View hazy from atop the Hoop Summit
By Chad Ford
Monday, April 5
SAN ANTONIO -- Dirk Nowitzki was discovered here. So was Tony Parker and Vladimir Radmanovic.
Minutes after the international team got clobbered by the Team USA at the Nike Hoop Summit here in San Antonio, GMs were quick to point out the obvious. There were no Nowitzkis or Parkers here.
Despite a nice 20-point shooting clinic by Serbian forward Luka Bogdanovic and some stifling defense on much-hyped U.S. point guard Sebastian Telfair by Croatian point guard Roko Leni Ukic, GMs expressed an overwhelming sense of . . . well being under whelmed at this year's crop of foreign talent.
They had every reason to be. None of the top-10 ranked draft-eligible international players were here. Some, like Andris Biedrins, Pavel Podkolzine, Kosta Perovic, Nemanja Aleksandrov and Tiago Splitter, were delayed for legitimate team reasons. Others, like Russia's Ivan Chiriaev, claimed that "visa problems" killed his ability to play in the game.
One scout was furious at the lack of no-shows. "They must think we're stupid," the scout told Insider. "We can get a visa for a kid in 48 hours, they can't secure a 30 day visa for a month? They're hiding. It makes it tough to do our job."
What was left was a hodge podge of players, many of whom will never have a shot playing in the NBA, against a squad featuring a host of McDonald's All-Americans and future first-rounders like Josh Smith, J.R. Smith, Telfair, Al Jefferson and Rudy Gay.
The American players overcame a slow start and quickly realized in the second half that their superior athleticism and quickness allowed them to get to the basket at will.
"I knew I could take my man off the dribble and to the rack whenever I chose," Josh Smith told Insider. "It was a lot of fun."
GMs walked away scratching their heads.
"I think we're all a little bit disappointed," he said. "There may have been a couple of late-first-rounders here, but I don't know. Bogdanovic is a great shooter, but he's a little soft and doesn't put the ball on the floor. Ukic's defense was great, but he wasn't able to beat his man off the dribble and get to the basket. Those are real issues."
USA basketball estimated that they'd given out over 100 credentials to NBA teams for the event. The event played like a who's who of the NBA. Jerry West, Kiki Vandeweghe, Danny Ainge and Chris Mullin were among the headliners in attendance. Many of them skipped the Final Four and flew in just to see these kids play.
While they may have been disappointed by the international squad, several of them walked away impressed by the performances of Josh and J.R. Smith.
Josh Smith had a great shooting night, going 12-for-18 from the field and hitting 3-for-6 from beyond the arc for a game-high 27 points. The international players had no answers for his athleticism.
"You've got to be kidding me," Bogdanovic said after the game. "I've never seen a player jump like that in my life. He's unbelievable. And he's not even in the NBA. I can only imagine what those guys must be like."
J.R. Smith was impressive for his third consecutive postseason game. Even though his outside jumper was off, Smith took his defenders off the dribble and scored several spectacular dunks.
Rudy Gay (13 points) and Al Jefferson (14 points) also had great games for Team USA. Telfair posted another disappointing shooting game, going just 1-for-10 from the field. He was hounded by Ukic all game and could never penetrate into the lane. Telfair did, however, have a game-high seven assists.
Churchill Odia, a 6-foot-5 point guard from Nigeria committed to play at Xavier in the fall, and Juan Diego Palacios, a 6-foot-7 small forward from Columbia, also had good games for the international squad. Highly regarded Chinese forward Yi Jian Lian was fairly disappointing. Scouts reported that he looked very mechanical in practices and he was pretty overmatched throughout most of the game.
International head coach Alessandro Gamba said he was upset with how his team responded to the more physical, more athletic USA team.
"I told them that you have to play like a tiger -- a mean tiger -- to beat the U.S.," Gamba said. "Our team was too soft."
Assistant international coach, Marin Sedlacek, who coached Nowitzki, Parker and Radmanovic in previous Hoop Summits, was even more blunt.
"I think that these young players are making a mistake, talking about the NBA," Sedlacek told Insider. "It is a fashion right now. They have potential, yes. But they miss too much by leaving Europe so soon. He have hard practices two times a day. Two games a week. They play, they get better. They give all this up to be in the NBA. But if they are not ready, they do not play and they do not develop. I think some of them are throwing away their careers. Not everyone can be Dirk Nowitzki or LeBron. These type of players come along once in a decade."
GMs were disappointed that they still didn't have a good handle on the huge incoming class of international teenagers. "I've been to Europe twice this year," one GM said. "But for most of the best prospects, I've only seen them work out in a gym. I haven't seen them play. It's very tough to make decisions based just on that. Very tough."
Who's Going Pro?
The real question on everyone's mind was who is going pro and who's headed to college or returning to Europe. As of Sunday, there were very few clear answers. Insider talked to six prospects who are all mulling a leap to the NBA. Here's what they, and NBA scouts, are saying about their prospects.
Josh Smith, F, Oak Hill Academy: Smith had, by far, his most impressive postseason performance. He was aggressive on both ends of the floor and did a nice job of hitting his jumpers (a big question mark). He ended the game with three 3-pointers. For those of you who like the Smith-Darius Miles comparisons, that's three more 3s than Miles hit for the entire season last year.
In other words, Smith is a better shooter. The 27 points, however, may be a bit deceiving. There was no one on the international team athletic enough to stay with Smith. In the NBA, that will change. Smith also took several terrible shots, including one three that must of missed the basket by five feet.
Smith sounded like a kid ready to come into the NBA. In fact, he many not even be eligible for college this year. Smith may have already played in too many postseason all-star games, putting in jeopardy his freshman eligibility.
"It's tough to pass the league up," he told Insider. "College is great, but when your family has bills and stuff, it's tough to say no to the money. I'm not saying it's all about the money, but you've got to talk care of your family, you know what I'm saying?"
Smith said he'll make his announcement around mid-April, but with most NBA scouts claiming he's a lock for the top 10 (and could go as high as top 5), it looks like he's in for sure.
Sebastian Telfair, PG, Brooklyn: For the second straight game, Telfair played good defense and showed an ability to run his team, but his shooting was awful. Ukic held Telfair to 1-for-10 shooting from the field. Scouts who have watched him practice the last week in Oklahoma City and San Antonio think that Telfair isn't ready to go pro.
"He's just no ready, period," one GM said. "He's not even the best point guard in his high school class. I think he's talented but he's still got a lot he's got to learn. How many coaches in the league are going to be willing to turn their team over to him right now? I can't think of any."
That fact may end up weighing heavily in Telfair's mind. The speculation for weeks has been that he's in the draft. He's gotten a big-time shoe offer and even the scouts who don't like him concede that he'll be taken somewhere in the first 20 picks.
However, Telfair told Insider that he won't enter the draft unless he's drafted high and only if he's assured that he'll be drafted by a team that will play him his rookie year.
"I don't want to go to the NBA and sit on the bench," Telfair told Insider. "I want to play. The most important question for me, is who's going to take me? Are they going to play me? If I can't get comfortable with that, or get the right assurances, I'd rather go to college. I know I'll play in Louisville and improve my game."
If Telfair really believes that, he better go back to school.
J.R. Smith, SG, Newark, NJ: He's been the best high school player in the country over the past two weeks and did little to hurt his status in San Antonio. While he shot only 3-for-11 from 3 on Sunday, scouts claim that he shot the lights out the past two days in practice. Smith told Insider that he gets his shooting touch from shooting 500 jumpers a day. As we reported on Friday, there is a growing consensus among NBA scouts that Smith would be a lottery pick if he declares. Here's how one Western Conference GM described him to me on Sunday:
"He's Vince Carter with a jump shot. He has a great body, great athleticism. He needs to play better defense and work on his ball handling a bit, but we can teach those things. The shooting and the athleticism, you can't teach that. Unlike most of these big kids who are flirting with the draft, he could come in and contribute right now."
Another scout compared Smith to the next Paul Pierce. Another to a taller version of Fred Jones. It was tough to find anyone in the place who didn't like him. Is that weighing on Smith's mind?
"It don't know what it does, honestly," Smith told Insider. "I've got to go home and try to get some information and talk it over with my parents. If you're a lottery pick, you can't turn that down."
Al Jefferson, PF, Prentiss (MS): Jefferson had the dunk of the night, slamming a power jam over the head of 7-footer Yi Jian Lian. One scout in attendance who knows the high school players better than most said he believes that Jefferson would go in the late lottery if he stayed in the draft. Others, concerned about conditioning issues and his so-so athleticism, claim that the late first round is more like it. Jefferson claims that he's still deciding what to do. "I'm going to make a decision soon," Jefferson told Insider. "I just got to figure out what's going to be best for me."
Luka Bogdanovic, SF, Red Star (Serbia) "My agent (David Bauman) told me that if I play well here I go first round this year," Bogdanovic told Insider. "If I don't play well then I must wait until next year. No pressure."
Bogdanovic had the most impressive performance of any of the international players. In addition to going 3-for-5 from behind the arc in the game, scouts claim that Bogdanovic made virtually every shot he took in practice on Saturday. "He's a special, special shooter," one GM said. "He's got a beautiful stroke."
However, questions about Bogdanovic abound. He clearly needs to add another 20 pounds of muscle to play small forward in the league, and by his own admission, he's a little soft. He also doesn't put the ball on the floor much. Scouts right now think he's closer to Bostjan Nachbar than Peja Stojakovic.
In other words, his status in the first round, despite his stellar play in San Antonio, still isn't assured. Like Telfair, Bogdanovic doesn't want to go to the NBA and sit at the end of the bench. He's getting good minutes in Serbia and doesn't want to take a step backward.
"I don't want to go to the league and just sit," Bogdanovic said. "My dream is to go to the NBA and play. There aren't very many good shooters in the NBA. I like to work. I like to practice. I think these things will help me in the NBA."
Bauman will likely keep Bogdanovic in the draft looking for a promise from a team. If he can't get one, he'll pull him out and put him in the draft next year.
Roko Ukic, PG, Split (Croatia): Ukic answered a major question in scouts' minds on Sunday when he came out and stopped the quicker Telfair from penetrating. Ukic is known as a very good athlete overseas, but he'd never played against a player like Telfair before.
"I really wanted to show that I am quick enough," he said. "I know what people say and all I can do is come out and show them."
Ukic's long arms helped extend the floor for them. Despite so-so numbers (7 points, 2 assists), the international team fared much better when Ukic was in the game. While it's clear that Ukic could use more experience and needs to get strength, it's also pretty clear that he's got the head to lead a team. He's the youngest player on Split this year, but also serves as a team captain.
Like Telfair and Bogdanovic, Ukic wants to be in the NBA only if it means that he'll play. "I've played many minutes since I was 16," he said. "I don't want to come to the NBA and just practice. I think maybe I will not come to the NBA right away until I know this."
Ukic helped his stock at the tournament, but probably does need another year or two in Europe. Look for Bauman to try and broker a deal with a club in the second half of the first round. A team with multiple picks like the Celtics or Jazz may be willing to draft him and leave him in Europe for another season or two to continue his development there.