How is Europe developing its talent?
Foreign intrigue by Alexander Wolff
European teams are more focused on developing talent
Last winter Darius Lawrinowicz, a young center for Alita Alytus of the Lithuanian national league, played his first game after serving three years in prison on a sexual-abuse charge. He scored 19 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, and touched off a joke that quickly made the rounds in Lithuania, one of Europe's most basketball-crazy countries: "Our players are improving more in jail than in the American colleges."
The NBA player-personnel types prepping for Thursday's draft long ago discovered that this is no punchline, but part of a truism behind the trend changing the very fabric of the league. Last June no U.S. college had more players chosen in the draft than Benetton Treviso, the Italian club team that reached the title game of the Euroleague Final Four in May. This year, even with the late withdrawal of such likely picks as Anderson Varejão of F.C. Barcelona and Viktor Khryapa of CSKA Moscow, a record dozen international players could go in the first round.
The latest NBA stars from Europe -- Germany's Dirk Nowitzki, Spain's Pau Gasol, France's Tony Parker and Serbia's Peja Stojakovic -- share something that must be especially dispiriting to the pooh-bahs of American basketball: In each case, their first substantial exposure to U.S. hoops came when they suited up for NBA games and held their own against, or lorded over, their American counterparts.
Which raises the question: How is Europe developing its talent?
Spain is worth a close look, if only because the Spanish national team not only beat the U.S. at last summer's world championships, but also at the world junior championships three years earlier. Top Spanish clubs annually hold an all-call known as Operación Altura -- literally, Operation Height -- in which they assay kids of a minimum size born in a particular year. The most promising are invited to live under the club's supervision, sometimes from as early as age 14. As soon as a player makes his mark in an under-23 semipro league, he'll get time with the first team, plus a cash bonus for making the show -- though incentives are never tied to individual stats.
"The only reason for the existence of our youth teams is to teach," says Antonio Maceiras, general manager of F.C. Barcelona, which beat Benetton for the Euroleague Final Four crown last month. "It's more important to develop even one player for our first team than to win five Spanish youth championships, whereas in the States, college teams have to win right away. My NBA friends complain about the lack of fundamentals and individual development in the NCAA, and see the European players as better prepared."
Because virtually all have either taken money or played with or against someone who has, the best young Western Europeans can rarely go off to the U.S. to play college ball. But they hardly feel they're missing out. "Why go to college when you have an offer from Real Madrid?" says Maciej Lampe, a 7-foot, 18-year-old ethnic Pole from Sweden who has trained in Real's bosom for three years and is expected to go in the first round on Thursday. "In the U.S., the season is shorter. Here, I can play all year round with coaches." At Real Madrid those coaches devote half of each workout to individual instruction. "We work on the basics," says Jesus Trueba, the club's youth development coordinator. "Mostly the weak hand and shooting. If you don't do it now, it doesn't get done." Adds F.C. Barcelona youth coach Miquel Nolis: "When we do a drill, we always finish with a shot. Dribble, then shoot. Pass, then shoot."
Benetton, meanwhile, considers itself a catchbasin for talent throughout the continent, especially the untapped lodes of Eastern Europe, which lies barely an hour's drive away from Treviso, a sleepy city near Venice. Hence the motley nationalities of its prospects drafted last June: 7-foot Nikoloz Tskitishvili of Georgia, chosen by the Denver Nuggets with the fifth pick; 6-9 Bostjan Nachbar of Slovenia, whom the Houston Rockets took at No. 15; and 6-11 Peter Fehse, chosen by the Seattle SuperSonics with the 49th pick, who grew up in the erstwhile basketball wasteland of the former East Germany.
"In Europe, they hardly play any playground basketball, because they're always with a coach," says Phoenix Suns assistant Mike D'Antoni, who coached Benetton a year ago. Indeed, young Europeans play more than twice as many formal games as their American counterparts: By the time he was drafted at 21, the age of a typical U.S. college senior, Nachbar had already spent six seasons in the Slovenian and Italian leagues, playing 60 and 70 games a year in the crucible of professional competition.
Eight Benetton prospects spent the past season at the club's state-of-the-art training complex, La Ghirada, where players eat, sleep, practice and get the attention of counselors, trainers and dietitians. At the same time, Benetton farms out others it has under contract to smaller European clubs, bringing them to La Ghirada to work out whenever possible.
Raw talent from Eastern Europe comes cheap: To land Tskitishvili, Benetton simply bought up the right of first refusal to everyone on the Georgian club team, Basco Batumi, that developed him. One of those players, guard Manuchar Markoishvili, spent this season with Benetton's flagship team as a 17-year-old; he's a likely first-round pick three years from now, when he turns 20 and would become draft-eligible if the NBA institutes its proposed age minimum.
The rosters of top European clubs now turn over as often as those of big-time U.S. colleges, with the NBA picking off the finest talent after a season or two. But even as he loses his best young players, Benetton general manager Maurizio Gherardini doesn't really mind. He knows there are many more where they came from. "You don't know exactly where the golden stone is," he says. "But given the living conditions in Eastern Europe, the extra effort in these guys is never missing. I'm amazed at how Stojakovic, Nowitzki and [Serbia's Vlade] Divac have kids dreaming to make the NBA. If you really support these kids -- help them realize their dreams -- you get a reputation, and others will follow."
|Sports Illustrated senior writer Alexander Wolff is author of Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure, which Warner Books will publish in paperback in November. You can contact him at biggamesmallworld.com.|