Friday, May 24
Updated: Friday, May 24, 1:35 PM ET
New strategy: Draft now, pay later
By Chad Ford
You know Juan Dixon. Tayshaun Prince. Casey Jacobsen. They're all battle-tested college stars. They're also likely second-rounders in the 2002 NBA draft.
Meet Nenad Kristic. He doesn't get any playing time in Yugoslavia. He's only 19 years old and won't be ready to play in the United States for a couple of years. And, he's a likely first-round pick in the 2002 NBA draft.
Has the NBA gone mad with Euro fever? For fans of college basketball and the NBA draft, it's starting to look that way.
In this case, there's no vast conspiracy against college seniors. It's simple economics that is driving good teams to take players already under contract in Europe.
International prospects still have confusing contracts (ask the Jazz about Raul Lopez). There are still a fair share of lumbering oafs (no offense, Vladimir Stephania) and not even the top Europeans in the NBA are going to have a shot at the Defensive Player of the Year award anytime soon.
But, in record numbers, they're coming to America.
Cue the Neil Diamond soundtrack.
Sure, for every Pau Gasol who comes over and makes an immediate impact, there is a Frederic Weis (drafted by the Knicks in 1999) who never completes the trip. Five years ago, that scared almost everyone away.
Today, the NBA draft is no longer about instant gratification. Good things come to those who wait.
The Kings waited on Peja Stojakovic. The Jazz were patient with Andrei Kirilenko and Lopez. The Jazz's plan has worked out so well, more teams are expected to jump on the international bandwagon this year.
In the last few years, the Jazz have drafted young international players with upside even though the players were signed to long-term contracts. The Jazz had enough veterans to fill out their roster and didn't want the salary of the first-round pick taking valuable cap space. Instead, the Jazz's plan was to keep the players overseas, let them get playing time and wait for a roster slot to open up before bringing them over.
"The whole dynamics of the draft has changed," Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor said. "Now you worry about more than just who you draft. You also worry about their development. Good teams don't have a lot minutes for rookies. Perhaps the best move we made was keeping Kirilenko in Russia an extra year. That made a huge difference in what he was able to contribute this year."
It truly worked wonders for Kirilenko. Nuggets assistant GM Dave Fredman was working for the Jazz when they drafted the skinny, 18-year-old Russian. He said that when they drafted him, they weren't sure whether he'd ever wear a Jazz uniform.
"We had three first-round picks that year and the truth of the matter was we didn't have enough room for all three," Fredman said. "We drafted Kirilenko mostly based on some grainy film we had of him. We honestly weren't really sure what we had, but decided that his upside was worth the risk. He wouldn't have gotten any playing time in Utah, so his long-term contract with the club in Russia was a good thing. He got game experience over there, and he developed rapidly."
The Jazz have figured out that Europe can be an NBA luxury tax shelter and a minor league at the same time.
While all of the focus this year has been on young international prospects such as Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Bostjan Nachbar, there will be more prospects like Kristic, a 7-foot-1 center. The 19-year-old has great size, good hands, a nice jump shot and is adept at blocking shots. Kristic's mentor is Vlade Divac, who owns the team Kristic plays for. The idea is to let Kristic come over now, get him drafted by a team that doesn't need him yet, and then let him develop overseas. He won't be alone. As many as 15 international players may be taken in the draft this year. Only a handful of them will actually play in the league next season.
David Bauman, an agent for SFX who represents players such as Stojakovic and Vladimir Radmanovic, says the strategy involves encouraging foreign players to put their names into the draft at a younger age. Agents will now take a player when he is 18, put his name in the draft, shop him around to teams drafting late in the first round and hope someone bites. If the agent can get a promise from a team, the player stays in the draft. If he can't, the agent will pull his name just before the deadline and try again the next year.
"GMs are finally realizing that you're able to get more bang for your buck by drafting an international kid late in the first round," Bauman said. "It's a win-win situation."
It's also a coup for teams already stocked with talent. Lottery teams can't afford to draft a kid who might not show up for a couple of seasons. They need help now. That's why Suns center Jake Tsakalidis fell from a projected top-10 pick to No. 26 in the 2000 lottery. A few days before the draft, his team, AEK of Greece, faxed a letter to NBA teams warning them that they wouldn't let Tsakalidis out of his contract. His stock plummeted.
Veteran playoff teams now use the strategy to rebuild while still remaining competitive. By the time the Jazz's aged Karl Malone and John Stockton are ready to call it quits, a new generation of players will be in place to carry the torch.
Teams have used this strategy in the second round for a while.
"Most second-round picks just aren't good enough to make a good team," said Spurs vice president of basketball operations Sam Schuler. "What you try to do is convince the player to play overseas, hone his skills and come back in a few years. Many of the American kids just don't want to do it. It's easier to take a foreign player, let him play out his contract and see whether he improves or plateaus. In the end, what's the risk?"
The Spurs and Clippers are the two latest teams to reap the rewards.
Marko Jaric, a 6-foot-8 point guard playing in Italy for Kinder Bologna, and his teammate, Emanuel Ginobili, a 6-7 shooting guard, both second-round picks a few years back, are now two of the top players in Europe. Both of them plan to head to the NBA this season.
The Clippers drafted Jaric in the second round of the 2000 draft. Jaric was impressive at the Chicago pre-draft camp in 2000, and two years of playing professionally for the best team in Europe have turned him from a good prospect into an unbelievable one. One GM said that if Jaric were in this year's draft, he'd be a high lottery pick.
"He's a fantastic athlete that can play both guard positions," the GM said. "But I think his value is at the point. He's a great decision maker on the break, has solid hands and looks to get his teammates involved. He thinks pass first, and I think that is what is so intriguing. He's really improved his leadership skills the last few years playing at such a high level. He really competes. He'll doesn't let you beat him. He's got the potential to be very special."
Sources close to the Clippers say that the team feels that Jaric can come in and contribute immediately. The question is, will he? There is no set salary scale for second-round picks. That's the downside if you select international players in the second round. If they develop into something special, it'll cost you.
Jaric is looking for a deal starting at $3 million to $4 million. That's a lot for any team to swallow, let alone the Clippers. Had they drafted him with the 29th pick in the first round instead of the first pick of the second round, his salary would be set by the NBA at $776,800 for next season.
Almost as intriguing is Ginobili, a sharp-shooting guard with great hops. The Spurs drafted him with the second-to-last pick in the 1999 draft and let him stay in Europe. It paid off. Last year he was named the MVP of the Euroleague Finals. In San Antonio, he would've languished on the bench. If he were available today, he would probably be a mid-first rounder.
"He's a very good athlete, who can really shoot," the same league executive said. "Like a lot of Europeans he can also handle the ball and has great fundamentals. He has surprising leaping ability. He's not quite the prospect that Jaric is, but he could put up a lot of points in the NBA."
Ginobili's game is based on speed and slashing to the basket. He blows by people in Europe. But in the NBA? The Spurs still aren't sure.
However, it looks like now is the time to bring him over. The Spurs' current shooting guards, Steve Smith and Antonio Daniels, have one year remaining on their contracts. If San Antonio can get its hands on Ginobili this summer, it can spend the year grooming him. Like the Clippers, the Spurs will face some contract issues with Ginobili. The Spurs say that bringing Ginobili over this year isn't a lock yet. They're still trying to figure out where he'll fit on the team and whether they can afford to pay his asking price.
Perhaps an all-Euro backcourt of Tony Parker and Ginobili can convince that tall kid from the Virgin Islands to re-sign with the Spurs in the summer of 2003.
Chad Ford writes the daily NBA Insider column for ESPN Insider. To get a free 30 day trial, click here.
The Magnificent 7
Previously drafted international players who could make an impact on the NBA next
1. Marko Jaric, G
Age: 24 | Country: Croatia
Ht., Wt.: 6-7, 220
Drafted: No. 30 by Clippers (2000)
Stats: 15.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.6 apg, 2.3 spg
Skinny: A big point guard who reminds some scouts of Jason Kidd. He's
not the quickest or most athletic player but he's relentless. He really
competes, is a tenacious defender, a good rebounder and a great floor
leader. He compensates well for whatever lack of quickness he has.
2. Emmanual Ginobili, G
Age: 24 | Country: Argentina
Ht., Wt.: 6-5, 215
Drafted: No. 57 by Spurs (1999)
Stats: 19.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.2 apg, 4.3 spg
Skinny: Last year's Euroleague Final Four MVP. He's very athletic, loves
to slash and has range on his jump shot. He's very quick and likes to
improvise around the basket. The Spurs think he's also turned into one of
the better defenders in Europe. Could be the athletic two guard they lost in Derek
3. Raul Lopez, G
Age: 22 | Country: Spain
Ht., Wt.: 6-0, 185
Drafted: No. 24 by Jazz (2001)
Stats: 6.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.9 apg
Skinny: Tore his ACL this year which limited his production. Lopez is a
Jerry Sloan type of point guard. He thinks pass first, shoot second. He's
tough as nails. And he can really shoot the ball from the perimeter. GM Kevin O'Connor passed on Tony Parker to get Lopez, feeling that he'll be a better pro
in five years. The Jazz hope to have him this season, but Lopez is still
working on a buyout with his team, Real Madrid.
4. Mehmet Okur, F
Age: 23 | Country: Turkey
Ht., Wt.: 6-11, 250
Drafted: No. 38 by Pistons (2002)
Stats: 15.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 67 percent from the field
Skinny: The team thinks Okur will be able to step in right away and
provide valuable minutes behind Ben Wallace and Cliff Robinson. "I am not
overstating this," GM Joe Dumars told the media last week. "If he was in
this year's draft, he would be the second or third power forward taken."
Okur has a big body, is a strong rebounder and has shown some surprising low
post moves this year.
5. Igor Rakocevic, G
Age: 23 | Country: Yugoslavia
Ht., Wt.: 6-3, 190
Drafted: No. 51 by T-Wolves (2000)
Stats: 19.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.7 apg, 63 percent from the field
Skinny: The T-Wolves love him, but he may not be able to come over this
year. He's a great ball-handler who likes to take it to the basket. He's a
good outside shooter, especially from long range. He'll need to add some
muscle if he wants to be a penetrator in the NBA.
6. Goran Giricek, G
Age: 24 | Country: Croatia
Ht., Wt.: 6-6, 200
Drafted: No. 40 by Mavericks (2000). Spurs now own his rights.
Stats: 19 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.6 apg
Skinny: The Spurs own his rights and probably won't bring him over if
Ginobili comes. He's considered one of the top scorers in Europe. He
slashes to the basket, has a decent jumper and good athleticism. His
defense leaves a lot to be desired.
7. Ognjen Askrabic, F
Age: 23 | Country: Bosnia
Ht., Wt.: 6-9, 200
Drafted: Free agent after going undrafted in 2000.
Stats:15.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.9 apg
Skinny: A phenomenal athlete, incredibly quick for his size, can put the
ball on the floor and hit the NBA 3-pointer. Askrabic went undrafted last season
because of a late-season injury, meaning he's a free agent this summer.
Several teams are already lining up to bid for his services, but it looks
like the Mavs may have the upper hand.
-- Chad Ford