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Thursday February 10, 2011 1:10 AM

International Men Of Mystery


Shining a spotlight on the Rockets' prospects currently playing overseas

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

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 NBA’s 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 Houston’s 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 he’s witnessed thus far.

Sergio Llull, Real Madrid: 11.8 ppg, 2.8 apg, 2.0 rpg, 35.4% 3P%

“He’s definitely become more of a leader for Real Madrid. He’s 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 he’s 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. He’s an energy guy, an emotional guy that can defend multiple positions and he’s just constantly giving effort, so he’s more of a two-way player who’s constantly giving his best.

“This year we were able to see a bunch of his games in person and he was very impressive. We’re just so happy to see his development. Moving forward, we’ll see at what point he’ll be able to make a transition.”

NBA readiness: “My personal feeling is he is crafted for the NBA game. He’s suited to play more positions and an up-and-down game because he’s 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 he’s 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 he’s developing more of his perimeter shooting, that’s where the resemblance starts to show. He’s probably going to get there someday in terms of skill. He’s on his way. But in terms of athletic ability, he can play in this league and in terms of his skill level, he’s 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 they’re doing great. They’re in second place in the Italian league. He’s the glue guy on the team. He’s playing the power forward position as more of a face-up four with more pick and pop. He’s a good perimeter shooter – that’s always been his bread and butter. Now he’s really impressed me with his passing ability. We’re always talking with him about running in transition. He has to be the first guy down the court to get some easy baskets and he’s done that.

“Defensively, he’s 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. He’s doing very well overseas. Confidence is a big thing and he’s getting that by playing lots of minutes. He’s been playing 35, 36 minutes per game and getting lots of experience. He’s improving and we’re following him closely. One area he’s also improved in is with his rebounding numbers. He’s a solid player that’s always true to himself and his game and he’s the ultimate team player.”

NBA comparison: “He’s somewhat similar to San Antonio’s Matt Bonner and all the other players who have made their living off the pick and pop. If he’s going to make it in this league, he’s 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. He’s playing at the highest level of competition overseas, which is the Euroleague. He’s actually playing for the same team I played with when I was 16. I’ve followed him all this year. They made it to the top-16.

“He’s 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 he’s on now but it all depends on how the team does this year and so far they’ve been qualifying and moving forward in the very prestigious European League.

“He’s been known as a hard-nosed, pretty good defender. The way he’s used on offense is obviously off the picks and in transition corner 3s. He’s a good athlete so he runs transition very well. He’s 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, it’s a process for him. It’s hard to go from team to team and constantly adapt to different coaches and different teams. We’re hoping that he’s going to get better in that situation he’s in now and we’ll see where he is in a year."

NBA readiness: “I think the team drafts a guy believing that someday he’s going to get there. I think he’s still young enough and has the particular tools that fit the NBA. He’s athletic, he can shoot and he plays hard. So those things will help him, it’s 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 he’s 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 he’s been very productive. He’s always going to have the special ability to finish around the rim. He’s a guy who has a great feel and uses lots of floaters. He has big hands and is a very good passer. He’s 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. We’re monitoring his improvements in all those areas. But he’s a talented guy who’s on a very good team and in a very good situation.”

NBA comparison: Julian Wright

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