NEW YORK — When the Dallas Mavericks returned home from Miami after vanquishing the Heat last week, Dirk Nowitzki emerged from the team plane witha cigar in his left hand, the NBA Finals most valuable player trophy in his right hand and wearing an uncharacteristically boastful T-shirt that read, “I’m that dude.”
It was a bold statement, but it couldn’t be denied that the Mavericks won their first NBA championship because a once-maligned German player wouldn’t let a freshly torn tendon in his left middle finger, a fever, or even the overly hyped opposition stand in his way. Many myths about international players have been put to rest through the globalization of the game over the past 20 years, but Nowitzki ended one of the last remaining tales — that a player from Europe couldn’t be the centerpiece of an NBA championship team.
“This might be the first time in memory where the true Alpha dog has been a European product,” said Donnie Nelson, Mavericks president of basketball operations. “That is a special situation.”
While there is no “Next Nowitzki” expected to emerge from Thursday’s NBA draft, three European players — Turkey’s Enes Kanter, Jan Vesely of the Czech Republic and Jonas Valanciunas from Lithuania — are expected to be among the top 10 players selected for the first time. Three other international players could go in the top 20 — Congolese center Bismack Biyombo, Lithuania’s Donatas Motiejunas and Southern California forward Nikola Vucevic, a native of Montenegro.
Duke point guard Kyrie Irving and Arizona forward Derrick Williams are expected to go first and second to Cleveland and Minnesota, respectively, and Utah is strongly considering taking Kanter, a bruising, 6-foot-11 forward, third overall. Vesely, an athletic 6-11 forward who compares himself to Andrei Kirilenko, or Valanciunas, a promising, 19-year-old center, are not expected to slip past the Wizards, who select sixth overall. Kanter was forced to miss all of last season at Kentucky after being ruled ineligible for accepting benefits from this Turkish team, Fenerbahce. But if he had been allowed to play, Kanter said he would’ve been rated higher in this draft. “I would go with the No. 1 pick,” Kanter said, confidently. “I believe I am the best player in this draft. I’m going to show everybody European basketball is getting so much better.”
The NBA hasn’t been afraid to raid talent from overseas — three of the past 10 No. 1 overall picks came from abroad — but only two international players were selected among the top 14 lottery picks in the past three years, with none reaching those heights last season — when no international player was taken until the Wizards drafted France’s Kevin Seraphin with the 17th pick.
Tony Ronzone, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ assistant general manager, said that the championship success of Nowitzki, Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol and 2007 NBA Finals MVP Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili of San Antonio, among others, has played a role in eliminating the inaccurate perceptions of foreign-born players, but added that what Nowitzki accomplished last week has probably made more teams comfortable about investing higher draft picks on players from abroad.
“You eliminate that thought process, of ‘Can an international guy lead a team to a championship?’ That theory is out the window because Dirk just did it,” said Ronzone, who also serves as director of international player personnel for USA Basketball. “This states to the NBA and the rest of the world is, you can be from Africa, or China, or anywhere in the world and lead your team to the championship. It puts more stock when you’re drafting, where you don’t have to shy away from that.”
This year is also different because of what ESPN draft analyst Fran Fraschilla describes as the “perfect storm” in which four potential lottery picks — Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes, Baylor’s Perry Jones and Kentucky’s Terrence Jones — elected to return to school for another year. But Ronzone added that the crop of foreign talent, with Kanter, Vesely and Valanciunas this season is “pretty darn good. I think these things just go in trends and cycles. I don’t see them as all-stars right now but I think they could potentially get there. But I think now, [they are] really good starters in the league.”
Since Gheorghe Muresan retired, the Wizards haven’t had much success with European players. Juan Carlos Navarro, a 2002 second-round pick, never played for the team and flamed out one year after getting dealt to Memphis. Oleksiy Pecherov, the 18th pick of the 2006 draft, played two seasons in Washington before getting traded to Minnesota and is already out of the league. But Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said those situations wouldn’t have any effect on his decision this year.
“We’re not scared off by international players,” Grunfeld said. “International players take up 20 percent of this league right now. I think they’ve shown they can compete on this level and they can have a lot of success on this level. We feel we have a pretty good handle on some of these players, and some of the players have played in big time competition. Foreign players have had success. I think people are comfortable with them.”
Fraschilla said it is important to temper expectations and not place unfair labels on players from Europe. “I think a mistake teams made early, seven, eight, nine years ago, they were automatically assuming that every international guy was automatically the next Dirk or Pau. That’s unrealistic. In many cases, it’s the teams who are at fault for trying to see in a player that’s from Europe that he’s the next Dirk Nowitzki. I don’t see any Dirk Nowitzki in this draft. The closest thing, in my opinion — it’s like ice cream here, we all have our flavors — I think Enes Kanter because of the combination of size, athleticism and skill level has that best opportunity to be a Dirk, although I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
But will there ever be another Nowitzki?
“No doubt about it, there will be,” Ronzone said. “They are not going to stop playing the game of basketball over there. They are going to continue to dribble, and that ball is not going to be deflated. It’s going to continue to be pumped up and they are going to keep playing.”