Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Can Mudiay find sweet spot overseas?
By Eamonn Brennan
The New York Times headline could hardly have been more dramatic were it written in 1942 atop Ernie Pyle's byline. It read, "Brandon Jennings Sends Home a Warning from Europe." It sounded dire.
“I’ve gotten paid on time once this year,” Brandon Jennings, the No. 1 prospect in the 2008 class and the first player of the one-and-done era to eschew college basketball in favor of an overseas contract, said in an email to The Times. “They treat me like I’m a little kid. They don’t see me as a man. If you get on a good team, you might not play a lot. ... I don’t see too many kids doing it. It’s tough man, I’ll tell you that. It can break you.”
Guard Emmanuel Mudiay, the fifth-ranked player in the Class of 2014, announced July 14 that he will play a year overseas. He's headed for China.
Jennings ended his lone season with Lottomatica averaging just 7.6 points, 1.6 assists and 20 minutes per game in the Euroleague, and just 5.5 points in 17 minutes per game in Italy's Serie A. He declared for the NBA draft, and when it came around, the top prospect in the 2008 class didn't even show up on time. No one wants to be Brady Quinn.
At which point, of course, Jennings was promptly drafted 10th overall. He showed up to the draft late and blew kisses to the crowd. In his first season, he scored 55 points in one game, tying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's single-game rookie scoring record. Last summer, he signed a three-year, $24 million contract with the Detroit Pistons.
From 2008 until last week, years in which anti-amateurism rhetoric has become deafening, only one notable prospect, then-17-year-old Jeremy Tyler, followed Jennings' path, skipping his final year of high school to play the 2009-10 season in Israel. He lasted 10 games before coming home. Every other top American high school prospect in the one-and-done era has rejected the Jennings model. Even "rejected" feels too strong: You can't reject something if you never consider it in the first place.
But why not?
"The competition in Europe right now is so high-level," ESPN resident international basketball expert Fran Fraschilla said. "The top clubs in Europe are so good. And the coach's job is to win. It's not to develop talent. It's not like it used to be, where we'd just send the American guy over and he's automatically the best guy on the court. Those days are over."
From a distance, the effects of globalization -- both in the world at large and basketball specifically -- would seem to work in the American prospect's favor. There are more clubs and leagues around the world than ever before. In Spain and Italy, top clubs invest in developmental programs at a level near their soccer counterparts. Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia surface a handful of prodigies every year. Formerly poor countries, like Russia and China, have emerged as economic powerhouses willing to spend big on Western athletic attractions.
The world is smaller and more interconnected. You can Skype with your family and run into NBA scouts at the regional airport. There is no risk of getting lost overseas. If you can play, scouts will find you. They have been watching you since you were 15, anyway.
In reality, these trends have worked against the adventurous American teenager. Top Euroleague clubs field teams full of hardened veterans. Even homegrown phenoms have a tough time cracking the lineup. (FC Barcelona 19-year-old Mario Hezonja, a 6-foot-8 Croatian small forward projected as a top-10 pick in the 2015 NBA draft, averaged just 6.1 minutes in Euroleague competition last season.) The best European teams are more talented and well-organized than ever, and their leagues have risen with the sport's popularity.
But there are also more leagues, period, than ever before. And many of them still fit the old hinterlands stereotype: poor coaching and sketchy organizations situated in some of the more imposing parts of the world. The classic horror stories -- delayed checks, riot police, questionable living arrangements -- are still plentiful.
Which makes for a difficult paradox: The clubs a young American prospect and his family would feel the safest signing with are also the ones with much bigger fish to fry. The places where he could play right away -- and maybe have a chance to be a star -- are scary to old heads, let alone teenagers.
What then? The key, Fraschilla said, is to find a "sweet spot." A club where the competition is good, but not too good. Where the coaches need talent, even if it's just there for one season. Where the player can actually develop his skills and make some money without hating every minute of his life. Such places do exist. France might be the most notable candidate. But the choices are intimidatingly vast.
Whatever the reasons for Mudiay's decision -- and his family has insisted it has nothing to do with his questionable post-Prime Prep eligibility status, though that seems increasingly unlikely -- such is the challenge he and his family now face. And that quest comes prepackaged with all of the obvious risks: injury, poor performance, emotional and cultural isolation and, after it all, declining draft stock.
"Sure, people may know you already," Fraschilla said. "But you can't go overseas and be horrendous either."
Six years ago, Jennings proved the international path was both possible and prohibitively daunting. He made it out, but not before he warned everyone else to stay home. Prospects have diligently heeded his advice.
Mudiay is the next test. Can he find the sweet spot?
UPDATE: This post was published a few minutes before Tuesday's news broke on Mudiay's decision to accept a one-year, $1.2 million contract with the Chinese Basketball Association. (How's that for timing?)
So: Is China the sweet spot? There is upside, besides the tidy $1.2 million deal, to the idea. For starters, Mudiay will dominate most of his competition. The Chinese league is flush with cash (and enthusiasm) but short on talent. Whether it's the best place for actual development is another issue. China's coaching and infrastructure are widely seen as far below the American and European standards, and they are frequently characterized as suspicious of imported basketball thought. How much does that matter, if it all? Will Mudiay's coach push him in the right ways? Will he be treated as a sideshow? And what about the sociocultural dynamic? The language barrier? Will any of that matter?
Mudiay found playing time and money in China. That's a scarce combination in international basketball, for all of the reasons outlined above. But China is a daunting, almost impressive journey for an 18-year-old to embark on. Stay tuned.