It's no secret that Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower traveled to Europe last week. It's no secret which players they went to see. The Pistons have a top-10 lottery pick – they'll find out exactly where on May 19 – and there are two Europeans widely projected to be top-10 picks. Pictures of Van Gundy sitting near Pat Riley hit the internet before Barcelona's win in Spain's ACB was complete last Thursday.
There was a time teams could have slipped in and out of Europe – or backwater Oklahoma, where the Pistons unearthed Dennis Rodman, for that matter – unbeknownst to the world at large. That era essentially ended with the dawn of social media.
That's not the only thing that's changed over the past few decades.
There are still Pistons fans who wince at the possibility of drafting a European player 12 years after Darko Milicic. Never mind that a considerable number of Europeans have proven the lunacy of blanket assessments based on the happenstance of birthplace in that time. But rest assured that Van Gundy and Bower hold no bias in favor or against anyone based on any factor other than their talent, character and roster fit.
What's changed since the Pistons did what the vast majority of NBA teams would have done in that 2003 draft and what a few would have done had they gotten the No. 1 pick in a year LeBron James was available is this: the resources teams pour into draft preparation, which far exceed what was possible or practical even a dozen years ago.
There are two driving forces for this: (1) technology has enabled it and (2) the explosive economic growth of the league has made it downright foolish not to indulge in it.
Everybody concedes that the best value in the game today – apart from a superstar outperforming a max contract – is a productive player on a rookie contract. Teams with lottery picks, for the most part (the Philadelphia 76ers the outlier), don't intend on having a lottery pick to exercise in perpetuity. So they know the surest way to compete is hitting with a lottery pick and using the bulk of cap resources to invest in veterans, either via retention or free agency.
NBA teams have the ability to scout virtually any game in any worthwhile league in the world via the internet, videotape and scouting services. They now have at least two decades of solid evidence of the way success in European leagues translates to the NBA. They have, by and large, beefed up their presence in scouting Europe. Van Gundy's front office hired J.R. Holden, whose background as an American college star who went on to great success playing in Europe makes him particularly well qualified and connected.
None of that means mistakes in the lottery can't be made on Europeans as easily as on American college players who often come at the same tender ages. The Washington Wizards took Jan Vesely with the sixth pick in 2011. He logged three underwhelming seasons with Washington and Denver before bouncing back to Europe. But Derrick Williams went four spots ahead of Vesely and Jimmer Fredette four spots below, so draft misses – and, you never know, Williams, Vesley or Fredette might still prove to be good players in the right system – come without regard for country of origin.
Be sure about this: If the Pistons wind up drafting one of the two players it's assumed Van Gundy hopped the pond to study – Mario Hezonja of Croatia and Kristaps Porzingis of Latvia – they'll be comfortable every appropriate question that leads to the conclusion he's their best option will have been asked and answered.
Bower, whose experience with European players goes back to his early days as a Marist assistant coach when Rik Smits was recruited to play there from Netherlands, says the NBA has learned much about the evaluation process by experience.
"The comparisons are much easier to make and the levels of competition are much easier to round off today more so than 10 to 15 years ago," he said.
It's in the videotape study, all the international competitions, the age-group national teams these high-level prospects participate in from the time they're 15 or 16, the evidence of their play in pro leagues across Europe, the Euroleague and Eurocup competitions across leagues.
"The familiarity we've all grown to know," Bower calls it. Or the collective body of knowledge now available that 12 years ago was either in its infancy or didn't exist. What happened in 2003 will no more influence the Pistons in this draft than, say, the careers built by Dirk Nowitzki or Pau Gasol might.