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Inside The NBA

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NBA scouts are finding it harder to come by young prospects

For the past decade the Euroleague Final Four has been a fruitful
event for NBA scouts, who have used it to size up such future
stars as Toni Kukoc and Arvydas Sabonis. At least 10 teams sent
scouts to last weekend's tournament in Barcelona, where they
expected to be wowed by--among others--20-year-old Anderson
Varejao, a 6'10" Brazilian forward. Instead they found a batch of
young talent as undeveloped as most of the potential draft picks
coming out of U.S. colleges and high schools.

After he averaged 9.2 points in 28.0 minutes for Brazil at the
world championships in Indianapolis last summer, Varejao
(pronounced Vah-ray-ZHOWN) was seen by some NBA teams as a
potential lottery pick. But in Sunday's final between the
continent's powerhouses, he scored only one point in FC
Barcelona's 76-65 win over Benetton Treviso. Scouts saw a poor
shooter who lacked court sense and needed to build up his
230-pound frame. "He's so raw that you can't even define his
position," said one. Added another, "Aren't there eight NCAA guys
who can rebound and block shots as well as he can? Maybe three
years down the line he'll surpass them, but right now I'd rather
take [Kansas senior] Nick Collison."

The success of the Grizzlies' Pau Gasol and the Spurs' Tony
Parker and Emanuel Ginobili--each of whom entered the league with
a full complement of skills and big-game experience--has
intensified the search for players in Europe. But several years
of fishing by the NBA has depleted the talent pool. Other than
7-foot Darko Milicic, an 18-year-old from Serbia-Montenegro who
will probably be one of the top three picks, there is no player
overseas perceived as a safe choice.

That won't stop teams from gambling, though. As many as 10
foreigners may go in the first round, including 21-year-old
French swingman Mickael Pietrus ("he's like a lot of athletes
back home who haven't developed their outside shot," says an NBA
scout) and 18-year-old Greek forward Sofoklis Schortsianitis,
a.k.a. Baby Shaq ("he's listed at 6'10", but he's really a 6'8",
undersized big man, like Carlos Boozer or Lonny Baxter--and both
of those guys were second-round picks," says another scout).

Lately scouts have been touting 18-year-old Maciej Lampe, a
7-foot Polish forward for Real Madrid, but that buzz brings
guffaws from a top European G.M. "If you rate Lampe as a top 10
pick," the executive says, "then I can give you 40 other players
in Europe who deserve to go in the first round." Still, it would
not be surprising for a team to use a high choice on Lampe, then
let him remain overseas to develop for two or three years, as the
Spurs did with Ginobili.

That may also be the scenario for the 230-pound Varejao, who was
a soccer player in Franca, Brazil, until a late growth spurt led
him to take up basketball at 16. He has had a hard time getting
minutes in the Spanish league because of a rule that says a team
can suit up only two non-Europeans, and Barcelona tends to use
its more experienced ones in league play. The rule on foreigners
is less restrictive in Euroleague competition, but Varejao still
averaged only 13.3 minutes and 4.1 points points in 22 Euroleague
games this season.

Spanish agent Arturo Ortega says Varejao will stay in the draft
as an early entry if a team promises to pick him in the top 15,
assuring him enough money to pay his $1 million buyout to
Barcelona. Otherwise he plans to withdraw his name, return to
Barcelona and hope the Spanish league will relax its rule on
foreigners next season. That might allow him to get enough
experience so that he can make the quantum leap expected of him.

Nuggets' Foreign Exchange
Hot Italian Coach Gets a Summer Job

Noting that international players make up almost one fifth of the
league's rosters, Nuggets G.M. Kiki Vandeweghe predicts that the
next globalizing step will be to hire a foreign coach to run an
NBA team. Vandeweghe accelerated the process by agreeing last
week to import Ettore Messina of Benetton Treviso to coach Denver
at the L.A. summer league this July, when he will work with 2002
first-round picks Nene Hilario of Brazil and Nikoloz Tskitishvili
of Georgia.

"Ettore's players in Italy have a great understanding of the
game," says Vandeweghe. "His style is not too different from the
NBA's. He's a great defensive coach, his team works hard, and he
likes the running game."

Messina, 44, led Italy to the silver medal at the European
championships in 1997, and in the last five seasons his teams
have taken two Euroleague titles. A progressive thinker and a
low-key motivator, Messina played a major role in helping Manu
Ginobili and Marco Jaric make easy transitions to the NBA. "He's
got everything going for him," says Benetton Treviso G.M.
Maurizio Gherardini, "knowledge, experience, charisma and an
excellent grasp of English."

Messina views his summer job as little more than a cultural
exchange between the two clubs, pointing out that Denver coach
Jeff Bzdelik will travel to Treviso next month to participate in
a couple of camps organized by Benetton. "It would be really
stupid for me to say that I am aiming to become a head coach in
the NBA," says Messina, who has two years remaining on his
contract with Benetton. "But 10 years ago nobody would have
predicted there would be so many international players doing so
well in the NBA. I look at this as a way for me to make a little
first step into the big world and say to the guys, 'I am here,
let me introduce myself.'"

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERTO SERRA/GRAZIA NERI (VAREJAO) Varejao (left) is athletic but raw, while Baby Shaq appears to be a second-round pick.


COLOR PHOTO: ROBERTO SERRA/GRAZIA NERI Messina has an NBA-like approach.

around the Rim

One of the more controversial prospects in Europe is 7-foot
center Darius Lavrinovic, who averaged 10.3 points in his native
Lithuania before serving two years for a rape committed with his
twin brother, Kristof, and a third man. "Darius played six to
seven hours a day in prison and became much better," says
Sakavickas Antanas, director of the Lithuanian club Alita-Savy
Alytus, for which the 23-year-old Lavrinovic averaged 17.8
points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in 26 minutes after getting
out of prison in January.... A name to remember: Peja
Samardziski, a 17-year-old, 7'1" center for Partizan Belgrade's
junior team. "The best shooter I've ever seen for someone his
size," says an NBA scout. "I don't see any way that he won't be
the first pick in 2005."