The Timberwolves have become major players in overseas talent evaluation.
By JOAN NIESENFS North
It's June 28, 2002, and the Memphis Grizzlies think they have a deal. The draft is two days past, and the NBA roster shuffling is beginning. The San Antonio Spurs are proposing a trade that seems too good to be true: the rights to Croatian guard Gordan Giricek for nothing more than a second-round pick and cash.
Could the Spurs be that stupid? Grizzlies personnel ponder that, but only for a bit, before agreeing to the terms. The 25-year-old is theirs at a bargain price, and they can't help but feel smugly satisfied.
Ten years later, we look back and raise an eyebrow. Giricek hasn't played in the NBA for four seasons. He was with the Grizzlies for just 49 games and was hardly the discount dollar future star they hoped him to be, perhaps not even worth what they gave up to get him.
That 2002 coup was one of many for the Spurs, who have always been at the forefront of international scouting, and it wasn't even about Giricek, not really. They liked him, sure, but not even a month after raking in that pick and some cash, they turned around and signed another foreign player to a deal. They didn't need Giricek if this player was in the pipeline, and if it looked like a gamble then, it certainly doesn't now.
The other guy's name? Manu Ginobili. You may have heard of him.
Today, Ginobili could never be the secret he was in 1999, when the Spurs selected him with the 57th pick. The veil of distance and incomplete information in international scouting is no more, and surprises are few. Today, knowledge and relationships are key, and the locus of power has spread out of Texas and around the league.
Entering training camp this fall, the
Minnesota Timberwolves are one of five NBA teams with four or more international players (those who did not attend high school or college in the United States) on their roster. The Spurs are still on top, with five players from overseas, and the Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, Bulls and Raptors have four each.
What's notable about the Timberwolves is the caliber of their international players. Three of the four – Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko – will likely be major contributors; only Alexey Shved is poised to fill a backup role. It's a significant development and a new one in Minnesota, and it proves the team's recent push toward international players has come to fruition. In the modern NBA, where talent is talent no matter where it was born, the Timberwolves have joined the faction of teams that put their faith in players both at home and abroad.
International players have been part of the NBA since its inception, but international scouting has become a phenomenon only in the past two decades, ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the U.S. Dream Team's history-making performance in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Few remember Henry Biasetti, an Italian-born Canadian who played in the first season of the BAA in 1946, or Bob Houbregs, who in 1953 was the first non-American to be chosen in the first round of the NBA draft. Many more international players from the league's early days have long faded into obscurity, and even this new post-Dream Team push has offered its laundry list of failed experiments.
In Minnesota, there's Gundars Vetra, a Latvian who played 13 games for the Timberwolves in 1992-93, and Shane Heal, an Australian who had a stint in Minnesota in 1996-97 and another with the Spurs six years later. Cuban big man Andres Guibert spent two seasons in Minnesota, and Croatian Stojko Vranovic, debuted with the Timberwolves and finished his three-year NBA career with the Clippers. The list goes on: Ndudi Ebi, Igor Rakocevic, Nathan Jawai and Oleksiy Pecherov, to name a few.
It looks like a list of failure, failure, failure, but the Timberwolves' experience with players from overseas is little different from that of many other teams. International scouting is a niche that was not easily exploited in its early years, and when it was, just a few scouts led the way. It's taken years for scouting knowledge to spread, and only now have we reached the point where copycats and movement have brought the most efficient methods of scouting to teams around the league.
"If you want to succeed you should strike out on new paths, rather than travel the worn paths of accepted success." – John D. Rockefeller
In 1996, then-Timberwolves vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale was in Europe to scout players. It was there that he recruited Zarko Durisic to the organization. Durisic, a native of Montenegro who played collegiately at Wichita State, was then coaching the Slovenian team Union Olimpija, and he agreed to begin scouting for Minnesota.
Durisic represented the team's first major move into international scouting, and his time spent playing overseas gave him a Rolodex of contacts across Europe. Durisic moved to the United States in 1998, broadening his scouting to college players as well, and he's now a director of international scouting for the Timberwolves, still traveling to Europe but splitting his duties with another established scout, Pete Philo.
Philo joined the Timberwolves in 2005 after spending two years as an international scout with the Mavericks. He played professionally from 1996-2001 in Europe, never staying in one country for more than a season. And though he calls his career "a mess," the movement benefited him; like Durisic, he finished playing with scouting connections all over Europe already in place.
In 2003, Philo founded Reebok Eurocamp, one of the premier international scouting events. He'd done satellite camps in Europe for years already, but Eurocamp was something of a big break, and he served as its director for nine years. Philo has been to 73 countries already, and since stepping down from Eurocamp he's become involved with the Chinese national basketball team.
Today, these two men lead the Timberwolves' international scouting regime, and though Durisic has been with the team for decades, Philo represents another trend in the scouting industry: movement. He got his start with the Mavericks, who were the other major players besides the Spurs in the early years of international scouting, and in coming to the Timberwolves, he brought those early roots and their benefits to another.
Since Philo joined the team in 2005, the Timberwolves have drafted four international players: Rubio (fifth, 2009), Pekovic (31st, 2008), Loukas Mavrokefalidis (57th, 2006) and Henk Norel (47th, 2009). With two out of the four panning out and having used only one first-round selection, they've been efficient with their picks, sowing the seeds for their international presence today.
Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn has been the other major player in this recent influx of international players. Pekovic was drafted 31st overall in 2008, before his time, but Kahn was responsible for the team acquiring Rubio, Kirilenko and Shved. International scouting has been one of Kahn's priorities in recent years, as evidenced by the roster he's put together for the upcoming season.
"I was a big proponent of it and thought that it was a necessary step in helping the team here become more competitive over time," Kahn said. "I think it's imperative to have a handle on what's over there just as you have a handle on the college side."
But Kahn's interest in European and international basketball goes beyond just the business of it all. It's borne of something cultural and inquisitive, giving the sense that this movement is some kind of final frontier within a sport that's becoming more globalized by the day.
"I've always been personally interested in European basketball," Kahn said. "I just think it's a much more, it's kind of like you're still on the frontier of it. It's much more, there's a romantic quality to it over there."
"We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open." –Jawaharal Nehru
Kahn's comments came just weeks ago, in the summer of 2012, a time when whatever romance and surprise international scouting once offered has been sterilized, stripped to organized methods and nearly complete information. That's not to say that it isn't interesting or rewarding to explore basketball abroad or discover a prospect. It's just changed.
In 1983, after his freshman year at Wheaton (Ill.) College, Mavericks GM Donnie Nelson traveled to South America with Athletes in Action, a touring Christian basketball team. That was where he got his first taste of international basketball – and a case of Montezuma's revenge – and he hasn't let up since. Nelson is one of the biggest names in international scouting to this day, and his success derives not only from a dogged work ethic but also from a deep love of the game overseas.
In 1985, his third summer with the team, Nelson ended up in Eastern Europe, facing off against Lithuanian star Sarunas Marciulionis, who scored 40 points against him. Nelson was amazed at what he saw, and it was through his intercession that Marciulionis eventually signed with the Golden State Warriors, becoming the first Soviet NBA player.
"I'm an inquisitive guy," Nelson said. "I like people. I'm good at relationships, and people like me. So it was fascinating just to me, the different cultures, different ways of living, different belief systems whether it's religious or political."
For many years, Nelson served as an assistant coach for the Lithuanian national team, including the 1992 squad that won Olympic bronze and, wearing its iconic Grateful Dead t-shirts, provided a beacon of hope to post-Soviet Europe. He's the only American coach to attend a Soviet training camp, and he's worked with the American and Chinese national teams.
A year and a half ago, Nelson's Mavericks won their first NBA championship behind star forward Dirk Nowitzki. He's as German as they come: blonde, fair and accented. He's Nelson's biggest break in international scouting, and his story is the ultimate proof of the positive impact international influences have had on the NBA.
Nowitzki stands 7 feet tall and weighs 245 pounds. He's rangy and tall, muscular, too, the kind of player who in the U.S. would be told from an early age that he's a rebounder, a traditional power forward. But in Germany, which is anything but a basketball powerhouse, Nowitzki was allowed to do what he wanted. He turned 14 the summer of the Dream Team, and basketball was his dream. But it was basketball on his own terms, a game of long-range shots and dribbling, his body doing things that its size and strength would suggest it shouldn't.
"He's proven that there's some pretty good ideas out there that are beyond U.S. borders," Nelson said. "If Dirk was born in the U.S., I would venture to say that we would cookie-cut him at the age of 14. … We certainly wouldn't be enjoying the player that we see today if Dirk was born into a U.S. situation."
It was challenging to get teams to buy into such players in the early days. Nelson took criticism for the draft-night deal that got him Nowitzki; even with evidence of the forward's talents, many in the U.S. were still skeptical. Until then, there'd been so few success stories, especially when it came to the young and unproven. To many, a mere mention of a European player brought back bad memories of players like Georgi Glouchkov, who played one season for the Suns, gained weight, was never effective and was unceremoniously sent back to Bulgaria in 1986.
With that precedent, even Pau Gasol in the early 2000s was a tough sell to Grizzlies higher-ups. He was barely on anyone's radar when scout Tony Barone Sr. and then-GM Dick Versace first saw him in Greece. They were there scouting Anthony Parker, an American player who was playing in Europe at the time. (He's the lesser-known brother of one Candace Parker, WNBA star.) Parker played poorly and Gasol barely at all, but what the two men saw in warmups from Gasol was enough to convince them they need to invest time scouting him. Grizzlies ownership and upper management were skeptical, but they placed enough trust in the scouts to let them pursue Gasol further. The rest is history.
"Once you have your first one, such as a Pau, you start to kind of pay attention a little more," Barone Sr. said. "Once you kind of invest in that area and start paying attention, I think you really open your eyes a little bit more in terms of what's out there."
Since the early 2000s, the bias toward American players has abated, if not disappeared, and international scouting has become increasingly mainstream. Nelson has remained in Dallas, but some of the Spurs' biggest names, like current Thunder GM Sam Presti, have moved on into more prominent positions and taken their knowledge with them. Philo migrated to Minnesota. Rich Scheubrooks has gone from Memphis to Charlotte to Utah. Tony Ronzone made a stop in Minnesota after years in Detroit, and he's now with Dallas. These men have cobbled together a system, one that's still evolving but is based on a set of principles that guide successful scouting abroad.
"Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life." – Jack Kerouac
It's easy to see the threads of international knowledge as they've been passed through the NBA. They started in Texas and migrated north, though there were other men and teams outside the state who got in on the trend early. But no matter how apparent the chain might be, Nelson doesn't see it. He doesn't see himself as a major player at the beginning of a movement. He's just a guy who likes to shake hands, he says, and scouts who do it the right way caught on simply because they, too, are curious.
"I don't consider myself the root of some tree or anything like that," Nelson said. "It's just when you go overseas, the basketball fraternity is very small. You're shaking hands. You're meeting people. … You have the same love with the same sport. You know, the losers are the guys that sit there in the corner and pretend to know it all."
At its base, international scouting is a grassroots movement. It's about relationships, which is why so many of the successful scouts are the ones who played overseas; they know the landscapes, people and the proper ways to ingratiate themselves. In recent years, less experienced scouts have latched onto those who've spent more time overseas, hoping to gain an entre into a world where relationships are king.
About seven years ago, Philo was on his way to watch a Serbian team, KK Partizan, practice. As he approached the gym where the practice was being held, Philo saw a group of NBA scouts filing away from the building. He stopped them to see why they were already leaving, and they responded that Partizan's coach, Dusko Vujosevic, had forbidden them from watching the team.
Philo told everyone to wait. He has a long-standing relationship with Vujosevic, and he figured he'd go inside to find out more. Once there, he greeted the coach and asked what was going on. It didn't take Philo long to gain permission to watch, and soon after, he'd convinced Vujosevic to allow the other American scouts back in.
It isn't always that simple, though. Piggybacking onto other scouts isn't always successful, and there have been plenty of instances in which a coach has let only Philo in. History is key, as is an understanding of what these coaches are giving up by even allowing American scouts to watch their players. There needs to be some kind of reciprocation, be it hospitality in the U.S., information, or something else.
"If you don't have a relationship, the club isn't going to give you any information," Philo said. "They're a piece of property over there. If they're losing an NBA-level player off their team, their team is going to drop significantly. So nine times out of 10, they don't want their player to leave."
These relationships go far beyond just permission to enter. Scouts travel the world, and many have visited upwards of 30 countries in their lifetimes. It's impossible to memorize directions and speak so many languages, and getting lost is a very real possibility. Sometimes a smart phone or a GPS isn't enough, and the scouts with a local contact just a phone call away are the ones who end up successful and efficient.
"Not all those who wander are lost." – J. R. R. Tolkien
Getting there is just the first step. Once a scout has gained entry and gotten permission to watch, he must then decipher. Who is NBA-caliber? Who is past his prime? Whose game will translate, and whose will not? The answers aren't always as simple as they might seem.
Scouting overseas is often done in two broad formats: at games and preferably tournaments, or at large events like Eurocamp, where prospects from across the continent can play together. Events like the European Final Four are packed with scouts and GMs; they take advantage of situations where they can watch multiple games on one trip on the off chance the player they're interested in is benched for a day. And since Philo started Eurocamp nearly a decade ago, the event has evolved into much more of a playing camp than an instructional one, bent to fit the needs of NBA scouts.
"The camp tweaked a little bit," said Timberwolves assistant Jack Sikma, who worked for eight years at Eurocamp. "There was a little more teaching and maybe less teaching and drill work. As more and more people came to the camp, they wanted to see the young players play against each other in good competition."
Often, the players an American scout wants to watch overseas are not going to get the kind of minutes one might expect. They're young players, not the veterans who eat up the most minutes, and so analysis must be shifted to account for the fact they're in games for just a limited amount of time.
Other than that, the fundamentals are often the same. The European game has converged some with the NBA style, so that worries about skills translating have somewhat diminished. Still, scouts look for all same things in Europe that they would at a college in the U.S., with a few added intangibles.
Tony Barone, Jr. works alongside his father for the Grizzlies, and he's identified two factors he looks for in international prospects: hunger and an "old-soul" mentality. The hunger is easy. He wants kids who would do anything to get out of their situation, for whom basketball is a passion and a means of improvement. It has to be about something more than money for money's sake or fame.
The old-soul mentality is more complicated, but it has to do with pragmatism and an innate understanding of how the system works. Barone, Jr. uses Rubio as an example of it; he's coachable, and he understands the big picture. He saw the value in waiting two years to move to the NBA, and he's allowed himself to mature without getting burned out.
In the parlance of international scouting today, Rubio is often used as an anecdote. He's the highest-profile international prospect in recent years, and he came into the NBA and had an immediate impact. Nearly every team scouted him, and he's evidence of how much the process has converged. No longer are there Manu Ginobilis sneaking into late rounds of the draft or Dirk Nowitzkis generating criticism when they're selected as lottery picks. Now, teams show up in the same foreign cities at the same gyms at the same times, all there to watch the same player.
The secrets are gone for both scouts and players. Basketball has become more globalized, and children abroad now not only dream of playing in the NBA but also know some semblance of the steps it takes to get there. Information is abundant, and in an industry that relies on dependable knowledge, that's both a game-changing development.
Now, there are thousands of websites where anyone can write his opinion of players abroad. There's a greater forum for discovery, and it's harder for talent to stay hidden. While some sites, like Jonathan Givony's DraftExpress, are trustworthy, others are not, and scouts have learned that the Internet can hurt and help in equal doses.
"The more information out there, the more garbage there is, too," Nelson said. "Like the Internet. You've got to be able to filter it. Guys that do their homework and guys that are on top of it, it's easy for them to see through the bull****. Guys that don't do their homework end up usually not being employed very long."
Philo said that about 50 percent of information he finds online is true, and he follows up on every nugget of second-hand knowledge. He used to spend about 200 days a year overseas, but now it's about 100-125 thanks to better resources and other commitments. That said, he's still a firm believer in what he calls "sweat equity," and the deluge of information might direct him in the right direction, but it doesn't preclude him from pounding the pavement overseas.
Before heading overseas, though, there are ways to get tips and to narrow searches, and it all goes back to those connections. Durisic's contacts from his playing and coaching days in Europe will call him about players and send him tapes, which are the first step in discerning talent. In return, Durisic will offer information about American college players likely to go abroad once they graduate, a payback for the information he receives. This kind of remote scouting allows teams to be cost-effective; no one is going to go looking for a player abroad without having first confirmed what he can do on tape.
"I was over there everywhere, looking under rocks," Philo said. "I mean, I was everywhere. That helps now because I don't have to spend as much time. I can be a little more efficient and do more college and pro scouting here."
Philo has also found time to work with the Chinese national team, which has in turn benefited the Timberwolves. Many scouts have taken on roles with foreign national teams, which allows them to be the first to know about prospects from those respective countries. Roles like Philo's in China are even more important now that the scope of international scouting is broadening. There are still places like Spain, Argentina and much of Eastern Europe where scouts are most confident in the talent, but with coaching and playing philosophies spreading worldwide, frontiers are opening. It might be easier for a scout to go to Lithuania to the renowned schools of Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis, where players are doing skill work at a younger age than Americans, but now there are options as far away as Africa. It's still a rougher style of basketball there, but success is building.
Once international scouts today identify the talent, the process continues. They investigate buyout situations, some of which can be prohibitive to drafting a player. They figure out the best way of acquiring a player – it takes a much larger commitment to draft an international player in the first round than it does in the second, where teams can select international prospects they aren't completely sure will succeed. Just look at picks 48-57 in June's draft; only two of those 10 low-risk picks were not international players.
Scouts must also identify which players have the personality and drive that should facilitate an easier transition. The game might be the same except for style, but longer practice times in Europe and cultural differences still make the transition a real issue. Scouts have to do the background checks necessary to make sure players are as fit for the NBA off the court as they are on it.
"Usually talent takes over," Barone Sr. said. "When you have a guy who you see is a superior talent that you feel is an NBA player, you have to do everything else you can to help him develop."
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." – Mark Twain
Today, basketball is nothing if not international. Durisic said that the Timberwolves can find the answer to any question they have within 24 hours, even if it involves talking to someone as far away as China or Japan. They've made their way to the cutting edge, and now they're poised to have massive contributions this season from international players. They're followers more than trend setters, but they're special in that they've fully embraced the mantra that a talented international player is just as good as one from the U.S.
For many teams, it's now about the best player available, period. It might still be harder to find the information about the international players, but teams are equipped to do it, and now the balance must come in that they don't rely too much on players from overseas. The process Nelson and others started all those years ago has come full circle. No longer are international players only the stuff of horror stories. No longer are they surprises, with their talents slighted and discounted because of little more than location.
In 2012, there are as many failures as there are successes. There are still issues with transitioning, but there are also international players who've arrived in the U.S. and proven that their game is more suited for the NBA. There are even players, like Rubio, who have exceeded expectations that were believed to be inflated, and in that, international scouting has achieved its greatest victory.
Where it goes from here is undoubtedly forward. There was only one international player in selected in the first round of the 2012 draft, France's Evan Fournier, and the crop of international talent this year was small. In fact, at the 20th pick, Fournier's selection marked the latest the first international player has gone in the draft since Dragan Tarlac went 31st in 1995. It's an interesting statistic and nothing more, hardly a representation of some drying up of the well of talent. These things ebb and flow, and in the years to come, this trend isn't dying out. In fact, it's almost unfair to call international scouting a trend anymore.
There's no doubt that it's here to stay and that it may cease to be even a phenomenon in the future. International scouting is growing into just an accepted piece of the NBA routine, and its impact will someday be taken for granted. Until then, we'll enjoy whatever of that romance remains.