San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich makes no bones about it: He prefers young international players over those from the United States.
The Spurs' astounding success over the past decade and a half—namely, four NBA championships and 14 straight 50-win seasons—can directly be traced back to that sentiment. It continues to fuel San Antonio's success to this day, in fact.
With the FIBA Americas Championship set to tip off in Venezuela on Aug. 30, foreign-born players will be the talk of the basketball town for the next few weeks. At stake are four berths into the 2014 FIBA World Cup of Spain, which could ultimately lead to a guaranteed spot in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
The FIBA tournament should provide respite for NBA fans yearning for any sort of professional basketball action in the late-summer doldrums. While many of the players' names won't ring a bell unless you're a die-hard basketball junkie, there's always the chance that the next Ricky Rubio emerges.
One NBA team that's bound to be paying attention? None other than the Spurs.
The Spurs' International Philosophy
In an ESPN The Magazine feature from June 2013, Popovich explained his international-friendly rationale to writer Seth Wickersham:
When Pop looks at American talent he sees many players who "have been coddled since eighth, ninth, 10th grade by various factions or groups of people. But the foreign kids don't live with that. So they don't feel entitled," he says, noting how many clubs work on fundamentals in two-a-day practices, each lasting up to three hours. "Now, you can't paint it with too wide of a brush, but in general, that's a fact."
Pop told Wickersham that foreign players are "fundamentally harder working than most American kids." In the same piece, Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said that most NBA teams are "the end of the road for developmental habits that are built in the less-structured environment in the U.S."
In the eyes of Pop and Buford, international players spend far more of their developmental years focusing on the right basketball fundamentals, such as passing to an open teammate. By the time they come to the NBA, they're far more advanced in terms of basic, rudimentary skills than a typical U.S. player.
The Spurs set a record for the most-ever international players on one opening-night roster in 2012-13, according to NBA.com. They started the season with eight players born outside the continental U.S.—Nando De Colo, Boris Diaw, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Cory Joseph, Patrick Mills, Tony Parker and Tiago Splitter—then added Australian Aron Baynes in late January.
An international-heavy roster is nothing new for San Antonio. They had six non-U.S.-born players on the team that won the 2007 championship, according to the New York Times, and seven Spurs competed on national teams during the 2012 London Olympics.
"I think our coaches have embraced, 'Let's get the best basketball team we can, and let's not limit ourselves by the borders of countries,' " Buford said to the Times. "We're the beneficiary of the growth of basketball."
Popovich deserves the lion's share of the credit for that.
As a student at the United States Air Force Academy during the late 1960s, Pop majored in Soviet Studies. Following his graduation in 1970, he toured Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union with the U.S. Armed Forces Basketball Team.
"Even then, he knew the foreign guys were a mostly untapped wealth of talent," wrote ESPN's Wickersham. Thus, after becoming an assistant coach with the Spurs in the late '80s, Pop went back to see the European championships in Cologne, according to Wickersham.
He and Buford committed early to the idea of drafting and developing players, according to the Associated Press. They knew they wouldn't often be able to load up on major free agents in a small market like San Antonio, so they chose this route instead.
"Pop and R.C. deserve a lot of credit for having the foresight to invest the time [in international scouting], and provide a lot of opportunities" for foreign players, Sam Presti told the Washington Post in June. (Presti, currently the general manager for the Oklahoma City Thunder, is a former Spurs executive). "Certainly, they not only did an excellent job in identifying players, but also in creating an environment and a system where those players would want to play and would be capable of thriving."
San Antonio's History of International Players
The Spurs dabbled a bit with foreign-born players in the late '80s and early '90s— Zarko Paspalj in 1989-90 and Julius Nwosu in 1994-95, for example—but none ever made a major impact.
That all changed in 1997, when the Spurs won the rights to the No. 1 pick in that year's draft. Sitting at the top of draft boards that year? A U.S. Virgin Islands native by the name of Timothy Theodore Duncan.
After playing his high school ball at St. Dunstan's Episcopal in Saint Croix, Duncan came to the continental U.S. for college at Wake Forest University. There, he led the Demon Deacons to two straight Atlantic Coast Conference championships during his sophomore and junior seasons and won the Naismith College Player of the Year award as a senior.
San Antonio selected Duncan first overall as the heir apparent to David Robinson. Four NBA championships and one 2013 Finals berth later, it's safe to say the team got its money's worth.
Manu Ginobili, technically, was the next major international acquisition for San Antonio. The Spurs grabbed him with the 57th overall pick in the 1999 draft—one of six foreign-born prospects selected in the second round that year—although Ginobili didn't come to the NBA until years later.
Instead, he remained in Italy, where he won both the 2001 Italian League Championship and the 2001 Euroleague title with Kinder Bologna. He was named the Euroleague Finals MVP in 2001 and additionally took home two back-to-back Italian League MVP awards in 2000-01 and 2001-02.
While Ginobili was busy tearing up Italian basketball, the Spurs set their sights on another foreign-born prospect in 2001. With the 28th overall pick in that year's draft, San Antonio grabbed Tony Parker from France.
Parker and Pop butted heads at first—the Frenchman describes his early years in San Antonio as a "process," according to the Washington Post—but soon, the point guard and coach learned to appreciate what they had in one another.
By that point, other NBA teams had begun to catch on to the booming talent outside of the United States. Seven foreign-born players were drafted during the first round in 2000 and an additional six (including Parker) became first-round picks in 2001.
Ginobili joined the Spurs before the 2002-03 season, and the foreign-born trio of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili led San Antonio to its second NBA championship in five seasons that year. Two more championships followed within the next four years.
From there, with three franchise cornerstones in place (all of whom were born outside the continental U.S.), the Spurs' interest in foreign players exploded. San Antonio selected Leandro Barbosa (Brazil) with the 28th overall pick in 2003, grabbed Beno Udrih (Slovenia) 28th in 2004 and took Ian Mahinmi (France) 28th in 2005.
In fact, between 2001 and 2007, the Spurs' only non-foreign-born first-round pick was John Salmons (26th overall) in 2002.
In recent years, San Antonio hasn't slowed down in terms of finding international late-round gems. Tiago Splitter (Brazil), who's now the team's starting center, was the 28th overall pick in 2007. They took Goran Dragic (currently the starting point guard for the Phoenix Suns) 45th overall in 2008.
The Spurs went back into the international well during the 2013 draft, too, grabbing French forward Livio Jean-Charles 28th overall. Before the draft, both Alex Kennedy and Steve Kyler of Hoopsworld heard rumblings that San Antonio would pick Jean-Charles with the intention of stashing him overseas for at least a year, which would give the 19-year-old more time to develop.
The basketball gods threw a wrench into those plans over the summer, however, as Jean-Charles tore his right anterior cruciate ligament while playing in the FIBA U-20 games, according to ProjectSpurs.com. He's projected to be out for at least six months, if not longer.
San Antonio also hasn't shied away from adding foreign players through either free agency or trades in recent years. Baynes (Australia), Diaw (France) and Mills (Australia) all found their way to the Spurs since 2012 despite either originally being drafted by another team or going undrafted.
Other Teams Taking San Antonio's Lead?
Given the degree of success which the Spurs have achieved since drafting Duncan in 1997, it's no surprise to see other NBA teams now emulating the team's international model.
In 1996, the year before Duncan entered the league, a total of seven international players were selected in the NBA draft. The next year, 12 foreign-born players (including Duncan) were taken.
From there, drafting of non-U.S. players took off.
Since 2000, there has only been one draft in which fewer than 11 foreign-born players were selected (2010). A record-high 21 total international players flew off the board in the 2003 draft (Darko Milicic says hi), and the 2013 draft set the record for most foreign-born first-round picks (12).
In total, there have been over 250 non-U.S.-born draft picks selected since the 1993 draft. The map below details how many picks have come from each country over the past two decades.
(Click here to access an interactive version of the map.)
In coming years, don't be surprised if international prospects only attract more attention, especially from small-market teams. Given the constraints of the league's latest collective bargaining agreement, non-power teams will need to pursue potentially undervalued prospects from anywhere and everywhere.
Not to mention, as noted by SB Nation's Tom Ziller back in June, the Pop/Buford coaching-and-G.M. tree is massive. Nearly half the teams in the NBA have some connection to either Pop or Buford at this point.
A few small-market teams already seem to be following the Spurs' international lead.
Let's take a closer look at two of them.
Two of the Timberwolves' main three building blocks, Nikola Pekovic (Montenegro) and Ricky Rubio (Spain), are both foreign-born players. The T'Wolves also took Donatas Motiejunas (Lithuania) with the 20th overall pick in 2011.
Minnesota had five international players on its 2012-13 opening-night roster, according to NBA.com, trailing only the Spurs. While Andrei Kirilenko (Russia) joined his fellow countryman Mikhail Prokhorov on the Brooklyn Nets during the 2013 offseason, the other four foreign players—Rubio, Pekovic, J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved—all remain.
The Timberwolves initially tried their hand at drafting international players back in the late '90s and early 2000s, but they weren't nearly as successful as the Spurs.
Radoslav Nesterovic (Slovenia), the 17th overall pick in 1998, never made a huge impact during his five years in Minnesota. Ndudi Ebi (UK), the 26th overall selection in 2003, was out of the league two seasons after being drafted.
Wally Szczerbiak, who was born in Spain, qualified as the T'Wolves biggest foreign-born success pre-Rubio and Pekovic. The NBA doesn't consider Szczerbiak, the No. 6 overall pick in 1999, as an international player, however, as he attended high school in New York.
The Bucks famously dipped their toes in the international waters by selecting Australian big man Andrew Bogut with the first pick in the 2005 draft.
Bogut wasn't the only foreign-born impact player Milwaukee drafted that year, however. The Bucks also grabbed Ersan Ilyasova with the 36th overall pick in 2005.
Two years later, the Bucks went back to the international well by grabbing Yi Jianlian with the sixth overall pick. That one didn’t turn out so well, causing Milwaukee to trade him (along with Bobby Simmons) to the then-New Jersey Nets for Richard Jefferson in 2008.
While Brandon Jennings isn't technically a foreign-born player, he did opt to bypass college to play in Italy for a year before entering the 2009 draft. The Bucks took him 10th overall that year, and after four years in Milwaukee, they traded him to the Detroit Pistons during the 2013 offseason.
The team had four international players on its 2012-13 opening-night roster, according to NBA.com: Beno Udrih, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Samuel Dalembert and Ilyasova. While Udrih, Mbah a Moute and Dalembert are no longer part of the team, the Bucks experienced an infusion of foreign talent during the 2013 offseason.
Milwaukee drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo from Greece with the No. 15 pick in late June. From there, the Bucks added Zaza Pachulia (Georgia), Viacheslav Kravtsov (Ukraine) and Miroslav Raduljica (Serbia) either through free agency or trades.
Other Competition Lurking?
From 1950 through 2013, the Sixers have drafted a grand total of seven foreign-born players, according to Pavorsky. Remember, the Spurs had nine such players on their 2012-13 roster alone.
With new general manager Sam Hinkie and new coach Brett Brown in town, expect the Sixers to start making far more of a splash outside of the United States.
Brown spent the majority of his coaching career in Australian basketball, according to Brett Koremenos of Grantland. Also worth noting: Before taking the Sixers job, Brown was an assistant coach with none other than the Spurs.
The Sixers represent just one of many teams that could soon take a higher interest in foreign-born players. As NBA teams continue broadening their horizons both on and off the court, international scouting will only gain greater importance.
It's no exaggeration to say Pop, Buford and the Spurs were ahead of the game in that regard.
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