Former NBA standout Josh Childress still adjusting to limelight in Europe

Ricky Rubio was drafted by the Timberwolves last year but remained in Spain, where he stars for BC Barcelona.
Ricky Rubio was drafted by the Timberwolves last year but remained in Spain, where he stars for BC Barcelona. (Mindaugas Kulbis/associated Press)
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By Tim Warren
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 7, 2010

PARIS -- Josh Childress was asked Thursday to compare the NBA playoffs, which he experienced as a member of the Atlanta Hawks, to the EuroLeague Final Four, which will be held this weekend here and features his club, Olympiacos of Greece.

Childress laughed. "I don't know," he cracked. "In Atlanta, we never got out of the first round."

But in Greece, it has been a different story. Olympiacos is in the EuroLeague Final Four for the second straight year, thanks in no small measure to Childress's contributions. He is averaging 15.1 points a game in the EuroLeague, second on the team to Linas Kleiza (17.3), the former All-Met from Montrose Christian who joined the team this season from the Denver Nuggets. They form what is easily the best forward tandem in Europe and in a very strong field could help deliver a championship for their fans, among the most zealous and demanding in Europe.

"We came close last year," Childress said, "but we didn't finish the game the way we needed. Now we know we need to close teams out. We have worked very hard to get back here, and we are ready."

If Olympiacos can defeat Partizan of Belgrade Friday night and tournament favorite Barcelona ousts CSKA Moscow in the other semifinal, that could set up what many here consider the dream matchup for the final, the best way to conclude this season-long competition of the best club teams in Europe.

CSKA Moscow is in the Final Four for an eighth straight year and features former NBA players Trajan Langdon, Victor Khryapa and Pops Mensah-Bonsu, the former George Washington University star, along with several top Euro players. But it is a defensive-oriented team without much charisma. Partizan, the only real surprise team in this tournament, has some good young players but lacks the depth and experience of the other teams.

Barcelona, on the other hand, has the undisputed rock star of the tournament, floppy-haired point guard Ricky Rubio. Drafted in the first round by the Minnesota Timberwolves last year, Rubio decided to stay in his native Spain. His precocious playmaking at the 2008 Olympics, when he was only 17, made believers of the NBA stars on the gold-medal-winning U.S. team.

When Mensah-Bonsu, who played briefly alongside Rubio last year in Spain, was asked Thursday if he is ready for the NBA, the response was quick. "Ricky Rubio can play for any team, anywhere," he said. "He plays way beyond his years."

Rubio is paired in Barcelona's back court with Juan Carlos Navarro, who, Washington Wizards fans may remember, was the team's second-round draft choice in 2002. Navarro never played for Washington, which traded his rights to the Memphis Grizzlies in 2007. Navarro played one season in Memphis, then fled to Barcelona.

He and Rubio make up a formidable combination at guard, and their front-court support includes former Maryland Terrapin Terence Morris and 6-foot-11 Fran Vasquez, drafted in the first round by Orlando in 2005. Like Olympiacos, Barcelona runs at least 10 deep, thanks to deep-pocketed owners who know that good American players and the top Euros don't come cheap.

That certainly was the case with Childress, who was the sixth pick overall in 2004 out of Stanford, then averaged 11.1 points over four years with the Hawks. But in 2008, when he was negotiating a new deal with Atlanta, Olympiacos swooped in with what is still the largest contract offered to a player in Europe: $20 million over three years, with the team paying his taxes, which is customary on the continent.

Other European teams also were throwing around large sums of money, and NBA players such as Carlos Delfino and Earl Boykins found it was too much to turn down. Within a few months, though, the European economy nose-dived, and several teams cut loose their high-priced imports.

Childress stayed, and he endured skepticism and outright hostility when his numbers (8.8 points per game in the EuroLeague last season) appeared lacking. Some fans seemed to think they were getting the next Doctor J, right down to the carefully coiffed Afro. What they got was a skilled and smart player, a 6-8 slasher who nonetheless apparently wasn't star material.

"It was tough, real tough," Childress acknowledged Thursday. "When you play for one of the top teams over here, there's no such thing as flying under the radar. You're nitpicked on everything, and there were a lot of expectations about me.

"I had to learn to be thick-skinned. It was tough going, but it was something I had to learn."

This season, "I've been a lot more comfortable, and I think my play shows that. I never really changed my style of play. Mostly, I've improved a lot mentally. I've learned to let the game come to me more."

Childress has an opt-out clause in his contract that will allow him to return to the NBA this summer with no penalty or buyout. That, naturally, has led to rampant speculation in basketball-mad Greece that he'll be back in the States this fall. Greek journalists interviewed here were virtually unanimous in predicting that he will.

Thursday, Childress dealt with the inevitable questions with aplomb.

"I'll decide by July 15," he said, referring to his deadline for terminating his contract. "But right now, I have a lot to accomplish still -- this tournament, and then the rest of the season in the Greek league."

He acknowledged that he has been following the Hawks in the NBA playoffs, though he quickly added, "because of the time difference, not all that much." And when a persistent questioner pressed Childress on the chances he might remain in Greece, he showed no trace of irritation.

"Listen -- it's been an excellent two years," he said. "It's been a growing experience, yes, but I never saw this as a temporary fix. I thought of it as a three-year deal, and it could very well end that way."

Childress looked around at the hundreds of journalists here to cover the tournament. He continued: "You know, I never expected to see the world the way I have. I never expected to be in Paris for the Final Four. I have no complaints."

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