In 1970, the draft was 19 rounds long and when you'd reached the later rounds, it was time to take a gamble. The Atlanta Hawks, who had selected Pete Maravich in the first round hours earlier, began to experiment. In the 10th round, the Hawks selected Manuel Raga of Mexico, and followed with Italy's Dino Meneghin in the 11th round.
Pau Gasol's size and shooting touch have him projected as possibly the highest international draft pick in NBA history.
Neither of these international legends ever made it onto an NBA roster, but it signaled a new area to search for talent. Now, it's not a long shot or a gamble, at least no more so than any other player. And the names of players from foreign shores are being called earlier and earlier. Four years ago, Dirk Nowitzki
became the first, and to this point only, player to be picked in the lottery directly from overseas when the Milwaukee Bucks grabbed him with the ninth overall selection. Prior to 1996, no international player had ever been selected higher than 24th overall.
This year, there is a good chance that Nowitzki will be surpassed by Pau Gasol
, who is projected among the first 10 picks. And Gasol could be joined in the lottery by Vladimir Radmanovic
, who wowed scouts at a private workout in Chicago. If they do go in the lottery, no one will flinch because players from Europe, Africa and Asia have become as much a part of the NBA as a player from North Carolina, Detroit or California.
The NBA is a global game now, and while it is viewed all over the world, players from all over the world are coming to the league, too. A year ago, there were four international players selected in the first round and four more taken in the second round -- the eight representing the largest influx in league history. While they signified a record, it was not out of the ordinary with the growth that has taken place in recent years. Considering just foreign-born players, there were 14 selected last year, with 47 total on rosters throughout the league.
Some team executives believe there could be four players drafted from directly overseas in the first round again this year, with the open borders providing access to players with size and skills that rival anything in the United States. Whether it the was the Hawks prescient selections or the recent success of the likes of Nowitzki or the Kings' Predrag Stojakovic
and Hidayet Turkoglu
, following in the footsteps of Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc
and a score of others, every team now scouts the international scene. And what they see are skills refined not just on playgrounds, but in a structured teaching environment that culls the finest talent at an early age and inserts it into club teams.
"Their programs in Europe are set up quite a bit differently," said Ed Tapscott a scouting consultant for the Milwaukee Bucks. "They have a club system that operates differently than our scholastic system. Promising young players are brought into club system, and they play at a club level prior to going to the pros. They can go to school, but they play for the club team. There is a consistency of coaching throughout the levels of this team. They are already selected as an elite talent and the funnel is much earlier. Take a kid like Radmanovic: he got signed at 15 years old with a club in Yugoslavia and he's been with that club until now."
Dirk Nowitzki's breakout season with the Mavs this year turned the eyes of even more scouts overseas in the talent search. NBAE Photos
Frank Lawlor, who once covered the NBA for the Philadelphia Inquirer
, has since broadcast and coached in the Spanish League and now is Editor-in-Chief of Euroleague.net, said: "This is a happy medium between NCAA and NBA ball. Young guys are brought up to play the game, not a specific position, and as such, they are often better rounded, especially the big men."
That has been the main target of scouts over the years, searching for skilled big men such as Arvydas Sabonis
and Vlade Divac
. But the most recent wave has been of players with the height of a center, but the versatile game of a perimeter player. Kukoc is the player that Gasol has been compared to most, and Radmanovic and Antonis Fotsis
also fit the mold of a perimeter scorer despite each one measuring in at 6-9.
"More and more teams are going over to Europe," said Milwaukee Bucks president Ernie Grunfeld. "There is a lack of legitimate big men so we've looked everywhere. It's not just Europe, but also Asia and Africa. The European players get better training at a younger age. In the United States, we tend to put big people in the post when they're young. In Europe, they just want you to be a basketball player."
"It's funny, but Gasol's coach lists his outside shooting as the part of the game he needs to improve most," Lawlor said. "That tells you what a difference in perception is at work here. It's not that Gasol is a worse shooter than the
NBA scouts say or better than his coach gives him credit for. The fact that a top-ten coach in Europe would even mention his seven-footer's outside shot shows the difference in the game here and the NBA."
Chris Ekstrand, an NBA consultant, said: "Gasol is a legimate seven-footer and a face-the-basket player. He's not a muscle man, but he has the skills we've seen from other taller European players like Kukoc and Nowitzki. He likes to play out on the floor, he's a smart player and he passes well. He hasn't come over yet because his team is still playing in the Spanish League championship, but I know more than half of the top 10 teams in the lottery have been over to see him."
Most scouts credit the abilities of the foreign players to the early coaching, but also to the lack of highlight reels filled with dunks that would lure players to the basket and out of their shooting drills. When the late Drazen Petrovic was with the Nets, he would spend his own time after practice running along the baseline, shooting a three-pointer from one corner, catching the ball as it slipped through the net, racing to the opposite corner and firing up another three-pointer. He was not alone in this determined effort to improve.
Vladimir Radmanovic has greatly increased his draft stock through individual team workouts. AP Photo
"Our kids waste time developing a shot they're only going to shoot 10 percent of the time -- the dunk," Tapscott said. "We take the ball close to the basket and try to overpower the opponent. We have a population where athleticism supports that. In Europe they don't. They take the elite and teach them a finesse-oriented game and the jump shot becomes primary weapon. In Europe, one of their practice sessions every day is spent reinforcing the jump shot. It becomes cultural. When I was with the Knicks, we had Mirsad Turkcan
in for a workout. We had a drill where he was supposed to take 120 shots. He made more than anybody we had ever seen, like 90 out of 120. Half of the shots were three-pointers and he made 45-of-60."
But there is also the opposing argument and Turkcan is it. He has yet to make it in the NBA, shuttling between four teams and playing just 17 games, in which he has missed all six of his three-point attempts. Last year's crop of players did not feature one who shot 50 percent from the floor or averaged double-figure scoring. The scouts seem to agree though that taking time to adjust to the NBA, which will more closely resemble the European game this year with the new defensive rules, is all that the players need. And most feel that it won't take long.
"Five years ago they probably weren't ready," said Nets' president Rod Thorn. "With the success of some of the foreign players, it's not as much today. One of the advantages foreign players have is playing against more experienced players and pretty talented players. A player of comparable age might be further along than a player in the United States because of the competition."
Amadou Fall, the coordinator of International Scouting for the Dallas Mavericks, said: "The reality is that these guys are professional at a much younger age. They practice night and day. They have a head start."
The perception of the international player has changed enough with the success stories that have already arrived that it is not just big men who are drawing the attention this time around. Point guard Tony Parker
(Paris Basket Racing, France) could be selected in the first round, and if it were not for contract constraints, Raul Lopez
(Real Madrid, Spain) might be taken early, too.
"Parker is different," said Ryan Blake, who does much of the international scouting for Marty Blake and Associates. "His father is American and he played professionally in France. Tony played in the McDonald's All-Star game and he has a very American game. He's very quick and a great athlete."
Tapscott added: "I think people are starting to realize the guys outside of our shores can play. They play it a little differently, with a different emphasis, but we've had enough success stories to give testament to that. I'll tell you what, most of the guys we bring over here are big. We'll know we believe when we see the 6-0 point guards coming over."