By Jerry BrewerOrlando Sentinel
June 24, 2003
Pat Williams and Marty Blake, two NBA talent evaluators from way back, were chatting on Williams' radio show recently. Their conversation shifted to international players. Blake's mind wandered to 1970 when, as the general manager of the Atlanta Hawks, he selected the first two foreign players in NBA draft history. In the 19-round draft, he took Mexico's Manuel Raga in the 10th round and Italy's Dino Meneghin in the 11th round.
Blake wanted to bring them to the United States, but neither ever played in the NBA. "Why didn't you sign them?" asked Williams, the Magic's executive vice president. "We didn't have the $35,000 to buy out their overseas contracts," replied Blake, now the NBA's super scout.
In today's NBA, such an expense would be laughable. If Raga and Meneghin were worthy talents, they would be playing here, and there would be little fuss over their diverse backgrounds.
You can stop talking about a foreign invasion in the NBA now. International players have found a place here, and others will continue to relocate. It's no longer a debatable issue, either. Drafting globally is more than an accepted practice. It's a necessity. "We no longer think that there's a gap to close. It's already closed," Magic General Manager John Gabriel said. "Scouting internationally used to be a piece of scouting. Now, it's more; it's half the draft."
During Thursday's draft, the number of international players selected in the first round could reach double figures. Last season, six foreign players were taken in the opening round, including No. 1 pick Yao Ming of China, who became the first internationally born and bred player to lead a draft class. This year, Serbian forward Darko Milicic, who just turned 18, is expected to go No. 2 overall to Detroit and head an even deeper group of foreign stars. French guard Mickael Pietrus, Polish center Maciej Lampe and Serbian forward Zarko Cabarkapa are three other players who should fall in the top 20.
As more foreign players succeed in the NBA, the demand for such players has increased. All NBA teams have poured more money into their international scouting budgets; the Orlando Magic, for instance, nearly doubled their international budget from a year ago. "I think you've got to recognize the writing on the wall," Gabriel said. "You have to prepare for how much crazier it's going to get. You're covering the globe now."
Milwaukee forward Toni Kukoc, one of a group of breakthrough international performers in the 1990s, doesn't think the talent pool overseas has increased as much as the attention has. "I don't think the talent is better," Kukoc said. "I still think the generation of Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis and Draven Petrovic is as good as it gets. But, now, we have more opportunity."
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