. The European players who have come over here have generally had a very high skill level. Because their game does not take place under the banner of schools, there are no rules, so unlike in an American high school situation or in college, these teams can work with their players as much as they desire. So I would say that they young players probably average at least five days, and if not, six days of practice, five to six hours a day over two sessions. And that probably goes for about 48 weeks of the year."
So they get much more instruction in fundamentals?
"They're getting way more reps, and they're getting greater and more skilled individual instruction during their teenage years than they would in the United States. The clubs have very experienced and skilled youth coaches. It's not just some parent coaching the team or the assistant football coach running the JV (basketball) program. This is a more concentrated program."
Hearing that, to me, when you think about why the international teams have not only caught up, but they've sort of lapped us at this point, whether it's in the Olympics or just international competition, that sounds like a major indicator of what's going on.
"I'm not saying one system is better that the other, it's just the way it is, but the reality of the situation is that the international player just gets more reps and time in the gym on skill development. His American counterpart plays more games with all of the AAU competition, camps and high school competition."