Global discoveries: Spurs serve as pioneers in scouting European talent
Web Posted: 09/30/2006 06:47 PM CDT
San Antonio Express-News
Onto the floor when the Spurs need to score, comes a forward known as Zarko.
When the game gets tight, the opponents take flight, when they catch the sight of Zarko.
They say from Europe he came, to play the American game; the Z in his name is for Zarko.
Zarko — the hoopster they all come to see; Zarko — who's known by the sign of the Z.
Terry Cummings' "Mark of Zarko"
BELGRADE, Serbia — Zarko Paspalj taps his index finger on the pack of cigarettes. He is six months removed from his 40th birthday. Still puffing.
Paspalj doesn't know when he'll put down his smokes for good. But he hopes it's sooner than later. Four heart attacks tend to make a man rethink his habits.
"Even in this," Paspalj says sheepishly, "I make all the records."
Paspalj hasn't lost his sense of humor or much of his hair. He looks fit in spite of his health problems. Summering in the Mediterranean has given him a nice tan. He's sworn off meat and become a vegetarian — no small accomplishment considering the carnivorous tendencies of his homeland.
Cigarettes, he figures, are next.
It's been 17 years since Paspalj blew into San Antonio in a cloud of smoke. He was 23 years old then, a clever, fun-loving left-hander from Yugoslavia whose shot was as pure as it was unorthodox. He was both prospect and pioneer.
Never had the Spurs signed a foreign-born player who hadn't at least attended college in the United States. Paspalj was one of just five such players in the NBA, all from Eastern Europe, all arriving in 1989. Newspaper headlines trumpeted the league's "International Invasion."
Paspalj laughs now at that suggestion. He lasted one season with the Spurs, averaging 2.6 points in 28 games, before resuming what would become a successful professional career in Europe. To most in the NBA, he was a bust.
But to the man who brought him to San Antonio? Paspalj may have just been ahead of his time.
Gregg Popovich was an assistant coach with the Spurs when he plucked Paspalj out of Yugoslavia. Neither he nor R.C. Buford, another assistant on Larry Brown's staff, let Paspalj's short-lived stay deter them from thinking the talent gap between the NBA and the rest of the world was closing.
When the foreign invasion arrived in full force more than a decade later, the Spurs were helping lead the charge. Following in Zarko's footsteps were Rasho, Beno, Hedo, Fabricio and, not the least of which, Manu and Tony.
The Spurs open training camp today in Lyon, France, an appropriate setting for a team that owes a lot of its recent success to a think-global-act-local philosophy. Two of the franchise's three championships were won with an Argentine playing alongside a Belgian Frenchman. Ten of the team's past 12 draft picks have a foreign passport. This season's roster also includes a Slovenian, another Argentine, a dunking Dutchman and the all-important Virgin Islander.
The league's international brigade, just a quintet during the 1989-90 season, had swelled to 54 players by the end of last season. Add another 28 like Spurs center Francisco Elson, who was born outside the United States but attended an American college, and the NBA had a total of 82 foreign players from 38 countries and territories. The most recent draft featured six international players taken in the first round, including the No. 1 overall pick, Italy's Andrea Bargnani.
"The NBA at my time was something different," Paspalj says. "They didn't have any pressure to find players around the world. They already had such good players. And a lot of American coaches were conservative.
"Now, the NBA has opened all borders."
The first wave
Popovich graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970 with a degree in Soviet studies, worked in military intelligence and later toured the Soviet Union with the Armed Forces team. His knowledge of Eastern European culture and language served him well when Spurs general manager Bob Bass gave him permission to scout the 1989 European Championships.
Once there, Popovich met with Sarunas Marciulionis only to quickly learn the talented Lithuanian guard was too far along in negotiations with Golden State scout Donnie Nelson. So far along, in fact, that Nelson was sleeping on Marciulionis' couch.
The Warriors, then coached by Nelson's father, Don, ended up winning a bidding war with Atlanta for Marciulionis. The Hawks had actually signed Marciulionis to a contract the previous summer but never submitted the paperwork to the NBA office because they feared Soviet authorities wouldn't allow him to come to the United States.
"There was a lot of slinking into back rooms," Popovich says, "to get deals done.
"You didn't know if the player wanted to leave his country. You didn't know if his team was going to let him go. You didn't know how their contracts were going to work. You didn't know how the NBA was going to regard them. It was really an interesting, but confusing time."
Donnie Nelson would also go on to draft Germany's Dirk Nowitzki for Dallas in 1998, and, perhaps more than any other scout, helped change the NBA's view of international players. Nelson was joined by his father and Warriors director of player personnel Sam Schuler — whom Popovich would later hire for his own Spurs' staff — in Europe in the summer of 1989. But aside from Golden State, the Spurs, Atlanta, Portland and the Los Angeles Lakers, who had just drafted Yugoslavian center Vlade Divac, there were few other teams making a concerted effort to look for talent overseas.
"Donnie had already built a great foundation over there, and Nellie and I were like kids in a candy store with all these players," Popovich says. "It was, 'You're going to get him, I'm going to get him. You're going to get him, I'm going to get him.'"
With Marciulionis on his way to Golden State and Portland owning the rights to Drazen Petrovic, Popovich turned his attention to Paspalj, a crafty 6-foot-9 small forward who had cut down Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics for a half at the McDonald's Open a year earlier.
Popovich met Paspalj in Germany at a warm-up tournament for the European championships. A friend of Paspalj's helped translate. Two weeks later, Paspalj was on a plane to Texas, NBA contract in hand.
Paspalj stayed at Popovich's house for a few weeks while trying to acclimate to his new country. He didn't know much English, and, worse, Popovich didn't smoke. When Paspalj wanted to light up, he had to go outside. The searing Texas heat nearly broke his nicotine addiction for him.
Divac and Petrovic, teammates of Paspalj's on Yugoslavia's talent-loaded national roster, also had jumped to the NBA. So had two members of the Soviet Union's formidable national team: Marciulionis and forward Alexander Volkov.
Reaching the NBA and playing in it, however, were two different things. Petrovic and Volkov both received only mop-up minutes during their rookie seasons. Paspalj didn't get even that.
Spurs coach Larry Brown didn't have much faith in first-year players, even less in foreign ones. The team also had just drafted Sean Elliott, who played Paspalj's position. A gifted ball-handler and passer, Paspalj learned quickly about the strength and athleticism of NBA players when Terry Cummings abused him in an early training-camp practice.
According to team lore, Paspalj tried to confess his limitations to Brown. "No defense," Paspalj said through his broken English, "only offense."
"No play," countered Brown, "only bench."
Paspalj didn't help his own cause when, in one of his first interviews, he expressed his love for Pizza Hut and Marlboros, neither of which made the NBA's list of recommended training-table fare.
But while Paspalj's chain-smoking stunted his on-court development, his folksy personality made him popular among teammates and a cult figure among fans. Cummings wrote a song about him titled the "Mark of Zarko," which was set to the theme of the old "Zorro" television series. Celtics forward Kevin McHale joked that he wanted to name his next child "Zarko."
"That's the sweetest name I've ever seen," McHale said. "You could use it for a girl, too. And with a name like Zarko, you don't even need a middle name."
Though frustrated by his lack of minutes, Paspalj remained a good teammate. Still, three days before the start of the playoffs, team officials cut him to make room for former Spurs forward Mike Mitchell, who, coincidentally, had spent the season playing in Europe.
"Do I feel sad or bad things went the way I didn't expect?" Paspalj asks. "I never had equal chance. That's something that still bothers me 15 years later. I believe Larry Brown is an excellent coach, but I don't think he gave me good chance.
"When I come from Yugoslavia, I was the best (small forward) in Europe. I'm sure I could help at least a little bit."
Had Paspalj come along a decade later, Popovich and Buford think he probably would have enjoyed more success. "He really was a hell of a player," Popovich says.
The NBA gradually became more supportive of its foreign imports. Coaches began to overlook the deficiencies in their games (namely, their lack of defense) and focus on utilizing their team-oriented fundamental skills.
Most European players also eventually learned pizza and cigarettes make not a breakfast of champions. When Paspalj returned to Yugoslavia after being waived, Spurs officials went to the townhouse he had been renting to help move the rest of his belongings. They were surprised to see he had purchased only two pieces of furniture: a bed and a pool table.
Weeks later, the owner of the property was still trying to get rid of the smell of smoke.
'Better lucky than good'
After two seasons on Don Nelson's staff in Golden State, Popovich returned to the Spurs in the summer of 1994 as general manager. He immediately hired two people who shared his global vision: Schuler, who became director of player personnel; and Buford, who was named the team's head scout.
Neither the success of Marciulionis, Petrovic and Divac, nor the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, had triggered an international boon for the NBA. Of the 324 players drafted from 1990-95, only eight came from foreign teams and none were taken in the first round. Toni Kukoc was the only member of the group to become an impact player in the NBA.
"The cream of the crop," Popovich says, "was already picked."
Arvydas Sabonis, the dominant center of the old Soviet Union team and a 1986 draft pick of Portland, joined the Trail Blazers in 1995 at age 30. But the next generation of international talent began to arrive the following summer when Sacramento drafted Peja Stojakovic and Cleveland took Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Two years later, in a prearranged draft-night deal with Milwaukee, Dallas acquired Dirk Nowitzki for Robert Traylor.
The Spurs saw another advantage in drafting young, foreign prospects: Rather than have players occupy space on both their bench and salary cap, the Spurs could leave them overseas to develop. When Russian forward Andrei Kirilenko didn't fall far enough in the 1999 draft, the Spurs traded their first-round pick to Dallas for one in the second. They used it on Croatian guard Gordan Giricek. With their own second-round selection, No. 57 overall, they took a skinny Argentine guard named Manu Ginobili.
Buford, who had just been promoted to assistant general manager, first saw Ginobili two years earlier at the Under-22 World Championships in Australia. Ginobili couldn't guard anyone and had a forgettable 0-for-8 performance that included six missed 3-pointers in the bronze-medal game. Still, Buford was impressed by his aggressiveness.
"I wish I could tell you I knew Manu was going to be what he turned out to be," says Buford, who has since become the Spurs' general manager. "But the less you know about a player the more you can dream. With international players, you're dreaming on guys with size and skills that a lot of players with size from here don't have."
Even then, the Spurs almost passed on Ginobili. Buford debated using the pick on Lucas Victoriano, the point guard from Argentina's junior national team. He went with Ginobili, in part, because he figured even Popovich would be skeptical about playing a foreign point guard.
"That's one of those times," Buford says, "where it's better to be lucky than good."
The Spurs would find their point guard two years later. When Buford first told Popovich he was interested in a 19-year-old French prospect, Popovich laughed. Europe had produced NBA-worthy shooters, not point guards.
That didn't faze Tony Parker. "I just thought if they saw me play," Parker says, "I was going to change their minds."
Not initially. Three weeks before the draft, Parker worked out for the Spurs in Chicago. He performed poorly and the team's coaching staff headed back to San Antonio less than impressed.
Sam Presti, hired by Buford as a front-office intern the previous summer, listened to the coaches' critique of Parker. Then he put together video clips of Parker playing in Europe and at the 2000 Nike Hoops Summit that refuted each of their concerns.
Popovich agreed to bring in Parker for another workout. When Parker was finished, Popovich turned to Buford and said he had changed his opinion about the French teenager.
"This kid," Popovich said, "is going to be starting for us 10 games into the season."
Popovich underestimated Parker: He needed only five games to move into the starting lineup. By the time Ginobili arrived in San Antonio in the summer of 2002, Parker had a full season's worth of experience.
In addition to signing Ginobili, the Spurs traded the rights to Gordan Giricek to Memphis for $1 million and a future second-round pick. It didn't take teams long to notice that, with some astute scouting and a little patience and luck, the Spurs had turned two 1999 second-round picks into a pair of productive players, one of whom would quickly become one of the franchise's most popular stars.
"San Antonio was the first team to get it started, drafting Ginobili and Giricek," Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni says. He adds with a laugh, "That was really the first sort of sneaky stuff those guys did."
The success of Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki and Sacramento's Peja Stojakovic, who both debuted in the 1998-99 season — as well as Parker's arrival — also played a large role in convincing teams to look overseas. Less than two weeks after Ginobili helped the Spurs win the 2003 championship, a record 20 international players were taken in the two-round draft. More than 25 percent of the 237 picks in the past four drafts have been foreign.
Follow the leader
As the number of international players grew in the NBA, so did the army of scouts being sent abroad to find them. When D'Antoni was a star point guard in Italy during the 1980s, he says, "You maybe would go a whole season and never see any NBA personnel over there except for the European Championships."
But when D'Antoni returned to Italy in 2001 as the coach of Benetton Treviso? "I was having dinner with somebody from the NBA almost every night," he says.
The search for talent led scouts not only to Europe, but also South America, Asia and Africa. Finding prospective players became less of a challenge than keeping them a secret from other teams.
In 1999, the Spurs assured the agent of Andrei Kirilenko they would take the Russian forward if he were available when they picked at No. 29. He wasn't. Utah took Kirilenko 24th. The Spurs also issued a first-round guarantee to Serbian center Nenad Krstic in 2002 only to watch New Jersey pick him two slots ahead of them.
Finding reliable background information on players also could be difficult. The Spurs had interest in Argentine forward Andres Nocioni, but thought he wasn't draft eligible because one of their scouts provided an incorrect birth date.
Two years ago, the Spurs gambled a late second-round pick on Sergei Karaulov, a 7-foot center from Uzbekistan. Team officials relied on the opinion of one of their contacts, having never seen Karaulov for themselves. Given Karaulov's summer-league play the past two years, the Spurs might have been better off also never hearing of him.
Karaulov, however, is an exception. The Spurs usually trust their own eyes. In recent years, they haven't employed a full-time international scout.
Buford makes multiple trips abroad to see prospects during the season. Presti, who has been elevated to assistant general manager, was once labeled the "NBA's Indiana Jones" by a fellow scout because he was showing up in so many European gyms. Former Spurs guard Dell Demps, added to the team's front-office staff as director of pro player personnel last year, joined Buford in South Africa last month to help direct one of the NBA's Basketball Without Borders camps.
Popovich also still makes the occasional summer trip to Eastern Europe to conduct a coaching clinic or look at players.
"We try not to allow a European scout to make our decisions for us," Buford says. "We want to be the ones who are making the decisions."
That doesn't mean the Spurs don't have help. They use a number of coaching, agent and management contacts to provide information about prospects.
CSKA Moscow's Ettore Messina and Maccabi Tel Aviv's Neven Spahija, two of the most respected coaches in Europe, have good relationships with the Spurs. Maurizio Gherardini, the former general manager of Italian league power Benetton Treviso and one of the sport's top international executives, visited the Spurs at least once a season until the Toronto Raptors hired him as their new assistant general manager this past summer.
"I think Dallas and San Antonio had been the two clubs most open to the impact of international basketball," Gherardini says. "Nowadays, when you can say you know what's going on in the world basketball community, that's saying a lot.
"It's a global game, and San Antonio's reputation is one of the very, very best in the world."
The question now is, will the Spurs' international pipeline continue to be productive?
Team officials remain optimistic their 2005 first-round pick, 20-year-old French forward Ian Mahinmi, will develop into an impact player. Mahinmi, who stands close to 7-foot, is the type of athletic, run-the-floor big man who fits well in today's up-tempo NBA. But he's also raw. He showed flashes of potential while playing on the Spurs' summer-league team in July, yet also looked overmatched on other occasions.
Mahinmi will spend one more season in France. His new team plays in the Euroleague — the most talent-filled league outside the NBA — which should aid his development. He also now has a personal strength coach to work with him daily. The Spurs plan to sign him for the 2007-08 season, but think he will probably need at least a year on the bench before becoming a regular contributor.
Neven Spahija, the coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, is glad to see the Spurs give Mahinmi more time to grow in Europe. He remembers when NBA coaches dismissed the talents of his childhood friend, Drazen Petrovic. Now he's worried too many young European players are languishing on the end of NBA benches when they could be playing overseas.
"In this moment, this is a very big problem for the NBA and for us," says Spahija, who helped coach the Spurs' summer-league team for the second year, in part, because he wanted to learn how to better prepare Europeans for the NBA. "The players are not ready to come and play immediately. There are some good examples like Tony Parker, but most players need two or three more years.
"I think the NBA needs to believe in our programs in Europe a little bit more, and leave the players there. After that, they will get a better product."
While Mahinmi could be on the Spurs' roster a year from now, the future of the other four unsigned draft picks the team has stashed in Europe (see chart, page 3N) is less clear.
Argentine forward Luis Scola is one of the best players in Europe and most scouts agree he would be a rotation-worthy player in the NBA. The Spurs wanted to sign him two summers ago, but the buyout with his Spanish team was enormous. The figure has been reduced to a more modest $3.5 million, but the Spurs now have less room on their roster — and payroll — for Scola because they signed his friend, Fabricio Oberto.
This summer, the Spurs planned to bring over Lithuanian center Robertas Javtokas, a second-round pick from 2001, thinking he would be a solid backup if they also re-signed Nazr Mohammed. The team, however, balked at Javtokas' contract wishes after Mohammed left for Detroit and instead signed a pair of restricted free-agent centers: FranciscoElson and Jackie Butler.
Spurs officials had some concern that pairing Butler with Javtokas would leave them with two inexperienced big men. An Elson-Javtokas tandem would give the team a pair of shot-blockers — but at the cost of Butler's scoring ability.
The Spurs have tried unsuccessfully to trade Scola's draft rights, but they also haven't ruled out signing him or Javtokas in two seasons when Tim Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Mahinmi may be the only players on the payroll.
Still, given the modest contributions of three foreign rookies from last season — Sarunas Jasikevicius, Arvydas Macijauskas and Oberto — teams have become wary of committing big dollars to international players until they are sure their skills will translate well to the NBA. Unlike Mahinmi and Parker, who were first-round picks and slotted into the league's rookie scale, second-round picks like Scola and Javtokas can sign for any amount up to the NBA maximum. That allows them to use Europe's free-agent market to leverage the NBA teams holding their draft rights.
Ginobili signed a modest two-year contract for $2.9 million when he first joined the Spurs. His success helped Argentine forward Andres Nocioni command a three-year, $11.1 million contract from Chicago just two years later.
Ginobili and Parker both also have raised the expectations for any international player that follows them onto the Spurs' roster. The team's fans have been especially eager to put Scola in a silver-and-black uniform even though most have never seen him play. Talk of Javtokas' expected arrival even swept up Spurs chairman Peter Holt, who became upset when the team didn't reach an agreement with the center.
"It's disappointing for both sides that those guys haven't found their way to the NBA," Buford says. "But sometimes economics get in the way of the path of least resistance."
A reflective Zarko
Cut by the Spurs in the spring of 1990, Zarko Paspalj returned to Yugoslavia to resume his career. He became the league's leading scorer, transferred to Greece the following season and was named MVP after averaging 32 points a game.
Paspalj remained one of the top players in Europe, but the NBA didn't call again until 1996 when he guided Yugoslavia into the gold-medal game at the Atlanta Olympics.
Croatia had split from Yugoslavia, taking with it two of the most talented players from the former national team, Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja. The American Dream Team, meanwhile, was still loaded with future Hall of Famers, including, among others, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson.
Paspalj was now 30 and years of chain smoking were beginning to catch up with him. For one half, however, he lit up the world's best players, frustrating the Americans with backdoor layups, 3-pointers and fearless drives to the basket. Paspalj scored 16 points in the game's first 141/2 minutes, and Yugoslavia trailed only 43-38 at halftime. The United States would surge to a 95-69 victory in the second half, but was roundly criticized for allowing the game to stay close as long as it did.
Paspalj's performance caught the attention of the hometown Atlanta Hawks, who invited him to training camp. His stay, however, was even shorter than his tenure with the Spurs. A week into camp, he relinquished the guaranteed clause in his contract and returned to Europe because of family problems.
"If I had a clear head," Paspalj says, "I think I could have done much better."
Paspalj shuttled from France to Greece to Italy before finally retiring in 1998. He and his family now split their time between Belgrade and Athens. Among Paspalj's latest business ventures is the construction of an elaborate water park in Serbia's capital city.
Paspalj also joined Vlade Divac and five of their countrymen in forming Group Seven, a charitable foundation led by Divac that provides care for children displaced by the breakup of Yugoslavia. After he stopped playing, Paspalj continued to assist Serbia's national team until a year ago, when the team's dysfunctional roster made the job too stressful.
In 2001, Paspalj was hospitalized twice for heart attacks. He says he's had two more, enough to force him to make some lifestyle changes. Cutting meat out of his diet was a start. The cigarettes need to go, too.
"I waited until four," he says, "but I know now I have to live more balanced."
The mention of San Antonio makes Paspalj smile. Getting to know Popovich and Buford, he says, was the best part of his lone season with the Spurs. He has visited both during their scouting trips to Belgrade and continues to root for the team from afar.
It's a different NBA, Paspalj says. The Spurs won two championships starting a pair of international imports. Germany's Dirk Nowitzki led Dallas to the NBA Finals last season.
Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni, Phoenix's coach, brought over the up-tempo offense he used in Italy. Bryan Colangelo, the former Suns general manager who hired D'Antoni, started his rebuilding of the Toronto Raptors by making D'Antoni's old boss, Maurizio Gherardini, the NBA's first senior-level executive from Europe.
The Raptors will begin the season with five European players on their roster. Seventeen years ago, there were five in the entire league.
"Even when I speak to you now, I'm still excited," Paspalj says. "I was one of the rare players then to feel the atmosphere, to see the way things work somewhere else. I was at the top of the line."
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