NBA pipeline from Europe getting bigger, deeper and stronger

Published 1:42 am Thursday, June 25, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — When Pacers forward Damjan Rudez returned to the Basketball Without Borders camp earlier this month, there were some noticeable changes.

The long, gangly European kids he competed with and against in 2003 had been replaced by bigger, stronger, more polished teenagers.

Perhaps it’s just a natural progression for the program designed to turn international prospects such as Rudez into NBA contributors and then bring back those graduates as teachers to work with the next generation of international stars. Or perhaps, the players are maturing much quicker — much like American players seem to be.

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Either way, one thing is clear: BWB is helping to turn Europe into a fertile training ground for NBA hopefuls.

An indication of the program’s success could come during Thursday night’s draft.

A record 101 foreign-born players began this season on NBA rosters, and three more — Emmanuel Mudiay of China, Kristaps Porzingis of Latvia and Mario Hezonja of Croatia — are potential top 10 picks.

“Honestly, the camp hasn’t changed a lot. The principles are the same,” said Rudez, who just completed his first NBA season with the Pacers. “The NBA has done a terrific job of organizing the whole thing — great gear, great conditions for working. But it seems like these days, the kids are growing like crazy. They’re huge. I don’t remember us being that tall or that powerful or that big when we were here.”

The initial goals of BWB were simple — find the best players in the world, teach them skills that would make them productive pro players and continue to expand the talent pool. Since the inaugural 2001 camp in Treviso, Italy, more than 2,300 players from more than 120 countries have participated and the success stories have steadily increased.

Thirty-three grads have been drafted including Andrea Bargnani, the No. 1 overall pick in 2006, and Joel Embiid, the No. 3 overall pick last year. Two more players, Rudez and Boston’s Luigi Datome, have made rosters as undrafted free agents.

The Europeans “are pretty good,” Charlotte center and former Indiana University star Cody Zeller said after working his second international camp in two years. “I can see where there’s a couple that have that (NBA) potential, and even the ones that don’t make the NBA, I think, will have productive careers overseas.”

This global trend isn’t subsiding.

The last two No. 1 overall draft picks, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, grew up in Canada. The NBA’s European contingent includes Luol Deng, Marc and Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker and Ricky Rubio. Manu Ginobili, Nene and Anderson Varejao all honed their basketball skills in South America, while Andrew Bogut and Kyrie Irving were born in Australia.

Their once-subtle impact on the NBA is also growing.

“There’s a lot of pride in Europe in teaching the fundamentals,” Pacers assistant coach Dan Burke said after working the camp. “From what I’ve seen, we don’t get as much opportunity to see the 17-year-olds (in the U.S.), but what we see coming in is a lack of fundamentals. There are a lot of different reasons for it. Some people say AAU just rolls the ball out and they play. They get by on athleticism and God-given talent. But the ones who really work, you do notice that, and the NBA game is getting to a point where you can’t just run over guys.

“I think the states are getting back to teaching fundamentals, but I don’t see those building blocks like you do here.”

In fact, the European style has even given American coaches new tools.

At a recent high school coaching clinic, Kentucky’s John Calipari demonstrated how he used the Euro step with his own team last season. He explained it improved his players’ efficiency ratings because they could either get to the basket cleanly, allowing them to play at a faster pace, or draw fouls, which allowed them to score with the clock stopped.

And now it’s time for the 20-something contingent of players like Wiggins and Rudez to reach out to the next wave of European prospects.