As the NBA becomes more conscious of salary cap and luxury tax implications and looks to get better value from the rotation players they bring off the bench, we are beginning to see a growing trend of exploring the overseas markets for more mature and polished help from established players that put up excellent numbers in the various international leagues.
Nowhere was the groundwork for this trend more evident than in this past draft, where we saw a team like Phoenix sell off their first round pick rather than commit guaranteed money to a player they did not think could crack their deep rotation and warrant a roster spot. This was all the more obvious with the way the 2nd round was conducted, with no less than 9 trades and 10 international players picked.
When considering the option of signing an overseas free agent, it is worthwhile to split this category into two. On one hand we find plenty of intriguing European talent in the mold of Andres Nocioni, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Arvydas Macijuaskas, Fabricio Oberto and Jose Calderon, formerly undrafted players with impressive international resumes that were viewed as difference makers by the teams that signed them and spawned an increasing demand for similar caliber players from the NBA.
On the other are ex-American NCAA stars who were not good enough to make it and/or stick in the NBA immediately out of college and have polished their game in Europe to the point that theyve become viable free agent targets this summer. Charlie Bell might be the best example from last year, a player who dominated the ACB Spanish league and finally achieved his dream of making and sticking in the NBA with an excellent season for the Milwaukee Bucks. Bell took a huge paycut and only cost the Bucks the minimum, but with the departure of TJ Ford looks poised to have an even better season this year and reach heights that European teams cannot match with the elusive second contract.
This is a dimension that must be talked about when discussing signing veteran players from Europe. Almost all of the players are stars in their own right already overseas, and enjoy the type of salaries and recognition that go along with it. If this was strictly a look at the talent overseas rather than taking into consideration the likelihood of actually being able to bring it over, there would be even more players (such as David Hawkins, Lynn Greer and Mire Chatman) to talk about. The issue here is that these players either make or are on the verge landing contracts in excess of a million dollars, which when factoring in the tax structures of contracts in the NBA and overseas (gross versus net) is worth over double what the same contract figure would be from the NBA, with much more job security and playing time guaranteed to them. In addition, European teams often provide their (best) players with top-notch apartments, cars, meals, plane tickets, phones with unlimited calls, and much more.
European teams have become so competitive with the conditions they can offer Americans and Internationals alike, that the players often cannot feasibly afford to give up 7 figure contracts in return for a minimum, often non-guaranteed contract from the NBA.
A more detailed analysis of these underlying factors can be studied in our article written last year entitled Tables Turning on NBAs Relationship With Europe, which was written with an eye on International draft picks such as Fran Vazquez and Roko-Leni Ukic, but is just as relevant when discussing overseas free agents.
Here we will analyze the top 10 overseas free agent prospects on the market and discuss the likelihood of being able to sign then.
Update from Last Year:
Last year we wrote a two part article on the top overseas free agent prospects on the market. All four players featured in part one, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Charlie Bell, Arvydas Macijuaskas and Fabrico Oberto, ended up being signed. None of the players featured in part two had the same fortune, including Walter Hermann, Matjaz Smodis, Marcus Brown and Igor Rakocevic. All four had NBA offers, but were unable to come to terms that would wet their appetites enough compared with the money they were scheduled to make in Europe.
The Candidates (Part One)
6-6, SG/SF, Maccabi Tel Aviv, (USA), Age: 31
For the first time in the three years weve been talking about him, though, there finally appears to be a legitimate chance that hell actually make the jump over from Europe this upcoming season. Sources on both sides of the ocean tell us that Parker is getting serious interest from a number of NBA teams and has already informed Maccabi Tel Aviv that he will not be playing for them next year, despite the fact that he has a contract with them for next season. In view of everything that hes done for them over the past five years, its very hard to see them turning him down. Parker already has 4 concrete offers on the table, with the most serious interest coming from the Toronto Raptors, via former Benetton Treviso GM and current Raptors Assistant GM Maurizio Gherardini. The Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers are also firmly in the picture from what weve been told, and there is apparently some rumbling coming out of Minnesota and Boston as well. A report on the Israeli Sports News Channel and website Sport 5 said that Parker is considering retiring, but from what we were told by sources in Israel as well as his American agent Henry Thomas, there is no truth to that. Thomas had nothing to say in regards to our inquiries about potentially playing in the NBA next season, besides mentioning via email that he has no intentions to retire at this point and yes, he would consider [playing in the NBA] next season. Sources tell us that Parker is said to be looking for a Sarunas Jasikevicius type contract, somewhere in the 3-year, 10-12 million dollar range.
Considering his credentials, its not difficult to figure out why. But Parker has more than just a stellar resume--he also has a versatile skill-set and unique style that is tailor-made to the NBA game, and is considered one of the most complete swingman in the history of European basketball.
Parker played his college ball for Bradley in the Missouri Valley Conference. He was drafted in the first round (#21) of the 1997 draft by the New Jersey Nets as a college senior and was immediately shipped out to Philadelphia in the first Keith Van Horn trade. He played two very non-descript seasons on his rookie contract battling injuries, and was traded to Orlando and waived soon after. He then joined Quad City in the CBA for the rest of the year and later left for Europe after failing to catch on with the Toronto Raptors in Summer league.
His first stop in Europe was with Maccabi Tel Aviv, where he stayed for two years, averaging around 14 points on good shooting and dishing out close to 5 assists in his second season. From there he went to Italy for a season to play for Roma, where he had a strong year with 14.5 points 5.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists. In the summer of 2003 he was again brought back to play for Maccabi, where he and his wife have always said they feel at home. He helped Maccabi win the Israeli championship and cup, and put on a breathtaking performance in the Euroleague Final Four, helping Maccabi win the championship and earning MVP honors for his efforts (24 points, 5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1 block per game).
The next season saw him repeat as Euroleague champion, and earned him his first regular season Euroleague MVP award after averaging 18 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2 steals per game on 56% shooting from the field and 48% from behind the arc. In the Israeli league his percentages jumped to 62.5% from the field and 56.5% from behind the arc. During the following summer, his team Maccabi Tel Aviv took a trip to the States to play two exhibitions against the Toronto Raptors and Orlando Magic. In Toronto Parker put on a show, scoring 24 points and hitting the game-winning basket with one second left on the clock.
This past season was a bit of a down year for Parker statistically, but was still good enough for him to be named Euroleague MVP for the second year in a row, as if to emphasize just how wide the gap is between him and the rest of the league. Maccabi Tel Aviv once again made the Finals of the Euroleague, but lost in heartbreaking fashion to CSKA Moscow behind a poor game from Parker. In the semifinals Parker put on one of the most exhilarating first half performances in the history of the Final Four, scoring 19 points to give Maccabi a 51-32 advantage at halftime and essentially finishing off the game before it ever really got started. Numerous NBA GMs were in the building at the time to watch future lottery pick Tiago Splitter, who ended up getting hurt early on, but came away buzzing from the incredible show that Parker had just put on for the executives in attendance. Its one thing to hear about how well the best player in Europe is performing year after year after year, but its another thing altogether to see him put together such a masterful performance right in front of their very eyes.
Despite his advanced age, Parker is still one of the best athletes in Europe. He is extremely quick and fluid, featuring an excellent vertical leap and an explosive first step. He has a number of gears he can go to and has the type of wiggle to his step that all great shot-creators need regardless of the league they play in. He regularly makes highlight caliber plays with his creative and acrobatic finishes that remind of Manu Ginobili at times, but have even more oomph to them with the way he gets out in the open court and just soars.
Parkers bread and butter starts and ends with his outstanding mid-range game. He is a phenomenal ball-handler and is excellent and breaking his man down off the dribble before pulling up for a smooth mid-range jumper. He elevates high off the floor and shoots it with great mechanics, on very good percentages due to his highly efficient shot selection. Parker can also get to the basket and either finish emphatically, get to the free throw line or find the open man off the dribble spotting up on the wing. In transition is where he truly excels, as his superb instincts take over and his decision making is nearly flawless.
His ball-handling skills allow him to bring the ball up the floor and initiate the offensive smoothly as his team does not play with a traditional point guard. As you can tell by his assist numbers (just under four per game), he is an extremely unselfish player who possesses terrific court vision and knows how to find the open man.
Possibly the best thing about Parker is the fact that he makes everyone around him better at all times. Whether its with his passing, fundamental off the ball movement or the way he willingly sacrifices his numbers for the betterment of his team, nothing is more important to Parker than winning basketball games. Hes your rare athlete who not only possesses the physical attributes to separate himself from the pack, but also the mental fortitude and outstanding feel for the game to actually take advantage of his wonderful tools.
Hes also an excellent defender, using his quickness to stay in front of defenders and his length to come up with numerous steals and even the occasional block at times. His footwork is just as good here as it is on the offensive end, and his terrific understanding of where to place himself does the rest. Parker is not your traditional superstar in the sense that he has no problem whatsoever sticking his nose in to take a charge.
Parker does everything well, but nothing really outstanding, besides possibly winning. In the NBA he would probably be considered a 6th or 7th man depending on the situation, and when you a coach is reaching into his bench most of them really want to have one specific skill they know they can count on.
While he shot the ball very well from long range in 2004/2005 (55/104 or 50% in 51 games last year) he is not a volume shooter by any means (2 attempts per game) as he really only takes the open 3-pointers the opposition gives him. This past season his percentages dropped to 36% (45/125 in 54 games) on the year, partially due to nagging injuries. There were question marks about his long-range shooting going into his NBA career, and on the cusp of his second stint in the league, these question marks remain, particularly when you consider the fact that the NBA 3-point line is 3 feet and 3 inches further out than the FIBA 3-point line.
A more substantial concern these days would be the fact that Parker just turned 31 years old a year ago, and did not have as good of a season last year as he did the year before. Parker is clearly a late-bloomer who made incredible strides in his game from age 25-28, but for a team investing a more than decent share of their mid-level exception for multiple guaranteed years, this is a bit of a concern. Teams had a chance to sign him for much less 2 summers ago just as he was in his prime, but they all passed and embarrassingly decided to offer him nothing more than an invite to summer league. Now that the interest is finally there, you have to wonder if its come a few years too late.
Why sign him?
Anthony Parker is the best player in Europe right now, and has proven himself against every level of competition he has gone up against, including NBA talent. There is absolutely no doubt that he can contribute to a number of NBA teams, the only question is whether they will have the guts to compensate him enough to draw him out of the cozy confines of Tel Aviv.
Parker is not only the best player in Europe, he is also the most complete.He slashes, finishes, creates for himself and others, rebounds, passes, plays defense, shoots from outside and mid-range on great percentages, and does it all in an extremely unselfish, yet very exciting manner. He knows his strengths and weaknesses and always stays within the context of the offense. He has a great demeanor as well both on and off the court. Does he have what it takes to do that in the NBA? There is really only one way to find out.
If teams were going gaga over Brandon Roy (and rightfully so) these past few weeks, they have to look at a more polished and experienced version of him. Parker is no rookie and he doesnt need to be developed or brought along slowly, hell essentially be paid lottery pick type money but will step onto the court and contribute immediately from day one.
Edit: A reader has sent us a video that was uploaded to Youtube recently, featuring Parker's best moves in a four minute highlight reel, including games against the Toronto Raptors and Orlando Magic.
And here is one more highlight reel. And another one/
6-9, PF, Unicaja Malaga, (Spain), Age: 28
Garbajosa is another product of Tau Vitoria, then an up-and-coming team where he grew as a player, learning the ropes of the post game. Still, what hes become now cant be understood without his four years in Treviso, from 2000 to 2004, where developed a three-point shot and became a perimeter-oriented power forward, while taking up that unique Italian craftiness that has forged his winning character.
Under the guidance of two of the best coaches in Europe in the last years, Mike DAntoni and Ettore Messina, Garbajosa won two Italian League Championships, two Italian Cups and enjoyed two Euroleague Final Four appearances with an unforgettable squad that included Tyus Edney, Ricardo Pittis, Denis Marconato, Marcelo Nicola and Massimo Bulleri. His individual accolades include an All-Euroleague Team selection in the 2002/03 season and MVP honors in the 2004 Italian Cup. His steady production can be summarized in his 12.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.9 steals in the Euroleague during his Italian years.
Back in Spain as a top-market signee for Unicaja Málaga, Garbajosa became a prophet in his own land by leading his team to the Spanish Cup in 2005 and its first ever Spanish League Championship this last season, earning MVP honors in both competitions. While in Treviso he was one of the main foundations of Benetton, in Málaga he was simply the cornerstone of the team. His impact was so notorious that some Málaga fans baptized him as the Porn Player, because he does everything and does it obscenely well.
Things didnt go as well in the Euroleague, with an early exit in the 2004/05 season and a disappointing top-16 stage this season. Still he upped his stats to a combined 14.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 2.1 assists per game.
Basketball IQ is the trademark of Garbajosa. Hes one of the best players in Europe in taking decisions on both ends of the court. He fully understands the game and tries to take advantage of it constantly for him and for his teammates. Hes first a team player, even when he presides as the leader.
Garbajosa gains most of his offensive advantages on the perimeter, forcing his matchup to step out thanks to his reliable perimeter stroke, and enjoying range that likely extends out to the NBA three-point line. Meanwhile, he will punish his man for guarding him too closely by taking him off the dribble and looking for the layup. Hes a nice ball-handler and will rarely turn it over.
Still, as important as his own advantages is the fact that he does a tremendous job clearing space in the paint for his teams center, allowing him to operate more comfortably with the room he creates. Garbajosa himself will feed him or move the ball so it can reach that spot. If hes guarded by a smaller defender, he can take him to the low post, where he usually tries to attract defensive help and feed an open teammate. Hes a very good passer, not spectacular, but tremendously effective, particularly within the flow of the offense. And hes constantly working to make the offense run smoothly, setting picks and moving without the ball.
Besides being a perimeter-shooting big man, he fulfils another international stereotype: hes a great player forcing personal fouls, mainly in slashing situations.
What makes Garbajosa so special is that hes as good defensively as he is offensively. He delivers every bit of intensity and intelligence to get the job done. His lateral movement is quite nice, and hes also a tough guy. Considering his limited physical and athletic gifts, hes a remarkable shot-blocker who shows excellent timing, although its hard to picture him getting any significant production in this department in the NBA.
Not a bad rebounder in the international game, it remains to be seen how he fares against much bigger opponents in the NBA. His aggressiveness and smartness should help him, though.
Its obvious, glaring and quite concerning the poor combination of size and athleticism that Garbajosa possesses. Hes a 6-9 power forward with limited leaping ability and nothing more than decent quickness. That makes the transition of his skills to the NBA level very questionable.
His decision making has one flaw: his shot selection is not always the best. Sometimes hell settle for the three-pointer excessively, even if hes not making them. However, that has been the case when he has enjoyed a leading role on his team; in a more marginal role, its hard to picture him going overboard with his perimeter stroke. Still, its quite probable that he will suffer with the transition to the NBA three-point line, even if you can see him knocking down long treys in Europe.
Originally a low post player, Garbajosa has lost some of his skills there. He suffers trying to finish around the basket unless he manages to release a turnaround jumper. Rarely utilizing his hook shot, he instead prefers to pass the ball to an open teammate.
Why sign him?
It takes some serious courage to sign this type of player. We have seen other mature international players who did not enjoy NBA-caliber physical tools fail in the past. Antoine Rigaudeau comes to mind. Also, neither Sarunas Jasikevicius or Arvydas Macijauskas have shined this past season, despite enjoying a defined skill to play a role on their teams (both shooters, Sarunas also an excellent passer), although its debatable if they were in the right situation to succeed.
Anyway, although not as naturally talented, Garbajosa brings something that those guys hardly deliver: hustle. Hes a player who is willing to do all those little things a team needs to come up with a victory. Hes not a stat-stuffer, but a glue guy. He will help on both ends of the court, make his open shots, take good decisions, and be a real teammate. For the Toronto Raptors, he will also help his former teammate in Treviso Andrea Bargnani to make the transition to the NBA game.
Time will tell if this bet pays off.
In the meantime, enjoy a 2 minute 20 second highlight reel of the Pornoplayer from youtube.
James Scoonie Penn
5-10, PG, Cibona Zagreb, (USA), Age: 29
After playing in Italy, Serbia & Montenegro and Greece, Penn really blossomed this season in his 2nd stint at Cibona Zagreb. He was especially impressive in the Euroleague Top 16, when he nearly single-handedly led Cibona- the team with the lowest budget in this stage - to the quarterfinal round. He led the competition at this stage with 22.6 points per contest, while adding 3.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.0 steals. He finished the Euroleague season averaging 17.0 points, 2.8 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 2.2 steals per night.
Scoonie improved considerably throughout his European career to the point that he is now considered one of the top point guards in Europe and gathers much interest from top-notch Euroleague teams. His agent Marc Cornstein told us that Penn will be leaving at least a million dollars (net) on the table in Europe if he is to pursue his NBA dream
Penn is a high-octane player who does everything at full speed and always leaves everything out on the court. He is built like a tank, being very muscular and strong, especially in his lower body. He is a quick player on both ends of the floor, showing an extremely explosive first step and good lateral quickness.
Scoonie is a dangerous threat on the offensive end, as he is very complete in this part of the game. He can slash to the basket at any level as he possesses the necessary physical gifts to go along with excellent ball-handling skills. Despite being undersized, he doesnt face too many problems finishing at the rim due to his impressive vertical leap, even being capable of throwing down some highly impressive dunks during the season.
Penn also brings some serious leadership skills to the floor, and is a real floor general even if he often looks to score more than set teammates up. Penn has good range on his shot, and can make in a variety of ways. He is good pulling up from the dribble from 18 feet, but where he excels is knocking down jumpers on the fly in transition.
Penn is a tenacious on-ball defender thanks to his agility and strength, and is a very hard player to beat off the dribble due to his lateral quickness. Scoonie also reads the passing lines exceptionally well and shows great reflexes, which resulted in him being among the league leaders in steals all season long.
Size alone has been whats kept him outside of the NBA for all these years. Scoonie is just around 5-10 and his wingspan doesnt really make it up for it either.
Penn is a volume shooter, known to sometimes jack up long-range shots early in the shot-clock without a reason. James is also very streaky with his long range shooting, having some great streaks, but also some poor ones, finishing the season shooting 31% from downtown.
He is generally more of a scoring guard than a playmaker. While he definitely has very solid court vision, Scoonie looks for his shot a little more then you would like from your point guard.
Why sign him?
Two weeks ago the Croatian media reported that Penn is close to an agreement with the Milwaukee Bucks. The Recent trade involving TJ Ford makes this rumor even more reasonable. Milwaukees interest in Penn should be well established, as he just finished participating in their free agent mini-camp in late June, and is best friends with their star shooting guard Michael Redd from their days together at Ohio State. Milwaukees scouts obviously attended some Cibona games this year, since they acquired the rights to Penns former teammate Damir Markota through the draft. It seems like he caught their attention.
Recent reports indicate that Penn turned down 700,000 dollars per year (net) from Russias Unics Kazan. Its quite obvious that he feels he has strong chance to end up on an NBA teams roster next year, fulfilling his dream of finally playing in the League. Its difficult for us to assess whether Penn would be willing to settle for the league minimum to accomplish that; all his agent Marc Cornstein was willing to say in that regard (besides confirming the interest from more than one NBA team) is that Scoonie very much wants to play in the NBA.
At 29, Penn is in the prime of his career, and should be able to be a dependable backup at the NBA level. His size would be an issue, but he brings enough to the table to crack into a teams rotation. He isnt exactly prototype of playmaker, but really, who is these days? Penn can defend, make his way to the basket and will get red-hot from perimeter here and there. Considering how much it might cost them and the extremely sparse NBA point guard free agent class, he is as good a candidate as any.
The Bucks a made similar move last summer when they signed Charlie Bell for a guaranteed two year contract for the minimum. It ended up looking like a brilliant decision considering how little he cost them and how much he ended up contributing, particularly towards the end of the season. Dont be surprised if they take that same route again and bring in an experienced point guard at an equally cheap price. As discussed in the introduction of this article, this is a trend that we are seeing more and more of recently.
6-8, SF, Unicaja Malaga, (Argentina), Age: 27
When Walter Herrmann came from Argentina (after leading Atenas Cordoba to the domestic title) to Spain for the 2002/03 season to play for Fuenlabrada, he soon became the big sensation of the ACB League, averaging 22.3 points and 9.7 rebounds. In the summer of 2003, though, disaster struck for the Argentinean. A tragic car accident claimed the lives of his mother, sister and girlfriend. Signed by Unicaja for the next season, his play was disappointing. The psychological impact of the accident, playing for a new team with higher expectations and a more competitive roster were probably the reasons. In the summer of 2004, fate struck again when he lost his father, but he somehow managed to put that in the back of his mind for at least a little while to help out his national team in the preparations for the Olympics. He ended up playing a key role in a couple of games in Athens to help Argentina win the gold medal.
These last couple of seasons, Herrmann has shown a nice progression, finding his place in Unicaja, and becoming an important contributor on a team that won both the Spanish Cup (in 2005) and the Spanish ACB League (this last season). This last campaign, he averaged 10.5 points and 3 rebounds in less than 23 minutes per game in the ACB League, enjoying a starting status even if the prolific wing rotation of the team limited his minutes on the court.
There are little physical or athletic flaws in Walter Herrmann. At 6-8, he enjoys excellent size for a small forward, paired with a great wingspan and enormous hands that he uses to snatch the ball out of the air like a tennis ball. Besides, hes a strong player and rather explosive. All in all, his body is ready to step onto an NBA court.
Hermanns main strength rests in his slashing ability. He has a nice first step and some fairly average ball-handling skills (especially with his off hand) to start moving, while his athleticism (he has won several dunk contests in his career) and big hands do the rest. But as much as his penetration attempts, his perimeter shot has become another valuable asset to his game. On a team where other players (Jorge Garbajosa, Marcus Brown, Pepe Sánchez or Berni Rodríguez) take care of creating offense, he perfectly takes advantage of the spaces created from three-point land. He shows the shot of a forward, a static jumper with average mechanics, but he has delivered an impressive 43% accuracy this last season while taking more than 4 attempts per game.
Herrmann can also take advantage of his size and strength in the lane to score over smaller defenders, which he has usually done this season, filling the spaces created by the power forward Jorge Garbajosa from the perimeter. Besides, Walter is a pretty intense player, like most Argentineans, showing great character on the court.
Herrmann is not too fundamentally sound; a combo forward that has evolved into a small forward. Theres something wild and rude in everything he does on the floor. You will hardly find the finesse game that is often expected from international players.
Skill-wise, he shows obvious flaws. His ball-handling is certainly improvable, his shot lacks any versatility to use it in off-the-dribble situations and there are question marks about his adaptability to the further NBA three-point line. His left hand is also almost useless and his court vision rather poor. Given that his basketball IQ is not off-the-charts, hes not always as effective as you would like him to be. Defensively, he might lack some lateral quickness that athletic wings might exploit, while hes not tremendously smart to make up for it.
Indeed, all these weaknesses have limited him to role player status at the top level in Europe, never being able to reach star status at this point in his career.
Why sign him?
At the end of the day, to play in the NBA is a matter of talent, but also, and perhaps more importantly, about having the right tools. For Walter Herrmann, the transition between both competitions wouldnt be as tough as it is for other players with physical or athletic liabilities. Indeed his game might be more suited for the American competition. On the other hand, he has less skills and talent to translate, so its a matter of figuring out what would be the outcome. Personally, Im not particularly confident about his chances of succeeding in the NBA, although its hard to get a clear picture.
Herrmann has finished his three-year contract with Unicaja Málaga, and the Charlotte Bobcats are reportedly very close to reach an agreement with him. Otherwise, he will become an appreciated good in the European market, particularly given the scarcity of quality big wings the Old Continent is currently suffering from, as some of the best have already moved on to the NBA.