Over the past 25 years, I have been fortunate enough to have been around basketball pretty much every day. And I have had many highlights during my career, starting with being a head coach of eight teams who reached the postseason in nine years and attending many Final Fours as a fan.
But this past week, I added another highlight when I spent the week at the Reebok Euro Big Man Camp and the Reebok Euro Camp in Treviso, Italy.
The first camp brought big kids from all over Europe to the great facilities of the Benetton Basketball Club, while the second camp was an invitation-only camp that featured many of the best young players in Europe. Each camp was the "brain child" of Donnie Nelson, President of Basketball Operations for the Dallas Mavericks, Kiki Vanderweghe, General Manager of the Denver Nuggets, and Mauricio Gherardini, the General Manager of Benetton Treviso -- considered the Boston Celtics of Europe.
And after what happened last week in Italy, I consider these men to be among the three most forward-thinking people in basketball right now.
It was Nelson who orchestrated the draft-day trade in 1998 for an 18-year-old unknown from Germany. Maybe you've heard of him: Dirk Nowitski. Vanderweghe hired Benetton's Ettore Messina to coach the Nuggets' summer league last year, while Gherardini was among the finalists to run the Charlotte Bobcats, the NBA's newest team.
But the "brain child" of these men is what really separates each from their peers. I still can't get over the talent level of the players at last year's camps, or the state-of-the-art facilities and overall organization the players were treated to each day.
NBA people like Jack Sikma (Seattle Sonics), Danny Ferry (San Antonio Spurs), Dennis Lindsey (Houston Rockets) and others provided excellent instruction. Pete Philo, the Reebok Euro Camp's Director, is an American who has played overseas and had enough contacts throughout Europe to attract an outstanding group that will, ultimately, produce as many as 15 NBA players in the future.
Having followed the college and high school game in the United States this year, and being a part of the year's ESPN NBA draft coverage, I wanted to get a sense of what to expect from many of this year's potential NBA selections from around the world. As someone who has evaluated players for a long time, videotape often does not do justice to a player. And, it was a thrill to watch and work with players that were very serious about the game and thirsted for more basketball knowledge.
ESPN Insider Chad Ford does a terrific job of covering international basketball and, in particular, last week's Reebok Eurocamps. But as a former coach who was fortunate enough to see, and in some cases work with, these players, I want to provide a different take on some of the players at last week's camps who'll be selected June 24. I'll also highlight some very talented young players who'll become household names in the future.
Ht: 7-5 | Wt: 300 | Age: 19 | Russia
Yes, he really is 7-foot-5 and weighs 300 pounds (if not more). Podkolzine was at the Reebok Euro Big Man Camp early in the week and the big Russian opened a lot of eyes, much like he did last year when he worked out in Chicago during the NBA Pre-draft Camp.
First of all, Podkolzine has terrific agility and footwork for a guy this size or, frankly, for a guy 6-10. While he is not a great jumper and he does not run the court like Kevin Garnett, he is very strong. Former NBA great Jack Sikma, one of the camp instructors, told me it was extremely difficult to move him out of low-post position. He'll rebound balls that are in his area but he won't jump over people to get them. The best comparison I could make at this point would be to Mark Eaton, the former Utah Jazz center.
Podkolzine's skill level is good, as he showed a deft shooting touch, making 19 of 25 15-foot jump shots in one drill that I saw. In addition, he handled the ball easily and even clowned around by bringing it up the court once or twice in games.
But, while I was impressed with him physically, he still doesn't have the basketball instincts and experience that you would get by playing a lot early in your career. This guy would have been a high school senior or a college freshman, where I believe he would have made a huge, no pun intended, impact. But, instead, Podkolzine played limited minutes on his team, Varese, in the Italian League. The professional teams in Europe side heavily on playing veteran players and young players wait their turn. In addition, the team made a midseason coaching change, and in one tape I saw, Podkolzine played at the top of the key, setting ball screens all night.
With some much of this draft involving young international and high school players, NBA teams will have to assess where Podkolzine could be in five years, when he is only 24 years old. Frankly, I was surprised that, while 29 of 30 teams were represented, more "decision-makers" were not there to see him.
I was skeptical of Podkolzine before the Reebok Euro Big Man Camp, and I am still not totally sold on him because of his lack of experience. But you have to assess him based on where he will be in a few years. He may not be a top-five pick in this year's draft, but an NBA team better take a hard look at him before they pass on him.
Ht: 7-3 | Wt: 230 | Age: 18 | Lithuania
While Andriuskeivicius will likely pull out of this year's draft if he is not a top-five pick, this 18-year-old is becoming well known in Europe. He has terrific athleticism for a 7-3 player. In fact, he started out as a skinny post man on the first day of the Reebok Euro Big Man Camp and ended up showing that he has the perimeter skills to someday be a younger, taller version of Dirk Nowitski.
Andriuskeivicius is very coordinated and agile for his size. He shoots the ball well from outside and handled the ball on the fastbreak a number of times during games. He will be a very good screen-and-roll player some day because he can "pick and pop out" and stretch defenses.
His major deficiency right now is a lack of strength. He can be pushed around in the low post. I was impressed, however, that while he got rougher up by more physical players, he did not back down. He was one of the players in the camp with a "bull's eye" on his back and handled it well.
If he stays in the draft, I believe he will go in the first 12 picks, but he will not help a team for a couple of seasons. If he pulls out, he should be near the top of the '05 draft.
Ht: 7-0 | Wt: 240 | Age: 20 | Poland
Gortat was one of the big surprises of the week. He is a 7-foot power forward with surprising athletic ability and agility along with a nice frame and a wing span that measured over 7-1. In fact, in winning the Reebok Eurocamp's dunk contest on the last day, he took off from four inches past the foul line ... and finished it! This guy also has a nice shooting touch, uses both hands around the basket, and is active. His wing span lends itself to some shot blocking, as well.
On the downside, Gortat runs the court just average and came into the camp as a relative unknown. There will be questions about him by general managers and personnel people who were not at the camp. But Gortat told me that he was going to Chicago for the pre-draft camp this week. Whether he plays or not remains to be seen. If he pulls out of this year's draft, he has at least put himself on peoples' "radar screens."
Ht: 7-1 | Wt: 258 | Age: 18 | France
This young big man was a mystery man coming into the camp, because like Podkolzine, he received limited minutes for Pau Orthez in the French pro league. Petro definitely improved his stock, if only because people got see him a lot during the three days. In fact, he worked out privately for a number of teams.
Petro is an above average, but great athlete. In addition, he is fundamentally sound for a player who's only played since he was 14 years old. He has good footwork and is agile. At times, he had trouble finishing around the basket. But, unlike like a high school game in the United States, he was competing against 7-footers every game. In fact, there were 21 players 6-10 or better among the 50 invited to the camp.
Also in Petro's favor is that he plays with good energy, which had been a question mark for NBA people coming into the camp. My best guess is that he stays in the draft, goes in the first 20 picks and stays another year in Europe to gain more experience.
Ht: 6-5 | Wt: 183 | Age: 19 | Croatia
Ukic was the MVP of the Reebok Eurocamp's tournament, which was no surprise because he is one of the most experienced and most well-known young players in Europe. He also played in the Hoops Summit at the Final Four in San Antonio.
A 6-5 point guard, Ukic possesses good size, better than average open-court quickness and excellent passing ability. He is an average shooter right now and could be stronger. His ability to see the court sometimes gets him in trouble because he will try to make high degree of difficulty plays. In addition, he gets into the lane.
I thought he did a good job of defending Sebastian Telfair during the Hoops Summit. At this camp, he very rarely got beat off the dribble, so he knows how to move his feet and use his size to space off quicker players and still contest shots.
Ukic is one of those players who will make his teammates better because of the way he distributes the ball. He is not ready to run an NBA team right now, and may likely be a second-round pick. But, getting his draft rights could be a good move for a team that will benefit three years from now.
Ht: 6-11 | Wt: 243 | Age: 20 | Slovenia
Lorbek is so desperate for positive feedback from NBA people after his experience at Michigan State last year and a limited role for Skipper Bologna this year, that he should up for the Reebok Eurocamp right in the middle of his team's Italian League championship series.
Lorbek has good size for a power forward and his offensive skills are good. He has a nice shooting touch and is crafty around the basket. As the son of a coach, he knows how to play. On the negative side, his athletic ability and lateral quickness are below average for an NBA power forward. Still, he could sneak into the second round where a team would retain his rights while he continues to improve in Europe.
Ht: 7-1 | Wt: 224 | Age: 20 | Serbia
Ilic is a 7-1 player with a slender frame who is not suited to be an NBA center at this point. And he does not possess the athleticism to be a power forward, yet. He does, however, have some agility and could shoot the ball from the perimeter. In addition, he has a nice feel for the game and made some nice passes during the camp.
Like Lorbek, a team could draft this guy in the second round in the hopes that he will improve. Remember, he is only 20 years old.
Ht: 7-0 | Wt: 238 | Age: 20 | Germany
Maedrich, who has entered his name in this year's NBA draft, has a nice shooting touch to 17 feet, but has below average NBA athleticism and body type at this time.
Ht: 6-11 | Wt: 212 | Age: 17 | Serbia
While Aleksandrov is being touted by some as next year's No.1 pick in the NBA draft, it is way too early to tell. A smooth big forward with a nice shooting touch, he would be a high school sophomore or junior right now if he here in the United States.
Aleksandrov is deceptive because he plays the game effortlessly and without, seemingly, any emotion. So, he has already gotten a rap that he is soft. In addition, he is not an overwhelming athlete. What he does possess is a high skill level for a player his size. He shoots the ball well and has a terrific first step on the perimeter. He has a shot that is hard to block on the drive because he keeps defenders off balance with a very quick release.
At 17 years old, Aleksanrov is about five years and 30 pounds away from having a chance to be a great NBA player. He will be only 22 by then and that is scary. In the meantime, he will have to take his game up another level to reach the lofty expectations that people have already put on him. The talent is there and time is his friend.
Ht: 6-10 | Wt: 199 | Age: 17 | Croatia
Here is another of the camp's surprises who will be heard from in the future. Rudez does a lot of things well, not the least of which is his shooting. He was one of the camp's outstanding shooters with a quick release and NBA range. When he misses a shot, like Duke's J.J. Redick or the Sacremento Kings' Peja Stojakovic, you are disappointed.
Rudez also handles the ball well for his size, can run the fast break and has a good first step in the half court. You can tell on his face that he loves to play and does compete to great intensity.
On the downside, he is a good but, not great, athlete who has to fill out into his long frame. Again, he'll be 18 this month and has plenty of time to physically mature. The skill level is there to be an outstanding player along the lines of a Stojakovic.
Ht: 6-11 | Wt: 267 | Age: 19 | Serbia
A well-proportioned thick body with a good shooting touch and good agility for his size are Lekic's call cards. He did not do anything great all week, but was very, very solid and played hard. He was a great drills guy all week, as well.
At 267 pounds and agile, Lekic could be a future first-round pick. If not, he should find a way to play in the league based on what I saw.
Ht: 6-11 | Wt: 206 | Age: 18 | Ukraine
This Keith Van Horn clone from the Ukraine started the week as a skinny center in the big man camp, but was added as a last-minute fill-in at the Euro Camp. It was there that he showed an impressive array of skills when he faced the basket.
Pecherov has a frame that will have to fill out and, like Van Horn, is a good but not great athlete. He can, however, shoot the ball from deep with a high release that is difficult to block. He can drive, especially to the right, and was effective posting up smaller players on the block.
While he may not be a great player, he will someone to keep track of. He is, howver, proof that there are still "sleepers" out there even though the basketball world is growing closer.
Ht: 5-10 | Wt: 168 | Age: 16 | Sweden
Yes, he's from of all places, Sweden. But Mebemba was the quickest guy in camp and, in my mind, a "lock" McDonald's All American next year. Ironically, he wants to play in the United States next year.
Mbemba possesses, along with his lighting quickness, good shooting skill, excellent jumping ability and is an excellent passer, as well. People will think I am hallucinating but I thought he was as good as high school senior point guards like Sebastian Telfair and Darius Washington. He has Telfair's telescopic vision of the court and Washington's scoring ability.
I am interested to follow Mbemba's career whether it is Europe or in the NCAA. He is an exciting player who can score points, but is a point guard first.
Fran Fraschilla spent 23 years on the sidelines as a college basketball coach at Manhattan, St. John's and New Mexico before joining ESPN and ESPN.com as an analyst.