Few can keep up with Wolves scouts when they go global

  • Article by: JERRY ZGODA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 23, 2011 - 3:36 AM

Tony Ronzone and Pete Philo know the talent and the terrain internationally.

Turkish center Enes Kanter, who came to town to work out before the draft, was a mystery to many teams. But not the Wolves.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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The Timberwolves have arrived late to the NBA's international party. When they did reach overseas for prospects in the franchise's early years, it wasn't with the most spectacular results.

Anybody remember Gundars Vetra and Shane Heal? Or Andres Guibert, the Cuban Big Dog?

Didn't think so.

These days, NBA draftniks rate the team's international scouting operation among the best in the league -- perhaps even the best, although it's hard to argue with a San Antonio organization that still has Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker playing for it.

They're not deemed so because of Ricky Rubio's ballyhooed arrival and a handful of second-round picks in recent drafts who have yet to land on these shores.

They're considered so because of the electronic Rolodexes possessed by assistant general manager Tony Ronzone and international scouting director Pete Philo, two former professional vagabond players who can warn you about the rough country roads outside Poznan or find you a warm bed in Podgorica.

Both once worked for Dallas general manager Donnie Nelson, who, along with his Hall of Fame coaching father, was an international visionary way back when Mavericks fans on draft night booed mightily after their team traded for some guy named Dirk Nowitzki.

If the Wolves should surprise and select Turkish center Enes Kanter second overall rather than Arizona's Derrick Williams in Thursday night's NBA draft, it could well be because both men have seen Kanter play since he was 15 and consider him anything but what your average NBA fan deems him: a complete unknown.

"In this business, you better know everybody, every player in the world," Ronzone said. "Look, international players aren't going away and every year another player comes from another country that ends up being pretty good. Look what Dirk did: It shows you an international guy can lead his team to the NBA championship."

Ronzone saw both Nowitzki and Darko Milicic when they were just skinny teenagers and he pushed for his team -- Nowitzki in Dallas, Milicic in Detroit -- to acquire each player.

One guy has played his entire career with the same team and won an NBA title. The other has played for five different teams -- including the Timberwolves currently -- in eight seasons, all before his 26th birthday.

Such is the inexact draft-selection process.

That process gets complicated further when you're judging Williams' successful two-year collegiate career against Kanter's 6-11 size and résumé that includes only a high-school all-star game and some California prep games played here in the United States.

That's why guys such as Ronzone and Philo have been around the world many times over.

That's why Philo's phone directory has more than 5,000 names in it. That's why he spends 100 to 150 days overseas every year both for his Timberwolves and as director of the successful Adidas Eurocamp that has produced Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka, Andrea Bargnani and Danilo Gallinari since he first organized it nine years ago.

"I'm on my fourth passport," said Philo, who played collegiately for Fran Fraschilla at Manhattan and Bill Musselman at South Alabama and played professionally everywhere from Denmark, Iceland and Croatia to Poland and Beirut. "But we may be able to consider it my eighth because you get extra pages put in."

A franchise that once signed such players as Vetra and Heal without any success now is the team of choice whenever one of those countless mock draft needs to place an international player with a slot late in the draft's first round or its second round.

The Wolves are a popular choice because of the two men's extensive travels and their vast network of contacts and because the names of Jan Vesely, Jonas Valanciunas, Bismack Biyombo, Donatas Montiejunas and Nikola Mirotic roll off their tongues as easily as the average hoops junkie can say Derrick Williams or Brandon Knight.

"It's all about relationships," said Philo, who has worked for the Wolves for the past six seasons. "At the end of the day, relationships make it because from them you get information and information wins right now."

And now that the Wolves have all that information, they must decide how to use it wisely.

Both men promise that all their international contacts and all that background work logged from traveling to 12 countries during 12-day European trips won't bias them when it comes to selecting players.

"No, no, no, no, no," Ronzone said. "It has no bearing. You do all your work and then you take the best player, no matter where he's from."

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