Suns may draft among wealth of foreign players - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Suns may draft among wealth of foreign players

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Posted: Saturday, June 21, 2003 11:19 pm | Updated: 1:49 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

The Suns, a team that pioneered the importation of European players, may go that way again in Thursday's NBA draft, when a record number of foreign players could be taken in the first round.

If they do, it won't be because they have an unshakable faith in players from overseas based on a glorious past.

The Suns' history in this regard is less than shaky. But this will have to change, as more and more NBA-ready players are heading to the United States from Europe.

Surely, whomever they pick, foreign or domestic, will turn out better than the saga of Georgi Glouchkov of Bulgaria.

Glouchkov wasn't the first foreign player drafted by an NBA team. But he was the first to make an NBA club directly from Europe.

Back in 1985, the Suns picked him in Round 7 (today's drafts are just two rounds long), No. 148 overall, after a scout saw him play in the European championships.

Glouchkov, who developed the nickname "The Balkan Banger," had a well-sculpted body and was as strong as any player on the roster. But things started to go bad for him from the start.

The Suns got off to a terrible start, endangering the job of longtime coach John MacLeod, so developing Glouchkov became a lower priority for the coach. The slow start caused MacLeod to abandon the team's running game for a precise, patterned offense.

This made communication essential. And this, in turn, hurt Glouchkov, who had to use an interpreter (two of them, actually, as his first interpreter had to return to Bulgaria).

MacLeod, at the time, said he would try to give instructions to Glouchkov through one of the interpreters, "And by the time the interpreter said, 'What?' two or three plays had elapsed.

"That's how quickly things move."

The player also seemed unable to distinguish what sort of contact would be called a foul by officials. "In Europe, I knew what the referees would call on me, and I would avoid those situations," Glouchkov said at the time. "Here, I don't know what to do to avoid having fouls called upon me." So Glouchkov became The Balkan Bench-Warmer.

Glouchkov also seemed to suffer a puzzling loss of strength as the season wore on.

Perhaps this was due to the six-month NBA grind, though Suns' insiders wondered if Glouchkov had used steroids in Bulgaria, where the strength-building drugs were common, but had no such supply in America. And yet the Suns, from management to coaches to players, badly wanted success for Glouchkov, a fun-loving but seemingly innocent sort.

Glouchkov once watched teammate Charles Jones comb his hair. Jones had about as much hair on his head as one of those guys in the "before" part of a hair-growing advertisement. So Glouchkov said, "Vat comb?"

After pondering this for a time, the Suns figured out he meant, "What are you combing? You don't have any hair."

Alas, Georgi washed out after a year and returned to Bulgaria.

The Suns' experience with Glouchkov so scared them off toward other European adventures that they bypassed a center named Vlade Divac in 1989. Had the Suns been able to mix Divac, who has played at a near All-Star level for much of his career, with such players as Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle in the early-to-mid-1990s, they might have won multiple NBA titles.

Instead, they came up with Kenny Battle on that fateful draft day, a small forward who didn't make it in the league.

The Suns' other European players have included power forward Stephano Rusconi, who was a bust, and center Jake Tsakalidis, who has shown flashes of ability but who has lacked consistency.

They've brought in a couple of other international players over the years in Steve Nash, who has made it big in the NBA, and Horacio Llamas, who didn't.

Of course, giving the "foreign" label to players from Canada and Mexico probably is a stretch, particularly when you consider that Nash and Llamas played college ball in the States.

But on Thursday, speculation is that the Suns will pick a genuinely foreign player: Zarko Cabarkapa, a 6-foot-11 small forward from Serbia-Montenegro, if he's available at No. 17.

Whether or not they take him, they will have to be more prepared than ever to make decisions on European players from now on. In this draft, for example, perhaps eight, maybe even more, Europeans will be taken in Round 1 (the most foreign first-rounders so far is six, four of them from Europe, taken last year).

"Kids in America are getting a wake-up call, especially this year," said Dick Van Arsdale, the Suns vice president for player personnel.

Don't expect the trend to change any time soon, said Tim Shea, the Suns' international scout.

"The international players are getting ahead of the Americans," said Shea, who has spent a good deal of time in Europe over the past 30 years as a player, coach and, now, a scout.

Shea credits the development of off-guard Drazen Petrovic (who was killed in a car accident in Europe) into a star for New Jersey in the mid-1990s, with convincing European players, "especially in Yugoslavia, that they could make it in the NBA if they worked hard."

And hard work is part of the deal.

Instead of playing a typical college season, which lasts 30 games or so, young Europeans play 60 games or so in a season. What's more, they might practice twice as much as American college players, whose practice sessions are limited by NCAA rules, Shea said.

"You add that up from age 16 on, and the kids from Europe will be ahead from a skill standpoint."

That was evident at a recent predraft camp in Chicago, where NBA types surveyed some 60 mostly American prospects.

"You saw tremendous athletes with, relatively speaking, limited basketball skills," Shea said.

Shea, like many others, also laments the "commercial culture" that promotes one-on-one moves and slam dunks.

"But basketball always will be a five-man sport," Shea said.

The Europeans have learned this. On Thursday, they'll be rewarded.

And, regardless of their past misadventures, the Suns could be part of this picture.

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