Monday, May 09, 2005

EuroLeague Final Four Feature for LA Times

Los Angeles Times

May 9, 2005 Monday

HEADLINE: Continental Dividends

Europe has become fertile ground for NBA talent scouts, and the EuroLeague final four is the prime destination point

BYLINE: Greg Abel, Special to The Times


For NBA scouts, general managers, coaches and agents, a few events every year qualify as unofficial conventions, when those in the business convene to evaluate players, talk deals and swap stories. This weekend, the EuroLeague final four here became just such a "must-attend" event, confirming the increasing respect and attention paid to European basketball.

"It's about talent," Clipper Coach Mike Dunleavy said. "We're here to see players."

Dunleavy and many others came to take in this growing basketball showcase, which also featured an eight-team junior tournament with top players 18 and under representing clubs from all over Europe.

The brotherhood of NBA talent evaluators spent the weekend at the Olympiysky Sport Complex scribbling in notebooks, analyzing stat sheets and monitoring the progress of potential draft picks as well as a few established European veterans who might be ready to make the jump to the NBA.

"There are so many key people here from the NBA and the European teams, it's a great chance to build relationships. It's almost like an All-Star weekend," said John Nash, general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers.

Said David Griffin, the Phoenix Suns' director of player personnel: "This is where we get together and we all lie to each other about how good guys are or aren't."

The final four competition featured teams from host CSKA Moscow, Tau Ceramica of Vitoria, Spain, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Panathinaikos of Athens. Led by Lithuanian national team star Sarunas Jasikevicius and inspired by more than 6,000 yellow-clad Maccabi fans whose wildly enthusiastic encouragement deafened the arena, Maccabi captured its second consecutive championship Sunday night with a 90-78 victory over Tau, which had upset Moscow in the semifinals Friday night.

Count Jasikevicius, the final four MVP, and sharp-shooting countryman Arvydas Macijauskas of Tau Ceramica as players whose multisyllabic names might become more familiar to NBA fans as soon as next season. The 29-year-old Jasikevicius, a 6-foot-4 guard who played at Maryland, has been on the last three EuroLeague championship teams (2003 with Barcelona and '04 and '05 with Tel Aviv) and also led Lithuania to a European title. His steady floor game and fiery leadership have made him perhaps Europe's top player.

"I thought [he] should have been in the NBA three years ago," said Arturas Karnisovas, who starred at Seton Hall in the early 1990s before going on to a successful European career. Karnisovas now works for the NBA's international division; part of his job is helping European players adjust to life in America and the NBA. Judging from NBA interest in Moscow, Karnisovas should be a busy man for the foreseeable future.

The Trail Blazers have demonstrated a recent penchant for foreign players. After selecting high school player Sebastian Telfair with the 13th overall pick last June, the team went the European route, grabbing 6-8 Russian forward Sergei Monya with the 23rd pick and trading for 6-9 Russian forward Viktor Khryapa in a deal with the New Jersey Nets. Monya is expected to join the Trail Blazers next season, and Coach Kevin Pritchard and team President Steve Patterson joined Nash in Moscow to look for more talent.

In explaining why NBA teams have become so enamored of European players, Nash said it comes down to fundamentals.

"The Europeans are playing sound, fundamental basketball and that's why we'll see more and more in the NBA," he said.

Dunleavy pointed to the addition of zone defenses in the NBA as a reason why European players have found a larger niche in recent years.

"Our young players focus on one-on-one skills, beating people off the dribble for lay-ups and dunks," he said. "When you play against a zone, there are not as many opportunities off the dribble; you need to focus more on passing and shooting."

San Antonio Spur General Manager R.C. Buford, whose team has benefited immensely from such imported players as Tony Parker (France) and Manu Ginobili (Argentina), made the trip to visit with Luis Scola, a bruising power forward for Tau who was drafted by the Spurs in 2003. The Spurs also hold the rights to Russian forward Sergei Karaulov, a 7-1 center they selected in the second round last year.

"We wanted to see Luis of course, but there's also a chance to evaluate players in the junior tournament, who are the next generation of EuroLeague players," Buford said.

NBA teams may not simply draft and take European players away, however. Often, as in the case of Scola, they have contracts with their European clubs and must negotiate a buyout or wait until their contract expires. That's why European players often don't show up in an NBA box score until a year or two after they are drafted, if at all.

The EuroLeague, of course, wants to keep its best players at home, though league officials do say that interest from the NBA typically increases exposure and hype. The NBA and EuroLeague have a cooperative relationship. NBA TV, for example, broadcasts one EuroLeague game a week and carries the semifinals and finals live. More and more, top European players aren't a secret because satellite TV and international scouting have opened the game to a truly global scale.

With many NBA teams employing scouts overseas and so many talent evaluators attending events like the final four, is it still possible to find a hidden gem?

"It's all beauty in the eye of the beholder," Dunleavy said. "The test is to recognize them first and get to them first. And sometimes, it just comes down to where you pick."

Tony Ronzone, a globetrotting scout for the Detroit Pistons who has coached in the U.S. and overseas with clubs in places as diverse as Saudi Arabia and New Zealand, enjoys the challenge of trying to find players in places where others haven't even tried to look. He has recruited in Australia, Africa, even North Korea.

"Sleepers?" Ronzone said, a smile crossing his face, "You can still pull one out."


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