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The European Invasion: A Good Thing

Coaching Homepage

CHN's Coaching Week

Setting the Record Straight: Coach McCormick's Annual Euro Rant

July 18th, 2003

By Brian McCormick

Nine months ago, I tackled two issues: the influx of international players into the L and the apparent backlash from the average fan/sportswriter and the AAU scene, which was blamed for the American players’ apparent lack of development, which caused the International incursion. And, apparently is it time to re-hash the same argument, as the “experts” obtuse opinions continue to be mistaken for the sanctified truth by the average fan.

The first mistruth spread by the middling mainstream media is the unreadiness of the International player in comparison to the American college or high school player. There is a gross misunderstanding of the level of basketball played in Europe. Dukie V has the audacity to claim: “Many of these international players drafted high up don't have that much experience...these guys haven't gotten the job done night in and night out, 30-35 times a season, like a college player in America…It (the NBA) is certainly different than the pressures of playing abroad.”

His elucidation is lamentable only because his words are blazoned across ESPN and sold to the masses as venerated facts, the absolute truth and not the ravings of an obnoxious cheerleader. Is the pressure of college basketball like playing in the Association? Are high school and college kids well-equipped to handle the rigors of the NBA schedule, after being pampered in college, limited in the amount of time they can spend on the court, playing barely a third of the NBA schedule, many games against cupcake city? No. There is an adjustment period for every player when entering the L, regardless of his experience or hype. The NBA is a different game; it is quicker, players are stronger and officials call the game differently. The NBA has its own rules and its own culture, and there is no league in the world that prepares players for a seamless transition.

However, saying International players are less prepared than high school or college players is disregarding the facts, though Vitale never allows facts to get in the way of another one of his record setting monologues, as his propensity for preposterous outbursts borders on the unfathomable. Is Brian Cook, drafted #24 and the reigning MVP of the Big 10 really more prepared for the L than Boris Diaw, the reigning French League MVP picked at #21? Diaw, and the Warriors’ first round selection Michael Pietrus, played for Pau-Orthez, the French champion that also competes for the coveted Euro League crown. Pau-Orthez likely played 30 Domestic league games, fighting to win the championship, while competing in another 15-20 Euro League matches against the best teams in Europe. Diaw and Pietrus also played the past two summers with the French National Team in qualifying for the World Championships and for this summer’s European Championships, where they will compete two weeks before entering training camp. So, is their year-round schedule, including 50 professional games a year, and International competitions, really less demanding than Brian Cook’s Big 10 tilt?

Here, we must stop and draw a distinction. Just like some American players were drafted solely on potential (Ndubi Ebi, Travis Outlaw, Kendrick Perkins) and not expected to contribute immediately, so too were some lesser level European players. While many, if not most, of those International players drafted played for teams competing in the Euro League, some, like Malick Badiane, a Rockets’ second round selection, play for second division teams in Europe. Badiane played for TV Lagen, a second division German team, while Maciej Lampe, the Knicks’ second round selection played for a second division team in Spain (on loan from Real Madrid, one of Europe’s best teams) and Leandrihno Barbosa, the 28th pick, played in Brasil, a league far inferior to the top European leagues. While players like Darko Milicic, Carlos Delfino, Diaw and Pietrus can be expected to contribute now; these players are drafted for the future, just like the difference between a Carmelo Anthony or Lebron James and a Perkins or Ebi.

I cringe when I hear an “expert” evaluate a prospect’s game, knowing that their opinion is slightly more educated than the average fan with a satellite dish, yet millions receive their analysis with greater certainty than their doctor’s prognosis. Everyone makes mistakes, judges incorrectly, and over-hypes a player. NBA scouts error, and so do fans, but only the “experts” have the means to persuade millions to believe as they do. Tom Tolbert was an interesting choice to cover the NBA Draft, seeing as he saw Yao Ming play one game and said he would be a flop of Shawn Bradley proportions. Interesting that David Aldridge managed to make cameos, seeing as he said after the same game that Yao Ming would have limited impact in the league. Again, everyone makes mistakes; eight teams are wondering how they managed to miss on Amare Soudamire last year. But, not everyone gets paid to mis-educate Americans.

The International game is different than America’s game. Each has different strengths and weaknesses; each emphasizes different areas. Criticizing an International player for not playing like an American is immature, as the game is played, and officiated differently overseas.

The distinction starts as soon as one walks in the gym; in America, a single player will shoot around, waiting for the next person to show up to play a game. In Europe, a lone player will likely stretch, run some sprints and then shoot shots inside the key. When a second player arrives, Americans typically play one-on-one (or completely ignore each other). In Europe, when a second player arrives, the two will work together in shooting drills. Pick-up games are hard to come-by in Europe (though as Europe sees more immigration from Africa, some things are changing, as Africans typically just want to play too).

This simple difference translates on the court. Americans are superior penetrators, ball handlers and individual defensive players because they spend much more time outside of practice honing those skills, while International players are superior shooters and passers because they spend more time honing those skills.

The American game, therefore, plays to its strengths, as coaches emphasize pressure defense and try to force turnovers to create transition situations to compensate for a lack of shooting ability; offensively, there is a great deal of isolation plays and pick-and-rolls, trying to create a mismatch to gain an advantage; or, the team relies on dribble penetration.

The European game relies on continuity-type offenses, crisp passing and perimeter shooting. Few European teams play zone (as is the stereotype) because the shooting is too good and the three-point line is only slightly further than the college line. Great defensive players learn to play the angles and the passing lanes, different from great American defenders who are usually great on the ball defenders, using quickness and strength.

European teams generally play all their games on the weekend (teams in the Euro League play a weekday and weekend game). During the week, teams will generally practice twice a day, a morning individual skills workout and an evening team practice. There is no limit to the amount of practice time, and most teams practice eleven months of the year, with the season running from early October through April. The longer season means it is not as game-intensive; but, it also means there is far more time to work on improving one’s skills.

Therefore, when NBA scouts look at Europe, they see players who can pass and shoot, who rely on their court savvy as much as their athleticism; while American college players try to out run, out jump or out muscle their opponents. In Europe, despite players being labeled soft, far fewer fouls are called. There is much less wrestling for position in the post because of the trapezoid lane, which naturally keeps post players further from the basket. Defensive players are often given the benefit of the doubt, and offensive players are not rewarded with free throws if they initiate the contact; no pump fake and fling yourself into the defender and expect free throws, a la Kobe Bryant.

It is a different game, not better, not worse. The National League and the American League play different styles of baseball, but it is still baseball. One style is not better than the other; some prefer the American League, some prefer the National League. Some baseball fans like the long ball, others enjoy watching teams play small ball. The difference between American basketball and International basketball is similar; some like shooting and passing, others like one-on-one skill and high-flying dunks.

But, irresponsible journalists attempt to cast International basketball and its players as inferior, as though only Americans are allowed to excel in its sport (though Dr. James Naismith was Canadian).

Coach McCormick has coached high school and college basketball and professionally in Europe. His book, THE ART OF BALL HANDLING;GETTING A HANDLE ON YOUR GAME, is available from www.basketballsense.com.

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