NBA enhances international flavour

The National Basketball Association, which tips off its 2006-07 season on Tuesday, continues to increase its international flavour with a growing crop of foreign-born players.

Numero Uno: Italy's Andrea Bargnani lands the top spot
Numero Uno: Italy's Andrea Bargnani lands the top spot

More than 80 players from nearly 40 countries now fill the NBA rosters of the 30 teams, which are divided in two conferences, each with three divisions.

Some, such as Milwaukee’s Australian centre Andrew Bogut, the number-one draft pick last year, honed their skills in US universities.
Others, such as Toronto’s 2006 top draft pick Andrea Bargnani of Italy, arrived after starring in their own home leagues.

The trend has already seen Chinese centre Yao Ming evolve into a force for the Houston Rockets.

While Steve Nash, the reigning two-time league Most Valuable Player, is Canadian, and Dirk Nowitzki, a key to the Dallas Mavericks hopes, is one of Germany’s best-known exports. 

 Australia’s Andrew Bogut

 Australia’s Andrew Bogut

Last year’s Most Improved Player was Nash’s Suns teammate Boris Diaw, one of a contingent of seven French players now based in the NBA.
They follow in the footsteps of compatriot Tony Parker, who will be seeking a third championship with the San Antonio Spurs.

Canada’s team

Days before making Bargnani the No. 1 draft pick in June, the Toronto Raptors tabbed Benetton Treviso general manager Maurizio Gherardini as vice-president and assistant general manager, making him the first European senior executive in the league.
Raptors chief executive Bryan Colangelo, who previously gave the Phoenix Suns and international character, is giving the Canadian team a foreign flavour as well.
However, Raptors coach Sam Mitchell said his team’s mix of nationalities was merely coincidental.
“We’re the Toronto Raptors, Canada’s team … we are an NBA team,” Mitchell said. “All our guys are proven players, and like all players have a lot to prove once they get to the NBA, but basketball players are basketball players.
“As a coaching staff, we never walk out there and say, ‘We have two guys from Spain, a guy from Italy, Rasho Nesterovic from … [Slovenia].
“It’s not that big of a deal to us.”

European tour
Philadelphia 76ers coach Maurice Cheeks, whose team participated in pre-season training camps and exhibition games in Europe during the off season, says he saw plenty of encouraging scenes.  

“The Barcelona team that we played had a lot of nice players, players that can shoot the ball,” Cheeks said.
“They’ve always been smart basketball players, and now they have inserted some bigger guys in there now – guys who do a little bit of everything – they rebound, they shoot, they pass, they move, they do  a lot of things.
“I’m even breaking down a Barcelona tape because it’s very good offensive basketball,” Cheeks added. “I think the gap is closing.  The basketball [in Europe] is very much moving up the charts.”

Argentina’s Manu Ginobili

Argentina’s Manu Ginobili

Home-grown talent continues to dominate the NBA, where veterans Shaquille O’Neal and Gary Payton teamed with youngster Dwyane Wade to bring the title to Miami last season.
Kobe Bryant was outstanding last season, although his Los Angeles Lakers fell in the first round of the playoffs.
Wade and his fellow 2003 draft classmates LeBron James of Cleveland and Carmelo Anthony in Denver are poised to shine for years to come.
Competing with and against such talent has made stars such as Yao, Pau Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili forces on their national teams.
Gasol’s Spain captured the world championship crown in Japan in August, and Ginobili’s Argentina won Olympic gold in Athens in 2004.

“Me basketball”
However, Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan said European players could offer at least one valuable lesson to the NBA, and to a US national team determined to regain international glory at the 2008 Beijing Games.
“Those guys use the fundamental aspects of the game,” McMillan said. “I think our athletes, they’re so athletic, that they rely on talent as opposed to the basics of the game.
“Our guys, they love the one-on-one, the isolation, the somewhat  ‘me basketball.’ But they play together over there.”

Source: AFP

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