Pavel Podkolzine turned 19 years old today.
"I feel 19," Podkolzine says with a hint of laughter. "It's good. It's all good. I'm back baby. I'm back."
Depending on who you ask, he's either the next hot international prospect or an asterisk in the international invasion of 2003. Either way, that's quite a burden to be carrying at the age of 19.
"He's a top-three pick in the draft this year, no question," one GM says. "He wasn't ready last year, but this year, I think he'll have enough experience under his belt to make a better impression."
"Washed up," another NBA GM says matter of factly. "He was a flash in the pan. I'm not sure anyone can duplicate the magic that he brought last year. The unknown is very sexy. Once you get out the magnifying glass, you don't always like what you see."
At 7-foot-5, Podkolzine has size and mobility, but he lacks game experience.
Podkolzine, for those who can't remember, is the 7-foot-5 Siberian sensation who took the NBA draft by storm last June and then, just as quickly, disappeared from the radar screen. After being projected as a lottery pick by many NBA scouts and GMs, a diagnosis of acromegaly (a growth hormone secreting pituitary adenoma) just before the deadline pushed him to withdraw from the draft.
His story continues to be amazing. In the span of less than half a year, Podkolzine had risen from obscurity practicing (not playing) in Varese, Italy to a potential high lottery pick in the 2003 NBA Draft. In December of 2002, only one NBA team had even seen him play. After an Insider report in late December, the number had swelled to 18 by early May.
But it wasn't until Podkolzine's surprising workout in front of more than 100 NBA scouts and GMs in Chicago that Podkolzine finally started to believe that his dream of playing in the NBA was going to come true. Then it disappeared just as quickly. Acromegaly can be fatal if not treated in time. Scared and exhausted, Pavel went back into to Italy, his future still very uncertain.
The past six months of Podkolzine's life have gone relatively untold. He returned to Italy and began therapy to begin treating his overactive pituitary gland. The treatment, a series of shots that essentially turn off the pituitary, was a success according to Podkolzine's agent, Justin Zanick, and Podkolzine returned to his team in Varese with a determination to begin anew his quest for the NBA.
The road has been rocky. A new head coach in Varese didn't like the unwanted attention Pavel had brought to the team. Pavel sat. He watched. He practiced when he could. But for the most part, he just sat.
"It was very frustrating," Pavel told Insider. "I know I have so much to work on, to get ready, but no opportunity."
In December, however, things began to turn around. The head coach of Varese was fired, a new assistant coach who had taken a liking to Pavel took over the reigns and slowly Pavel began to resume his professional basketball career. Lately he's been averaging 15 to 20 minutes a game and has made a significant impact on the court.
"He is working so hard," advisor and former coach Gianni Chipparo told Insider. "He practices three and four hours every day. Now he gets attention from the coach and other players. They are making him tougher and stronger. He is learning. He has good days and bad days, but now more good than bad."
Over the past six weeks, scouts and teammates alike claim that the Pavel's progress has been enormous.
"I think GMs that have written him off are working on bad information," one international scout told Insider. "I saw Pavel play last week and he looked 100 times better than he looked last summer when many felt he'd be a lottery pick in the draft. Last year he was a prospect. Period. This year he's becoming a player. He's affecting games. He's learning how to play defense and use his size to his advantage on offense. The difference is night and day. I think everyone's still a bit wary about the medical thing. But if he really is cured, he'll go high."
Another scout claims that Pavel's inside game is starting to blossom. "He still has his good games and his bad games, but there's major improvements. Last year the kid had no idea he was 7-foot-5. He hung around the perimeter and wanted to do crossovers. This year he's in the paint, grinding it out. That's the biggest difference. And it's a huge one."
Pavel's teammate, former NBA player Tyrone Nesby, agrees. "He's turning into a hell of a player," Nesby told Insider via phone from Italy. "When I first got here, I could see that he really didn't know how to play. He's come such a long way. Now he gets in to the groove. He's not hacking everyone up. He's getting tougher and just getting a feel for it. He's going to be really good."
Judging the International Men of Mystery
What does "really good" translate into when measuring international prospects? That's a question that GMs and scouts are still wrestling with. Following a trend that began in America in 1996, international prospects are getting younger by the day. Most of them would be either college freshmen or high school seniors or juniors if they played in the U.S. Many of them do not see regular playing time on their team. A couple of prospects haven't even made it to their senior team yet. A few more are so closely guarded that few scouts have even seen them practice.
Two years ago, players like Nikoloz Tskitishvili were the exception. Now they're the norm.
When you factor in murky contract situations, and conflicting information on a player's status for the draft, discerning the top international prospects for the 2004 NBA Draft can be maddening.
You think Pavel is tough to evaluate? At least he has an NBA buyout in place that assures a team willing to draft him that it can have him this year. There are no such guarantees for top prospects like Tiago Splitter, Kosta Perovic, Peja Samardzski and Sergei Monya. All of these players have long-term contracts with their team and none of them have NBA buyouts. That can be a problem, especially with the escalating prices to get kids in the NBA.
Darko Milicic's buyout was kept secret by the team and his agent, but several NBA sources believe it fell in the three to four million dollar range. Yao Ming's buyout topped that. As international teams see what players and their agents are willing to pay to get them out, their expectations can spiral out of control.
Speaking of expectations, the players themselves (and their parents) are also over anxious to get to the NBA. They see a player like Maciej Lampe or Alexsandar Pavlovic make the jump and say to their agent, "If he can make it, why not me?" Given the low pay, poor economic situations of their families and sometimes brutal working conditions many of them play under, making the NBA becomes an obsession. That can lead to bad decisions that ultimately lead a potential lottery prospect to slip into the second round.
Even with all of the pitfalls, reservations and hedging going on, the 2004 NBA Draft is shaping up to be another international affair. Conservative guesses by several NBA GMs and directors of player personnel put the potential number of international players taken in the first round this year at between eight and 10 players. A few more optimistic folks believe that, with the weakness of this year's college class, there could be 12 to 15. So much for backlash.
Who's in, who's out and who's on the fence? Insider spent the last month talking to trusted NBA international scouts, coaches and player agents trying to get a handle on what this field will look like. Things are likely to change as we get closer to the draft. Agents are actively working on buyouts as we speak -- probably the biggest factor in determining whether a player actually declares and stays in the draft this year. And the number of international players taken will, of course, be affected by the number of college underclassmen and high school seniors who declare. Until then, here's a rough sketch of what we found out.
Pavel Podkolzine, C, Varese
The facts: 7-5, 300, 19 years old
The skinny: He's a hulk of a human being with surprising athleticism and quickness for someone his size. He's got a soft touch for his size and is reportedly beginning to learn how to use his size in the paint. He still is very raw and is only now beginning to get experience at a decent level of competition. Some scouts still have concerns about his illness, but those should be cleared up once he undergoes another medical test from the NBA. Based on his stature and potential, he's a likely lottery pick who could go Top 5 with a clean bill of health and strong workouts.
Ivan Chiriaev, F, St. Thomas Aquanis High (Ontario)
The facts: 7-1, 230, 19 years old
The skinny: This native of St. Petersburg Russia has been wowing scouts for the past six months with a lethal combination of athleticism, shooting ability and ball handling skills. Several scouts claim he has a point guard handle. Unlike most Europeans phenoms, scouts have had ready access to him because he plays in Canada and most have come away very impressed. With that said, there are still a ton of questions. He doesn't have much playing experience and the league that he plays in is pretty awful. Based on potential, he's a likely late lottery pick, but he'll be a project for whoever drafts him. That fact could push him much further down in the draft.
Sergei Monya, G/F, CSKA Moscow
The facts: 6-7, 230, 20 years old
The skinny: Monya may be the most NBA ready of any of the top international prospects this year. He already has an NBA body and strength, which is a big, big plus. He also plays with an aggressiveness both offensively and defensively that scouts really love. He's got a very solid mid-range jumper and his 3-point shot has also improved. Some scouts still question his ball handling, but admit that CSKA doesn't really ask him to put the ball on the floor much. The fact that he has extensive playing experience the past two season for a Euroleague team really helps his cause. The biggest issue with Monya will be his buyout. He doesn't have one and CSKA may be reluctant to let both Monya and another NBA prospect, Viktor Khryapa, go in the same year. If his agent, Marc Fleisher, can get something worked out with CSKA early enough, Monya's a late-lottery-to-mid-first-round pick.
Sasha Vujacic, G, Udine
The facts: 6-7, 210, 20 years old
The skinny: Vujacic impressed scouts with a good performance at the Chicago pre-draft camp last season. He's a 6-foot-7 combo guard with some definite point guard skills. He's mostly playing two guard for Udine this season, but scouts feel he can make the transition to the point in the pros. Sees plenty of playing time and, by most accounts, is having a very good season in Italy. He'll need to get stronger and speed up his game to succeed in the NBA, but several scouts see a young Brent Barry when watching him. That should be enough to get him into the late first round at the very least.
Viktor Khryapa, F, CSKA Moscow
The facts: 6-9, 230, 21 years old
The skinny: He pulled out of the past two drafts after failing to receive a first-round promise from a team. This year he's in no matter what. Has nice skills for a player his size and is a good shooter who thrives in the open court. He's a small forward in the pros and has nice size there. Scouts wonder about his athleticism and defense. In Europe he tends to defend bigger players. He struggles when asked to guard quicker perimeter guys. If he's going to play small forward in the pros, that's going to be an issue. He has a $350,000 NBA buyout, which helps his cause. Right now he's a bubble boy -- late first round to second.
Anderson Varejao, F, Barcelona
The facts: 6-10, 230, 21 years old
The skinny: Scouts either love him or hate Brazil's Sideshow Bob. Like Khryapa he's been in and pulled out of the last two NBA drafts after he failed to secure a first-round promise. He impressed everyone with a strong game versus Team USA in Puerto Rico last summer, but is having just a decent year for Barcelona this year. Teams love his athleticism and aggressiveness defensively and on the boards. But he still hasn't proven he'll be able to score at a regular clip in the NBA. His shot and offensive skills looked great in Puerto Rico, but he's inconsistent in Euroleague play. He'll drop 17 and 10 one night and five and three the next. He's draft eligible this year, so there's no backing out. The lack of a buyout will prohibit him from going too high. Depending on who you ask, he's either a mid-first-rounder or a second-rounder. Split the difference and he falls somewhere in the late first round.
Ha Seung Jin, C, South Korea
The facts: 7-3, 300, 18 years old
The skinny: He's huge and size always counts for something in the NBA. He also has some decent skills and a soft touch that teams are always looking for in a big man. But the comparisons to Yao Ming are ridiculous. He has very little experience. I saw a workout tape made by SFX. You can see the potential there, but it's very, very raw. He's reportedly been working out in L.A. If SFX can build him an NBA body and low-post skills, he could soar up the charts on draft day. From what I saw and other scouts have seen, late first round is more like it right now.
Wait and See
Kosta Perovic, F/C, Partizan
The facts: 7-2, 230, 19 years old
The skinny: Having a breakout year at Partizan after stepping into the starting lineup to replace Nets first-round pick Nenad Kristic. Now that Kristic has returned from an injury, his production will probably fall off a bit. Great skills. Soft hands, nice jump shot and good athleticism. Strength, mobility and position are all legit questions, but on talent, he's a lottery pick. The problem, and it's a major one, will be his buyout. He doesn't have one in his contract. Partizan owner Vlade Divac has told Kristic that he can leave the team for the NBA this season. Will he be willing to let Kristic's replacement go as well? Several sources in Europe doubt it. Partizan doesn't need the money. If Perovic's agent (even that's not settled yet) can't convince teams that he's available to play in 2004, his stock will slip.
Tiago Splitter, F, Tau Vitoria
The facts: 7-0, 240, 19 years old
The skinny: Splitter had his coming out party in the Tournament of the Americas in Puerto Rico last summer. He's also cracked the rotation for TAU, one of the top teams in Europe, which says something. He's got an NBA body, though he still needs to make it stronger. Most scouts agree that his defense is ahead of his offense right now. He does have a nice handle and a good, but not great, jumper. Scouts just aren't sure exactly what position he plays. Probably power forward, but he needs to improve his inside scoring if that's the case. Scouts feel he's probably a little too slow footed to play the three, which hurts his cause a little. The lack of a buyout also hurts his cause. With scouts undecided on exactly where he'll play, many scouts feel that he could fall anywhere from the late lottery to mid first round. That may not be enough to convince him to come out.
Peja Samardzski, F/C, Partizan
The facts: 6-11, 240, 17 years old
The skinny: He has unbelievable skills for a kid his age and size. He can shoot the ball effortlessly from anywhere on the court and he's developed a strong enough low-post game to be reckoned with on that end as well. He has high-lottery talent, but several things are holding him back. First, he still hasn't it made it to Partizan's senior team, meaning scouts can only judge him against inferior junior talent. Second, Partizan has kept the kid under lock and key; scouts aren't able to get to practice to watch him work out. Questions about his strength and lateral quickness are also big question marks, but at just 17 years of age, they don't kill him. He projects to a high-post center in the NBA based on his body frame and skills, which is good thing. His agent, Marc Cornstein, says that Samardzski wants to declare for the draft. But without a buyout and with Partizan facing the loss of at least one of its big men, will it let him go? He's another top talent who may just be another year or two away before he can realistically be in a position to go in the high lottery. Still, if teams get him over for workouts, watch out. He'll wow them.
Andris Biedrins, F, Skonto Riga
The facts: 6-11, 240, 18 years old
The skinny: A trip to America playing against some of our top high school talent rocketed Biedrins, a native of Latvia, into the NBA draft discussion. When scouts saw him in April, they didn't see anything too special. But by most accounts he's dramatically improved to the point that he's moved himself into the first round. Scouts like the foundation he came from. He started as an athletic rebounder and shot blocker who just recently added some offensive fire power to his game. He's still way too thin and needs a lot more work on his perimeter game, but the scouts who have seen him in the past two months have all walked away very impressed. The lack of competition in Latvia and his rapid development make him very tough to project. His buyout situation is also very unclear at the moment. That's a lot of question marks. Scouts have him projected as a mid-to-late-first rounder right now, but he could move up the charts once he gets more exposure.
Martynas Andriuskevicius, F/C, Zalgris (Lithuania)
The facts: 7-1, 230, 18 years old
The skinny: The sleeper of the draft. Impressed scouts at a junior tournament during the Euroleague Final Four last spring. According to scouts, he's made dramatic improvements since then. While most believe he's another year away from the draft (he still needs to add another 20 pounds), several scouts claim that he's a better prospect than Splitter or Perovic. Being tutored by Arvydas Sabonis can't hurt. I don't expect that he'll be in the draft, but you never know. If he is, and he gets the exposure he needs, he could be a lottery pick.
Vladimir Veremeenko, F, Avtodor Saratov (Belarus)
The facts: 6-10, 230, 19 years old
The skinny: Has had a productive year in Russia and many believe he's the best prospect behind Monya and Khryapa. He has the size, athleticism and quickness teams look for in a forward. He's a bit of a tweener, but his athleticism should allow him to guard threes in the league. A mid-season injury kept some scouts from seeing him. Is he ready now? Scouts say he's a late-first-round, early second-round pick right now, but he could move up with more exposure. A bit of a sleeper.
Ivan Koljevic, G, Buducnost
The facts: 6-2, 175, 19 years old
The skinny: Koljevic put on a scoring show at the Global Games in Dallas last summer and has put up strong numbers for Buducnost this season, essentially averaging a point a minute. The question, and it's a big one, is whether he's really a point guard or a two guard masquerading around in a point guard's body. Scouts who think he can be an NBA point guard see him as a definite first-rounder. Those who think he doesn't have the play-making skills see him falling into the second round if he declare. Most scouts think he could use another year playing the point before making the jump.
Uros Slokar, F, Benetton
The facts: 6-10, 230, 20 years old
The skinny: Slokar is having a great year for Benetton, and at his size, he's intrigued a lot of people. The question really is about his position. He's too thin and weak to guard NBA fours, not quick enough to stop an NBA three. With so many questions, the chances that he's in and stays in are slim.
Luka Bogdanovic, F, Crvena Zvezda
The facts: 6-10, 220, 19 years old
The skinny: Great shooter still searching to find a position. Some scouts compare him to a young Vladimir Radmanovic, though Bogdanovic doesn't have the athleticism that Radmanvoic has. His agent says he'll be in the draft, but with scouts prediciting he'd likely slip into the second round, look for him to pull out and try again next year when he adds more strength to his frame.
Erazem Lorbek, C, Skipper Bologna
The facts: 6-11, 220, 19 years old
The skinny: Has the skill and a wealth of talent, but needs to grow into his body. He bolted Michigan State after one year and is no playing professionally in Italy. Is seeing playing time on one of the best teams in Europe, but he'll need at least one more year in Europe before he's ready. If he comes in now, he's probably a second rounder.
Nemanja Alekandrov, F, FMP Zeleznik
The facts: 6-11, 210, 16 years old
The skinny: Many scouts consider him the top prospect in Europe right now. He won't, however, be draft eligible until next season. His versatility, quickness, athleticism and basketball IQ for a kid his age are amazing. Could be a top-three pick next year.
Damir Omerhodzic, F, Cibona
The facts: 6-11, 230, 18 years old
The skinny: Another kid with unbelievable upside, but no experience. He isn't getting any time on Cibona at the moment. His agent, Marc Cornstein, isn't sure if Omerhodzic will be in the draft. Scouts unanimously believe he should wait at least one more year. While they believe he has a bright future, they see him as a little further behind than some of the other players we've mentioned. Expect to see him again in 2005.
Manuchar Markoishvili, G/F, Benetton
The facts: 6-6, 190, 17 years old
The skinny: Scouts love him, but a down year has muddied his draft status. He was playing in the Euroleague Final Four for Benetton at age 16 last year. Two different GMs claimed he was the second-best prospect in Europe behind Darko Milicic last season. But Benetton got off to a slow start and Markoishvili lost his spot in the rotation, killing the momentum he brought into the season. Questions about his 3-point shooting and his quickness still linger, but everyone still believes he's more ready than most of the prospects on this list. With that said, his agent, Marc Fleisher, told Insider that Markoishvili will probably sit this draft out. If he did go in, he's looking at the mid to late first round.
Johan Petro, F, Pau Orthez
The facts: 6-11, 220, 18 years old
The skinny: Great, athletic prospect down the road. But he's playing in his first season in the Euroleague and has struggled to make the rotation. Teams love his athletic skills, but he needs a lot of polish on the offensive end.
Roko Leni Ukic, PG, Split Croatia
The facts: 6-5, 185, 20 years old
The skinny: Some promise there because of his size and quickness at the position. But he's undisciplined, lacks a solid shot and has a very thin frame. Scouts see potential, but it's another year or two down the road.
Dusan Sakota, SF, Panathinaikos
The facts: 6-11, 220, 18 years old
The skinny: Considered to be one of the best shooters in Europe. One scout compared him to a young Peja Stojakovic. Has enormous potential, but he's still razor thin. Once he bulks up his body, he'll move up the charts. Give him another year or two.
Best of the Rest: Beno Udrih, G, Avtodor Saratov; Mo Ke, F, China; Blagota Sekulic, F, Partizan; Kresmir Loncar, F, Benetton; Rodolfo Fernandez, G, Spain; Edu Hernadez, C, Real Madrid; Marcelo Huertas, G, Brazil; Aleksandr Capin, G, Serbia; Marko Javanovic, G, Serbia; Ioannis Boursousis, C, Greece
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