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Continued: Wolves are in the import business

  • Article by: JERRY ZGODA , Star Tribune
  • Last update: November 2, 2012 - 2:27 PM

A record-tying 84 international players from 37 different countries and territories occupied roster spots when the NBA tipped off another season Tuesday night.

A San Antonio Spurs team that has won three NBA titles in the past decade with players found in France, Argentina and Slovenia predictably had more of those 84 -- eight -- than anybody.

Next with five players each were Cleveland and the Timberwolves, a franchise that until fairly recently only dabbled in the international market with limited success, but now has built its future around Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Andrei Kirilenko, J.J. Barea and rookie Alexey Shved.

They have followed the Spurs' championship path, reaching overseas in the belief that players coached in a more structured professional system since as early as age 14 will be better prepared to play at a younger age.

They are also wagering those players perhaps will more likely stay in snowy Minnesota for a longer time than their American counterparts.

In the three years since David Kahn was named president of basketball operations, the Timberwolves have drafted players from Serbia, the Netherlands, Brazil and, of course, Spain.

He picked Rubio fifth overall in his first days on the job when the gifted, precocious point guard unexpectedly fell to that spot on draft day. The next summer he signed Pekovic, the bruising Euroleague center whom his predecessor, Kevin McHale, selected with the second round's first pick in the 2008 draft.

The Wolves added Barea as a free agent in those December days after last season's labor lockout ended and then reached to Russia over the summer, where they first signed free-agent Shved and then 10-year NBA veteran Kirilenko to considerable contracts.

All of it with a plan in mind.

"Absolutely," Kahn said.

Youthful veterans

Foreign players need time to adapt to a new culture and a new style of play on these shores, but Kahn distinguishes that "transition curve" from a learning curve that he believes favors international players.

Rubio signed with his local Barcelona pro team when he was 14. Shved did so in Moscow at 16 and Pekovic in Montenegro turned pro when he was 19.

By the time each made the leap to the NBA, they had played for years against grown men in their 20s and 30s. They had been coached meticulously in a feeder system that prepared them to play at a championship level in the Euroleague, generally considered to be the second-best league in the world.

Both Rubio, at age 17 no less, and Shved won Olympic medals before they ever wore an NBA uniform.

"There is something to be said for playing professionally at a very young age and becoming a man who can do this from Day 1," Kahn said. "I think it's an opportunity to add young players, but with the kind of experience that their careers can take off a little sooner."

Kahn believes international players get the kind of professional coaching -- "It's all fundamentals: shooting, passing, defense" -- that American players raised from grade school playing an individualized, freestyle brand of AAU ball don't receive until they reach college, and then elite players often leave after only a season for the NBA.

Wolves coach Rick Adelman considers international players generally "more team-oriented players" who turn professional at a much younger age than American players, but who also then must pay their dues in that professional system.

Rubio starred for three seasons for his hometown Joventut team, a résumé that convinced the Wolves to draft him fifth overall. When he moved to Regal Barcelona, one of the top teams in Europe, for the next two seasons, his career appeared to regress on a team filled with older, more accomplished stars.

"They're not thrown out there in the fire, they have to earn their keep," Adelman said. "Even though they're playing professionally at a young age, they're not starting, they're not given everything. They have to work at it and maybe they're a little bit more humble. I think here, in AAU ball, it's given to you and you get to college and you play. Then you get to the NBA and now it's different and they have to learn to adjust to it. It's not true of everybody, but I think in general that's probably the reason."

Location, location?

Pekovic signed a three-year contract in 2010 that will make him a restricted free agent next summer. Rubio will be eligible for a hefty contract extension -- like the four-year, $61 million deal teammate Kevin Love signed last winter -- in 2015, and the Wolves still have the maximum five-year "designated player" slot left to offer, if needed, to convince him to stay long-term in Minnesota.

Kahn said he thinks where a player plays might be less important for international players than top American players, who in recent seasons have gravitated to big and/or warm markets after they've become free agents.

"International players tend to be, just because they haven't grown up in the States, not quite so smitten with the trappings of what I would call the fast lifestyle," Kahn said. "It's just work and the location of where they're playing doesn't seem to weigh on them as much as it does some of the domestic players."

In one breath, Kahn points out how the Wolves have been able to sign Rubio to play in Minnesota "when everybody in the world said he'd never play here," how they signed free agents Brandon Roy and Kirilenko, who was born in Siberia. They also re-signed Love to a contract extension and convinced Adelman to coach here.

"I think we've managed to make Minnesota a place that people want to come here," he said.

In the next breath, he discusses the challenges the franchise will have to keep their best players here and he points to the Spurs' international stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, who have played together for more than a decade in small-market San Antonio.

"There's a permanence there," Kahn said. "If you provide a quality environment, first class, professional, I believe maybe -- and maybe in our case this will be tested -- it's easier to retain them in the market. Maybe the location isn't quite so important."

And so the Wolves have something of a Festival of Nations, a place where five separate languages can be heard uttered in the team's locker room, where the type of music played in the weight room is the notable subject of debate until big Pekovic decides it's time for some Serbian techno dance music.

"Different countries bring different flavors," Kirilenko said. "I think it's always funny. You can tell, Ricky brings something, Pek brings something different. Spanish guy, Serbian guy, Puerto Rican, American guys, Russian guys, it's a great combination. Some speak different languages but we all really speak the same language, basketball."

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