International Men Of Mystery
Shining a spotlight on the Rockets' prospects currently playing overseas
Sergio Llull gained valuable experience playing for the Spanish national team during last summer's World Championships.
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HOUSTON - Play a slightly modified version of the always enjoyable Who He Play For? and chances are names like Llull, Leunen, Newley and Eliyahu would leave even the most hardcore American hoops fans as perpetually stumped as Charles Barkley often is after another rousing edition of Inside The NBAs good-natured game show.
Inside the Toyota Center walls, however, those names have real meaning. They represent players the Rockets either drafted or acquired the rights to, with the hope and belief that each might one day develop to the point of being ready, willing and able to ply his trade in the NBA.
For now, they play overseas, gaining invaluable experience while honing their craft. Some are closer than others in terms of showing off the skills necessary to make the leap, but all have displayed significant growth while flashing the potential that caught the eyes of NBA scouts and executives in the first place.
The Rockets maintain a strong relationship with these young men, despite being oceans apart. Management constantly keeps in touch with the players and their coaches, receiving feedback from them on how their progress is going. On the frontline of much of that work is Houstons Director of Global Scouting and International Affairs Arturas Karnisovas. He keeps close tabs on each of these players and has seen them play in person several times this season. Wednesday afternoon he sat down with Rockets.com to provide a status report based upon what hes witnessed thus far.
Sergio Llull, Real Madrid: 11.8 ppg, 2.8 apg, 2.0 rpg, 35.4% 3P%
Hes definitely become more of a leader for Real Madrid. Hes a combo guard who can play either the point or shooting guard position. The European leagues pulled the 3-point line back this year but hes been able to sustain a very good percentage from the perimeter which is great to see from him.
He added a couple things to his game this year including a pull-up jumper. We always were happy with him defensively because he is just such a good athlete. Hes an energy guy, an emotional guy that can defend multiple positions and hes just constantly giving effort, so hes more of a two-way player whos constantly giving his best.
This year we were able to see a bunch of his games in person and he was very impressive. Were just so happy to see his development. Moving forward, well see at what point hell be able to make a transition.
NBA readiness: My personal feeling is he is crafted for the NBA game. Hes suited to play more positions and an up-and-down game because hes such a good athlete. You have to let him loose. He is a player who excels in transition. It was great to see Real Madrid play him more at the point guard position where he was able to run the team. But with his athletic ability and physical style, I think hes more suited to the NBA game.
NBA comparison: I always compared him to the Toronto Raptors Jose Calderon, in terms of the way they change speeds and their ability to get to the basket. Now as hes developing more of his perimeter shooting, thats where the resemblance starts to show. Hes probably going to get there someday in terms of skill. Hes on his way. But in terms of athletic ability, he can play in this league and in terms of his skill level, hes improving every year since we drafted him. I see him as a player in this league some day.
Maarty Leunen, Bennet Cantu: 10.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 40.3 3P%
I thought he was more comfortable this year. He stayed with the same club and theyre doing great. Theyre in second place in the Italian league. Hes the glue guy on the team. Hes playing the power forward position as more of a face-up four with more pick and pop. Hes a good perimeter shooter thats always been his bread and butter. Now hes really impressed me with his passing ability. Were always talking with him about running in transition. He has to be the first guy down the court to get some easy baskets and hes done that.
Defensively, hes also been working and improving. Each team has their own defensive philosophies so it can be hard sometimes to judge how he would fit in the NBA. But I think that his defense is what he needs to work on the most.
NBA readiness: Everything is in his hands. Hes doing very well overseas. Confidence is a big thing and hes getting that by playing lots of minutes. Hes been playing 35, 36 minutes per game and getting lots of experience. Hes improving and were following him closely. One area hes also improved in is with his rebounding numbers. Hes a solid player thats always true to himself and his game and hes the ultimate team player.
NBA comparison: Hes somewhat similar to San Antonios Matt Bonner and all the other players who have made their living off the pick and pop. If hes going to make it in this league, hes going to make it in that role. His shooting ability is definitely his specialty.
Brad Newley, Lietuvos Rytas: 6.8 ppg, 4 rpg, 36 3P%
Brad changed teams this year again. Hes playing at the highest level of competition overseas, which is the Euroleague. Hes actually playing for the same team I played with when I was 16. Ive followed him all this year. They made it to the top-16.
Hes been up and down all year. I thought he had a great year last year in Turkey, where he had an unbelievable shooting and scoring year, and all around offensive production. We well know what a good athlete he is and what a good shooter he is. He still, I think, is trying to find an identity on the team hes on now but it all depends on how the team does this year and so far theyve been qualifying and moving forward in the very prestigious European League.
Hes been known as a hard-nosed, pretty good defender. The way hes used on offense is obviously off the picks and in transition corner 3s. Hes a good athlete so he runs transition very well. Hes capable of finishing above the rim. He wants to do well and sometimes he puts so much pressure on himself that he gets too tight during games and misses open shots. But, again, its a process for him. Its hard to go from team to team and constantly adapt to different coaches and different teams. Were hoping that hes going to get better in that situation hes in now and well see where he is in a year."
NBA readiness: I think the team drafts a guy believing that someday hes going to get there. I think hes still young enough and has the particular tools that fit the NBA. Hes athletic, he can shoot and he plays hard. So those things will help him, its just a question of time and a question of working and getting better.
NBA comparison: Carlos Delfino
Lior Eliyahu, Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv: 11.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 62.5 2P%
He just shared the honor of Player of The Week in Euroleague. He had an outstanding game where he was 10-for-10 from the field. I think hes having a great season. I thought that last year he had a down season because he changed places. He learned from it, he practiced very hard with the coach he had and this year hes been very productive. Hes always going to have the special ability to finish around the rim. Hes a guy who has a great feel and uses lots of floaters. He has big hands and is a very good passer. Hes a good athlete.
NBA readiness: The biggest thing with him is obviously his position: in Europe he plays the 4, but would he be able to play the 4 in the NBA? Those are the questions you constantly ask. His areas of improvement are obviously on the defensive end. Were monitoring his improvements in all those areas. But hes a talented guy whos on a very good team and in a very good situation.
NBA comparison: Julian Wright