MINNEAPOLIS — The prospect of sitting half a world away and watching their centerpiece point guard play 11 games in 18 days, all while his teammates prepare for training camp, has to draw a cringe from some NBA general managers.
Not Flip Saunders.
“I like players to play,” the Timberwolves president of basketball operations said. “That’s how you get better.”
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Sounds simple enough.
Eurobasket sure isn’t the Olympics. It’s not even the FIBA World Championships, recently renamed the Basketball World Cup.
But the 24-team, two-and-a-half week European national team tournament is still an outlet for hardwood nationalism, enough that guys like Ricky Rubio and Tony Parker will spend most of September overseas competing for their countries.
“No one has said that we are not going to Slovenia for the gold medal,” Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio told eurobasket2013.com. “The national team we have is of a great level.”
And when past scouting emphases have created a Minnesota roster dotted with foreign athletes, chances are a few of them will be competing in Eurobasket every couple of offseasons.
It’s with notable zeal, even for the eccentric assists machine, that Rubio returns to competing internationally. He missed the London Olympics last summer while rehabbing from the ACL tear that derailed his 2012 NBA rookie of the year chances, looking on jealously as Spain nearly upset the United States in the gold medal game.
Moreover, he endeared himself to a bitterly disappointed fan base with his energetic, feisty style of play — the same kind that could lead to another injury if he’s not careful.
But Saunders would rather have his athletes work in game situations than overexert themselves in the weight room or conditioning programs.
“I’d rather have them doing that, sometimes, than overtraining,” Saunders said. “I think you have to have a combination of both. But it’s one of those things we have to see.”
Rubio has been in Spain since late July working alongside Memphis’ Marc Gasol and Dallas’ José Calderón, readying for his first taste of international competition since the 2011 Eurobasket tournament. While Rubio won’t be joined by veteran countrymen Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro or Serge Ibaka, Spain sits among the favorites to claim gold in Slovenia.
The Spaniards would be the first squad since the Soviet Union teams of the 1950s to achieve a Eurobasket three-peat.
“Last year, I followed the team from a distance with great envy,” said Rubio, who also played on Spain’s gold-medal 2009 team. “That experience gives me more strength to fight for a goal (I consider) achievable.”
Spain could see Montenegro in the tournament’s final, “knockout” stage, but the latter will be without possibly its best current product in Nikola Pekovic.
Lengthy contract negotiations with Saunders derailed the big man’s plans to join in his homeland’s quest to rectify an awful 2011 Eurobasket showing. Although he and Minnesota agreed to terms Wednesday, the 6-foot-11, 281-pound restricted free agent already has missed a good chunk of Montenegro’s pre-tournament workouts and opted not to risk injury.
“I believe that Pek looked at his people, and they thought it was maybe getting to the point of no return where they didn’t feel he was gonna have the proper time to get ready and get into training camp, the proper training camp, that was he was gonna be there and he’d be ready to play without maybe having some type of chance at injury, whether he was signed or unsigned,” Saunders said. “I anticipate he felt he was going to be signed by the time Euro would open.”
Montenegro had hoped to sport a frontcourt featuring Pekovic and Nikola Vucevic, the NBA’s No. 3 rebounder last season, but it will be up to the Magic center to carry the country’s post load mostly on his own.
Pekovic was happy to land a maximum deal this week but admitted he’d miss playing for Montenegro.
“That’s a big deal for us back home, also here, but especially for me because my country is very small,” Pekovic said. “They was really counting on me and the other big guy, Nikola Vucevic, from Orlando.”
One other Timberwolves returner is set to represent his nation next month. Coming off his rookie NBA season, Russian guard Alexey Shved is slated to compete in his second Eurobasket tournament after teaming up with departed Minnesota free agent Andrei Kirilenko for bronze in 2011.
A flex guard protégé of Rubio’s, Shved’s listed as a center on Russia’s roster. He stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 185 pounds.
Shved will join Cavaliers’ No. 19 overall draft pick Sergey Karasev for a Russian team that won’t benefit from some of its most seasoned international veterans’ services, including those of Kirilenko.
That’s par for the 2013 Eurobasket course, though big NBA names like Parker (France), Boris Diaw (France), Marcin Gortat (Poland), Ömer Asik (Turkey) and recent Timberwolves cut Mickael Gelabale (France) all plan to participate.
The three-stage tournament begins Sept. 4. The teams are divided into four groups of six in the preliminary round, and the top three teams from each round-robin group advance to a qualifying group stage. Eight teams move on from there into a single-elimination bracket with a bronze-medal contest for the semifinal losers.
The gold-medal game is slated for Sept. 22 in Ljubljana, Slovenia — about a week before most NBA training camps commence.
Saunders said coach Rick Adelman and his staff will tailor Rubio and Shved’s preseason training and condition regimens based upon how many minutes they play at Eurobasket. Saunders himself wasn’t sure if he’d make a trip to Slovenia to watch the pair and scout potential future prospects, but thanks to Internet streaming, he’ll be tuned in either way.
“We’ll definitely keep an eye on it,” Saunders said.