Sunday, June 22, 2003

'Made in the USA' tags fading in the NBA

Not convinced of Europe's muscle? Tune into the draft

By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer

They show up on draft day with names like Darko, Leandrinho and Sofoklis. Speaking broken English at best, they are the future of American professional basketball, and it is easy to see why.

As many as 10 to 13 foreign-born players, all between the ages of 18 and 22, could be selected in the first round of the NBA draft Thursday, which would more than double the previous record. The influx of overseas players, who possess superior skills to many American college and high school stars, has taken what was already an elusive dream of playing in the NBA and made it that much harder to attain for up-and-coming U.S. players.

Forget the days of a great high school prospect going to college, putting in his four years, then turning pro. Players like Xavier's David West are a rarity on draft day. West, who won numerous postseason honors, is expected to go somewhere between the 19th and 29th picks, or after seven or eight foreigners - and a high schooler named LeBron.

So how are so many other American college basketball players getting displaced from the NBA's lottery?

It starts with practice, say European scouts. International players practice twice as often as their American counterparts, as many as 50-60 hours a week, and they do it year-round.

"I feel like the kids in (America) get cheated," said Phoenix Suns international scouting consultant Tim Shea. "They aren't allowed to learn the game like European players."

American amateur basketball players are bound by the term "student-athlete." To ensure that players have adequate time in the classroom, the NCAA limits them to 20 hours of practice per week during the season.

"Europeans have a much higher skill level because they play in a whole different system," Shea said. "The NCAA is actually doing harm to players by controlling the amount of time they can play."

The NCAA has its reasons. It does not exist to serve professional sports leagues. In fact, just 1.3 percent of NCAA men's basketball players play professionally, according to NCAA statistics. And .03 percent, or three out of 10,000 high school players, eventually play professionally.

The restriction can hurt American hopefuls, who this year include West, former Withrow star Brandon Hunter and former University of Cincinnati center Donald Little, competing for NBA draft slots with international players who have played professionally in Europe for years.

West says the imbalance ultimately isn't an issue.

"If you can play, you can play," said West. "I'm not worried about what (European) guys can do. American guys have shown what they can do. In the end, if you can play, they're not going to let you go."

But one can't ignore the new reality on draft day.

Eighteen-year-old Darko Milicic, a 7-footer from Serbia, has gone up against 27-year-old men daily for the past two years as a member of KK Hemofarm Vrsac. As a result, the Pistons say they plan to make Milicic the No. 2 draft choice Thursday.

Talented European players like Milicic start out on club teams as 14- or 15-year-olds, and quickly move up to affiliated pro teams when team officials realize their potential.

The drawback for foreign players is the lost education. There is no academic tie-in to the teams. Instead of being everyday students, players are full-time commodities.

"It's very different over there," Milicic said through an interpreter two weeks ago at the Chicago pre-draft camp. "It's a job there, playing in front of five or six thousand people."

The differences carry over to the court, where European players have time to learn every position. At 7-1, Milicic can play in a variety of spots, much like Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki, a German.

Compare that to West, who flirted with stepping outside at Xavier but spent much his time within 15 feet of the basket and is limited to playing power forward in the NBA.

Foreign NBA stars were a novelty in 1989 when Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic carried the European banner in the United States. Now, Nowitzki is regarded as one of the best players in the game, and 21-year-old French point guard sensation Tony Parker just helped lead San Antonio to the NBA championship.

"The level of athleticism and quickness is much better here in America," said Jason Filippi, an international scouting consultant for several NBA teams. "But skill-wise, we're seeing European players much better prepared for the pro game."

General managers don't want to make the mistake of passing up on the new European players, which is part of the reason why a record 31 international players originally submitted their names for early entry into this year's draft. Fourteen have pulled out, including Pavel Podkolzine, a 7-4 Russian who could be a top three pick next season.

"The foreign players have shown they can thrive in the NBA," said Milwaukee general manager Ernie Grunfeld. "They are very skilled and farther along at a younger age. A lot more today is about drafting for potential."

Projected international NBA first-round picks for Thursday's draft

Player Country Ht., Wt.
Darko Milicic Serbia 7-1, 253
Maciej Lampe Poland 7-0, 240
Mickael Pietrus France 6-6, 200
Aleksandar Pavlovic Serbia 6-7, 207
Carlos Delfino Argentina 6-7, 191
Sofoklis Schortsanitis Greece 6-10, 314
Zarko Cabarkapa Yugoslavia 6-11, 230
Boris Diaw France 6-9, 201
Zaur Pachulia Georgia 6-11, 260
Leandrinho Barbosa Brazil 6-4, 190
Zoran Planinic Croatia 6-8, 195

All-time international team

Pos.-Player Country NBA team(s) Career stats
G Toni Kukoc Yugoslavia (Croatia) Chicago, Philadelphia,

Atlanta, Milwaukee

13.1 ppg, 4.0 apg
G Drazen Petrovic Yugoslavia (Croatia) Portland, New Jersey 15.4 ppg, 50.6 FG%
F Vlade Divac Yugoslavia L.A. Lakers, Charlotte,


12.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg
F Dirk Nowitzki Germany Dallas 20.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg
F Arvydas Sabonis Soviet Union (Lithuania) Portland 12.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg
Past international first-round draft picks

YearNo. picksPlayer(s) and team drafted by
19861 Arvydas Sabonis, Portland
19891 Vlade Divac, L.A. Lakers
19964 Predrag Stojakovic, Sacramento; Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cleveland; Efthimis Rentzias, Denver; Martin Muursepp, Utah
19971Chris Anstey, Portland
19984Dirk Nowitzki, Milwaukee; Radoslav Nesterovic, Minnesota; Mirsad Turkcan, Houston; Vladimir Stepania, Seattle
19992 Frederic Weis, New York; Andrei Kirilenko, Utah
20004 Hidayet Turkoglu, Sacramento; Dalibor Bagaric, Chicago;

Iakovos Tsakalidis, Phoenix; Primoz Brezec, Indiana

20014 Pau Gasol, Atlanta; Raul Lopez, Utah; Tony Parker, San

Antonio; Vladimir Radmanovic, Seattle

20025 Yao Ming, Houston; Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Denver; Nene Hilario, New York; Jiri Welsch, Philadelphia; Bostjan Nachbar, Houston

NBA draft order

1. Cleveland

2. Detroit (from Memphis)

3. Denver

4. Toronto

5. Miami

6. L.A. Clippers

7. Chicago

8. Milwaukee (from Atlanta)

9. New York

10. Washington

11. Golden State

12. Seattle

13. Memphis (from Houston)

14. Seattle (from Milwaukee)

15. Orlando

16. Boston

17. Phoenix

18. New Orleans

19. Utah

20. Boston (from Philadelphia)

21. Atlanta (from Indiana)

22. New Jersey

23. Portland

24. L.A. Lakers

25. Detroit

26. Minnesota

27. Memphis

(from Sacramento)

28. San Antonio

29. Dallas


Thursday: 7 p.m., ESPN.

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