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Insider Draft Update 6/1
By Chad Ford
TREVISO, Italy -- It's not easy being an NBA scout these days. There was a time scouts essentially did one thing -- hang out in college arenas watching prospects for a few years, making evaluations based not only on talent but on real game experience. Nowadays, scouts are relieved if they catch even a glimpse of a kid in workouts with his trainers.
Over the last decade, scouts have moved into high school gyms across the country. They're now forced to dissect all-star games where players don't play defense and combined scores reach into the 300s. In Europe, scouts armed with only a passport and an Interpol photo travel the world searching for 7-footers with cross-over dribbles and 3-point shots.
The Reebok Eurocamp is underway in Treviso, Italy. In the gym now are 65 of the top young big men in the world. In a few days, another 60 or so top prospects from every position will be on display.
Almost every NBA team has a scout or GM here. Agents are crowded into bleachers in the corner. The Reebok Eurocamp has become to international scouting what the Nike and ABCD camps have been to high school scouting. It's a must-see stop on every good scout's itinerary as he attempts to sort through the scrum of high school, international and college players in the draft.
More than 40 young internationals declared for the draft this year. Most of them are under the age of 20. As many as 10 could be taken in the first round. Of those, only two are over the age of 20. Only one, 18-year-old Andris Biedrin, played a major role on his team this season. And he did it in Latvia -- not exactly a hot bed of NBA talent.
I'm standing in the corner watching two young lottery prospects -- Pavel Podkolzine and Martynas Andriuskevicius -- work on their post moves with Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe when Phoenix Suns head coach Mike D'Antoni walks in and stands next me.
Two years ago D'Antoni and I stood in the exact same spot, alone in an empty gym, watching an unknown prospect, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, work out with an assistant coach.
At the time, Skita was an anomaly -- a blank slate upon which any NBA scout could inscribe his perfect player. He was tall, athletic, handsome, had a great jump shot and perfect work ethic. He was also supposed to be a once in a decade prospect.
Now he's the norm.
When I remind D'Antoni of the scene two years ago, he smiles and shakes his head.
"Did you ever think that, two years ago, that Skita would become the norm -- the prototypical NBA prospect in Europe?" I ask D'Antoni.
"No way," he says with a chuckle. "Skita wasn't ready for the NBA. I think everyone that came up here knew that. But he was such a special talent. I think we were all a bit anxious to see him succeed. I knew it was a great opportunity for him to make some money and get great coaching at the NBA level. I thought something like this wouldn't happen again. Now the draft is Skita."
The Skita draft
It was May 5, 2002, in a little Italian town just north of Venice, that the NBA draft changed forever.
I was in Bologna, Italy, covering the Euroleague Final Four for ESPN. I was doing a story on a feisty young Argentinian shooting guard named Emanuel Ginobili. He was the two-time Italian League MVP and was attempting to lead his team to second consecutive Final Four victory.
Despite minimal experience in Europe, Nikoloz Tskitishvili was a lottery pick in 2002.
Ginobili also was preparing to leave Europe and join the San Antonio Spurs, the team that drafted him late in the second round in 1999. After the game, I ran into D'Antoni in the parking lot.
D'Antoni was the head coach for another Italian team, Benetton-Treviso. He told me he had a young, 7-foot player who was the most talented European prospect he'd seen since Dirk Nowitzki.
The player, 17-year-old Nikoloz Tskitishvili, was a native of Georgia and a former ballet dancer, who, according to D'Antoni, played like a guard. D'Antoni said several NBA teams had come to see him work out in Treviso the week before. The feedback he got indicated Skita would be a lottery pick in the 2002 draft.
I had watched Benetton play, and lose, that night and was curious why I hadn't seen Tskitishvili. Then, D'Antoni delivered the punch line. Skita didn't play. He was buried at the end of the bench. His potential was on display in practice, but never in games.
Curious, I bought a train ticket from Bologna to Treviso, and three hours later I was in Benetton's practice gym watching the young 7-footer rain down 3s, cross his dribble over with ease, and finish in the paint with highlight reel jams. It took several hours for me to get my jaw off the floor.
Six weeks later, the Denver Nuggets drafted Skita with the No. 5 pick, ahead of Amare Stoudemire, Caron Butler and Nene Hilario. Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe had seen him play only once, in a big-man camp when Tskitishvili was 16. Nuggets assistant GM David Fredman had only seen videotape. Still, they took him at No. 5 and unknowingly changed the NBA draft forever.
Before Skita, things were very different. While young international players like Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker had been drafted in the past, all three had been playing big roles on their European teams. Others considered for the draft also were stars in Europe -- or at least playing big-time minutes for their teams. The idea of a prospect who didn't play seemed quaint.
But there was growing pressure among NBA scouts to find the next great prospect in Europe. Nowitzki was turning into a star. Gasol had stunned everyone by running away with Rookie of the Year honors after scouts had spent all summer claiming he was years away from contributing in the NBA. Parker, who had slipped all the way down to the last pick of the first round, ended up starting for a playoff team. Suddenly, European prospects were the hottest thing going.
The problem was, there were no sure things coming out of Europe that year. Skita, who hadn't played in more than a year, was the closest thing. Two years later, the Nuggets still are struggling to figure out who they drafted.
The 18-year-old dream prospect might have looked marvelous in workouts. But once the Nuggets actually threw him into an NBA game, he was lost. The 7-footer spent most of his rookie year standing behind the arc, launching misguided 3s. NBA scouts were undeterred. He spent year two mired on the bench as the Nuggets made a playoff run.
The struggles of Darko Milicic haven't deterred NBA scouts.
What could have or should have been a cautionary tale about taking unknown players from overseas never materialized. The success of another international, Yao Ming, was enough to give teams hope. In the 2003 draft, a record eight international players were picked in the first round. The class was headlined by Serbian big man Darko Milicic and included a host of players who had seen little to no playing time in Europe.
The Pistons took things a step further, passing on Carmelo Anthony to take Darko, who went from starting on his team in Serbia to playing nothing but garbage minutes in Detroit.
Instead of scaring off players who abhor the prospect of trading in a starting job in Europe to a bench role in the NBA, Darko became a rallying cry. Every international player in the draft thinks he'll be different from Darko and Skita.
From what I've seen of the international prospects this year, I'm not sure. The group is big and has incredible upside. But in most ways, this class doesn't have the experience or the talent the 2003 group had, and look where they ended up.
"I remember a time, just several years ago, when being a scout in Europe was a pretty frustrating job," Hawks scout Mark Crow told Insider. "We couldn't convince GMs that players in Europe could play in the NBA. Now it's the opposite. We struggle to convince them that most of these guys in the draft can't play. That's how much things have changed in the past two years."
“ I remember a time, just several years ago, when being a scout in Europe was a pretty frustrating job. We couldn't convince GMs that players in Europe could play in the NBA. Now it's the opposite. We struggle to convince them that most of these guys in the draft can't play. That's how much things have changed in the past two years. ”
— Hawks scout Mark Crow
Crow's right. Despite the slow start by nearly all of the internationals drafted last June, NBA scouts are here in force still looking for the next Nowitzki, Parker or Gasol. If you were waiting for the international backlash to occur, the signs in Treviso won't be encouraging. Scouts and GMs remain enamored with the talent here, though they are admittedly frustrated with how young the international draft has become.
"It makes things more challenging for us," Nuggets assistant GM Fredman told Insider. "You've always got to do your homework. When they come into the draft this young, doing the homework can be pretty difficult."
This year the Nuggets have five members of their front office staff here, including Vandeweghe, Fredman, assistant GM Jeff Weltman, international scout Masai Ujiri and assistant coach Jarrin Akana. They've also brought along "brain doctor" Jonathan P. Niednagel to do psychological profiles of everyone in the camp.
"There's a lot of players over here to process in a short amount of time," Fredman says. "Every extra bit of information helps."
Top prospects in Treviso
C, 7-5, Russia, 19 years
His dominant performance here already has folks talking about him at a top-five pick again.
C, 7-3, Lithuania, 18
Very skilled big man has been impressive in scrimmages, but he's too weak right now. Likely will pull out of the draft.
C, 7-1, Serbia, 20
Several teams are very high on him, but to most he's a mystery. Has more experience than most of the players here.
PF, 7-0, France, 19
Athletic big man is still raw, but looked impressive in a private workout. Could help his draft position with a great camp.
Roko Leni Ukic
PG, 6-5, Croatia, 20
Long point guard is playing big minutes in Croatia and locked down Sebastian Telfair at the Nike Hoop Summit.
SG, 6-6, Croatia, 19
A top two guard in Croatia who several scouts feel could be a real sleeper. He was added at the last minute.
PF, 6-11, Spain, 22
He's been one of the most impressive players in camp. Strong, athletic and much more polished than the rest of the camp. A second-round sleeper.
PF, 6-10, Croatia, 20
A teammate of Ukic. Supposed to have a nice inside game. Won't be here until Thursday.
PF/C, 7-0, Germany, 21
Has helped himself in the tournament with toughness and a little polish. Not sure if he's an NBA player, but he's not bad.
Fredman and Weltman are watching from the stands, trying to get an overall view of the talent. Vandeweghe and Akana are on the court, working hands-on with every prospect. Niednagel is sitting under the basket with a video camera, breaking down every psychological tic.
Most NBA scouting isn't this avant garde. Several teams have only their international scouts here. Most NBA GMs decided not to make the trip. Ultimately, one guy could be making the call for the entire organization. It's a wonder there aren't more mistakes.
The one thing Reebok's Eurocamp has going for it is that lottery picks actually have shown up to play. For the last decade, the top American prospects have skipped the NBA's Chicago pre-draft camp, opting instead to take only physicals.
Here, scouts get to see the top international prospects play head-to-head. They get to walk on the floor with them and coach them. They get to know the players in a more personal setting.
The camp, run by former international player and Reebok rep Pete Philo, is a model of efficiency. Philo constantly asks the NBA scouts and coaches what they want to see. Then he turns around and gives it to them.
The result is that everyone walks away with a much better feel for who can play, who's coachable and who would be a good fit in the NBA.
"Scouting in Europe is so tough right now," Pistons international scout Tony Ronzone told Insider. "A lot of times you'll travel to a country to see a kid play, and the team will hide him from you. Sometimes you can't get into practices. Other times, schedules shift and the team isn't playing where you thought you'd be. Having a group like this all in the same place is invaluable. The fact that we're allowed to get on the court with them and coach them in a setting like this makes this camp one of the most important things we'll do all year."
However, drills in camps don't tell the entire story.
"Europeans sure look great in drills," D'Antoni says. "You've got to be careful. They're so fundamentally sound that you can walk away from a drill, and you believe he's going to be an all-star. Then, when they get on the court, however, some of them can't translate the workout skills into game skills."
The final hurdle
Unfortunately for the GMs who have embraced the league's international movement, not everyone feels the same way. Pockets of resistance still remain, especially among head coaches in the NBA.
GMs easily fall in love with guys who have huge wingspans, vertical jumps and fundamentals in the post. But coaches want to know if the kid actually can play, what his instincts are, and whether he'll adapt to a coach's given style. That's a lot to ask of any 17- or 18-year-old, let alone one from another country who must adjust not only to the NBA, but also a different language and a different culture.
In short, the guys the GMs love here the most really need good coaching and playing time more than anything else. The coaching they can get in the NBA. The playing time? It's still an issue.
"Skita's biggest obstacle the last few years has been playing time," Vandeweghe told Insider. "These kids need to play to get better. The coaches, however, aren't always on board."
Vandweghe knows from personal experience.
Nuggets head coach Jeff Bzdelik's refusal to play Skita this year ruffled Vandeweghe's feathers. But Bzdelik believed Skita's lack of game experience and defense were detriments to his team's chance for success this year.
A GM's job is to plan for the future, and in Vandeweghe's eyes, Skita is still a very big part of the Nuggets' future.
"We still believe in Skita," Vandeweghe told Insider. "We still believe he'll be a very good player in the league. He's done everything we've asked him, he's intelligent and he works hard. He just needs more playing time."
The same held true in Detroit this year. Joe Dumars drafted Darko with an eye on the future. Despite the Pistons' success in the playoffs last year, Dumars was convinced he didn't have all the pieces in place. Darko, despite his inexperience, was and still is a major piece of the total picture.
“ We've got to work with the coaches. But they also have to understand that they work for the organization, not for themselves. Why have so many coaches been fired lately? It's because they don't always look out for what's good long-term for the franchise. ”
— An NBA executive
Dumars believed the team might suffer a bit in the short term by playing an 18-year-old and was willing to make the sacrifice. But Larry Brown wasn't. Brown refused to play Darko, and the rookie's development suffered. While that's easier to swallow now that the Pistons are on the verge of the NBA Finals, Dumars knows Darko can't live up to his potential until he starts getting minutes.
This year, GMs are more mindful of the disparity.
"We've got to work with the coaches," one NBA executive who wished not to be identified told Insider. "But they also have to understand that they work for the organization, not for themselves. Why have so many coaches been fired lately? It's because they don't always look out for what's good long-term for the franchise."
That's why the Clippers flew in head coach Mike Dunleavy this week to take a look at Podkolzine. The way Podkolzine has been playing the first few days, he could get serious consideration, even at the No. 2 pick. But the Clips know Pavel will fail without the coach's support.
The future of the kids here in Treviso can't be boiled down to vertical jumps and Mikan drills. If the NBA is going keep mining Europe for young talent without thought to age or experience, then the coaches have to be on board to make it work.
"I think the biggest reason we've had success with our international players is Nellie (Mavericks coach Don Nelson)," Don Nelson Jr. told Insider. "He's willing to take these kids, unearth their strengths and try to merge it into our club. Not everyone has a taste for that."
Those obstacles will certainly scare many teams away this year as they search for more known quantities in America. But for the few who take the risk, have coaches who are on board and are willing to exercise patience -- the upside of the international kids in this draft has never been greater.
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. Send him an e-mail here.