By Bob Cohn
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
The Houston Rockets' Yao Ming, a leading candidate for rookie of the year and the top center in the All-Star voting (fourth overall), is making a major impression on the NBA. In another sense, so are his size-18 Nike Shox.
"This is more of an international thing than just Europe," Orlando Magic general manager John Gabriel said. "It's a global thing, and it could be as big as the footprints of Yao Ming."
This "thing" is the significant and relatively recent migration of foreign players to the NBA. Most have come from Europe. But Wang Zhizhi, Mengke Bateer and, especially, the 7-foot-5 Yao have opened the door to China and its 3billion inhabitants, many of whom play basketball, many of whom are tall.
"I read where there were at least a hundred 7-footers playing basketball in China," New Jersey Nets president and general manager Rod Thorn said. But that might be conservative. Phoenix Suns international scout Tim Shea said he knows of at least 20 players standing at least 7 feet tall in Mongolia alone. "You're talking about vast numbers," Shea said.
It's more than just numbers. A dozen television stations are beaming Yao's games back to China, further exposing the game in a country where basketball already is established. (More women play basketball in China than men and women combined in this country. Yao's mother is one of those female hoopsters.)
And it's more than just China or the traditional European leagues. Africa, South America and other parts of Asia - anywhere they're putting a ball through a hoop, which is to say, practically everywhere - are being scoured by scouts for potential talent.
"There are a lot of untapped resources," Gabriel said. "You must expand your scouting, you must trust the evaluation of more people than ever."
Every NBA team, including the Wizards, has made international scouting a priority. A recent phenomenon is the international scouting service, but teams like to have at least one full-time scout working abroad, as well as contacts and insiders - the equivalent of the old baseball bird dog - scattered on every continent. The consensus is that this emphasis will increase, and why not? Look at the results. The Memphis Grizzlies' Pau Gasol, who is from Spain, was the first foreign-born rookie of the year last season. Yao might make it two straight. Half of the 10 players on the all-rookie team last year came from abroad. In the 2002 NBA Draft, five of the first 16 players taken - including Yao, the No.1 pick - were born overseas. The league had 67 players from foreign countries and U.S. territories on opening day rosters this season, up from 52 a year ago.
All signs indicate the trend will continue. According to one estimate, foreign players will comprise as much as 40 percent of this year's draft. Exact numbers are impossible to project, but few doubt that in five years the NBA will look a lot different than it does even now because of the foreign influx. "There's no limit," Shea said.
"In terms of international players increasingly becoming part of NBA rosters, this is just the tip of the iceberg," said Stu Jackson, the NBA senior vice president of basketball operations.
"I really don't know if there's any ceiling in sight," Boston Celtics general manager Chris Wallace said. "I'm not saying you'll have 58 foreign-born players in the draft [the maximum number], but obviously the numbers are increasing. The players have had success.
"Sports is somewhat easy to figure out. Everyone plays follow the leader. These guys play well. They bring something to the table a lot of young Americans don't. A high skill level and the fundamentals are there. So they're attractive."
Dallas Mavericks assistant Donn Nelson, who has made a career of scouting international talent, said to expect more versatile, multiskilled big men in the mold of Sacramento's 6-9 Peja Stojakovic and Gasol and Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, who both stand 7 feet but who also, in a positive sense, play a lot smaller.
"The toughest thing to find in the NBA is size and skill," said Nelson, an assistant coach of the Lithuanian team that almost upset the United States and eventually won the bronze medal in the 2000 Olympics. "So if you get a 6-10 to 7-2 guy that has a decent set of hands and feet, that gets coaches excited.
"I think there are more Gasols out there, more Nowitzkis. Those bodies were placed by the good Lord on this planet to play basketball, and nobody knows where they will crop up."
But few seem to think it will happen much here in the good, old US of A, the unique talents of high school phenom LeBron James and Suns rookie Amare Stoudamire notwithstanding. As the stock of European players has risen, criticism has simultaneously been directed toward young American players for their lack of shooting and passing skills and overall fundamentals.
"Most of our young kids don't know how to play five-man basketball," Nelson said. "That's the frustration of pro coaches. A lot of young players are forced and flushed into the [NBA] because they have to make hard choices for their families. The strength of our sport is street ball, but the strength of the European game is club ball, and in the club system you get more traditional teaching. Street ball, it's a survival thing. But a guy coming from overseas comes from a more traditional teaching environment."
They come from a more basketball-intensive environment, as well. NCAA rules limit the participation of American college players during the offseason and the season itself. Internationally, no limits exist. Teenagers as young as 14 on foreign club teams play constantly, as much as six hours a day. Some teams are even forced to eat together.
"The bottom line is clubs here don't have any restrictions on practice," said Shea, who is based in Lugo, Spain, and has played, coached and scouted abroad for 30 years. "NCAA players are limited by serious restrictions. I'm not judging them, but the difference is these players have time to develop."
If anyone needed to be convinced about the future of international players and the NBA, the world championships in Indianapolis last summer provided the final word. Although the Americans did not exactly field a dream team, accomplished and veteran NBA stars like Gary Payton and Reggie Miller still wore the American uniform.
The United States finished sixth, and afterward the operative word was "embarrassed." But beyond that, the tournament "further brought home the point that the flow of talent from the international ranks is here to say, and it's going to be a very strong component of the league talent structure for years to come," Wallace said. "There's no reason for it to abate."
Pete Newell, the legendary college coach who has achieved guru status and runs a camp for big men, said of the international players, "They stand out against our guys because they pass the ball, their cuts are better, their fakes, things like that. In Indianapolis, we were very much aware of the difference between their young guys and ours."
In general, "when it comes to developing basketball players, I think it's being shown that we're behind what they're doing in Europe and China, too," Newell said. "This big kid, Yao, shows excellent teaching. For a kid his size that young to have the kind of footwork he has and creating shots, this guy is remarkable in how complete a game he has."
Ironically, "the best teachers in Europe, American coaches have taught them," Newell said.
Now the American coaches are the ones being taught.
Although a handful of foreign players, most of them from Canada, competed in the NBA during the league's early days, the current migration began in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Vlade Divac (Yugoslavia), Sarunas Marciulionis (Lithuania) and Drazen Petrovic (Croatia) proved they could play at the highest level (The Suns in 1985 signed the first Eastern European player, Georgi Gluchkov, but he proved to be a bust).
But some still resisted foreign players. "Throughout the '80s, a feeling existed that their game just couldn't translate to ours," Gabriel said. "Players couldn't move with the ball with the agility that ours could. Rules differences and language barriers would prohibit their development."
Even after Toni Kukoc and others made their marks, a few held out. Reportedly among them were Pat Riley, the former coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks and now coach of the Miami Heat, and Riley's successor with the Knicks, Jeff Van Gundy.
Such thinking is now considered backward and counterproductive. Not only have foreign players demonstrated they have the skills and smarts to compete, recent rules changes has increased the demand for players who know how to pass and shoot. Especially, shoot.
"Coaches and general managers have almost changed the job descriptions of guys they're looking for," Nelson said. "The first question always was, 'Can the guy guard?' But that was when there was no zone. Now, with the advent of the zone rules, instead of wondering whether a guy can survive defensively, the question is, 'Can he shoot it?'"
Which is why, if you haven't heard of them yet, you might soon get to know names like Darko Milicic, a 6-11 forward from Yugoslavia (Donn Nelson and his dad, Mavericks coach Don Nelson, were suspended for two games at the start of this season for reportedly illegally scouting him during the summer), and Sofaklis Schortsianides, a 6-11 center from Greece whose nickname is "Baby Shaq."
Neither has turned 18 yet, and their birthdays do not meet NBA guidelines for becoming draft eligible, but their status is being discussed by the league. Both are likely top five picks by 2004 at the latest.
Other than league rules, the only factor impeding the flow of foreign players is reluctance by some to move to America. "Some don't want to go," Shea said. "Culturally, there's a big difference. There's a European way of living, and some of them don't want to leave it. There are still quite a few players who could make an impression [in the NBA]."
As foreign players continue to succeed, expect others to pick up the cue and follow them here. "The concept of the NBA is a reachable goal for a lot of kids," Shea said. "They want to try. The NBA is the best league in the world. Whether they make it has a lot to do with their adaptability, their intelligence and their ambition."
Not to mention their ability to hit a jump shot.