European Hoops Notebook: Who Will Be the Next David Blatt to Descend on the NBA?

David Pick@@IAmDPickInternational Hoops InsiderJune 12, 2015

John Bazemore/AP Images

Despite his matriculation to the NBA, David Blatt is not the European coach.

That distinction belongs to The King, Serbian coach Zeljko Obradovic—the European Phil Jackson, winner of eight Euroleague titles.

Blatt's not next on the list, either. That'd be current Spurs assistant Ettore Messina. Then another Serbian, Dusan Ivkovic.

Blatt swam in the same pool as those coaches, but it's not like he was in the deep end by himself. Before the Cleveland Cavaliers hired him in June 2014, accolades and medals from European club teams and the Russian national team highlighted his resume. Perhaps his most notable achievement was coaching Maccabi Tel Aviv to a Cinderella run to the Euroleague Championship in 2014.  

Will David Blatt be the first of many coaches who built their resume in Europe to come to the NBA?
Will David Blatt be the first of many coaches who built their resume in Europe to come to the NBA?Ben Margot/Associated Press

However, all that is about to change. If Blatt wins an NBA championship, he'll be hailed as Europe's greatest coach of all time.

Whether that's fair or not, it will be the perception—and it could be a big step for overseas coaches. The attention and credibility Blatt is bringing to European basketball could support the NBA's dreams of future elite European head coaches. 

CSKA Moscow President Andrey Vatutin—who attempted to court Blatt before he landed in Cleveland—is skeptical another European coach will follow immediately in Blatt's footsteps. But he does believe CSKA first-year head coach Dimitris Itoudis could be the next in line to make the NBA jump.  

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"If someone goes to the NBA, it would be Dimitris Itoudis or a coach of his generation," Vatutin said. "Itoudis is a smart and innovative coach with a talent to communicate with his players, and that's extremely important. But he is under contract next season, so I wouldn't let him go."

The Greek-born Itoudis, 44, has 13 years of experience as an associate head coach to Obradovic. He helped Panathinaikos win five Euroleague championships and 18 Greek titles. Earlier this week, he led CSKA to the VTB League championship with a record-breaking 9-0 record in the playoffs.

There are plenty of basketball people endorsing Itoudis as a potential NBA coach. A Nets scout wrote his name on a short list of potential NBA coaches, and former players rave about his coaching acument.

"Itoudis is one of top coaches in Europe and the best I've ever had," said Aaron Jackson, who played at Duquesne University and in the NBA Summer League before heading to Europe, where he suited up for Messina and Itoudis.

Credit: Andrey Vatutin.

"He's always open to learning from his players. He can call a play, but if we change it, he will say, 'Cool, thanks. I'm learning from you guys, too.' Next day he adjusts and brings what we taught him to practice. His door is open 24/7."

"Itoudis doesn't dictate the team," said former NBA wingman and Euroleague star Sonny Weems. "He understands how and what players are thinking. He could come into the room and talk to us for hours about anything. That's what got us the best record in Europe and a 15-0 start, and that's the reason we were at the Final Four. I'm more comfortable with Itoudis than Messina because he believes in me."

Itoudis has spent several summer leagues with NBA teams: three with the Pistons and one with the 76ers. He and Obradovic have been linked to past Pistons coaching searches, and Obradovic's American agent, Arn Tellem, is now a member of the Pistons' ownership group.

According to a league source, Itoudis has even filed scouting and draft reports for the Nets.

Itoudis spoke to Bleacher Report regarding the possibility of making the jump to the NBA.

"I'm realistic, so it's not about dreams, for me," Itoudis said. "We've built something special at CSKA, and I don't know for certain what the future holds. The NBA is the best organization in the world, and I was fortunate to work multiple times with the Pistons and Sixers. I have a lot of friends in the NBA."

Itoudis' coaching philosophy aligns with the new breed of NBA coaches, where talent management has as much to do with listening as it does preaching.  

"I am experienced, determined and have a strong belief in my philosophy as a basketball coach," he said. "Being a leader is important, but not a dictator. I like to communicate with players and learn from them something new all the time, whether it's drills or plays. I've learned that I'm here to help lead players down the right path, and to be successful, it requires specific rules and roles."

In addition to opportunities with Detroit and Philadelphia, the Brooklyn Nets also had interest at one point, "but it didn't work out," according to Itoudis.

Perhaps some day it will. If not for Itoudis, for another head coach. There are also a handful of European execs and potential NBA assistant coaches to watch. Here are a few:


Easily the most powerful overseas hoops exec, Vatutin doesn't currently have NBA ambitions. But one rival European executive believes the door remains open.

"NBA? It's up to him. He has amazing knowledge of the game," said Maurizio Gherardini, former Toronto Raptors vice president and boss of Turkish giants Fenerbahce.

Already considered the godfather of European club officials at age 41, Vatutin has built Moscow into an international powerhouse that has competed gamely with NBA franchises in preseason exhibitions. In 2013, CSKA lost 95-93 to the Spurs and beat the Timberwolves 108-106.

Mikhail Prokhorov
Mikhail ProkhorovAnthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

"CSKA can compete in the NBA for sure," Vatutin said. "Our ceiling would be advancing to the playoffs, but CSKA could beat NBA teams."

In 2010, Vatutin turned down a lucrative offer to become the assistant general manager of the New Jersey Nets.

"[Nets owner Mikhail] Prokhorov invited me to the NBA to become an assistant GM for the Nets," Vatutin said. "Why didn't I accept?"

("He is crazy. Craaaaaazy," shouted a Frenchman close to Vatutin, overhearing our conversation.)

"It was difficult to leave CSKA, but I don't have dreams of working in the NBA," Vatutin continued. "The NBA isn't something I think about, and I don't regret not going.

"Maybe I'll just buy the Nets from Prokhorov."

Chris Fleming

Timm Schamberger/Associated Press

The 45-year-old New Jersey native played pro ball overseas and spent his entire career in the German minors before becoming head coach for Artland Dragons, the lone club he suited up for.

Fleming played college hoops at the University of Richmond but left American soil in 1994 and has been abroad ever since. He coached Artland for five seasons and then German power-club Bamberg for six years, where he won four championships and four cups.

Fleming embraced the European culture and dominated the local German competition. He became head coach of the German national team ahead of the 2015 EuroBasket.

Fleming was part of the Philadelphia 76ers staff at the 2012 Summer League and served as an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs at the 2014 Summer League. He is well-respected in NBA circles and has had opportunities to join an NBA club in the past, but the timing was off. 

"[He is] an attractive overseas coach for NBA teams with a solid all-around reputation," one NBA source said.

Fleming has said he's "open to accepting a D-League job from a team that uses their affiliate to develop players and coaches."

Dan Shamir

Perhaps no other coach in European basketball has more decorated American connections than Shamir, a two-time Israeli Cup winner as head coach for Hapoel Jerusalem.

The 40-year-old Israeli coach traveled to the United States in 1996, upon graduating from military service, to study basketball under Rick Pitino at the University of Kentucky. He was also an assistant coach to David Blatt at Dynamo Moscow in Russia in 2008-09. While unemployed for the first half of the following season, Blatt would attend Shamir's team's training in Israel.

Shamir has also been an assistant for European legend Pini Gershon and an associate coach to Messina.

Last summer, the Grizzlies extended an invitation to audition Shamir for a coaching staff position. He killed the interview, but the job description—assistant coach behind the bench and player development instructor—didn't interest him.

"Shamir will make it to the NBA. It's only a matter of time," the NBA sources said.

Fotis Katsikaris

A pass-first point guard, Katsikaris set the record as youngest player to ever compete in the Greek's top division at just 15 years old. He turned to coaching at the age of 31. He led Dynamo Saint Petersburg to the No. 2 seed in the Russian League, and in 2012, though he resigned before coaching an official game, he was selected to coach the Russian national team.

In 2009, Katsikaris coached Bilbao, at the time the second-worst team in Spain, and skyrocketed the club to a playoff contender and EuroCup Final Four, where he was named Coach of the Year. The following season Bilbao qualified for the ACB Finals, eliminating star-studded Valencia and Real Madrid.

Katsikaris—head coach for the Greek national team—was an international scout for the Boston Celtics during the 2003-04 season. He turned down opportunities in 2011 and 2014 to coach an NBA D-League affiliate of two Western Conference teams. The 48-year-old will join the Indiana Pacers at the upcoming NBA Summer League as an associate head coach to Dan Burke.

David Pick is a veteran pro basketball reporter covering overseas hoops and American players abroad since 2010. He covers international basketball for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. You can follow David Pick on Twitter at @IAmDPick.


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