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Insider Special: Global Perspective
By Chad Ford
# Chad Ford's mock draft: Standard version | Slideshow version
TREVISO, Italy -- In ancient times, mariners claimed that all important trades routes ran through Venice, Italy. For hundreds of years the ancient city, literally built on the ocean, with wooden pillars and a series of canals serving as streets, was the center of maritime commerce in Europe. Now, it's sinking back into the ocean.
Nowadays, scouts claim that all roads in international scouting run through Treviso, a smaller city about 30 kilometers north of Venice and home to international clothing giant the United Colours of Benetton. Here, Benetton GM Maurizio Gherardini -- possibly the most powerful GM in the world outside the United States -- has built the most modern and innovative basketball franchise not in the NBA.
Gherardini, a former banker, caught a vision, as an exchange student in St. Louis, of how a good basketball team should be run. A few years later, he returned to Italy with a passion for the game and began transforming European basketball as we know it.
Maurizio Gherardini is one of the most respected talent evaluators in Europe.
Gherardini translated important books on basketball and coaching into Italian and passed them out to coaches around the country. He began organizing basketball camps and clinics, including the first-ever coaches clinic in Europe -- an affair that brought the likes of Hubie Brown, Bill Walton, Detlef Schrempf and Bob McAdoo to Italy.
In 1992, he took over the most coveted basketball job in Europe -- GM of Benetton. The Benetton family already had sunk enormous resources into creating the most impressive basketball infrastructure on the continent. La Ghirada, their sport complex, is the most beautiful and modern practice facility in the country. Their arena is stunning.
Armed with unprecedented resources from the Benetton family, Gherardini set out to do more than just build a championship basketball team in Treviso -- he set out to change the way European teams ran their operations.
"The big plus of this place is you can dream," Gherardini told Insider. "You can have ideas and you have the resources to turn those ideas into realities. I wanted to do more than win. I wanted to give back to the community."
Over the past decade, Benetton has become the standard-bearer for European basketball. NBA scouts are here almost on a weekly basis. Every summer, Benetton holds an enormous array of extra curricular activities that draw people from around the NBA and the world. They include the Reebok Big Man camp and the Reebok Eurocamp, where top European young players learn and compete; a summer league where international free agents compete for jobs in front of just about every GM and coach in Europe; Basketball without Borders, a program that brings young basketball players from war torn areas together and teaches them life lessons as well as basketball skills; and an international coaches clinic that sometimes draws upwards of a 1,000 participants.
In the process, Gherardini has built a powerful alliance with the NBA and many of the teams in the league. In addition to his expertise running the franchise, he has developed the most sophisticated scouting system in the Euroleague. He gives many teams advice concerning NBA prospects and is one of the few GMs in Europe who doesn't soak a team or player when he gets drafted in the NBA.
"You do things that make sense," Gherardini said. "Players have dreams, and we should help them achieve it. This is not a one-way business. We are involved in a common project."
Gherardini has become so well respected that he was interviewed and seriously considered for the vacant GM job in Charlotte last year. It was the first time a non-U.S. executive ever had been interviewed for a top job in the NBA. Gherardini didn't get the job, but many people in the league think that within the next five years he'll be running an NBA team.
"Maurizio is one of the best GMs in the world," Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe told Insider. "He really runs a first class organization here. I don't think there's anything in Europe that rivals it. I think there's no question he'll be a great GM in the league. No question."
"You have to have that dream," Gherardini said when asked about his interest in leaving Benetton for the NBA. "It would have to be the right time and the right system, but yes I would want that. I think I could bring a global vision to the NBA and provide a very deep evaluation of players both in America and around the world."
Given Gherardini's reputation and his intimate knowledge of international players (he attended every camp session this week), Insider asked him to provide his take on the top international players in this year's draft. Here's the way he sees it:
Pavel Podkolzine, C, Russia
"I've known him since he arrived in Italy two years ago. He has obviously improved quite a bit. He has many qualities that are unusual for a 7-foot-5 player. He has great hands for a big guy. He's a very good ball handler for someone that size. His body is very good, and he's not afraid to be aggressive in the post. I think he will be a success in the NBA. The question with him is just how good he'll get. He could be good, or he could be great."
Gherardini calls Andris Biedrins a "very intriguing big man."
Andris Biedrins, PF, Latvia
"He's a very intriguing big man. We almost signed him earlier in the year, so I know him well. He has no fear. A nice stone face. He's unusually aggressive and very mature mentally. I think he will have a shorter adjustment in the NBA than most players. He has good experience for his age. Latvaa is a second-level league, but people forget he also plays about 20 games a year in international competition against first-level talent. He has a lot of minutes under his belt for a kid his age."
Martynas Andriuskevicius, F/C, Lithuania
"I believe he is a small forward. At 7-foot-3 he could be really special. He has a great 3-point shot. He has good feel for the game and smart instincts. I have no doubt he will be a huge prospect in the NBA. If he stays in the draft, teams very high will have to seriously consider him. He just needs to get stronger."
Kosta Perovic, C, Serbia
"He's played an important role on his team this year. He has the size to be an NBA player and has very good skills and a steady shot. His game is probably closer to a four right now, but I don't know if he has the athleticism or footwork to play that position in the pros just yet. Another year or two in Europe may be helpful."
Sergei Monya, SG/SF, Russia
"He will require the smallest adjustment to play in the NBA. He already has an NBA 3-point shot and an NBA body. And let's not forget he is just 20 years old. He has very good athleticism for a European player. He plays more like an American. He's ready for the NBA."
Tiago Splitter, PF, Brazil
"He's finally getting some minutes under his belt this year. He's a four I think. Splitter's a smart player. He really understands the game. He's very long and a pretty good athlete. He may just need one or two more seasons of tough Euroleague fighting to complete his game."
“ I think he will be a success in the NBA. The question with him is just how good he'll get. He could be good or he could be great. ”
— Maurizio Gherardini on Russian big man Pavel Podkolzine
Johan Petro, PF/C, France
"He's very intriguing. I'm surprised at how much he's improved. He's played just one year with the top team and didn't really get a chance to play. He has everything to be an NBA player. A great body and a good athlete. Teams will have to think twice before passing on him."
Anderson Varejao, PF, Brazil
"He is one of the most gifted athletes in Europe right now. He plays very hard and aggressive. I'm still not sure what position he plays. He is improving every year but still needs to add a few things to his game."
Viktor Khryapa, SF, Russia
"He has a lot of tools. He's had a good experience playing in Russia. He has long arms and is a good defender. Again, I'm just not sure what position he will play in the NBA."
Sasha Vujacic, PG/SG, Slovenia
"He is playing in Italy at Udine this year, so I know him very well. He has no fear. He has very nice size for his position. He is playing an important role on his team, which is very good. He can play two positions, but in Italy he spends most of his time at the two. I think to be successful in the NBA he has to be a point guard."
Gherardini declined to discuss several of the younger players in the draft, because he hadn't seen them enough. That raised another interesting question. If Gherardini, one of the most active scouts in Europe, didn't have a handle on them, were NBA teams reaching too far into Europe?
Remember, Gherardini was Nikoloz Tskitishivili's GM when he was drafted.
"You could feel it coming even before Skita," Gherardini said. "You could see how the demographics of the NBA were changing, and you knew it would eventually come to Europe. I am not as bothered by it as some. I think European players are closing the gap physically with international ones. They play basketball 12 months a year and play games against much older players under very intense pressure. I think most of them come pretty well prepared to play in the NBA."
Still, mistakes are made, and Gherardini admits that sometimes he raises his eyebrows when he sees certain players on NBA draft lists.
"Everyone in this business makes mistakes," Gherardini said. "I can understand. It's not easy to make correct evaluations when players are so young. Five years ago, the NBA was picking the cream of the crop after we had discovered and developed them. Now they are in the same boat we are. We are all searching for young players with potential. That will lead to errors."
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. Send him an e-mail here.