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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."
I personally think the Pacers should go after Francisco Garcia. But after that, I wouldn't mind taking Roko Ukic. Argue all you want about him being a PG, but if he's half as good as scouts make him out to be, that means he's twice as good as Anthony Johnson, and it would do wonders for our chemistry if we have 2 true point guards on the team.
"Yaroslav Korolev is the most talented of the bunch, and he is either a product of excessive hype or he's the next Toni Kukoc or the next Skita. Either way, his stock is rising so fast there's little chance he slips past Indiana. So eliminate Korolev."
Can anyone tell me a little bit more about this chap?
2012 PD ABA Fantasy Keeper League Champion, sports.ws
2011 PD ABA Fantasy Keeper League Champion, sports.ws
Notes: As far as sure-fire NBA prospects go, Korolev looks like the real thing. He's been on scouts' radars now for two years, but he really put it all together in the Euroleague juniors tournament, averaging 17.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg and 3.2 apg in front of a big contingent of NBA scouts and GMs. His father is a former Russian basketball player and coach, and it's clear dad has rubbed off on him.
Positives: Korolev is one of the most complete players in Europe. He's a long 6-foot-9 small forward with great athleticism, an excellent long-range jumper and superb ball-handling skills.
Negatives: While scouts are a little concerned about his toughness and decision-making skills. He takes a lot of unnecessary chances with the ball. Sometimes struggles when matched up against other physical, talented defenders. Can disappear.
Summary: Scouts loved him in Moscow and currently project him in the 18-to-30 range. However, he has the potential to work himself into the late lottery with workouts."
"Very few players at this age are able to display the kind of gifts and skills that Yaroslav Korolev enjoys. We're talking about a point forward here, who at 6-9 has the perfect size to play the small forward position, with excellent athleticism to go with it, and the skills of a guard.
He's a pretty long kid, as besides his size, he enjoys a nice wingspan. Of course at this age he's far from being a strong player, but his frame is decent, good enough to play in the NBA with no problem at all after adding some strength. He's very quick for being so tall, really coordinated, and combines a good vertical leap with some explosiveness. To sum up, he's quite an athlete, particularly if we're talking about a European guy, and has the tools to make things happen.
Before digging into his skills, it's interesting to point that Yaroslav's father is a basketball coach. It's surely a big reason why the guy is so skilled and fundamentally sound. To start with, he has very good ball-handling skills. He can drive in traffic and handle the ball in transition with ease. He barely losses speed while dribbling and utiziles both hands very well. This is a key department in his game, which allows him to be so versatile.
To complete the playmaking package, he's a quite a good passer. Standing 6 feet and 9 inches off the floor, he has the privilege to see the court particularly well, and he fully takes advantage of it. He can dish it off in many situations: transition plays, feeding a cutting teammate, as well as on drive and dish plays to deliver to an open teammate after causing defensive rotations. He's first a passer, a game creator, then a scorer. He loves to run the offense, but more importantly, he doesn't abuse these skills. He lets the game come to him, not forcing unnecessary situations, not overshadowing his teammates. He doesn't over-handle the ball, playing in the flow of the offense while showing great decision making.
When it comes to scoring, he can use a variety of weapons. He's not a shooter, but he's rather consistent with his jumper. He has range, solid mechanics and shows ability to release it off the dribble if necessary. But he's not too prolific in this department, and it's rarely a first option for him. When he receives the ball, if he doesn't find a good pass (or he isn't fully open, of course), he usually looks to drive rather than firing. With a good first step, he takes his man off the dribble rather easily, and has the ability to finish, whether with a powerful dunk, or with a creative lay-up, depending on the situation. He's pretty fluid and smooth.
If you think that such a talented and skilled guy will likely be a defensive liability, you're wrong. Korolev has all the tools to become an excellent defender, and he already shows quite good results. He has more than enough lateral quickness to defend his position, the length to annoy any rival (that helps him to come up with some steals) and he puts some intensity and effort. He's quite dangerous on the block coming from the weak side, showing good timing in the process. He can give a hand in the rebounding department too, which isn't unexpected given his athleticism and length.
Korolev is a very special player, a big time prospect oozing with potential. He's a guy with a natural talent to play this game, a very high basketball IQ, who plays with intensity and passion and who is a pleasure to watch. "