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Foreign players boxing out Americans in NBA draft

Posted: Tuesday, June 18, 2002

The NBA job market for American college stars is tight and getting tighter. It's tougher than high tech. English majors will have better luck finding work this summer than most of the big men on campuses who flew so high during March Madness.

For all but a few high schoolers with dreams of leaping to the pros, the prospects are gloomier. The message for them: Stay in school, stay out of jail and learn to read.

They can all blame foreign competition. The most vaunted crop of international stars in history is about to leap into the NBA's melting pot at the June 26 draft.

Sure, there will be room for the best American players: Jay Williams and Mike Dunleavy of Duke, Drew Gooden of Kansas, Caron Butler of Connecticut, Dajuan Wagner of Memphis, Chris Wilcox of Maryland and Curtis Borchardt of Stanford.

But the top half of this draft will have a decidedly international flavor.

Anyone who had trouble pronouncing the names of some NBA stars this year -- Dirk Nowitzki, Peja Stojakovic, Hedo Turkoglu and top rookie Pau Gasol among the 52 non-U.S. players from 31 countries who started the season -- will have even more of a tongue-twisting season next year.

The tallest of them, China's 7-foot-5 Yao Ming, will likely be the first foreign player without U.S. college experience to be chosen No. 1, going to the Houston Rockets. The reviews on him so far range from breathless to guarded optimism: nice touch out to 20 feet, good rebounder, solid though lean at 290 pounds.

A good rule when drafting No. 1 is to avoid ''projects.'' Then again, the project is irresistible if he's 7-foot-5.

Four other international players are first-round locks:

--Nikoloz Tskitishvili, a fast and agile 7-foot, 19-year-old from the Republic of Georgia who plays in Italy and could go in the top 10. Mike D'Antoni, his coach in Italy and a former NBA player, says Taskitishvili ''started playing basketball at about 15 and was a classic ballet dancer until then. He grew so tall that he couldn't find partners, so he got out of dancing and into basketball. ... He has a great shot, can put the ball on the floor, he can run the break, and has good timing on his passes.''

--Maybyner ''Nene'' Hilario, a 6-11 Brazilian whose nickname means ''Baby.'' He's also 19, but he has the broad shoulders of a player who could easily add 25 pounds to his 250-pound frame. A shotblocker and rebounder, his quickness and athletic ability have impressed the dozen NBA teams who have asked him to work out for them.

--Bostjan Nachbar, a Slovenian teammate of Tskitishvili, is a 6-9 forward with good offensive skills.

--Jiri Welsch, a 6-7 shooting guard from the Czech Republic who can also play point guard.

Others likely to be drafted late in the first round or early in the second are 6-8 Mladen Sekularac of Yugoslavia, 6-9 Luis Scola of Argentina, 6-11 Lazaros Papadopoulos of Greece, 6-4 Arvydas Macijauskas of Lithuania, 7-0 David Andersen of Australia, 7-0 Fatih Solak of Turkey, and 6-8 Boris Diaw of France.

A year ago, four high school big men were chosen in the first eight picks. This year, the only high schooler who can count on being selected is 6-10 Amare Stoudemire of Orlando, Fla., probably late in the lottery or just below.

Two others have a chance to be drafted, though both carry baggage that could turn off NBA teams: 6-10 DeAngelo Collins of Inglewood, Calif., and 6-6 Lenny Cooke of Old Tappan, N.J.

Collins beat up a teammate, inflicting permanent head injuries and a broken nose. He pleaded guilty to felony assault and served six months in juvenile hall. At 13, he assaulted a woman with a deadly weapon and served 60 days in a juvenile detention center. Cooke has moved several times from one home and high school to another and didn't get much of a chance to show off his talents to scouts when he was injured at a pre-draft camp in Chicago.

Rule No. 2 for draft day: Avoid problem players; look for quality of character as much as depth of talent.

The bottom line is that NBA teams this year are looking more for the size, strength and stability of the international players.

''International players tend to be a little older and more fundamentally sound,'' said Chris Ekstrand, editor of the NBA's draft guide. ''Some U.S. players may be more athletically gifted, but they don't do the things that make a basketball player more than an athlete.''

One reason so many Europeans are looking to play in the United States is, no surprise, money. Good players might make $1 million a year in Europe. In the NBA, the average is more than $4 million.

All that adds up to fewer NBA jobs for American college and high school players, and a greater incentive for more of them to go for their degrees.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org



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