TrueHoop: Petteri Koponen

Petteri Koponen, the 6-5 Finnish point guard who was a 2007 first-round pick of the Portland Trail Blazers, has signed a four-year deal with Virtus Bologna of Italy.

His agent, Marc Cornstein, says the deal has buyouts every summer which would make it possible for Koponen to return to the NBA. The Blazers can continue to hold Koponen's rights until 2011, although it will cost them some flexibility under the salary cap to do so.

In Bologna, the 20-year-old Koponen will compete for minutes at the point guard spot with Earl Boykins.

Koponen (who wants you to know that saunas and Santa Claus are from Finland) is something of an unknown. Although he has played twice as a Blazer in summer league, he has played regular seasons only in the lightly regarded Finnish league, where he was dominant.

Most scouts felt he was not so good last summer when he was 19, but much better, stronger, and more assertive in Las Vegas in 2008. Portland GM Kevin Pritchard had publicly entertained the notion of signing Koponen this year. One hurdle was that the Blazers as presently constructed -- they are adding rookie guards Jerryd Bayless and Rudy Fernandez -- are overloaded with guards.

Cornstein says there was interest in Koponen from other NBA teams. "By drafting him in the first round, Portland has the right to hold onto his rights even if they don't feel he is ready for the NBA," explains Cornstein. "When we investigated trades, the Blazers say that they like Petteri as a player and don't want to give up on him. So our hands our tied somewhat with what we can do in the NBA. And Portland, I think, wants to have its cake and eat it, too. This way Petteri can continue to develop, and they don't have to give up a roster spot."

"The risk, for Portland, is that if Petteri has a bad year or gets hurt, obviously, they won't bring him over. But if plays really well, then because of the rookie scale, he'll have go decide if he wants to play in the NBA, or make two, three, or even four times as much money overseas. Rudy Fernandez just decided to play in the NBA under those circumstances, but I think that will increasingly be the exception and not the rule.

"Petteri's ultimate goal remains to play in the NBA. But he's in a very good situation, with an excellent contract playing in a beautiful place, for a team with a proud history that is committed to winning and has basketball-crazy fans."

Cornstein represents several NBA players who signed in Europe this summer, including Nenad Krstic, Primoz Brezec, and Bostjan Nachbar. Koponen was a different story in many regards, he was not an NBA free agent, but nevertheless Cornstein says the result was the same. "The story of my summer has been the same every time. In every case, the players decided to sign where they felt they were the most wanted," he explains.

"If I could get on my soapbox for a minute, I would say that the one lesson of this summer for NBA teams is to put a little bit more effort into wooing players. The rate of exchange between the Euro and the dollar is not something we can change. For the next few years, the CBA can't change. But at the moment the story is that players who are deciding between the NBA and overseas are not, in the cases we have heard about, being wooed much by the NBA team. If teams do things to make players feel wanted -- like the Kings did last summer with Beno Udrih, when they made him feel beyond wanted -- it goes a long way. Everyone, in every line of work, wants to feel wanted."

End Note: In a great bit of globalization, I first learned of the signing of this Italian club from Portland-based BlazersEdge citing Finnish reports. Then I called his agent in New York to confirm.

As Ball in Europe tells it, Portland's first-round pick will endure a special version of conscription, for elite athletes, that doesn't mess with their day job too much.

Still, I'm sure it's no picnic. 

Here's a TrueHoop interview with Koponen from before the draft, in which he explains that Santa Claus is really from Finland. 

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