Connelly, Nuggets think the world of international players
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.”
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