The global basketball revolution didn’t begin when Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks and Peja Stojakovic of the Sacramento Kings started raining three-pointers on teams all over the NBA. It didn’t even start with their NBA ancestors from the recent past, standout players like the still-active Vlade Divac, Hakeem Olajuwon and Toni Kukoc, the retired Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis and the late Drazen Petrovic.

Pau Gasol was the highest international pick ever (who hadn't played in the US) when he was selected at No. 3.
Glenn James/NBAE/Getty Images
No, this revolution was off and running when the Jack Ramsays and Hubie Browns of the world performed coaching clinics overseas, bringing the fundamentals of basketball to every corner of the globe. It blossomed with Basketball Hall of Fame coach Aleksandar Nikolic of Yugoslavia spreading his genius throughout Europe, as observant young coaches emulated his concepts. And it came of age with impressionable young athletes in Europe, Asia and Africa watching NBA Entertainment tapes of Julius Erving and Michael Jordan making magical moves on tape, offering a blueprint of basketball greatness that could be studied over and over again.

All of these factors and dozens more served as building blocks for a revolution that is paying big dividends for NBA teams, and not only in Sacramento and Dallas, where international stars like Nowitzki, Stojakovic, Steve Nash, Hedo Turkoglu and Eduardo Najera have pushed those teams into NBA championship contention. Pau Gasol of Spain, the highest pick ever (third overall) for a player who never played in the United States prior to the Draft, was the 2002 got milk? NBA Rookie of the Year. Andrei Kirilenko of Russia made a strong contribution to the Utah Jazz and joined Gasol on the NBA All-Rookie First Team.

These new additions to the NBA landscape are just a small part of a global presence in the NBA that this past season grew to 51 international players from 30 countries. NBA Draft experts expect the trend to continue, especially when it comes to bigger, taller players.

“In the past four or five years, the NBA teams have incorporated into their scouting efforts a large number of highly-qualified people who are in tune with what is happening in Europe,” said Marty Blake, the NBA’s veteran Director of Scouting. “With a real shortage of big people in the United States at the collegiate level, teams are increasingly looking to Europe for center prospects. The taller players here want to play the four or even the three spot. Conversely, there is a tremendous amount of young talent at the five position in Europe. There are kids there, who by the age of 20, have as many as four or five years of professional experience. The talent level at 6-10 and above in Europe is better than in the United States.”

Walter Szczerbiak, who represents the ACB, the top Spanish League and one of the top leagues in Europe, has noticed a rapid change in the perception of NBA teams towards international players.

“NBA general managers no longer hold the belief that the international players will have a hard time adjusting to the NBA,” Szczerbiak said. “The fact that Pau Gasol was Rookie of the Year, and the fact that Peja Stojakovic and Hedo Turkoglu are not only good players, but have the possibility of being great players, has changed attitudes. Now team personnel are afraid to get flack from their superiors if they miss out on drafting some of these players.”

Yao Ming Leads the Charge

The 2002 NBA Draft promises a new wave of talented international players, many of whom will play in NBA frontcourts for the next decade. Leading this promising group is 7-5 center Yao Ming of the Shanghai Sharks of China, who many draft experts believe will be among the top handful of players selected in the draft.

“He creates an interesting situation for a team picking at the top,” said Bryan Colangelo, President and General Manager of the Phoenix Suns. “He has something you cannot teach in basketball, and that’s pure size, along with a surprising amount of skill. If he is committed to the true development of his body which will enable him to complete the package and deal with contact in the league, he has a very big future ahead of him.”

While Yao’s height separates him from every other player available in the draft, it’s not the only thing that NBA player personnel experts like about his game. When Yao performed an exclusive workout before NBA personnel on May 1 in Chicago, many of his other attributes came to light.

“He is not just playing off his height,” said Washington Wizards Director of Scouting Chuck Douglas. “He’s got the ability to shoot from the perimeter with a very good touch and with range for his position. He has good high-low passing attributes, and a developing low-post game. Once he is able to build his body a little bit, he certainly has a lot of impact traits.”

While Yao’s name is expected to be called early in the evening on June 26, several other international players have advanced their draft position through international scouting or private workouts with NBA teams. Leading this group are Nikoloz Tskitishvili, a Georgian playing for Benetton Treviso in Italy; Maybyner “Nene” Hilario of Vasco da Gama in Brazil; Bostjan Nachbar, a Slovenian who also plays for Benetton; Jiri Welsch, a native of the Czech Republic who has been playing for Olimpija Ljubljana in Slovenia, and Luis Scola from Argentina, who is playing for Tau Ceramica in Spain.

Nikoloz Tskitishvili, 7-0, 225, Benetton Treviso (Italy)

More attention has been focused on Tskitishvili than perhaps any player in draft history who has so little playing experience. NBA general managers and scouting directors have made the trip to Treviso just to see Tskitishvili practice, since his more veteran teammates garner the majority of the playing time. His coach, former NBA player and head coach Mike D’Antoni, believes the youngster would benefit by staying in Italy for another season or two, during which he would presumably earn more playing time and experience. Still, D’Antoni understands why NBA teams are intrigued by his prodigy’s talents.

“He’s seven feet and has incredible foot speed and agility for that size,” D’Antoni said. “He has a great shot, can put the ball on the floor, is a real good ballhandler, can run the break and has good timing on his passes. He started playing basketball at about age 15 and was a classic ballet dancer until then. He grew so tall that he couldn’t find partners and got out of dancing and into basketball.”

Although Tskitishvili does not have a lot of physical strength and is only 19 years old, many GMs express that the success of the tall, skilled but relatively thin Gasol would probably help Tskitishvili.

“There is the Gasol Factor,” said Orlando Magic General Manager John Gabriel. “It is rare for a player of his size to have such a high quality in their skill set, particularly shooting. He has mobility and quickness combined with size.”

Maybyner “Nene” Hilario, 6-11, 260, Vasco da Gama (Brazil)

The man all Brazil knows as “Nene” visited many NBA teams for workouts in the two weeks following the release of the early entry candidates list on May 17. Nearly every team which put him through the paces commented on his ability to run the floor, rebound and rise for blocked shots.

“He is so long and athletic,” said Indiana Pacers President Donnie Walsh. “I watched him in some international tournaments and he is a super athlete for his size.”

“Our coach, Doc Rivers, was the first to bring him to our attention just days after the Goodwill Games in Australia,” said Gabriel. “He seems to be someone who can step in right in and play, is athletic enough to get up and down the floor, and can battle underneath against NBA players.”

Unlike many of the European prospects who tend to be long and lean when in their early 20s, Hilario has a muscular physique and a strong lower body to hold his position down low.

Bostjan Nachbar, 6-9, 220, Benetton Treviso (Italy)

Unlike his teammate Tskitishvili, who saw little playing time, Nachbar emerged as a key figure for Benetton with his scoring prowess. He averaged nearly 14 points per game on a team with a very deep roster of experienced players, and showed many small forward skills. NBA teams compare him to Vladimir Radmanovic, who had a successful rookie season for the Seattle SuperSonics last year, or Mike Miller, the talented small forward of the Orlando Magic.

“After two years in Benetton, his progress in all areas is very evident,” said Vladimir Stankovic, Director of Media Relations for the Euroleague, a competition featuring the top 32 teams across Europe. “He is technically very good, as he is from one of the best basketball programs in Europe. He was one of the revelations of the Euroleague season.”

“He is a good three-point shooter who has a good feel for the game,” added Szczerbiak. “He will drive and dish. He can play the two guard and the three spot. He has good skills for a player his size and is athletic, although he is not particularly explosive.”

Jiri Welsch, 6-7, 210, Olimpija Ljubljana (Slovenia)

Welsch took a one-week trip to the United States in May and worked out for a number of teams that own draft picks from the middle to the later part of the first round. He has had two excellent seasons in Slovenia after becoming a dominant scorer in his native Czech Republic before his 20th birthday. Welsch has the size to play shooting guard, but is even more intriguing to NBA teams because he has some experience playing the point, and NBA teams never seem to lose their fascination with big point guards. He has also shown some leadership characteristics.

“He is more two guard than point guard or small forward, but he can play all three,” said Stankovic. “He is a good shooter who gets better and better all the time. He can make the three-point shot and is very interesting because of his size and talent.”

“He is a combo guard who can shoot the three-pointer,” related Gabriel. “He is a very good athlete who knows how to score. The thing I like about him is that he plays under control.”

Luis Scola, 6-9, 230, Tau Ceramica (Spain)

Scola is a resourceful player who can play both forward spots. Every scouting report lauds his hustle and tremendous work ethic. While he doesn’t have the explosive leaping ability of some forwards, he tends to outwork his opponents for rebounds and is an improving offensive player. He is one of several players from Argentina and Brazil who have made their way to some of the best teams in Europe.

“He is 6-9 and big-boned, and he runs well for a guy his size,” Szczerbiak said. “ He has a stocky build like Maurice Taylor. He has relatively good speed and shooting skills to about 15 feet. He moves well without the ball and has good hands. He plays with a lot of poise because of his experience.”

D’Antoni, who has seen Scola up close in European competition, predicts that Scola can overcome any perceived lack of athleticism and explosiveness by getting the most out of his talent.

“He’s a very strong, powerful four man,” said D’Antoni. “He plays very hard and is rugged. He’ll bang for rebounds and score close to the basket.”

Several Other Prospects on Horizon

While the six prospects have garnered the most attention from NBA scouts, several other intriguing players have also been scouted and have drawn interest. Among these are: Boris Diaw, an athletic forward from Pau Orthez in France; Lazaros Papadopoulos, a rangy center from Panathinaikos of Greece; Mladen Sekularac, a shooter from FMP Zeleznik in Yugoslavia; Fatih Solak, a 7-footer from Besiktas in Turkey; Arvydas Macijauskas, a sharpshooter from Lietuvos Rytas in Lithuania, and F.C. Barcelona (Spain) teammates Anderson Varejao and Juan Carlos Navarro.