by Jake Fischer / @JakeLFischer
For years, the term “draft and stash” in the NBA described the concept of simply selecting a European prospect in the Draft to one day have him realize his true basketball potential in the League.
Today, the concept of teams developing talent overseas is still as prominent as ever, but many are starting to utilize the tactic in a different light. Teams have been drafting American-born players in the second round and mutually agreeing for the player to play overseas for his first professional season.
The practice stems from two principles. First, an NBA team usually selects a player in the second round who they foresee developing a specific elite skill—usually rebounding, defense or rim protection. Secondly, teams aren’t too interested in paying a 20-something-year-old NBA money to improve his skills while ironing out the rest of his game in the D-League.
The financial aspects make sense. Why should an NBA team pay an unproven player the league minimum—this year it’s $490,180—to play in the D-League with teammates who make around $25,000 on the season? If you’re a rookie, why should you be entrapped by the NBA team that owns your Draft rights if you can command lucrative contracts overseas and face tougher competition as well?
European contracts are almost always entirely guaranteed and commonly include enticing stipends and luxuries such as TV packages, lavish condos, cars and meal plans. And while these young players have to overcome obstacles like having to watch Breaking Bad over Slingbox and communicating with their families via Skype, their living situations are very ideal.
This season, seven second-round picks have already signed contracts with teams in overseas leagues, many of which have already begun competing. Pierre Jackson, selected by the 76ers at No. 42 and then traded to the Pelicans with Jrue Holiday, will be suiting up for ASVEL Villeurbanne in France this season. The Hawks took Mike Muscala at No. 44, but he’ll be playing with Blusens Monbus Obradoiro in Spain. Erick Green, taken by the Denver Nuggets at No. 46, is heading to Siena of the Italian League. James Ennis, who the Heat snagged at No. 50, is playing in Australia with the Perth Wildcats. The No. 53 pick, Colton Iverson, is deferring his career with the Boston Celtics to crash the boards in Turkey with Besiktas. The Phoenix Suns have the No. 57 pick, Alex Oriakhi, spending the season in France with Limoges CSP Elite and the Spurs’ pick at No. 58, DeShaun Thomas, will be in France as well.
Additionally, Grant Jerrett, Ryan Kelly, Romero Osby, Lorenzo Brown and Arsalan Kazemi are all currently unsigned second-round picks and considered free agents in the international market, with each of their respective NBA clubs alluding to the possibility of the players heading overseas.
While nearly half of the second round of the 2013 NBA Draft is slated to play abroad this winter, many NBA executives feel the practice is not a growing trend and this year is simply an outlier.
“I think it’s just a situational thing,” Suns assistant GM Pat Connelly says. “I wouldn’t say there’s a massive trend going, even though it’s been more common over the last few years. It’s just another option—that’s always been there—you have with a pick to kind of get some extra development time if you feel like they need it.”
“But is this going to change where every single second-round pick is going overseas over the next few years? No, not at all.”
The Suns jumped on the option with Oriakhi, an undersized big man from Connecticut who has the potential to develop into a niche rebounder for Phoenix down the road. Yet with Marcin Gortat, Channing Frye, Alex Len, Marcus and Markieff Morris, Miles Plumlee and Hammed Haddadi already filling up the team’s frontcourt, there won’t be much room for the former Husky to get enough playing time to truly improve this season in the NBA.
“Going overseas gives him the chance to go over there and develop other skills while sharpening up the ones that we really liked about him,” Connelly says. “Alex is very active and very physical, so he’ll have a chance to go over there, adjust to a different style of play and maybe he’ll be able to fine tune some of the other elements of the game. So we’re excited about watching him develop this year.”
On the surface, one would think the Suns would prefer to keep tabs on Oriakhi while playing with their shared D-League affiliate, the Bakersfield Jam. But as Connelly points out, the globalization of the sport has rendered communication with players and keeping track of their progress nearly as easy and accessible.
“If I want to see how Alex is doing, all I have to do is log on to the internet and I can basically find out everything he is doing from videos to stats to game reports and anything really,” Connelly explains. “Obviously we’re still keeping up with him, we emailed him the other day and then we’ll go over and see him and keep up with him just like anybody else would. It wasn’t something that we went into knowing we were going to do, but it was something where the situation came and we thought it was a good idea for both parties to explore.”
The Celtics will be in close contact with Iverson as well, specifically director of player personnel Austin Ainge.
“We’ll absolutely be in close contact with him, his agents and his coaches,” Ainge says. “We’ll watch every single one of his game films. His improvement is something we’ll keep a close eye on.”
Boston’s interest in Iverson’s development became evident on draft night when the Celtics sent cash to the Pacers in order to acquire the former Colorado State center at No. 53.
“They invested a lot of money to specifically draft Colton—most people would be a little bit surprised by how much they spent to get him,” Iverson’s agent, Adam Pensack said. “I think that’s really an important piece of the puzzle. They were the first team that got on the phone and said they really wanted to work him out. Ultimately, he’s going to take an indirect path to play for them, but the plan is to have him as a part of the Boston Celtics next year.”
Ainge expressed the Celtic’s infatuation with the big man. Iverson, a 7-0, 263-pound native on Yankton, SD, has the consistent motor and rebounding tenacity Boston could really use to compliment the finesse of their young frontcourt that features Kelly Olynyk, Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger.
Iverson averaged 14.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game in his senior season with the Rams in ’12-13. He recently scored 27 points vs the aforementioned Jackson and ASVEL.
“When you draft someone, you draft them to be on your team,” Ainge says. “With Colton, we think he has the capability to be an elite rebounder in this League. Unfortunately we just didn’t have the roster flexibility to make that work this season.”
The Celtics’ offseason was mainly dedicated to trimming their roster following the blockbuster deal that sent Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to Brooklyn. The deal sent more players to the TD Garden than Boston traded, plus the team agreed to terms with Brazil’s Vitor Faverani in July. As a result, the Celtics waived Kris Joseph, Shavlik Randolph and Donte Greene. Boston swapped Fab Melo to Memphis for Greene in mid-August.
Nonetheless, Iverson is relishing his opportunity to compete overseas and is excited about his future with Boston—a future that both Ainge and Pensack say likely will have Iverson on the Celtics’ roster for the ’14-15 season.
“It was a great feeling after I got drafted and I got in contact with Danny and Austin Ainge,” Iverson says. “It was just the best feeling knowing that they went out of their way to draft me. I know it didn’t work out this year, but hopefully it does next year. I’m just really excited that I get a chance to put in hard work for the Celtics.”
Moving to Europe isn’t much of a challenge for Iverson. The physical big has lived in three states since he graduated high school in 2008 and left his home state of South Dakota. Iverson began his college career at Minnesota under Tubby Smith but then transferred to Colorado State in search of more playing time. With that, Iverson will be more challenged by adjusting to a different style of play and feeling out the Turkish League officials.
“They just call fouls differently and I’ll have to adjust to that right away,” Iverson, who struggled with foul trouble in college, says. “I think I’m picking up on it already. It’s a more physical game, but they call a lot of ticky-tack fouls. It’s all about using your body to get positioning instead of your hands.”
Once he gets adjusted to the foreign officiating, the door will open for Iverson to work on the elements of his game Boston wants him to fine-tune in live ball action. Ainge and Brad Stevens have been in constant contact with Iverson, expressing the importance of improving his pick-and-roll defense, post defense, footwork and extending his jumper out to 15 feet, which in turn will also make him more effective from the foul line.
All the while, the Celtics want Iverson to continue being the ruthless rebounder and hustler that he’s always been.
“Brad Stevens really feels that if Colton can bring 110 percent energy every single night, that’s where he’ll carve himself a niche within the Celtics,” Pensack says.
For some players, however, the move overseas is strictly for financial reasons more than the opportunity to develop against steeper competition than the D-League.
The Heat wanted James Ennis to forgo the team’s training camp and spend the season with their individual D-League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce. Ennis could have worked closely with Miami’s coaches, but he wasn’t interested in the notoriously low D-League salary and the Heat weren’t interested in paying him the league minimum.
The Long Beach State grad’s family has been dealing with financial hardships for years. His mother, Denise, is disabled and can’t work and his father, James Sr, works for a painting company. Ennis’ deal with the Perth Wildcats in Australia is worth “six figures,” according to his agent Scott Nichols. That money will go a long way for Ennis, his parents and his five siblings.
“It’s a better opportunity at this point in my life to provide for my family because we’ve been struggling for so long,” Ennis explained via email. “It was a difficult process because going overseas was my last resort. It came down to the last minute deciding between different teams. Scott and I made the decision that we felt was best for my career. At this point in time, I’m looking at the bigger picture.”
With that being said, playing a year overseas will undoubtedly provide Ennis with valuable time to prepare himself for the rigors of the NBA.
His length, athleticism and shooting ability—Ennis shot 35.7 percent from deep in ’12-13—gives the Ventura, CA, native potential to become a useful “3-and-D” wing player for the Heat off the bench, a role that is clearly valued in Erik Spoelstra’s system surrounding LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. In a competitive league in Australia, although he won’t see as grueling competition as he would have in Europe, Ennis will have the chance to refine those skills.
The Heat will be in close contact with the Wildcats throughout the season too, collaborating to help Ennis improve throughout his time in Australia. Miami would like Ennis to improve his ball handling in addition to focusing on his already stifling defense. The two teams have had a very smooth relationship thus far. The Wildcats have even provided an out-clause in Ennis’ contract that would allow the Heat to bring him back stateside at any point in the season and Ennis would still earn his entire Australian salary. Although, it’s likely he won’t join the Heat until ‘14-15.
“I’ll just put it in God’s hands and if they call me up this year, it’s a blessing,” Ennis said. “Last season they pulled up Jarvis [Varnado] right before the playoffs so I believe there is a good possibility that could happen again this season.”
Overall, while executives like Connelly and Ainge argue that the drafting and stashing of American-born players isn’t a growing trend, it’s likely becoming more attractive for both teams and players because of the type of youngster that organizations are more inclined to draft today. Teams are valuing currently immeasurable attributes like motor, hustle and energy far more today than they ever have. In turn, these hard-working, and often defense-first, players come with the attitude and mindset that going overseas requires.
One of such players, Notre Dame grad Jack Cooley, went undrafted in June, but turned down training camp invites from over 10 NBA teams and several partially guaranteed contracts.
Adam Pensack also represents Cooley and says the bruiser was offered contracts from the Blazers, Grizzlies, Spurs, Thunder, Nets, Heat, Lakers, Rockets, Pacers and Cavs. Many of the contracts were non-guaranteed, but Cooley also received multiple partial guarantees. However, Cooley elected to take a deal from Trabzonspor of Turkey that Pensack described as “unusually lucrative.” It also has him living in a three-story, four-bedroom and two-bathroom townhouse all to himself.
And while realizing his NBA dream was in his grasps, Cooley has hit the ground running in Europe and has brought an optimistic mindset to his team in Turkey.
“The main goal, the way I’ve always played, is to help my team win,” Cooley says. “With that happening, usually my stats are pretty good and everything seems to work out for the best. In terms of the fundamentals of my game, I’d like to include the shooting aspect that I showed off a little more in the Summer League over an entire season and show people just how successful I can be from the outside over an entire year. I think I’ll have a real opportunity to add that aspect to my game over here.”
While Cooley is a tireless rebounder, what initially landed him in conversations among NBA executives and scouts, his vastly improved shooting range is the skill that could make him a very in demand and rich NBA player in ’14-15.
With the Grizzlies in Las Vegas, Cooley shot 23.1 percent from three during Summer League after only attempting a single shot from beyond the arc during his four-year career with the Irish. He also joined Kevin McHale and the Rockets in Orlando. One NBA executive said Cooley’s target from downtown should be 36 percent, a milestone that’s definitely reachable through diligent work in Turkey.
“There are already three or four NBA teams that have committed to go out and watch him in person this season and there will very likely be more,” Pensack says.
It’s safe to say that Cooley is very much still on the NBA’s radar and with extended range, the 6-9, 244-pound forward could be playing valuable minutes for a contender next year.
Now that the ’13-14 NBA season is just weeks away, commissioner David Stern is set to take off on his farewell tour across the League. When Stern retires at the conclusion of the campaign and hand’s the keys over to Adam Silver, he’ll likely look back on globalizing the NBA game as one of his biggest and most important accomplishments.
In today’s NBA, the world is essentially flat in terms of player development and international scouting. When Stern assumed office back in 1984, he probably never dreamed of an age where 12 second-round picks play their first year of professional basketball overseas after going to college in America. And whether or not the trend is definitively changing for the future, it’s certainly adding momentum to the movement of player development and calculated risk-taking in the NBA front offices.
“There are always going to be dozens of pro leagues and there are a million different ways to do things and this is just one approach,” Connelly says. “It will be interesting to see how it works out. There’s a certainly a talented crew going over this year, for sure.”