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By CLIFF BRUNT
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The Indiana Pacers ended this past season as one of just two teams without an international player.
But as they head into Tuesday's NBA draft, even the Pacers are looking overseas. Larry Bird, the team's president of basketball operations, says Indiana is not focusing on a specific position but is looking for someone who can help.
The Pacers, who have the 17th pick, have their sights on players including Roko Ukic, a guard from Croatia; Yaroslav Korolev, a forward from Russia, and Fran Vazquez, a forward-center from Spain. But they could have plenty of competition.
The number of international players on opening-day rosters in the NBA has risen from 29 in 1997 to 81 this past season. There were 20 foreign players drafted last year, compared with nine in 1999 and three in 1994. This year, a record seven international players competed in the NBA Finals.
With players such as Germany's Dirk Nowitzki, Serbia-Montenegro's Peja Stojakovic, former rookie of the year Pau Gasol of Spain, three-time All-Star Yao Ming of China and Russia's Andrei Kirilenko making immediate impacts, teams say they can't afford to overlook overseas players.
"Everybody's so afraid of missing out on the next one," said new Cleveland coach Mike Brown, a former Pacers assistant who inherits All-Star center Zydrunas Ilgauskas of Lithuania with the Cavaliers.
This past season was a banner year for international players. The league MVP, Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns, hails from Canada. Nowitzki finished third in the MVP voting after a dominant season for the Dallas Mavericks. The San Antonio Spurs start three players born outside the continental U.S. - Tim Duncan of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Manu Ginobili of Argentina and Tony Parker of France.
That level of foreign participation was unheard of 25 years ago. When Bird was a rookie for the Boston Celtics in 1979, there were six international players in the league.
Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh said much has changed in his 19 years at the team's helm.
"I think we always looked, but not to the extent we do now," Walsh said. "But we were always familiar with the European market."
International players can warm a bench as they gain experience - or change a franchise.
Before Gasol arrived in Memphis in 2001, the Grizzlies never had been to the playoffs. Gasol averaged 17.6 points a game and was the league's top rookie despite his team's 23-59 record. He averaged 19 points a game his second year as Memphis won five more games.
The Grizzlies went 50-32 in Gasol's third year and made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
That's the kind of player NBA scouts can't afford to miss.
Joe Ash, the Pacers' director of scouting, already has made five trips to Europe this year, including three with Bird. In July, Ash will travel to Moscow for a European 20-and-under tournament to see players from 16 countries, then head to Argentina for the FIBA World Championships for Young Men.
The Pacers employ two foreign-born scouts. Nedilijko "Misho" Ostarcevic is from Croatia and splits his time between Europe and the western United States. Alexsandar Pajovic has a home in Belgrade, Serbia-Montenegro, and spends much of his time scouting European basketball.
They meet plenty of NBA colleagues at every stop.
Ash said he sees as many scouts at European tournaments as at major college games in the United States. He said more than 50 NBA representatives attended the Euroleague Final Four May 6-8 in Moscow.
"These guys aren't coming out of nowhere anymore," Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said. "People know who the good people are, what teams they're on, what their contract situations are."
The Pacers have plenty of experience with foreign talent. Center Rik Smits of the Netherlands, who played from 1988-2000, is the franchise's second-leading scorer. Detlef Schrempf, a forward from Germany, ranks 10th in career scoring after playing for Indiana from 1988-1993.
Indiana would have had a foreign player last season if it hadn't lost Slovenia's Primoz Brezec to Charlotte in the expansion draft. The 7-foot-1 center averaged a career-high 13 points per game for the Bobcats.
The Pacers liked Beno Udrih in the draft last year, but the Spurs - a team Cleveland's Brown calls the league's best at snapping up international talent - nabbed the Slovenian one pick before the Pacers could get him.
Ash said scouting foreign talent is a necessity, not an option.
"You have to," he said. "Not going would just be ignoring a large segment of the talent pool."