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12-05-2003, 01:24 PM
NBA Draft: International backlash?

NEW YORK -- The scene at Madison Square Garden was something out of a Kofi Annan or Tony Ronzone perfect dream -- the UN of NBA hoops.

Standing alone on the court taking jumpers an hour and a half before the Knicks-Pistons game on Monday was 18-year-old Darko Milicic, the youngest and highest drafted player ever from Europe.

Within minutes he was joined by fellow Serbian Slavko Vranes, a 19-year-old, 7-foot-6 center for the New York Knicks. Right behind him was 18-year-old Polish big Maciej Lampe, another rookie with the Knicks.

They stopped, hugged, laughed and asked each other the most important question of the evening.

"Hey, why aren't you playing Maciej?" Darko says with smile.

For rookies Milicic, Lampe and Vranes, earning playing time as been an uphill battle.
"What are you talking about?" Lampe replies. "You're the No. 2 pick, why aren't you playing?"

Vranes, who towers over both of them, just shrugs his shoulders and smiles. He wasn't playing even before he reached the NBA. For this 7-foot-6 giant, this is nothing new.

"I'm watching," Vranes tells Insider. "I'm watching, waiting and hoping. This is what I do."

This is what they all do. The international revolution may have taken place this summer when a record eight international players were taken in the first round. But, six weeks into the regular season, only three international studs -- the Suns' Zarko Cabarkapa, the Jazz's Aleksandar Pavlovic and the Hawks' Boris Diaw -- are actually getting any playing time on the court.

All of the big names -- Milicic (No. 2), Mickael Pietrus (No. 11), Zoran Planinic (No. 22), Leandro Barbosa (No. 28), Lampe (No. 30), Vranes (No. 39) and Zaur Pachulia (No. 42) -- are wasting away on the bench.

Much like the heralded super high school class of 2001, the international class of 2003 looks too young and too raw to make the type of impact experts thought they would this season.

"It's our own fault," one NBA GM said. "We keep taking kids younger and younger and expect more and more for them. We strip mined college basketball and now we're doing it internationally. The fact that these kids aren't ready shouldn't be a surprise. At their age, and with their lack of experience, they shouldn't be ready."

Great fundamentals, killer outside shots, and long legs haven't been enough to get these heralded prospects in the game. No one knows this more than Milicic, who wears the burden of being drafted ahead of Carmelo Anthony like a millstone around his neck.

Darko Days Ahead

Pistons coach Larry Brown still can not take his eyes off Darko. It's two hours before the Pistons take on the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Numerous preparations still need to be made, but Brown has parked himself 10 feet from Milicic and is watching his every move.

"Use your pivot foot Darko," Brown yells as Milicic works on post drills with Zeljko Rebraca and Darvin Ham.

Darko Milicic
Detroit Pistons

7 0.0 0.4 0.0 .000 .000

Darko fakes once to the left, then spins around and shoots a nice floating fade away over Ham's outstretched hand.

"No, Darko," Brown yells. "You have six inches on him. Take him to the basket, shoot over him."

Brown is now on the court, showing Darko the proper move.

"Do you understand?" Brown says as Darko begins to walk away. There's a subtle nod by Darko.

"Does he understand?" Brown says turning to assistant coach Dave Hanners. Hanners shrugs his shoulders. Darko keeps walking.

Next drill. Darko grabs the ball, pivots and takes Ham hard to the basket.

"That's it Darko," Brown says. Then he mumbles under his breath, "I guess he understood."

Despite all of the reports swirling around talk radio in Detroit, Brown likes Darko.

"He's a great kid," Brown tells Insider. "He works so hard and he's just so skilled."

Brown ticks off Darko's best attributes. Sweet shooting touch, great passing ability, high basketball IQ.

Teammate Ben Wallace gushes with praise for the kid he calls "the Russian Rocky."

"He's working his butt off," Wallace said. "That's how you earn respect with us," Wallace says as Darko sits on the locker room floor doing sit-ups and push ups.

Sounds like a No. 2 pick in the draft on paper. So why isn't Darko getting playing time?

"He wants to play out here," Brown says motioning to the 3-point line. "I want him playing in there," he says pointing to the paint.

For the next half hour, Darko plays exclusively in the paint. His moves look strong. He plays with confidence. And he has little difficulty scoring against the likes of Ham and Rebraca.

"He looks great," Brown admits. "He looks great here. The problem is the kid hasn't played. He just doesn't have the game experience to throw him out there. I want him to play the right way before we throw him to the wolves."

And here is Brown's dilemma. He's got a kid with a ton of talent and very little knowledge about how to use it in the pro game. He could throw him out there now and he'd learn. But the team would suffer. Or, he can keep him off the court and Darko can continue to learn by watching. At some point, however, Brown concedes that watching will only get him so far.

"It's a strange tight rope you have to walk."

Darko's Not Alone

Brown isn't the first to walk it. The NBA has been drafting teenagers for years. While there are success stories here and there (like LeBron James or Amare Stoudemire), in most cases it has taken the kids years to develop.

"This has nothing to do with what country a kid is from," Pistons president Joe Dumars told Insider. "The history of drafting kids at 18 is that these kids aren't ready. Kobe, KG and McGrady weren't ready. You could see the flashes here and there, but they weren't ready for the league. Period."

Tim Floyd coached Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry their rookie years. He was quick to tick off the attributes that 18-year-olds lack when they make the jump.

This has nothing to do with what country a kid is from. The history of drafting kids at 18 is that these kids aren't ready. Kobe, KG and McGrady weren't ready. You could see the flashes here and there, but they weren't ready for the league. Period.
Joe Dumars
"Maturity, experience, physical strength, focus," Floyd told Insider. "There are huge expectations on these kids and most of them aren't equipped with the tools to live up to them right away. When you think about it, what 18 year old, in any job, really is?"

International teenagers are proving to be not so different from their American counterparts.

Last year, the Nuggets got the first taste of the phenomenon when they drafted 18-year-old Nikoloz Tskitishvili with the No. 5 pick. Skita wasn't even getting playing time overseas. The jump to the NBA was just too much for the 7-footer from the country of Georgia to handle.

Skita laid a major egg his rookie year, averaging just 3.9 ppg on 29 percent shooting from the field. The skinny, 19-year-old 7-footer spent all of his time hanging out on the perimeter launching 3s, struggled defensively and was the source of much derision after the Nuggets passed on rookies like Caron Butler and Amare Stoudemire to draft him.

"Last year, he was the equivalent of a high school senior coming into the league," Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe said. "He didn't play much in Europe and lacked the strength and the experience to really compete in the league. But he's a talented kid. When you see a kid work that hard in the summer and combine with his obvious physical gifts, I have no doubt he's going to be really good."

"Last season was hard for me," Skita told Insider. "Everyone wants to come into the NBA and play well. I was disappointed with my performance. I sometimes wondered what was wrong with me."

That's why Dumars isn't sweating the heat. He claims that he knew what he was getting into when he drafted Darko No. 2.

"You have to have the appetite to draft kids who aren't ready right away," Dumars told Insider. "I'm trying to balance what I give to the coach. We've given Larry a team that he can win with even without Darko. So you look long term and try put a roster in place that will help you win now and down the road."

While Dumars admits that drafting Darko over Carmelo would have been a more difficult decision had the Pistons not had such a talented roster, he still claims that he would probably have made the same decision.

"Carmelo's a talented player and was worthy of a No. 2 pick," Dumars said. "But you win with size in this league and we think that in a few years, Darko will be just as good, only he'll be doing it at 7-foot-2."

How Milicic handles the pressure will go a long way in determining what type of career he has.

"I'm having fun," Milicic told Insider. "I just do what the coach asks me to do. That's my job. I can not control what everyone else thinks. I'm just glad to be a Piston."

He does and doesn't mean it. Darko is competitive and is dying to get into the game. But he's also mature enough to know that unlike in Europe, he's not better than the guys he practices against every day. Not yet anyway.

"I have a lot to prove," Darko says. "A lot to learn. I'm just playing hard and trying not to keep making the same mistakes."

Brown goes out of his way to praise Milicic's worth ethic and dedication. He tells the story of Milicic hiring his own driver on an off-day to take him to the gym so he could practice alone. He defends the 18-year-old with passion.

"He doesn't speak our language, he doesn't understand our culture, he doesn't know the NBA, he doesn't even shave or drive, and we expect him to be something I don't think he can be right now," Brown said. "He's still learning how to live. The basketball will come."

"He's worked as hard as any guy on the team," Dumars said. "He's light years ahead of where he was. It's only a matter of time now."

They keep getting younger

Darko and Skita's dilemma has raised eyebrows among some NBA GMs. The last few years, the prospect of finding the next Dirk Nowitzki probably caused a few teams to reach too far for a young prospect who just wasn't ready.

So forgive them if they are a little leery this year when they see the age of some of the top international prospects being bandied around.

Players like Predrag Samardzski (17), Manuchar Markoishvili (17), Andris Biedrins (17), Damir Omerhodzic (18), Pavel Podkolzine (18), Tiago Splitter (18) and Kosta Perovic (18) are all projected as possible top-15 picks in next year's draft. With the exception of Perovic and, to a lesser extent, Splitter, none of them are even playing with their European teams.

"There are no bigs in this years draft, so guys start gazing overseas," one scout said. "But what they are finding is kids who should be seniors in high school. These kids aren't ready. They aren't even getting the playing time that Darko was in Serbia. But they have so much talent and are so tall that teams push right on past that. Guys like Biedrins and Omerhodzic have no business being even mentioned as possible draft prospects. They have a talent, but still haven't had a chance to use it. You think they'll get playing experience in the NBA? Look around, it's not happening."

The same could be said of America's top draft prospects. The early consensus No. 1 is Dwight Howard, a skinny 18-year-old high school kid who scouts concede is closer to Kwame Brown than Stoudemire. Right behind him is Josh Smith, a skinny 6-foot-9 high school swingman who also happens to be 18. On the college side, scouts are raving about Luol Deng, who at 18 has played just five games of college basketball. UConn's Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon are the only college athletes mentioned in the lottery right now who are older than 19.

Now you know why David Stern is pushing so hard for an age limit in the NBA.

The nature of the draft is continuing to evolve. Ten years ago, the lottery was meant to restock bad teams with good players who could come in and immediately turn around fortunes. Now, it's only a matter of time now before KinderCare jumps aboard as the official sponsor of the 2010 NBA Draft.

"Again, it's about having the appetite to draft 18-year-olds," Dumars says. "Some teams are comfortable, some aren't. Americans. Europeans. Chinese. Doesn't matter. If you can put your team in a position where you can be patient and don't need the pick right away, the reward can be very, very high. If you need the kid now? Good luck."

Draft Cards

Of the top international prospect actually getting playing time, no -one is having a better season than Serbia's Kosta Perovic. Subbing for injured Nets first-round pick Nenad Kristic, Perovic has stunned some scouts with his strong play in the Yugoslavian league.

Now that Partizan is playing Euroleague games, his numbers have dipped slightly, but that's to be expected with the increase in competition. The 18-year-old, 7-foot-2 lithe center dropped 16 points on 8-for-10 shooting versus Pau Orthez recently. He also grabbed six rebounds and blocked four shots in 26 minutes. Some scouts claim that Perovic's inclusion on the Serbian national team this summer really helped in his progression.

"He's got a sweet shooting touch and great hands," one scout told Insider. "He's very long. He reminds me a little bit of Pau Gasol. He doesn't have the strength or the body to bang at all, but he's so skilled, he finds other ways to get it done around the basket. He's still a little raw offensively, but he's really taken a big step this year."

Scouts are split on exactly how good a prospect Perovic will be. Several think he's got a shot at being a top-three pick should he choose to come out. Others think that because he's so thin and raw teams will shy away from him this season.

-The other young international prospect getting some playing time is Brazil's Tiago Splitter. Splitter, who is playing with Spain's Tau Vitoria, is averaging 4.4 ppg and 3.4 rpg in just over 17 mpg in Euroleague play.

Splitter has been on scouts' radar screens for a few years, but he really made a name for himself with his strong play for the Brazilian national team at the Tournament of the America's in Puerto Rico this summer. Splitter played extensive minutes versus Team USA, and despite being just 18, looked like he was ready to play with the big boys.

He's got a nice body and, at 7-feet, 245, is the right size for the NBA. Splitter is more physical than many of the international players, but he still has the ability to play three positions in the pros. His outside shot isn't as good as Darko or Dirk, but it's improving.

Most scouts believe that if he comes out this year, he's a lock for the top 10 and could be as high as a top-5 pick in the draft.

-Speaking of Brazilians, Anderson Varejao is making the most of his strong play versus the U.S. in Puerto Rico this summer. For the past two seasons Varejao has been unable to play much with his team, F.C. Barcelona, because of Spanish league rules. Now that things have changed, Varejao has become a more important cog for the defending Euroleague champs.
He recently had 15 points and 10 rebounds versus Cibona and seems to be developing a more consistent perimeter shot. While Varejao will never be the offensive force that scouts like, he's long, athletic and aggressive around the boards.

A few scouts still feel like Varejao can play his way back into the lottery this season. The rest think he's a mid-to-late first-rounder.

-Sergei Monya and Viktor Khryapa continue to split minutes for CSKA Moscow and are putting up almost identical numbers. Monya is averaging 9.2 ppg and 2.8 rpg on 75 percent shooting. Khryapa is averaging 9.0 ppg and 2.0 rpg on 90 percent shooting.
Still, scouts have grown to favor Monya over Khryapa based almost entirely on Monya's more aggressive attitude and better athleticism. Right now Monya is projected as a mid-first-round pick. Most scouts are currently projecting Khryapa as either a late-first-round or early second-round pick.

Around the League

-Jerry West is convinced that Bonzi Wells is basically a "good kid" and that he'll behave himself in Memphis. "Hubie [Brown] and I both talked to him before the trade was made," West told Insider. "We were pleasantly surprised with how charming he really was. I think he's a good kid who was in a tough situation. We believe things will be different here."
Bonzi Wells
Shooting Guard
Memphis Grizzlies

13 12.2 4.7 2.7 .389 .778

Wells does as well. "I'm going to come in and play my game," Wells told reporters on Thursday. "Whatever (Brown) wants me to do, I'll do. Whenever he tells me my role, I'm going to try to do it to the best of my ability. . . . You've got a lot of guys here who can really play. Hopefully, I can just fit in."

And if he doesn't fit in? "We won't put up with any nonsense here," West said. "He knows that. He's going to play our way and with the type of professionalism we expect from our players or he's not going to play."

Given Wells' rocky history, isn't that a risk? West claims that it really isn't. "We did our homework and knew what type of player we were getting," West said. "We think in the right system whatever problems he's had in the past won't be an issue."

If that's true, then the Grizzlies got a steal. While the team is loaded with talent, they don't really have many players who can create their own shot and get to the line in the fourth quarter when the team needs a bucket. Bonzi can. An aging Wesley Person and a mid-first-round pick is a small price to pay for a player like Wells if he keeps his head on straight.

-Are the Nets considering trading Jason Kidd? That's the thesis behind a New York Times article this morning that actually makes some sense. With the team struggling to win, draw fans and find an owner, has Kidd's six-year, $103 million deal become a problem?
Jason Kidd
Point Guard
New Jersey Nets

17 16.6 6.4 9.1 .387 .802

While the story makes it clear that there is no evidence that Kidd is on the trading block, it's an interesting problem for the Nets and Rod Thorn. Kidd isn't happy and probably wishes he would've signed with the Spurs. The Nets are struggling to find a buyer. The Nets still can't generate any fan support. The team probably can't afford to re-sign Kenyon Martin with Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo's contracts hanging over their head. Coach Byron Scott is on the hot seat. What's a team to do?

While trading Kidd seems like the most drastic course, it's possible that the Nets would have to resort to that if they couldn't work out a trade that gets them something special in return for Martin.

Where would Kidd go? It's only speculation at this point, but the Spurs would seem like a logical destination next summer. They'll have the cap room to absorb his contract. A Tony Parker-for-Kidd swap would give the Nets a much cheaper alternative at the point and give the Spurs the point guard they coveted last summer.

-Ignore the rumblings in today's New York Post about the Knicks going after the Hawks' Jason Terry. Terry is a base-year compensation player, making his contract almost impossible to trade until next fall.

Peep Show

Memphis Grizzlies: If you were Bonzi Wells, you'd be smiling, too. "Memphis rescued me," Wells said in the Commercial Appeal. "I just can't wait to get back to the love of the game. I was really excited. Just to hear somebody talking upbeat about me was a blessing for me. It made me feel good in my heart because everybody's been down on me lately. But . . . (Jerry West) made me feel good and (he) recharged my battery. I'm ready." And Bonzi's been able to convince at least West that all that nonsense back in Portland is behind him. "There's some stuff that goes on that gets a little more hyped than it really is," Wells said. "All in all, I'm a good guy and there's some great guys out in Portland. But we catch a raw deal sometimes. When people aren't around to know, they form an opinion about you."

Minnesota Timberwolves: Who needs the injured Wally Szczerbiak, Michael Olowokandi and Troy Hudson when you've got Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell? "The three of us are learning how to work this three-headed monster," Garnett said in the Star Tribune. "It's a three-headed monster that has one tongue, two eyes, and it's kind of crazy how it work. But it works." But it didn't come easy. It didn't come quickly. And it isn't quite complete just yet. "They're not stepping on toes, they're not in the way," Garnett said. "If World (Wally) and Huddy (Hudson) were in there, you'd think, 'Wow, who do I go to?' . . . This allows them to create their own little space and fit in. Chemistry is not just bought and put together. It's a time thing."

Detroit Pistons: To point guard Chauncey Billups, it's not whether you win or lose . . . "We're winning games, but we're not playing well," he said in the Detroit Free Press. "We put it together when we need to -- at the end of games and in second halves. We're not all that happy with where we're at and where we should be right now. We knew it was going to take some time, but we're not playing the way we should be playing. We're not looking too far into it or downing ourselves because we're getting wins, but at the same time the good teams that are good early and need to be great late make a transition, and that's what we need to do." And coach Larry Brown couldn't agree more. "I like the fact that they understand that," he said. "Sometimes we play to the level of our opponent. I feel funny saying that because we're all pros and these teams we play against. I think we have a tendency to not take everybody seriously."

Los Angeles Lakers: Are hugs and kisses next? "I've been kind of & difficult for Kobe," head coach Phil Jackson said in the Los Angeles Times. "I've always been a person that has tried to create confidence for players. But with Kobe, we've been combative with each other and we've been challenging of each other. This year is different. I haven't had to challenge him a lot about his game, about fitting into a team game, about incorporating his teammates. He's been doing that. In the process, my relationship with him has a softer edge." But then, again, Jackson's never had to really motivate Kobe to get better. "One thing we've always known about Kobe, he's got the great ability to focus," Jackson said. "Players that have that strength of character he shows, to put things aside and get on with basketball, the business of basketball & that's been put under extreme duress by his outside situation&. November rolled around, he's played a few games, gotten with his teammates, found a solace in their camaraderie for him here."

Orlando Magic: Fifteen losses in a row. Sixteen in a row. Eighteen, nineteen, who's counting? "I don't care if we lose 20 in a row," Tracy McGrady said in the Daytona Beach News Journal. "I'm going to keep my head up, and I'm going to go out and I'm going to compete and try to do everything possible." Tonight, the Magic take on the defending NBA champ Spurs, who are the not-so-proud owners of a 10-11 record, themselves.

Phoenix Suns: Head coach Frank Johnson either got the biggest vote of confidence or the kiss of death. "It's a little sad. I'm not talking and Bryan (Colangelo, president and general manager) isn't talking, and we're being asked about speculation," chairman Jerry Colangelo said in the Arizona Republic. "We need to set the record straight. When teams are losing - with the way and how they are losing - it immediately goes to speculation about trades and the coach being fired. It's inappropriate to comment on any of that. . . . We've sputtered out of the gate. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see it. We're always analyzing why that's the case. Given the facts, we're disappointed where we're at now, but that's a far cry from the coach being fired." But don't get him wrong. "I haven't been pleased with the effort I've seen (on the court)," Colangelo said of his 7-10 team. "But everybody is responsible, and the decisions responsible for player personnel acquisition and trading must be shared. We're all in the same trench together."

12-05-2003, 06:46 PM
Hey thanks, thebac.

12-05-2003, 06:56 PM
I now need eye replacement surgery.....crap that was long!