Friday, June 12, 2009

Global game growing


It’s still called the National Basketball Association, but International Basketball Association would be a more fitting name considering the league long ago went global.

Young basketeers trying to make the jump to the pros after one year in college must beat out not only collegians such as Blake Griffin, Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry, but international stars such as Spain’s Ricky Rubio.

Rubio, 18, is so hot that there’s speculation he’ll be the No. 2 pick this year just behind Oklahoma’s Griffin. Ricky starred for Spain in the 2008 Olympics despite a cast on his surgically repaired right wrist. A silver medal made him, at age 17, the youngest cager ever to win Olympic hardware. He quarterbacked the Spaniards to within four points of the United States with 2:25 left in the Beijing title game — when Kobe Bryant took over and led America to the gold.

The NBA series in progress features two non-college superstars — Los Angeles’s Bryant and Orlando’s Dwight Howard. Kobe, who attended high school in Lower Merion, Pa., had a no-college debut with an Italian background. Howard’s latest academics were at Southwest Atlanta Christian High School.

Consider the international flavor of their supporting casts. The amazingly versatile 7-0 Pau Gasol of the Lakers is from Spain. Ever-dangerous 6-10 buzzsaw Hedo Turkoglu of the Magic is from Turkey. Los Angeles gets bench support from 6-7 Sasha Vujacic of Slovenia; France’s 6-6 Mickael Pietrus and Poland’s 6-11 Marcin Gortat are Orlando backups.

You could put a team of Gasol, Turkoglu, Vujacic, Pietrus and Gortat on the court and do pretty well 5-on-5 against a number of NBA patsies like the Clippers.

Last time San Antonio won the NBA title, it started three international players, including Tony Parker, a native of France. If you wanted to really feature a non-American flavor you could take Parker, Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki, China’s Yao Ming and Canadian Steve Nash and on a lot of nights have the best team in the league. Add Kobe Bryant, who spent a lot of his youth in Italy, to that mix and it could be unfair.

Gasol and Turkoglu have streaks of brilliance, same as Argentina’s Manu Ginobili, Luol Deng from the Sudan, Nene (one name) from Brazil, London’s Ben Gordon and even Missouri-ex Linas Kleiza from Lithuania. With another year of seasoning in his native Russia, former Kansas star Sasha Kaun might show up on an NBA (make it IBA) roster in a couple years, although that $1.05 million salary, with perks, he’s getting will be tough to back away from.

Even the finest basketball players our colleges are producing, whether they go pro after one or even four years, face horrendous competition in the IBA. Sure, Bryant, LeBron James and Howard have been able to make the big prep-to-pro jump with flash, flair and excellence, but just how rare are they?

Next year, Kansas Jayhawks like Cole Aldrich and one-and-done Xavier Henry may seriously consider the NBA-IBA draft. They better look beyond the U.S. borders before they leap.


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