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05-14-2004, 04:35 PM
Is Peja Samardziski for real?

By Chad Ford
NBA Insider
Send an Email to Chad Ford Friday, May 14
Updated: May 14
10:18 AM ET

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NEW YORK (May 11, 2004) -- Peja Samardziski is a kid -- a big kid -- living a dream. He sits in a tiny plastic seat inside Continental Arena, his huge knees pushed up against his chest, and stares out at the sea of fans cheering for the Nets in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

His eyes are bigger than his shoe size at the moment.

"Wow!" he says several times as he takes in the atmosphere. "This is better than I could have imagined," he said.

Richard Jefferson takes the ball on the wing, sprints toward the basket and makes a huge dunk over Rasheed Wallace. The crowd goes wild. Samardziski, just three days removed from a cold, musty gym in Belgrade, goes wild right along with them.

"Did you see that?" Samardziski says in an excited tone. "How do you say? He was posterized?"

The Nets go on a 10-point run and the crowd is now standing on the feet cheering "Ken-yon Mar-tin." The Nets call a time out. The music blares. The cheerleaders rush onto the court. T-shirts are flying into the stands. Jay-Z and Beyonce are cheering just feet away courtside.

"I love this game," Samardziski says with a huge smile. "I can't wait to get out there."

After the time out, the Nets run a play where Martin essentially bulls his way in, throws Mehmet Okur out of the way, and dunks the ball to the thunderous approval of the masses.

Samardziski loves it in a naive way. Like every kid who's ever picked up a basketball, he envisions that he, like Martin, is doing the slamming. I've been around the league long enough to know that Samardziski, if he comes into the league next season, is much more likely to be the schlub on the floor that Martin is standing over. Even more accurately, he's most likely to be the bleached blond hair kid sitting on the floor wearing Pistons warm-ups.

The chants of "Ken-yon Mar-tin" began reverberating through the arena. "Someday that's going to be me," Samardziski says. "Samard-ziski! Samard-ziski" he begins chanting quietly with a wry smile. Behind him young autograph seekers are handing him towels, programs and ticket stubs for him to sign.

Not one of them knows who he is. What even an 8-year-old can tell, however, is that he's 7-foot-1 (I measured him myself), 255 pounds with wide shoulders and a picture perfect smile. Given the current trends in the NBA draft -- that alone guarantees him a shot at the first round. The kids now it. They can't pronounce his name. Have no idea where Macedonia is on a map. No clue about the fact that Peja, who just turned 18 a few weeks ago, still hasn't played a single minute for the Partizan senior team.

Size matters in the NBA draft. It matters more than age, playing experience or numbers. The rampaging flood of young international players heading into the draft all have something in common. Martynas Andriuskevicius, Andris Biedrins, Pavel Podkolzine, Kosta Perovic, Tiago Splitter, Peter John Ramos, Damir Omerhodzic, Johan Petro, Anderson Varejao, Uros Slokar and Ha Seung Jin all stand 6-foot-11 or taller. In fact, only four of the top 20 international players in the draft are shorter than 6-foot-11.

Teams need it. For the most part, the top players who America produces each year don't have it. So, over the course of the last few years, teams have taken to importing it.

Samardziski is the poster child of the trend in almost every way. He's huge, comes from great basketball stock, has been trained in one of the best basketball schools in the world, is young, has great upside and is fundamentally rock solid. But can he play?

Insider traveled to New York on Tuesday and Wednesday to find out . . .

Discovering Peja

BELGRADE, SERBIA (Dec. 16, 2002) -- Within hours of landing in Belgrade, a tip from a local talent scout leads us to a rundown gym in the heart of Belgrade. Rumor had it a 16-year-old, 7-foot-1 kid who is supposed to be the next great Yugoslavian big man would be there. . .

The scene at the gym is reminiscent of anything you'd catch at a playground in New York City. Graffiti litters the walls of the dilapidated gym. Kids shoot baskets outside through hoops with no nets. Metal bars line every window. The gym is surrounded on each side by Belgrade's toughest housing projects. Broken-down cars line the sides of the road. Wary eyes watch our every move as we pull up to the gym.

When we open the door, we're blasted by an unfamiliar, but pungent smell. The Yugoslavians, for the most part, are chain smokers. The musty aroma of a crowded gym mixes with cigarette smoke and billows through the doors as we walk inside. Yugoslavian men line the wall on one side. There is only room for 30 or so people to watch the game from a small area behind the bench. The rest spill onto the court. Pistons scout Tony Ronzone and I are greeted by the former coach of Partizan, who ushers us onto the court. Ronzone and I stand in the far corner, our feet literally touching the international three point line. There are no sidelines. We, like many others, are literally standing on the court as the two teams played.

The court itself is a wreck. Green floors haven't been painted in years. There is no heat to speak of in the gym. The side walls are made of crumbling brick. The padding that is so common underneath each basket has long been torn away, exposing metal bars and unused hooks ready to impale or bludgeon anyone who goes hard to the basket out of control. The scoreboard is impossibly small. In the tiny enclosure, the crowd noise sounds as if we had stepped into Arco Arena, except not many fans in Sacramento yell in Serbian.

But when we walk in, the room grows unusually quiet. The silence lasts just a moment, but it is palpable. So is the look on many faces. I felt for a minute like we were in Rocky III, walking with Apollo Creed into an inner city gym in Los Angeles and feeling the fighters' pause and fix us with that fierce gaze, just for a few seconds. That's the only way I can describe the scene. It was the eye of the tiger. These kids were hungry. And they immediately recognized that something foreign had intruded on their isolated world.

The 7-foot-1 kid we've heard about, Peja Samardziski, is dominating on both ends of the court. He rebounds in traffic, makes precision passes out of the double teams, shows footwork that would put most NBA big men to shame and then spots up for a 3 when the game is winding down and his team is trailing. Most impressive is the kid's body. His shoulders are huge, and he has a nice center of gravity that allows him to wear down his defender in the post. It's hard to believe that if this kid lived in the U.S., he'd be only a sophomore in high school right now.

Samardziski hasn't even made it onto the senior team, but he's already dreaming about the NBA. He idolizes Tim Duncan. "He's the smartest big man in the league," Peja says.

Peja is full of stories. He's actually from Macedonia and comes from a basketball family. His father was a star in Macedonia and took Peja with him wherever he played. Peja says he's been playing since he was 3. He wants me to know that he's not just a big man. He won two 3-point contests at a basketball camp last year. Two years ago he took it upon himself to guard Tony Parker. "He is very fast. I try to get down low to keep up with him. I do an OK job. But after the game, my back hurts for two days. I should probably stick to guarding big guys. What do you think?"

Two years later

THE SPORTS CLUB/LA (May 12, 2004) -- The smoke filled air is gone. The smell of sweat, fear and pain has vanished. The dingy green floors have been replaced by a shiny, new wood grain court. The rusted out lockers are now solid oak. Bleachers now line the walls. Soccer moms on power walks with their 2-year-olds walk by and barely notice the 7-foot-1 kid dribbling between his legs at mid court.

If the dingy old gym in Belgrade resembled Mr. T's workout digs in Rocky III, then this place -- The Sports Club/LA on the upper east side of Manhattan -- resembles the Vegas-like workout space Rocky chose to work out in his first fight with Clubber Lang. The place is gorgeous, spacious and new. Every elliptical comes with its one personal plasma TV hooked up to Direct TV and 275 channels for your viewing pleasure. Personal masseuses walk the hallways. Pilates classes are going on next store. Peja Samardziski isn't in Serbia anymore.

Five minutes in the gym with Samardziski are all it takes for the memories to begin flooding back. He is, without a doubt, the most fundamentally sound big man you'll ever find at his age.

He has a picture perfect shot. He lets the ball go high over his head with a feathery touch. Every shot has a beautiful arc and gently swishes inside the net. He can shoot the ball effortlessly from anywhere on the court and owns a very quick release. He'll be an unbelievable pick-and-pop guy. He shoots about 85 percent from the free-throw line. He's also developed a strong enough low-post game to be reckoned with in the paint.

When he catches the ball on the block, he uses a nice baseline fade away that goes in at about a 90 percent clip. He also owns a sweet baby hook that he can hit with both his left and right hand. Peja also proves in several drills that he's an excellent ball handler and passer. He can dribble with either hand, between his legs and behind his back. He can also pass with either hand and makes several nice precision passes from the block.

He projects to a high-post center in the NBA based on his body frame and skills. He has wide shoulders, high hips and a very solid lower body. His body isn't chiseled (he's just begun lifting weights) but there isn't an ounce of fat on him. According to his trainers, he has a very solid core and is strong for his size and age. At one point they try to beat him to death with a big black medicine ball by repeatedly jamming it in his gut. At another point they take to whacking him with plastic bats as he shoots. Peja's response draws laughter from everyone, "Is that all you got?"

Samardziski also has something else going for him. He speaks fluent English and has an engaging personality. He's funny, talkative and very knowledgeable about the game. Unlike many Euros who tend to be shy and brooding, teams will be able to market Samardziski. The press and the fans will love him.

After the workout we measure him at 7-foot-1 with shoes. He has a 7-foot-2 wingspan, a 9-foot-2 standing reach and weighs 255 pounds after a strenuous two-hour workout. He should be able to get to 270 or 280 with proper weight training.

There's no question that Peja has high-lottery talent, but several things are holding him back. The biggest knock is his athleticism. His lateral quickness and jumping ability both leave a lot to be desired. He's not unathletic, but, because of his frame, it's unlikely that he'll ever be considered a good athlete. He plays below the rim for the most part and, as he wears down over the workout, misses a few dunks as he struggles to get up. Scouts hate the way he runs, though that can be changed. He runs the floor very stiffly with a straight back and a kind of mechanical motion. That's not an uncommon knock on European big men and it can be changed with the right training. Even Pau Gasol suffered from that a bit during workouts.

Probably just as troublesome is his relative lack of playing experience and exposure. Samardziski is still playing on Partizan's junior team -- not the highest level of competition in the world. While some scouts see that as a problem, others think it's better than having him waste away on the senior team bench all season. With two other top-notch NBA prospects -- Nenad Kristic and Kosta Perovic -- in front of him, Samardziski wasn't getting any playing time on Partizan anyway.

The good news is that Samardziski played in roughly 100 games this season. In addition to Partizan's junior team, he plays on Serbia's under-20 team and also plays in the Serbia league against older veterans in their thirties. He also goes up in practice every day against Kristic and Perovic.

The bad news is that several NBA scouts and GMs who recently traveled to Serbia to watch him play in several junior games walked away unimpressed. One GM told Insider that he felt that Samardziski didn't really play big. He spent most of the game hanging around the perimeter and never really mixed it up in the paint. While he was impressed with his fundamentals -- he questioned whether he really had the skills to be a center in the league. Another scout was bothered by his relative lack of athleticism. "Can you name the last unathletic big man who was a star in this league?" he asked rhetorically. Vlade Divac, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Rik Smits and Patrick Ewing all come to mind immediately, but that isn't enough to sway this scout.

Others who've seen him play aren't nearly as down on him. One NBA executive called him the best international prospect in the draft -- period. "He really reminds me of Vlade Divac," the executive told Insider. "Vlade wasn't a great athlete and didn't like to spend much time in the paint when he was drafted either. The thing about Vlade was that he was so smart and so fundamentally sound that he could outplay guys who were stronger and more athletic. This kid's a better athlete and stronger than Vlade ever was. While he's not as crafty yet, he's got the intelligence and the fundamentals to get there."

Another international scout agrees. "That's the problem with international scouting," the scout told Insider. "Guys that go see a kid play once or twice never get a great feel. Samardziski plays that way because that's the way his coach wants him to play. Serbians expect their big men to handle the ball and shoot from the perimeter. In the junior leagues, it's all about developing those skills. I've seen him enough to know that he can do all the post stuff too. It's just going to take a little re-programming. But to say the kid can't play in the paint? That's just false."

The relative lack of information and the divergent scouting reports on Peja really put his stock up in the air. So does his contract situation with Partizan. Partizan (owned Divac) is already losing Kristic to the Nets this year. Perovic has also entered the draft, though there are questions about whether the team will be allowed to go to the NBA this year.

Samardziski's agent, Marc Cornstein, received permission from the club to bring him to the U.S. and get him working out. While Cornstein won't divulge exactly what Samardziski's buyout number is, he told Insider he's very confident that Samardziski could get out of his contract if he's drafted in the lottery or mid-first round this year. Speculation has been running rampant for the past month that a team in the late lottery or early mid-first round has already promised Samardziski that it will draft him.

Where there's smoke, there may be some fire. While Cornstein is allowing any NBA team to fly to New York to watch Samardziski work out, the number of teams Samardziski is actually traveling to for workouts will be fairly small.

That leads to the ultimate question: Where is he projected in the draft? He's an eye-of-the-beholder type of player. For disciplined teams that rely on half-court offenses and need skilled big men who can pass, shoot and make decisions on the floor, he'll be a great fit. He'd be perfect on a team like the Jazz or Spurs, for example. For teams that want a rugged, athletic big man who blocks shots and runs the floor -- he's not the best choice.

For now, all Samardziski wants to do is wear that NBA jersey. "This has been my dream since I was very small," Samardziski said. "I've worked so hard to get here. I just hope that someone will believe in me."

He just might get his wish.

Pig Nash
05-16-2004, 09:33 PM
I think we would love this guy but i doubt he would slip that far and we've already got Peanut Butter. By the way, I'm happy i'm in the club. :dance: