Alexander Wolff has covered basketball for Sports Illustrated for nearly 20 years and is the author of Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure, a book about the globalization of the game. Periodically over the next few months, he'll answer your questions not only about how international players are influencing the NBA, but also how basketball itself is evolving around the world.


Q: With two big Chinese men in the NBA and one on the way, do you know if China harbors any quality guards or small forwards that might make it to the NBA?
Kevin, Morristown, N.J.

Alexander Wolff: Because China’s population is so huge, the answer has to be a Marv Albertian "Yes!"

As the old joke goes, "In China, when they tell you you’re one in a million, there are a thousand more just like you." Problem is, none is ready yet. But the NBA game has become so popular, and the Chinese study it so assiduously, that it’s only a matter of time before we meet that perfect companion to the "Walking Great Wall" of Wang Zhi Zhi, Yao Ming and Menk Bateer. Of course, Chinese hoops officials hope he’ll develop in time for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.


Check out contents, reviews and more from Wolff's book, Big Game, Small World.
It’s funny, because for years China believed it couldn’t compete internationally with its big players, who tended to be scrawny and get pushed around in the post. So the country threw all its basketball resources into developing clever dribblers and outside shooters. For a few years, China’s national league actually awarded four points, not three, for a shot beyond the arc, in the hope of developing a superior long-range attack.

Q: With the emergence of fine foreign players such as Peja, Dirk, Hedo, and other Yugoslavians, do you feel the trend will be for the NBA to look to Central and Southern Europe over U.S. high school players?
Lina, Krakow, Poland

AW: Let’s not forget that in Tony Parker and Pau Gasol, there have been some pretty impressive Western Europeans to make their debut in the NBA, too. So the trend will remain, I think, to eyeball Europeans in general.

The club system that prevails in all parts of the continent prepares a young European player well—much better than a typical teenager in the U.S., who may get some instruction in high school, but virtually none during his summer traveling-team play.

What impresses me most about the Europeans to arrive in the NBA over the past three or four years is that few have required any U.S. stopover, either at an American high school or an NCAA college -- yet they’ve all assimilated with little problem. That speaks well for the hoops infrastructure all over Europe.

And I do think you’re on to something if you’re suggesting that Eastern Europeans are well-suited for success. For the most part, they haven’t led comfortable lives and are uncommonly hungry to prove themselves.

Q: Do you think the NBA will eventually set its sights on players from other Asian nations? Thus far, the selections have all been from China and have tended to be at the center position. But if you take a look at the Asian games, are there many quality players from different countries in the other positions?
Judah, Quezon City, Philippines

AW: Eventually, absolutely. Big men tend to lead the way from any region, though, because G.M.s are willing to gamble on anyone with extraordinary size or potential -- and China happens to have produced three huge guys with NBA bodies.

The Philippines is surely a likely breeding ground for the next Asian player, particularly if that next player will be the NBA’s first non-big-man from that continent. That’s because Filipinos have an extraordinary passion for and understanding of the American professional game, and because the Philippine Basketball Association, unique among national leagues around the world, ignores the FIBA rulebook and follows the NBA’s, bylaw for bylaw.

Q: In your opinion, what's the best league -- after the NBA -- in the world? And the best player outside the NBA?
Abel, Madrid, Spain

AW: The Euroleague is easily the finest multinational outfit outside the NBA, and Spain’s ACB is the most professionally run national league -- even if you’ll find comparable talent in the national leagues of Italy and Greece.

As for the best player beyond the NBA, right now I’d nominate Manu Ginobili, the 6’4" Argentine guard of Italian ancestry who played for Kinder Bologna this past season. He’s an unusually clever scorer who can both bottom out the uncontested J and create his own shot.

The Spurs own his rights, and given the chaos at Kinder right now -- the Italian club fired, then rehired its coach this season, and the agent for the team’s star center, Rashard Griffith, says Kinder has been late in paying his client -- Ginobili is considered likely to wear silver and black next season, even if that means taking a mild pay cut.

Q: They can pass and shoot, but do you think European players are as good on defense as American players?
Zoltan, Budapest, Hungary

AW: I do think you hint at something valid with your question. As entertaining as the Kings-Mavericks series was -- and as much credit as all those non-Americans deserve for putting on such a crowd-pleasing show -- the Mavs lost because they didn’t lock people up defensively when they needed to. TNT commentator Danny Ainge summed up the feelings of many when, during Game Five, he noted one Dallas substitution and said sarcastically, "Oh, they’re going to their defensive stopper now . . . Wang Zhi Zhi!"

But as international ball continues to develop, and more sophisticated defensive schemes migrate from the U.S. overseas, players worldwide will take more pride in their D. Indeed, with a few years of NBA seasoning, many will make the adjustment "on the job." Drazen Petrovic did. And one of the reasons Dikembe Mutombo is so good defensively is he came late to the game and never developed bad schoolyard habits. To this day, Mutombo rarely goes for a pump fake. He just lays back, waits for you to go through your mambo, and blocks your shot.