Quote by The Global Game: An Overview of European Players in College Basketball

17/10/2018

Basketball is becoming more and more a global game and college hoops make no exception to this slow but constant evolution. Most of Division I Men’s Basketball programs have at least one international scholarship player on their roster (277 out of 353, that is the 78.5%), including 105 teams (29.7%) with three or more foreign-born student-athletes. In the upcoming season, there will be 663 international players from 82 different countries – and a total of 696 athletes who are eligible to play for a national team that is not USA Basketball. Canada is by far the most represented country, while Europe is the continent with most players.

Left: Number of foreign-born D-I scholarship players for the 2018-19 season. Right: Top 10 countries.

This year, the number of European players in D-I hasn’t increased for the first time since 2011-12; however, it is still high (+64.4% compared to that season) and very close to last season’s record-setting number (269).

Serbia is the country with the highest number of players, by far: in the upcoming season, there are going to be 39 players born in the Balkan nation. After that, we have France (18), Great Britain (17), Lithuania and Netherlands (14), all countries that traditionally have a certain number of Division I players each year. At the top, we can also notice the presence of two countries that used to have a very low number of D-I athletes: Italy (12) and Finland (9). Almost every country has stable or increasing numbers regarding the last decade. The only counter-trends are represented by Great Britain – today’s numbers are less than half of those of the 2010-11 season – and Germany, which reached a peak of 25 players per season for three straight years (from 2012-13 to 2014-15), while there are going to be only 9 this season.

There’s a large variety of aspects and topics through which one could look at the heavy presence of Europeans in NCAA basketball. It is hard to cover all of them in just one article, so we decided to give an overview of the most interesting subjects by crunching numbers and, more importantly, through the words of many people who are involved in various ways.

The players’ motivations, their knowledge of the college world during the recruiting process, the priorities of college coaches and their comprehension of the European landscape, the way European clubs and federations deal with the current trends: these, in a nutshell, are the topics that we will discuss here.

A Compendium of Individual Motivations

We don’t have enough data that could help us indicate an order of importance – assuming there is one – between the various reasons that are behind European players’ choice to try college basketball. Anyway, it is pretty easy to detect these reasons and see how often the individual motivations meet some big picture topics.

The US can be very attractive for a European young man and many players see college hoops as an opportunity to live a very different – hopefully memorable – life experience through basketball. The differences between one D-I program and another can be extremely deep, but European players often find environments that are warmer than those they were used to in their own country. If they happen to go to a program with a large fan base, the impact can be as exciting as astounding: «When you’re in a place like Gonzaga, every game is a pressure game because the stands are always full and the crowd is crazy every game – long-time Assistant Coach Tommy Lloyd says – A 19-year-old player in Europe who plays in a second team or a U-team, you go there and maybe his mom and grandma are watching but nobody else».

Italian Alessandro Lever knows something about crazy fan environments as well. The WAC Freshman of the Year chose GCU after spending three years in one of the top clubs in Italy as regards youth basketball. While explaining us his choice, he seems to sum up pretty well some reasons that are widely common among European players in the US: «I was very happy in Reggio Emilia but college basketball is something that piques your interest, a place where you can improve your physicality and game. It’s a lot different game: players are quicker, more athletic. There are coaches like Dan Majerle who can give you a lot. Plus, it’s an experience that allows you to both play basketball and study – and you’re going to need a degree».

The GCU Arena

The typical schedule of a European club can be an obstacle for a player when it comes to combine basketball and studies. This problem seems to concern several countries. In France, for example, there’s generally a good level of integration between sports and school but, for a player who aims to a pro career, some problems can arise after a certain age: «After 18, players of the Centres de Formation don’t really have time for their studies», Antoine Berranger (DraftExpress) says, who also mentioned Olivier Sarr as an example of an athlete coming from a family that strongly prioritizes a good education. From this point of view, the Wake Forest big man seems to have found the kind of balance that he was looking for: «We have at least 14 hours of classes every week – he told to French podcast EnvergureIt’s pretty busy but, at the same time, I think that the schedules are handled and regulated pretty well, there’s enough time [to both study and practice]».

The problem doesn’t concern only the age range of those players who are taking the first steps into professional basketball, but also the younger ones. Moving to the US to attend a high school can be a pretty tempting option, also because there’s so much more room for individual development. For example, this issue is particularly obvious in Italy, as explained by Coach Andrea Menozzi, coordinator of Pallacanestro Reggiana youth teams: «We have a problem with the age group 16-19: we play too many games that aren’t much useful. It’s an activity that never ends. [In the US], the season is designed in a different way and they have a large amount of time devoted to individual and physical development, something that we cannot do because the season of a player of that age starts in mid-August and ends in late June. Then, if the player is also good enough to join a youth NT in the summer, this means that there’s never a period of the year devoted to physical improvement».

Maine (America East) is this season’s most European D-I teams, with 6 scholarship players coming from 5 different countries.

Individual development is a factor at the college level too. When it comes to facilities, there’s still a wide gap between the two shores of the Atlantic, pretty much regardless of whether we’re talking about a high-major program or not: «Facilities are top-notch here in the United States – St. John’s Assistant Coach Luca Virgilio says – In Europe, they’re at a mid to low level compared to what’s in here. Many European guys are all bright-eyed when they come here and take a look at the facilities where they can practice, see that the gym is open 24 hours a day».

In an interview for Libertad Digital, UNC Greensboro standout Francis Alonso gave a picture of how the college model could help a European player to grow individually by working in directions that are new to him: «The coach has set an hour of yoga at 6:30 AM every morning for the players who were willing to do it. These are things that serve to improve your body, your mobility. After yoga, we have a video session with the coach to watch and analyze the game. In the evening, after the training, we do specific sessions to improve the flaws that we have seen in the video. I never had the opportunity to do something like that in Spain. But, watch out: I’m not speaking against Unicaja or other Spanish clubs. I just describe the way things are done here. Everything is very professional. As much as they do not have our game strategy, they certainly have other things that we do not have. By going away [from Spain], I have found a middle ground: to be able to understand the game, as I was taught at Unicaja, but also to have a work ethic and a routine that I did not had there».

Another important factor is of economic nature. Many European clubs have less and less money to spend, multi-year contracts are becoming very rare and pro teams are frequently forced into a short-sighted vision where giving true playing time to a young prospect is considered too risky. Even Spain – a country that has produced lots of high-level players in the last 20 years and where there’s the best national pro league in Europe – is affected by this trend. Spanish players aren’t new to NCAA basketball: there was a pretty large group of them in the late 90s (as recalled by Zona de Básquet), a time when there weren’t too many European players in D-I. After that period, their number dropped, but then increased again during the last six years: «The big difference between that age and nowadays, is why they are there right now – it’s what we’ve been told by Gonzalo Bedia Diaz, Spanish Analyst and Coach based in the US – Now, it’s because of the crisis. They don’t have any support from their teams. Even FC Barcelona cannot guarantee a good professional contract. On the other hand, in the mid-90s, you could play in the 4th division in Spain and get a pretty good salary».

The high number of international Draft picks in the recent years strongly indicates that being in the NCAA doesn’t represent a conditio sine qua non for turning pro in the NBA. However, it is often difficult to pass on the kind of exposure that a high-major program can offer, which is why several high-level European prospects still look at D-I basketball as the best opportunity for them to grow as players and gain visibility.

France provides an interesting example of how the choices of NBA-level prospects may vary depending on how ready they are in a Draft perspective. This country has a huge amount of talent among players born between 1998 and 2001, and many of them should turn into Draft picks by the next two to three years. The CFBB – an élite basketball academy founded by the French Federation in collaboration with the INSEP – has had many years of success but its model has started to creak recently, as several players, both in Men’s and Women’s hoops, decided to leave the academy before the time. A French scout explained us that the overall structure doesn’t correspond anymore to the needs of top-level players: «In my opinion, the INSEP model is no longer practical for those players who have the NBA as a primary goal. The players realize that they have to turn pro as soon as possible if they want to go as far as possible. The young players trained at the INSEP are not ready to face the professional world. They leave when they’re 18, then they join youth teams, they start to train with the pro team but they actually not going to be ready before they’re 20. So they have lost two years and, at that age, it’s more difficult to head towards the NBA». The college option comes into the picture only in certain situations: «As of those who go to the United States, I think that Joël Ayayi, Yves Pons and Olivier Sarr are there for a long-term project, while those who stay in France – Killian Hayes, Théo Maledon, Malcom Cazalon – are players that can be selected at the Draft in their first year of eligibility». 

The Zags French Duo: Killian Tillie and Joël Ayayi

Looking for the Right Fit: How Prepared European Players Are

So far, we have focused on the positives of the college hoops option: that is, of course, only part of the story. Finding the right fit is everything and way more complicated than many young players seem to think. There is no promised land, no easy way: anyone has to take a deep look at his own situation and evaluate thoroughly all the options in order to get the best out of it.

The first necessary step for a player is to gather as much information as possible. Although there are some discrepancies among the interviewees when talking about the level of knowledge coming from European players, the coaches essentially agree on one point: nowadays, it is simpler to have a grasp on the general aspects of D-I hoops during the recruiting process: «I think that in recent years, our international players have known more and more about college basketball – Davidson Associate Head Coach Matt McKillop says – Whether it is twitter or TV coverage or internet coverage, our international players arrive with a significantly higher understand for conferences, rankings, recruiting and college basketball knowledge than ever before».

This surely is a good start, but can it be enough when aiming at the biggest goal, find a good fit? Apparently, no: «It’s still hard for international players to get the right opportunity here in the USA – Loyola-Maryland Assistant Coach Ivo Simović says – The most important thing for international players is mental toughness. And also get support from the coaches once they get here. Definitely this is a different world. They like to say here: “Welcome to USA, no free meals”».

The constantly increasing number of European players in college basketball over the years can benefit the players themselves, in more than one way. Those who land more recently have a higher access to direct information provided by those who already made that kind of experience. However, some obstacles seem to remain, even though in a varying degree among each individual situation. According to Kostas Psimoulis (NetScouts), players from Scandinavian and Baltic countries are generally better prepared, as a result of their education level, the familiarity with the language and the importance that they place on their studies. Either way, the impact with what precedes their arrival can be difficult: «Sometimes, the language barrier can be hard. Of course it depends on where the player comes from, but there’s a communication problem quite often. Getting to understand the American qualification system is also something new to them. Qualification tests and applying process takes time and most kids and families are not familiar with those».

In the last ten seasons, 9 European athletes have played (or will soon mark their debut) at Davidson. This year’s team has 6 International players including 5 Europeans.

Then, there’s the sports side of it. Although there is no perfect formula for detecting the right fit without a shred of doubt, there are some aspects that European players should take into account but, instead, seem to overlook quite often. In his already mentioned Envergure interview, Olivier Sarr told to be quite wary of those coaches who tried to recruit him by promising him many minutes on the court from the beginning, since he knew he wasn’t physically ready to be a starter right away at the high-major level.

This level of self-awareness – the kind that allows a player to avoid risky gambles – doesn’t seem to be as recurring as one would hope. For a European freshman, things can go wrong very quickly, for various reasons. Federico Mussini took a bet on himself by choosing a rebuilding St. John’s team and ended up by having a very rough impact with Big East basketball. Another European top prospect, Eric Vila, took a risk by choosing a Texas A&M team with a loaded frontcourt and, then, a series of unlucky coaching staff changes led him to transfer twice in a year (he’ll play in a JUCO this year and presumably be back in D-I for the 2019-20 season).

Riccardo Fois, who is entering his fourth season with the Gonzaga coaching staff, says that players need to draw attention to the variety of contexts as well as the specific nature that distinguishes the rhythms of college basketball programs: «Many players are attracted by the American model but, basketball-wise, there’s no understanding that there’s a huge difference between one college and another. For an European player, it is not the same to go to a university where, traditionally, there are athletes from certain areas of the US, or going in a place like Gonzaga where international players are a key part around which the team is built. Kids should start to understand how college basketball works. For example, many don’t understand that stronger teams tend to keep being strong while less stronger teams don’t change over a one-year span. College basketball is made of little by little improvements that can get you to a certain level, eventually».

There are a lot of variables to consider and few of them may surprise someone, as pointed out by Mehdy Mary, a member of the U18 French NT coaching staff: «Players tend to think that everything is kind of the same in the United States. High Schools, Prep Schools, JUCOs: there are all kinds of levels, you can find exceptional programs just as much as poor ones, or even find D-II teams that are better than some D-I as for the quality of training and coaching staff».

The lack of knowledge of such a vast landscape can influence decisions and lead towards some oversimplifications: as Fairfield Assistant Coach Tom Parrotta says, «Kids do become enamored with the name recognition of a certain school and think that it is the only way to go when it comes to deciding on a school. This simply is not always the case as many Mids have so much to offer as well».

Gonzalo Bedia Diaz shares the same thinking while pointing out that many kids are not aware of some obstacles that are often part of being a freshman: «When the players ask me where they should go, I say that they don’t have to go to a major conference. If you go to a High-Major, you got to have the mentality for it, knowing that you will not play much as a freshman and a sophomore. The problem with the top kids in our countries is that they come here and they think, as they are the best of their age in their own country, they’re gonna play 30 minutes per game when they get here as freshmen. Then they get frustrated and transfer. If you don’t have that mentality, go to a Mid-Major: if you’re good, you’re going to do good».

For his part, Ivo Simović stresses how the Mid-Major brand of basketball may often be more suitable for European players, given their general physical level and skillset: «My personal opinion is that the Mid-Major level is better for international players. High-Major is a totally different level of athleticism and basketball. It usually takes more time for international players to adapt there while they can make immediate impact at the Mid-Major level. Offensively, basketball is more similar to European basketball: among Mid-Majors, you will find more ball movement, they try to play together to find open shots. High-Major is more isolation and transition».

Percentage breakdown of European newcomers in the last 10 seasons based on where they played during the last year before their first D-I season.

What to Look For and How to Find It: Dynamics and Trends in European Recruiting

We asked about the level of knowledge among European players, but what about the college hoops coaches who recruit them? Based on the answers that we received, we have little doubt: there is still a deep gap between these two basketball worlds, although they’re progressively – but very slowly – getting closer one to the other.

As of the general knowledge of basketball in Europe – its variety of systems, traditions, internal dynamics – the majority of American Head Coaches don’t appear much informed or interested at the eyes of their European colleagues, while things can be different when talking about Assistant Coaches. Former Casale Monferrato Coach Marco Ramondino says: «On the whole, I believe that there is not a correct perception of European basketball, of the way it is played and coached, of the contexts in which a young player grows, except for those who are responsible for recruiting. Those I’m more close to have an interest for European basketball, but more out of curiosity than necessity». His colleague Germano D’Arcangeli (Stella Azzurra, Roseto Sharks) gives us the gist of the matter, going straight to the point with much less nuances: «They’re great with their own thing, in getting the most out of what they got, but they don’t care much about what goes on here».

Being the Director of Scouting of Europe’s most established and well-known scouting service, Eurohopes’ Francesco Cavalli has constant and extensive work relationships with college coaches. We can clearly see through his words how diverse the landscape can be and also what kind of mindset a recruiter has to embrace in order to be successful: «With 353 Division I teams, you can find all kinds of people: those who don’t care much about Europe and those who are obsessed with it, those who know their own stuff and those who don’t. Many come here to attend the FIBA tournaments and think they can recruit Šamanić or Zagars. Some have the right approach: they come here and ask questions, they don’t think that they already know it all, that recruiting in Europe is the same as in America. Others come here without knowledge and with little will to listen: I think this is what determines whether the recruiting is successful or not. The thing that many don’t understand – as opposed to those who tend to have success – is that in America they have a school and a basketball system while, in Europe, everything changes between one country and another, from the language to the education system».

Recruiting in Europe means dealing with a completely different system. Academies – which are, by their nature, more “college friendly” – are catching on in Europe as a result of an evolving market, but the youth basketball activity has nothing to do with the education system and it still mainly relies on professional clubs. These teams expect to earn something from the investments they made on a player through the years. There is no buyout if one decides to enroll at a US school, as opposed to a club-to-club transfer: «International recruiting is a whole different animal, – Arizona State Assistant Coach Dražen Zlovarić said on an interview for Times Free PressYou’re fighting all types of people trying to influence [the players] not to go to college».

Clubs usually are not exactly happy to see a player go away for free, which sometimes can even spark some points of friction during the recruiting process. However, is the situation really this problematic? Not so much, as some coaches we spoke to – both Americans and Europeans – recognize that the recruiting dynamics are, in some ways, simplified by how the landscape is shaped. Marlon Stewart, now the DOBO at Oregon State after recent stops at Hawaii and Montana, explains that certain dynamics can indirectly facilitate the coach’s job: «Internationally it is clearly a business at a young age so it is in the clubs’ best interest to keep quality players. In the US, with players still being amateurs, the parties involved benefit from their players going to a university and having success. Both situations create different dynamics, one is not more difficult or better than the other: just different. Often times in Europe it can be more straight forward because you understand everyone’s intentions from the beginning and that can make things easier. The quicker things become clear and decisions can be made, the better it is for both sides». Luca Virgilio shares a similar opinion on the subject: «It’s very complicated to recruit an American player because there are lots of things that you have to work on: you have to convince the player, his family, his handler. With a European player, it’s a bit easier because the concept is very clear: “I’m offering you a scholarship: do you want to come play in the United States?”. There are less nuances that one has to deal with».

Taking a look at the numbers, there isn’t much difference between High-Majors and Mid-Majors in terms of “presence” of International and European players:

Total of playersPlayers per team
INTERNATIONALHigh-Major1371.83
Mid-Major5261.89
EUROPEANSHigh-Major450.6
Mid-Major2230.8

However, Mid-Major teams have more than one reason to go international and to be particularly thorough and thoughtful with their scouting and recruiting activity: «Coaches from low to mid major level are those that have most interest in getting good players from Europe since they know that competition in US is overcrowded so they try to create a pipeline overseas», Kostas Psimoulis says.

There is a huge difference in terms of resources between the High-Major programs and the vast majority of the Mids: this is where the real difference lies, as explained by Scott Thompson, who spent several years working with the Oklahoma coaching staff before following Steve Henson to UT San Antonio: «The one factor that continues to separate us is the influence of football on our brand and on our revenue. It’s no secret that the High-Major TV contracts have allowed several conferences to separate themselves from a financial standpoint, but as we all know more “stuff” doesn’t mean a better culture or a better experience in college. We have taken the same approach with regards to recruiting at every college I have been at the last 17 years. We try to be wise with our money and treat it like our own. Here at UTSA we have made it a priority to travel to Europe and build on the relationships that we currently have and to expand our recruiting base. That has taken support from our administration and has made us be very detailed in our approach. At the High-Major level, booking a last minute expensive flight or staying in nicer hotels may not have a big impact on your recruiting budget. We take great pride in planning ahead and trying to identify great value in each trip we take overseas».

Mid-Major or not, recruiting overseas is often a choice made in consideration of a need for an alternative to a local situation that doesn’t really suit certain ambitions. For example, Gonzaga has became a proper High-Major program partly through building a successful tradition in international recruiting. As explained by Tommy Lloyd, «It started out of necessity. We live in a region where there’s not a lot of great basketball athletes. We have some, but not enough to build a top level NCAA team. When I was a young assistant, we decided to put a lot of time and resources into recruiting in another part of the world. I was comfortable with Europe, I’ve been going there when I was a kid. We put a lot of time and effort to learn European basketball, meeting people, getting connections, learn how to evaluate European players. I had to learn how the basketball system works, with clubs, contracts, amateurs. I put a lot of time to became knowledgeable about this, because sometimes you see a good player and you’re like “this guy will be great” but then you realize he’s a professional. Now, I want to know right away if he’s a professional or not, if he has an interest in NCAA».

As of the scouting activity, assistant coaches can move towards different directions, even though one may not be as effective as the other. After a rule change made in 2016 by the NCAA, college coaches are now allowed to attend FIBA events regardless of whether or not these tournaments are played during the live period of recruiting. Also, in the recent years, it became very easy to watch FIBA games on the internet. While this can help a lot, it does exhaust only part of a good recruiting work. As Psimoulis says, «Seeing a player in a couple of live games isn’t always the best indication of current and future potential, and sometimes coaches just hear about a guy and then start going after him. Coaches are on the other side of the world, they can’t attend practices throughout the season, so they can’t be around the players and follow them over their young careers like they can with the American ones. It’s difficult to develop a bond with a kid that you don’t know before he’s 16».

Coach Chris Beard with Davide Moretti during the last FIBA U20 European Championship

Therefore, connections are vital for a successful recruiting, since they can provide much needed insights on players and their environment. Problem is that it takes a while to build a proper network and a long time to build a great one. Davidson, for example, has one of the most successful traditions in European recruiting: the longevity of such constant work, as much as Bob McKillop‘s tenure, is reflected in lots of ways. One is constituted by the many former Wildcats turned pro in Europe who can provide intel on interesting prospects. As reported by Seth Davis, Coach McKillop once said: «I don’t have to rely on scouting services or agents for information on players. I get it right from guys who were part of our program».

In college basketball, the most meaningful types of growth of a program always develop over a very long period of time: this basically applies to every aspect and recruiting is arguably the top one. McKillop at Davidson, Few and Lloyd at Gonzaga teach us how continuity may mark the success in international recruiting: «I’m going into my 18th year at Gonzaga, so I’ve been in one place for a long time. Most coaches aren’t in one place for a long time. So I see a lot of coaches start to recruit in Europe and then one or two years later are changing their job, so they never get enough years to get enough experience to develop a great network. They start, they try, maybe they don’t have success right away and then they go away. Not many people have been able to sustain a consistent effort over a long period of time in Europe. I think that maybe is one of the things that makes Gonzaga unique».

Such long-term activity goes hand in hand with an ever-improving learning process that takes a variety of directions. Rick Fois points out that there are some details that can make a difference, even though they’re not necessarily basketball-related«Most coaches have just one kind of perspective on basketball – the one they grew up with – and they struggle to adapt their view on people who come from different environments. One of the greatest qualities of Coach Few is that he recognizes cultures, he’s patient with kids coming from different cultures and knows how to push those who can handle certain pressures».

The kind of continuity embodied by Davidson and Gonzaga sets an example of the quantity and quality of efforts that are necessary for having success: it can serve as an inspiration but it’s still very hardly reproducible by others, so teams have to turn to other sources. Find their own way.

Coaches who come from Europe and those who spent years overseas as pro players can be very important assets from this point of view. But, at the end of the day, most teams have to rely on scouting services as go-to resources. The personal experience of those who run these companies tells us much about the coaches’ priorities when looking for information. Eurospects’ Founder Bronek Wawrzynczuk says that «Coaches always ask if you know something about the player off the court, if he’s a kid willing to adapt to a new coach and a new place, if he stays in his comfort zone or if he’s willing to fight in a new environment. These are basic but very important things that they want to know». Plus, his associate Gökberk Yenitepe tells us about the typical on-the-court profile that coaches look for the most: «They especially look for big men because in the US they don’t have many big guys with fundamentals and knowledge of the game. The first thing that they ask me is if I know about low post players that can shoot».

It is not a secret that this one is the most popular profile, as we’ve been confirmed by several people: «We can go through the rosters at the D-I level and we will probably see more big guys than guards – Maine Assistant Coach Igor Vrzina says – I think that, with the change of the game, skilled big guys who can shoot from outside, pass and dribble are what most programs are looking for».

We actually went thought this season’s rosters and the data that we gathered completely confirmed the assumption: 46.6% of European D-I players are 6-foot-9 (206 cm) or taller.

Skill and strategy: these two words are always a theme when talking with American coaches about European players and the most prominent traits that separate them from American student-athletes. Jim Fox is heading into his 5th season as the Head Coach of Appalachian State and the 13 years he spent next to McKillop at Davidson allowed him to have multiple learning opportunities regarding European basketball. His interest towards the Old Continent encompasses both the recruiting and the game strategy part of his work: «The skill level in European players is always high, in my opinion. Playing with a club in Europe exposes you to basketball all over the world. This is something American players do not get. Also, the coaching in Europe is outstanding and the players coming over benefit from that. I was able to meet many coaches from Europe and all over the world. I was given a first hand look into how basketball is played and coached across the Atlantic. I was so impressed with the coaching and have taken many things from coaches in Europe and implemented them here at Appalachian».

For the coaches, it is not much about weighing different types of players and decide which is best: it is rather about finding and put together personalities with different characteristics and backgrounds that may make the team richer, as explained by Marlon Stewart: «I feel like there are unique styles in Europe from country to country, but as a whole the structure of youth basketball is what creates a different type of player. In Europe, players are competing in team situations much more, playing to win games year round and learn strategy at a much earlier age. In the US, there is a high focus on individual skill and individual exposure at a young age. Both development styles have their advantages, but it creates a very different player at the age of 17-20 when they arrive in college. It is great to see how they come together and blend on the team, but I think it is great having multiple international players because of their experience and reps with the strategical part of the game».

How European Clubs and Federations Deal with the Current Trends

«All these countries are trying to figure out what to do with them. You have young players who don’t have a chance to play, don’t have a chance to be pushed». FIBA journalist David Hein sums up the general situation in Europe regarding the many young players seeking opportunities abroad. But which is the attitude of Federations and Clubs in each nation?

As we already said before, Italy and Finland increased substantially in terms of number of Division I players (see chart below), but between these two countries there are very different reasons behind the growth and ways the trend is perceived or witnessed domestically: in one it is endured, in the other it is cherished.

The Helsinki Basketball Academy constitutes a pretty unique case. The HBA mission is to develop the best Finnish prospects until the age of 18 or 19: the college basketball option is strongly encouraged as a continuation of the individual growth of the players. It’s basically an obligatory step, as Francesco Cavalli explained to us: «Essentially, all Finnish kids go to college, except for those who are not recruited or haven’t good enough grades at school. They choose to send them to college and, from there, they select them for the National Teams, except for those who were already part of it. Finland tracks their college players because, for them, it’s an essential step for their process of growth».

As of Italy, the situation is radically different. Of course, college basketball has a strong power of attraction that is independent from the country’s internal dynamics; but, at the same time, the weaknesses of the domestic basketball system have their role in pushing players towards the US. The rules imposing a minimum number of young players on pro and semi-pro teams’ rosters show some self-defeating effects. The request of Italian players appears to be inflated as compared to the actual quality of a population of athletes whose development is often strongly limited by the ways clubs use the aforementioned rules: «A young player comes out of youth teams and, for three years on, he has a certain value because he’s an “under”. Namely, he has a value because clubs don’t pay the fee just by keeping him on the bench. The moment he hasn’t that status anymore, he loses value», Cavalli summarizes and, then, goes on with this thought: «I believe that there’s a lack of awareness regarding what doesn’t work in the Italian system. For a player, is it better to play in the NCAA or in the 3rd league because he has the “under” status? That’s the question that both Federation and Clubs’ Leagues haven’t ask themselves yet. Let’s take the case of Michele D’Ambrosio. Two years ago, there was a prep school that would’ve bring him to the US: he didn’t go neither to a prep school nor a college and, now, has signed for a 4th tier club. Would have been better – both for his team and the Federation – if they did everything possible to help him go to the US or to watch him warming the bench in the 3rd league last year and, now, play in the 4th in the upcoming season?».

«In general, I have the feeling that this trend is endured and not handled», Andrea Menozzi says regarding the growing number of Italian players in the US. Perhaps, the turning point out of this passiveness may be found through some more open-mindedness. This is what UTSA starting PG Giovanni De Nicolao recommends: «Clubs should serve the player’s interest but they also have to look at their own profit, of course. But I think that if you serve the player, then he will come back to the club. If you try to stop him, he’s just going to want to go away even more. Instead, clubs should help him with his choices, meet people here in America, see if going to college would be the best thing for him or not, make the player think about the best fit».

From a player to a coach, Germano D’Arcangeli shares that kind of thought too, while he’s also and foremost aware of the risks inherent to the college option: «I’m against tied contracts. While it is true that those who make investments don’t want to lose them, it is also true that both parties should find some benefit: the kid makes a great experience while the club can complete the player’s development path through a business incubator like the college world. I don’t see what’s wrong with that. I used to be more passionate about college basketball: now that I got more familiar with their logic and I had many young guys that went there, I say that we have to handle this thing, otherwise the players will go from the frying pan into the fire».

The situation in Spain looks different when talking about the kind of attitude coming from clubs, at least the high-level ones, as Enrique Castellano (SpanishHoops) tells us: «I guess that ACB teams don’t care much about it because they created a new feature like a qualifying offer for players who go to college. For example, Sebas Sáiz was a former Estudiantes player. When he became a pro, any ACB team who wanted him had to talk with Estudiantes first because they held his rights for Spain and they could match any offer. Real Madrid had to pay a fee for him. Other players like Domantas Sabonis, Francis Alonso (Unicaja), Eric Vila (Barcelona) have all the same status».

Francis Alonso (UNC Greensboro)

With France, we can see some themes that are more or less in common with Italy: the tools and the opportunities that young players need for emerging in professional basketball. According to Romain Villachon (Eurohopes), there’s a glimmer of light given by the Licences AS (a type of contract that allows players to be part of two separate clubs), which were created not long ago and are still not much common. However, the general landscape is not the most exciting one: «We struggle to trust our young players, to give them playing time at the professional level. Maybe it is the flip side of the youth leagues, because some may say “it doesn’t matter, they still play, why taking a chance by let them play instead of an American?”. Sometimes, this is the reason why we lose young players to college basketball, because they think that they’ll surely play and practice twice a day, which is not always the case in France».

At the Federation level, the situation gets very delicate. France always had some relatively high and stable numbers of D-I players: this year, there are going to be 18 of them and their number has always been between 13 and 16 per season during the nine previous years. There’s a significant increase, mostly in terms of quality (as we already mentioned some important names before), that is even more evident in Women’s basketball: all this has not failed to bring some tension and concern within the Federation, since the investments made for the CFBB are always very high.

Romain Leroy, a member of the Women’s Youth NTs coaching staff, explains us how the constant college recruiting activity has made many people unhappy: «I don’t speak for the Federation because it is not my role, but I do know that there’s some serious thinking going on about the situation. As of the Centre Fédéral, they’re trying to set some limits: I wouldn’t say “controlling”, but more of being informed of what goes on. They want to avoid that the scouts come in here too freely, as it already happened with some colleges with which there have been some problems, because they came to see the players without asking the management first. The Federation wants to regulate things – rightly, in my opinion – in order to work more comfortably at every moment».

While France focuses on protecting its assets, a country such as Serbia, with a different system and less economic resources, shows a total openness to college basketball: «Because of the economic situation, we are used to have players who go to Western Europe or the United States at an early ageMiloš Vujaković (HOOPSpects) says – It’s something we’re not excited about, but we don’t have a problem with that because it’s our reality, we can’t change that. We don’t have mid-level teams anymore: we have great teams like Partizan and Crvena Zvezda but then we don’t have teams that can guarantee decent salaries or to pay on time. So more and more players aged between 18 and 22 decide to go to the United States: since they most likely won’t make much money, they go for getting a degree and having playing time at a good level».

Especially for smaller clubs, there can be something to benefit from and little or nothing to lose in directing their own players towards college basketball. As explained by Germano D’Arcangeli, «There are some Serbian and Lithuanian clubs that encourage this because they don’t have tied contracts, they’re going to lose players anyway, at some point. So the players’ development is going to be completed elsewhere, in the end, while they can recruit new players by saying “see, one day you may go exactly where I’ve sent that guy”».

Even though Serbia has a quantity and quality of players that is unmatched in Europe, the Federation doesn’t just settle for what they already have. Instead, they have shown some real efforts in keeping track of the players abroad and enlarge their pool of athletes. In 2017, the Federation set a training camp in Colorado to gather Serbian players from high school and colleges of different levels. But, as Vujaković explains, the initiative was mostly meant to be directed at American-born players of Serbian descent. The presence of USC’s Nick Rakocevic at last year’s FIBA U20 European Championship is a result of that initiative.

Nick Rakocevic (USC)

Talking about keeping track of European players in college basketball, Finland and Serbia seem to be more of an exception. In Italy, the situation may start to change now, since the FIP recently put Rick Fois in charge of tracking the many Italian-American players featured on college and high school hoops rosters. However, nothing had been done before that besides showing up during the offseason and gather players for the Youth NT tournaments. It was possible to notice the absence of a centralized activity and all the initiatives and choices were implicitly delegated to the various NT coaches. The matter regarded players of all levels, even the top ones. For example, Paolo Moretti explained us how the Italian NTs have shown much interest towards his son Davide this summer, with an high level of collaboration between the Federation and Texas Tech. However, nobody kept track of the player during the season and tried to get some updates from him or his coaches.

Spain seems to lack a proper tracking activity as well. There’s a good number of Spanish players in D-I Men’s basketball and in Women’s hoops the number is absolutely huge, but this doesn’t seem to have convinced those in charge to start tracking players regularly: «The impression is that if you’re a player who already used to be with the NTs and who come from an ACB team, they’ll keep calling you to play with the NT after you went to college. But if you’re not from one of those teams and then you explode in the NCAA, it will be harder to be selectedDiego Soto (ScoutBasketball) says – This is just the impression from the outside: there are always exception, like Miguel Ayesa, for example». Bedia Diaz says he has the same feeling about it and, also, gives us an example: «The best female player last season was Blanca Millan. She played for Maine and was selected for the First Team All-Conference of the America East. She was not called for the U20 team. I complained, I sent an email to the Federation and she was called later to join the team».

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«There’s so many dynamics to this whole concept. It’s not gonna be stopped. Is it getting out of control? It won’t get out of control. It will be healthy». For what it’s worth, we share David Hein’s optimism here as much as we agree with Rick Fois and the way he sums up some deep aspects of the college experience: «In my opinion, the fact that many European and Internationl players come to college is a great thing for all basketball Federations. The college experience, having to shine in an environment far from your comfort zone, it’s something that can only be good for anybody, not just career-wise, but in life in general. Even those players who maybe didn’t had the kind of success they hoped for will remember their college days and their alma mater as one of the best things in their life».

Hidden dangers and dreams, envy and open spirit, protectionism and drive for something new: behind the hundreds of European players in college basketball there’s all that and more. The process of globalization of this sport can’t be stopped. Borders may give an often deceptive sense of security, but it’s only when they crumble that new horizons and better things may be at hand. That goes for basketball too.