- The Washington Times - Monday, June 24, 2002

Drafting players from overseas once seemed like nothing more than a fad, something the NBA would dabble in but never rely on. And after the early results, that was understandable.
"There were a few guys who made an impact, but it wasn't anything earth shaking," Indiana Pacers president Donnie Walsh said. "There were knocks on them, like they were geeks who couldn't play defense, they were slow."
Walsh then added: "But that seems like so long ago now."
One of the more shrewd talent evaluators in the league, Walsh was hearkening back to the days when the NBA first began to delve into the European markets for talent. That first wave included players like Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic, Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis, many of them scorers not known for speed or defense.
Walsh wasn't the only management type to see the European players that way, but that type of thinking doesn't fly in today's NBA. Some of the best young talent in the league is coming from overseas.
Foreign players are making a huge impact these days. German-born Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks may be among the 10 best players in the league, and members of the Sacramento Kings blamed their failure to knock off the three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers on the injury to Serbian Peja Stojakovic.
When the NBA conducts its draft in New York on Wednesday, the quest for talent overseas will continue when the Houston Rockets are expected to make 7-foot-5 Chinese center Yao Ming the top pick in the draft.
"I think that's pretty much a done deal," one Eastern Conference GM said. "This guy is [7-foot-5]. And he's not just 7-5; he's 7-5 with a lot of skills and potential. The big question is how long are you willing to wait on him. He's going to be a project, but who wants to be known as the guy who passed on a player like that."
Yao held a workout in Chicago in the spring in front of numerous scouts and general managers. By most accounts, Yao showed considerable skills but left many in attendance disappointed because he did not perform for them in an actual game.
However, massive Fresno State forward Melvin Ely, himself a potential lottery pick, has played with Yao and professes he is the real deal.
"He's definitely a presence," the 6-10, 245-pound Ely said. "He's not a 7-5 stiff. He can move, and that surprised me. There's not too much myth to him. He's a presence, especially defensively.
"Offensively, when he got the ball in the post, he turned around and shot and did some things I've never seen a player close to his height do."
But Yao is not the only foreign player who will hear his name called early in the draft. In fact, four of the first 10 picks could come from abroad.
Seven-footer Nikoloz Tskitishvili, a 19-year-old power forward from the Republic of Georgia with ball-handling skills and 3-point range, is being coveted by a number of teams. Maybyner Hilario of Brazil, a power forward who carries 260 pounds of muscle on a 6-11 frame and boasts a 7-4 wingspan, is raw but has the potential to be a Ben Wallace-type only bigger.
"There are so many great players from around the world these days. It's not like it used to be," Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown said. "It makes you wonder how many great players may have already been overlooked."
There are a number of reasons the NBA is increasingly turning to foreign leagues to upgrade its product. To begin with, since the Dream Team with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird made its debut at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, basketball's popularity has erupted worldwide.
"That has a great deal to do with it," Walsh said. "That was the greatest team ever assembled. It did things that have never been done before in international play. And the players were huge celebrities before the games ever started. They destroyed other countries, and the gap between the United States and other countries became more pronounced. This just inspired other countries to work harder, and as a result better players are being produced."
While the game has improved dramatically overseas, the American college game because of early-entry candidates or players skipping college altogether no longer produces the polished players it once did.
Last year the Washington Wizards made history when they made Kwame Brown the first high school player taken with the first pick in the draft. Of the first eight players selected last season, four came from the high school ranks.
The high school players are drawn to the NBA because of the promises of unimaginable riches, and teams draft them based mostly on potential.
Meanwhile, players with international experience have faced better competition and played more grueling schedules to ready them for the grind of the NBA. As a result they often are more prepared to contribute right away.
"You have to understand, these kids are playing at the level that's next to the NBA. It's a lot better than college. I don't mean just a little; it's a lot better than college," said Wally Walker, the president and chief executive officer of the Seattle SuperSonics.
The globalization of the league is ultimately what NBA commissioner David Stern has in mind anyway. Stern has talked about the league expanding overseas. He has vision of teams making road trips in which they might play in Memphis, Tenn., before crossing the Atlantic to face a team in, say, Paris.
As a result, he spoke glowingly of the NBA's continued plans to pluck international talent at the All-Star Game in Philadelphia this past winter. The weekend festivities and the game were broadcast in 210 countries and 41 languages. For Stern, always the pitchman, what could be better?
"There's no questioning the level or the quality of play overseas," Stern said. "Foreign countries have become a very, very fertile market for our league."
It was the perfect backdrop for Stern. The All-Star Game featured a record five players not born in America. One of them, San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan, went on to win the league's regular season MVP award.
Spain's Pau Gasol (Grizzlies) won rookie of the year. Russia's Andrei Kirilenko who is being groomed by Utah as Karl Malone's eventual successor, joined Gasol and France's Tony Parker (Spurs) on the All-Rookie First Team.
And the second team featured Yugoslavians Zeljko Rebraca (Pistons) and Vladimir Radmanovic (SuperSonics).
That type of success makes it unimaginable the NBA will stop scouring the world for talent.
"This," Walsh said, "is not fool's gold."

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