How Europe Changed the NBA Game Forever
The Eurostep is nice and all, but the sneaky side-to-side move that has become part of every slasher's arsenal hardly represents the extent of European influence on the NBA game.
Over the past three decades—and especially since the millennium—European basketball has been behind massive changes in the NBA's style, scouting and structure.
With the 2013 FIBA EuroBasket tournament in full swing, now seems like the perfect time to examine (and appreciate) the ways in which European hoops have improved the stateside product.
Style and Substance
The stereotypical assessment of European basketball is at least partially true. Watch any game that involves FC Barcelona Regal in Spain or Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel, and you'll immediately note the way the ball zips around the perimeter, rarely stopping and always in search of the open man.
It's not totally accurate to call the European style "unselfish," largely because the pervasive goal among players is a somewhat selfish desire to win. The key distinction, though, is that European players are developed in a basketball environment that teaches a valuable truth: It's a lot easier to win when five guys work together than it is for one star to do the job alone.
By and large, players at all five positions possess at least a few guard skills that help perpetuate that style. Thanks to past European greats like Arvydas Sabonis, the NBA now has players such as Marc Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki, big men who came up in a basketball culture that emphasized passing, shooting and finesse regardless of size.
Put simply, the European game has style.
And with ever-increasing numbers of foreign players making their way to the NBA, that style has been a welcome addition to a league that still suffers from a bogged-down pace and isolation-heavy sets.
Signs of change are everywhere, though. Take Manu Ginobili, an Argentine who cut his teeth in the Italian league from 1998-2002 before joining the San Antonio Spurs. His creative attacks and unorthodox angles are clear products of the free-flowing European game.
Without Ginobili to provide a blueprint, what would James Harden's game look like today? I'd venture to say the Beard wouldn't be nearly as effective or exciting if he hadn't ever seen Ginobili play.
European basketball has contributed much more than aesthetic style, though. More importantly, its team-first culture has helped offset AAU basketball's disastrous effects on the NBA.
The Spurs are at the tip of the spear when it comes to scouting and signing European talent, and that has everything to do with the quality of character they find in players from overseas. Thanks to the predatory, me-first environment of American amateur leagues, young domestic products that come up through AAU ranks are falling behind international imports.
ESPN The Magazine's Seth Wickersham got head coach Gregg Popovich's take on the difference between European and American prospects:
The traits he scouts for—players with 'character,' who've 'gotten over themselves, who understand team play, who can cheer for a teammate,' who 'don't make excuses'—hold true regardless of nationality...and 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.'
The Spurs have won 70 percent of their games over the past 16 years because they've embraced the style and substance of European basketball more strongly than any other NBA team. Eventually, the rest of the league is going to follow suit.
It wasn't so long ago that teams could get by without spending much time on international scouting. But that's certainly not the case now.
European talent is a highly valued commodity these days, and not just because of the reasons we've already mentioned. From a financial perspective, it makes a ton of sense to isolate a potential gem, draft him and then stash him overseas while he rounds out his game on another team. Once the player gets enough seasoning (and his team is ready to let him out of his contract), the NBA squad that drafted him can exercise its rights and haul in a finished product.
San Antonio drafted Tiago Splitter (a native of Brazil) in 2007. But he continued to play for the Spanish team that had signed him as a 15-year-old prospect until 2010. Splitter developed on Baskonia's dime while the Spurs got to focus on the progress of the players on their own roster.
When the time was right, Splitter hopped a plane to San Antonio.
It's somewhat risky to use draft picks on European players for a couple of reasons. It was theoretically possible that Splitter, for example, might never have been able to get out of his contract. Plus, high-profile lottery busts like Nikoloz Tskitishvili (No. 5 overall in 2002) and Darko Milicic (No. 2 overall in 2003) may have scared a few teams away from taking the Euro plunge.
Nonetheless, because of the relative value European draftees represent—not to mention all of the positives Popovich outlined above—every NBA team now has to spend a large portion of its resources on international scouting.
In a surprisingly short amount of time, the NBA has become a league where teams that don't focus on Europe are putting themselves behind the curve. And this isn't some passing fad, either.
With basketball's popularity growing unchecked throughout the world, it'll only become more important for NBA teams to have eyes overseas.
The AAU system in this country is a broken, loosely regulated, exploitative construct that preys on teenagers for profit. It builds them up, tells them they're great and waits for the payoff. So it shouldn't be a surprise that American basketball prospects emerge from the system without much perspective on—or appreciation for—team basketball.
Conversely, European teams can sign players as teens, develop them, send them to school and bring them up in the positive basketball culture we've already discussed.
Now, to be clear, it's a pipe dream to think a similar system could exist in America. Endorsement companies and the NCAA stand to lose far too much money for that to ever happen. Plus, NBA teams probably don't want to pay to develop talent when somebody else can do it for them.
But it's interesting to note that the expansion of the NBA D-League is starting to function somewhat similarly to the European professional model.
No fewer than 14 teams have their own wholly controlled D-League affiliate. That means nearly half of the NBA can oversee the development of its own talent in what basically amounts to a minor league environment.
The Golden State Warriors shuttled rookie Kent Bazemore between Oakland and Santa Cruz last season in an effort to get him playing time and the experience of being an NBA player, all in the same year.
Now, Bazemore is on the cusp of rotation readiness, a position he never would have achieved if the current D-League system hadn't been in place. Teams without such a system are at a clear disadvantage in the player-development department.
So, if anything, get ready for an expansion of the NBA's minor league and an overall move toward a model that closely resembles the professional teams in Europe.
No Going Back
The NBA is better off for its contact with European basketball, if only because the comparison between the two emphasizes some of the obvious flaws with American system. But that's sort of how new ideas work in every discipline: The more exposure you get to new ways of thinking, the better your own thought processes become.
European players have changed the way the game is played, and the team-building models from foreign professional leagues are only going to become increasingly influential.
There's no going back now—and that's a very good thing.
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