William C. Rhoden, the outstanding writer for the New York Times, had an article
this weekend which is bound to stir things up. In it he suggests that the reason the NBA is drafting European players isn't because college players come in fundamentally unsound, but rather that the Europeans are (mostly anyway) white.
That would make sense if two things were different, the first being that NBA scoring
has fallen off a cliff in the past decade or so. Now you see teams struggling to get to 85, where when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were playing, scores of 120 were a fact of life. Now, that many points merits a special story. Percentages are down too, of course, and while you could say it's defense, the NBA has never been about defense.
We remember watching a game seven in a championship series a couple of years ago
(or maybe it was just the final game, but same point either way), and a large
number of the players on the court clearly didn't know what to do. Whether
it was inbounding the ball, defending the inbounds pass, making a pass to an
open player, dribbling the ball, getting a jumpshot off, or boxing out, the last
part of the game was a farce. Ten years earlier, guys like Magic Johnson,
Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Michael Jordan, Isaiah Thomas, and Charles Barkley
knew what to do at the end of a game - and both teams could crack a hundred
points with no sweat.
When you watch ESPN Classic and see old NBA games,
though the games look stiffer in some ways, the players really know what they're
doing. That's not always the case now, and it's glaringly obvious.
One could argue that this gap first started showing up in the Olympics around
1988, when the Yugoslavian team was clearly more skilled than the Americans. At
the time, we generally said that since we send college kids to compete with
professionals, of course they're not as sound. But by the last couple of
Olympics, even the Australians played a sharper brand of basketball, and
now they're going up against the NBA players. They didn't win. But
they play a gorgeous game down there.
While Americans tend to
focus on dunks and slashing basketball, the international game uses threes to
open the court. Watch an international tournament when you can - the
Australians, the Spanish, the Russians, the Greeks, and above all the
Lithuanians are playing a different game. It looks nothing like the
The second thing that seems to be glaringly obvious is that
the endorsement money is mostly going to the African-American players. Of
the prominent white American players, who has significant endorsements?
How many international players have significant deals in the U.S.? The
money is going to Alan Iverson, Shaquille O' Neal, and Kobe Bryant, not Dirk
Nowitzki . Pretty clearly, kids in America and abroad have no racial issue
when it comes to the NBA, so while one could argue that the NBA is moving
towards European players for racist reasons, the NBA is a successful global
business and takes pride in being progressive. Given the money that the
Lakers, the Knicks the Bulls and the rest pull in from jerseys and the like, why
screw it up?
Rhoden criticizes Jerry Reynolds, a white GM from French Lick (Larry Bird's hometown), for saying that a lot of the European kids have been through wars and so the NBA is a piece of cake for them as compared to a lot of American kids.
Rhoden goes on to say that some Black neighborhoods in America are not much different, so why doesn't that have a positive effect on basketball?
Either way would make life tough for anyone, but that's not the difference. The difference is the European kids are getting into structured leagues at earlier ages, and they're getting drilled in fundamentals. Here, as always, the truly interested teach themselves. So if you're 19 and 6-11 and from the U.S., chances are you haven't spent the last two years working on fundamentals to the same extent the Europeans
The bottom line is this: the NBA is a business, and a cuthroat one at that, and they are finding that European players
- really, European big men - are less of a risk than American kids are. David Stern's NBA is not going to
re-impose segregation. But by the same token, you can't show up at 18 or 19 and expect to be drafted on potential alone. There will always be more failures than successes that way. The European big men have become a safer bet. That's about it.