Con­nelly, Nuggets think the world of in­ter­na­tional play­ers

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Christo­pher Dempsey

In less than two weeks, Nuggets coach Michael Malone went from hav­ing never seen cen­ter Jusuf Nur­kic in any kind of game to be­com­ing a full, un­abashed be­liever in the 7-footer.

“He is a force,” Malone said. “He is a part of our fu­ture. He’s a big part of our fu­ture.”

Nur­kic is the head­liner of what can be viewed as the Nuggets In­ter­na­tional Move­ment. Thirty-five per­cent of the Den­ver ros­ter is in­ter­na­tional — Nur­kic (Bos­nia), Danilo Gal­li­nari (Italy), Nikola Jo­kic (Ser­bia), Em­manuel Mu­diay (Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of the Congo) and Jof­frey Lau­vergne (France).

All have proved they can play in the NBA. But the ques­tion many have is: Can the Nuggets win big with them? The team’s front of­fice is bet­ting that an­swer is yes.

“We’ve al­ways taken the ap­proach that we don’t want to be jaded to­ward any re­gion or any type of play­ers,” said Nuggets gen­eral man­ager Tim Con­nelly. “Whether he’s from Kansas or Kau­nas (in Lithua­nia), we want to use the same healthy ob­jec­tive eye in see­ing who would most fit in Den­ver.”

The Nuggets didn’t make a con­cen­trated ef­fort to go heavy in­ter­na­tion­ally, Con­nelly said, but there has been a fo­cus to find tal­ent that oth­ers might over­look, wher­ever that might take them.

“We’ve put a lot of em­pha­sis in in­ter­na­tional scout­ing. ... We want to be very well in­formed with any player in the world,” Con­nelly said. “Cer­tainly the more well in­formed we are, hope­fully we make bet­ter de­ci­sions. It just so hap­pens that when we’ve se­lected guys, signed guys, traded for guys, we’ve had a pretty big in­ter­na­tional in­flu­ence.” Malone needs no con­vinc­ing. “I don’t care where you’re from,” Malone said. “If you can play, I’m a fan of yours.”

Oth­ers do need con­vinc­ing. On one hand, teams are speak­ing through their sign­ings. There were 100 in­ter­na­tional play­ers from 37 coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries on open­ing-day NBA ros­ters this sea­son, the se­cond sea­son in a row of at least 100 for­eign play­ers. On the other hand, there has been a lot of ques­tions in bas­ket­ball cir­cles as to whether ros­ters heavy on in­ter­na­tional tal­ent are the best way to build a cham­pi­onship con­tender.

Step­ping on a stereo­type

Teams such as the Spurs pro­vide a case for op­ti­mism. San An­to­nio won the 2014 cham­pi­onship with nine in­ter­na­tional play­ers. On the other hand, none of the past 19 in­ter­na­tional play­ers se­lected in the NBA draft have made even one all-star ap­pear­ance.

And, though the num­ber of in­ter­na­tional play­ers on open­ing­day ros­ters has risen from 83 in 2009 to 100, the big­gest, most im­pact­ful in­ter­na­tional stars are ag­ing. Dal­las’ Dirk Now­itzki, ar­guably the great­est in­ter­na­tional player ever, is in the twi­light of his ca­reer, as are Chicago’s Pau Ga­sol and San An­to­nio guards Tony Parker and Manu Gi­no­bili.

The suc­cess of those stars over the past decade led more and more teams to draft out­side the coun­try, but there haven’t been many stand­out play­ers fol­low­ing in their foot­steps. That could be about to change. Boos that rained down on draft night last sum­mer have al­ready given way to chants of “Porzingis! Porzingis!” from the crowd at Madi­son Square Gar­den. Fans there have been trans­formed into be­liev­ers that Kristaps Porzingis, the fourth over­all pick last year, will be The Next Big Thing.

Mu­diay has been the head­liner in Den­ver, but in­ter­nal ex­cite­ment over Jo­kic’s fu­ture is high. It took one week at the be­gin­ning of the July for Malone to fall in love with Jo­kic’s skill set. More than two months into the sea­son, not only has noth­ing changed, Malone’s be­lief in Jo­kic’s fu­ture in the NBA has strength­ened.

“For a long time the stereo­type was most in­ter­na­tional play­ers were soft,” Malone said.

It’s a stereo­type that for­mer Nuggets draft pick Evan Fournier said is “su­per hard” to shake.

“You have to fight from Day One,” said Fournier, a na­tive of France who is third on Or­lando in scor­ing this sea­son. “So let’s say you have a bad an­kle, and it’s re­ally a bad an­kle. It’s like, ‘Ah, he’s not used to this level, blah, blah blah.’ No, I just hurt my­self. That’s it. But you’ve got to go through it. You have to es­tab­lish your­self, you have to prove that you can play. That makes you stronger.”

Malone in­sists the tough­ness of his in­ter­na­tional play­ers shouldn’t be ques­tioned.

“You look at our team — Nur­kic is not soft, Jof­frey Lau­vergne is not soft,” he said. “Jo­kic looks like the lit­tle kid next door, but he has a com­pet­i­tive fire about him. I think in­ter­na­tional play­ers are more skilled, I think they have a bet­ter feel for the game. That’s a credit to the coach­ing they get at a young age, where it’s not just AAU bas­ket­ball. They’re ac­tu­ally be­ing

taught how to play the game.”

World­wide con­nec­tions

Seven of the Nuggets’ 10 draft day picks and ac­qui­si­tions since 2011 were in­ter­na­tional play­ers. That’s the big­gest per­cent­age of any NBA team dur­ing that time pe­riod. Four of them were signed by the cur­rent man­age­ment team, which has been in place since 2013. Only one of those, guard Nikola Radice­vic, isn’t with the team now, but he might come over in the next cou­ple of sea­sons.

Con­nelly cut his teeth early in his ca­reer as an in­ter­na­tional scout, and Nuggets as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager Ar­turas Kar­niso­vas is a for­mer FIBA Europe player of the year. Toss in savvy young in­ter­na­tional scout Rafal Juc, and the Nuggets have a well re­spected group.

“Rafal is young but very well con­nected,” said Can Pelis­ter, di­rec­tor of scout­ing for NBGen­er­a­tion, a scout­ing ser­vice and web­site that helps pro­fes­sional and col­lege teams. “Hav­ing Kar­niso­vas is also a big ad­van­tage for them in open­ing doors. Con­nelly spent a lot of time trav­el­ing and scout­ing out­side the U.S. So they just don’t have Rafal, who is great, but a great group of peo­ple who are well con­nected around the world with a knowl­edge about bas­ket­ball. They are for sure one of the top three, four in­ter­na­tional scout­ing staffs in the NBA.”

In­sid­ers have praised the Nuggets on the fore­sight to grab Jo­kic in the se­cond round of the 2014 draft, be­cause the big man prob­a­bly would have been a first-round draft pick in 2015.

But pro­jec­tions are only as good as the re­al­ized ex­pec­ta­tions. And the Nuggets (13-24) are strug­gling as their young tal­ent learns the NBA game.

“A team can be com­pet­i­tive if you find the right play­ers and put them in a good sys­tem,” Pelis­ter said. “There are not in­ter­na­tional and U.S. play­ers. There are good and bad play­ers. And a sys­tem you play.

“If you have good play­ers and good sys­tem, you will win.”

The Nuggets’ Nikola Jo­kic goes to a great length to make sure Pel­i­cans star An­thony Davis won’t steal the ball from him. Brent Lewis, The Den­ver Post

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