Foreign players such as Gonzaga freshman Elias Harris are proving that they can be as valuable as top American recruits. Thanks to a recent NCAA rule change, even more overseas talent will soon be on the way
The center was an architect. The power forward was a software consultant. At 28 and 30 years old, respectively, they were the frontcourt elders of the all-amateur German ProB club BIS Baskets Speyer, which had as its small forward a 19-year-old high schooler named Elias Harris—the player whom Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd had flown halfway around the globe to evaluate. It was Oct. 5, 2008, the final day of the NCAA's fall recruiting contact period. Five days earlier Lloyd had received a tip from Thorsten Daume, a German ProA coach to whom Lloyd had once recommended a talented American junior college player. "There's a big, athletic kid in Speyer that I want to sign," Daume said of the 6'8", 215-pound Harris. "But he won't [take a contract] because he wants to play in the U.S."
What Lloyd saw in that small gym in Speyer made the trip worthwhile. "If this kid had been in the U.S.," Lloyd says he was thinking while watching Harris play against a club of seasoned professionals, "he would have been a McDonald's All-American." Yet the only other Division I recruiter Harris had seen in person was from Delaware. Lloyd made an official recruiting visit to Harris's home that night and walked out thinking he was about to pull off a colossal recruiting coup.
After 10 straight NCAA tournament trips under coach Mark Few, Gonzaga has raised its national profile to the point that it can lure very good U.S. prospects—among them five-star forward Austin Daye and four-star guard Steven Gray in 2007 and four-star guard Matt Bouldin in 2006—but McDonald's All-Americans, whose courtships are often lengthy and complicated and tend to be dominated by power-conference bluebloods, have remained out of reach. "We can get in the door on those guys now," Few says, "but you might waste a lot of time and effort, and then, for whatever reason, something pops up that's just not going to let it happen."
Harris's recruitment was much more straightforward. His main adviser (aside from his father, Michael, an American who had played pro basketball in Speyer, and his mother, Svenja, a German native) was German national team coach Dirk Bauermann, who supported Harris's signing with the Zags that November. He arrived the next summer and immediately began wowing teammates in pickup games. "He dunked on everybody," says Bouldin, "and it was clear he was on another level of athleticism—an NBA level." Harris, who has established himself as a first-round prospect, at week's end was averaging 15.3 points and 7.9 rebounds for the 22--5 Bulldogs. He is on track to become only the second NCAA player from Europe to be taken in the first round of the NBA draft.
Harris has taken the West Coast Conference by storm in much the same way that Kentucky superfreshman DeMarcus Cousins has dominated the SEC, but Lloyd says the time ratio of recruiting a player like Cousins compared with a player like Harris was "100 to 1." Rather than focus on a traditional recruiting market that overvalues players who impress at national AAU events or All-Star camps, the Zags have had sustained success by developing the necessary international connections to find players like Harris, whose Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is on par with the top American freshmen (chart, below).
In addition to signing Harris, Gonzaga mined the growing talent base of British Columbia, Washington's northern neighbor, for one college transfer (6'6" forward Bol Kong, a Sudanese-Canadian) and two members of the Canadian junior national team (6'5" Mangisto Arop, another Sudanese-Canadian, and 6'11" Kelly Olynyk), all of whom are seeing significant minutes as freshmen and have skills equal to those of the top 100 American recruits.
International recruiting is not a recent phenomenon. (BYU claims to have signed the first foreigner to play in Division I, Finland's Timo Lampen, in 1960.) But for a perennially ranked school like Gonzaga, in 2009, to have a recruiting class comprising mostly non-U.S. players is unheard of. Thanks to new NCAA legislation, Bulldogs scouts might soon have more company as they travel the globe. In January the NCAA approved resolution 2009-22, which, if it goes into effect as planned in August, will allow players who've played with pros but not signed an agreement—such as West Virginia's Turkish forward Deniz Kilicli, who had to serve a 20-game suspension this season under the current rules—to be eligible immediately.
The value in having recruiters with international connections could be immense. Lloyd, who played professionally in Australia and Germany and whose family hosted nine foreign exchange students when he was growing up in Kelso, Wash., is responsible for bringing in Gonzaga's first top-flight international recruit. In 2000, while watching video of a French junior national team that included future NBA first-round picks Tony Parker, Mickael Pietrus and Boris Diaw, he spotted Ronny Turiaf, an exuberant 6'10" reserve from Martinique, and recruited him over the phone. In a year when five of the top eight high school seniors were post players who jumped directly to the NBA and competition was even more fierce for the remaining big men, the Zags got a future NBA draft pick for the cost of a few phone calls.
The foreign country on most American schools' radar is Australia, which has produced stars such as Andrew Bogut (Utah) and Patty Mills (St. Mary's) and has approximately 40 players in Division I this season. But the globalization of basketball has expanded the talent pool, and schools are finding top-quality players in less-exposed places. Rice has the first Iranian to play in Division I (Arsalan Kazemi) and has reportedly been recruiting elsewhere in the Middle East. Temple went back to Argentina (where it found 1990s star Pepe Sànchez) for shooting guard Juan Fernàndez. And Radford went to the basketball backwater of Belarus to find 6'11" senior center Artsiom Parakhouski.
Last season Parakhouski led Radford to its second NCAA tournament berth, and he has been so productive as a senior that he ranks sixth nationally in PER. Big Art was averaging 21.4 points and 13.2 rebounds through Sunday and has a shot to become the first NBA draft pick from the Big South.
So how did such a talented player end up at Radford, a little-known school in southwestern Virginia? Coach Brad Greenberg can thank Highlanders assistant Ali Ton, the son of a top Turkish club coach who played at Davidson in the mid-1990s. On a recommendation from one of his father's coaching friends, Ton took his first look at Parakhouski while serving as an assistant for the Turkish team in the 2005 European under-20 championships in Russia. "He wouldn't have impressed any college coaches at the time," Ton says, but no one else was aware that Parakhouski, an athletic big man who had recently given up soccer, was playing in his first major hoops tournament. Ton shepherded Parakhouski to the University of Southern Idaho, a junior college at which he could learn English and fulfill the eligibility requirements for Division I, and signed him early in his sophomore year, before he shone in a juco showcase in Dallas and received interest from programs such as Kentucky and UCLA. They had arrived too late. "There's no way we could recruit a big guy of Art's caliber in the U.S.," says Ton, who also brought two Turkish players and a Serbian to the school's rural campus. "But in Europe? If you find a guy early, you can get someone who turns out to be a lot better than anyone expected."
Parakhouski thinks the country has more capable players, if teams are willing to look. "A lot of college coaches," he says, "I don't know if they know that my country exists."
At Nebraska, blue-chip recruits have been found much more often on the football field than on the basketball court. That's why Walter Roese, a Brazilian who played professionally in his home country and has served as coach of his country's junior national and World University Games teams, was hired two years ago to help coach Doc Sadler rebuild the Huskers. In a previous stop, at BYU, he had helped recruit Brazilians Rafael Araujo (an NBA lottery pick in 2004) and Jonathan Tavernari, a senior who was averaging 10.5 points for the Cougars. Roese is well-connected in Brazil—"Kids there e-mail me every week, asking, Hey, Coach, can you help me come to the U.S.?" he says—and recently he landed the Huskers' first Brazilian recruit, 6'11" center Andre Almeida, who Roese says "has a chance to be better than Araujo."
The Huskers have been willing to scour different continents for prospects; they already have big men from Puerto Rico (6'11" Jorge Brian Diaz) and Germany (6'11" Christopher Niemann and 6'8" Christian Standhardinger) on their roster. "We needed a niche, and we needed size, so we've gone looking in different places to get it," Sadler says.
Turiaf and Harris met in September at FIBA's EuroBasket 2009, when the French and German national teams squared off in Poland (with France winning 70--65). After the game, Turiaf told Harris, "Welcome to the Zag family." Harris could turn pro after this season, but Bauermann, the German national team coach, has advised against it. "I think it would be good if I stayed another year because I don't think I'm done here yet," says Harris.
His Speyer teammates—especially the software consultant, Thorsten Racquet, a former pro who had hoped to play for St. Francis (N.Y.) before being called into the German military—had encouraged him to go abroad to fully develop his skills. And now Harris is majoring in sport management at Gonzaga, with the hope of someday running an all-amateur German club that will help prospects come to the U.S. "The [higher-division] clubs at home bring in so many American pros," Harris says, "that there aren't enough chances for German kids to get playing time." If they're anything like Harris, Gonzaga will gladly welcome them. Deutschland to the inland Northwest could be one valuable pipeline.
International players are on par with the top U.S. freshmen in terms of Player Efficiency Rating (PER)