I'll pass on the mysterious European
By Jim Armstrong
Special to Page 2

Darko Milicic worked out for the Pistons a couple of weeks ago in Detroit. Great. Now Joe Dumars has seen him once more than you and I have.

OK, so that's probably overstating things. Dumars has probably seen him play twice, maybe three times. No wonder the Pistons can't wait to take Milicic with the second pick in the draft.

He does, after all, fit the criteria for a lottery pick in today's NBA: He's from Europe, he's tall, and he's from Europe. Oh, and did I mention he's from Europe?

While I'm asking questions, how do you say reality check in German? Because the NBA is in serious need of one. It's come to this: If Carmelo Anthony had come from Serbia instead of Syracuse, he'd probably be the second pick in the draft, if not the first. We wouldn't know anything about him, of course, but that would be the beauty of it. In today's NBA, the less you know about a player, the better.

Darko Milicic
Would Darko be going second in the draft if he was from Hoboken?
So Anthony dominated the Big East as a freshman. Big whoop. So he made Jim Boeheim look like John Wooden in the NCAA Tournament. And your point is? So he carried Syracuse to its first national championship. What, like we're supposed to be impressed? Tell ya what, man. Let him average eight points a game for some European team nobody ever heard of. Let him throw down on an Italian cabbie moonlighting as a power forward. Then come talk to us.

That's what it's come to, thanks to my man Dirk Nowitzki. There was a time not so long ago when the only connection between the NBA and Europe was the cars in the players' parking lot. Not anymore. Ever since Nowitzki turned into your basic freak show in sneakers, NBA scouts have left no Estonia unturned in their attempt to find the next uberstar.

I must be getting old. I remember when NBA personnel types flocked to Bed-Stuy looking for talent. Now they're cruising the hood in Belgrade. When they're looking for shortstops, scouts head for the Dominican Republic. When they're in search of power forwards, they check out the Czech Republic. Nikoloz Tskitishvili, the fifth pick in last year's draft, is from Georgia. No, not the Jim Harrick Jr. School of Basketweaving. Georgia. As in surburban Siberia.

Dirk does Dallas and Darko is destined to do Detroit. And it's not like Milicic will be the only Euro to go in the lottery. Two others -- French guard Mickael Pietrus and Polish power forward Maciej Lampe -- also figure to be among the first 13 picks. And Russia's answer to Gheorge Muresan, Pavel Podkolzine, after making back-to-back jumpers and not swallowing his gum in a recent workout in Chicago, might have gone as high as fourth to the Raptors had he not decided to pull out of the draft at the last minute.

And to think, as recently as 2000, there wasn't a single European player selected with a lottery pick. For that matter, three years earlier, only one foreign-born player -- Australian Chris Anstey -- was picked in the entire first round.

What gives? Technology, for one. Teams rely on video now more than ever in evaluating talent. The breakup of the Soviet Union factors into the equation, too. NBA teams have access to players who, in previous generations, would have been trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Then there's the matter of Europe catching up to the United States in hoops after the Dream Team showed the world it was OK to play above the rim.

Dirk Nowitzki
Dirk Nowitzki was worthy of the No. 2 pick in the draft. But no other Europeans, including Vlade and Peja, have been.
It's a lot of things, but mostly, it's Nowitzki. NBA teams are infatuated with him, hypnotized by him, understandably so. Whenever they see him, they start fantasizing about all those other 7-footers wandering around Bavaria draining 30-footers and running the court like point guards. If the Dirkmeister made it big, the theory goes, there must be plenty more where he came from.

Or not.

The NBA needs to figure something out, the sooner the better: There isn't going to be another Nowitzki coming down the Autobahn. Not now, not ever. Just because you like warm beer doesn't mean you can leap the Eiffel Tower in a single bound. There will be another Michael long before there's another Dirk.

Now I know this will come as a shock, but some NBA teams have taken to overrating European players. Which brings us to Milicic. For all we know, he'll be better than advertised. But feel free to be a little, shall we say, skeptical. No? Then answer me this: In retrospect, how many European players have been worthy of the second pick in the draft?

The answer in this corner of the Internet is one: Nowitzki.

Arvydas Sabonis? Yes, definitely -- if only. He could have been Bill Walton East had he arrived in the NBA a decade earlier. Pao Gasol? Maybe, but let's see where he takes the Grizzlies in the next few years. Peja Stojakovic? A great shooter, but hardly a franchise player. Vlade Divac? Please. How could you argue he was worth a Top 2 pick when he was traded in the prime of his career for the 13th pick, a kid named Kobe Bryant?

No, the fact is, Nowitzki is the only clear-cut franchise player ever from Europe. More often than not, teams that have used No. 1s on European players have come to regret it. That doesn't mean Milicic won't become a star, of course. It's just that some of us inferior Americans need to see it before we believe it.

Jim Armstrong, a sports columnist for the Denver Post, is a regular contributor to Page 2.



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