MINNEAPOLIS — The cold, snowy climate in Minnesota has always been considered a hindrance to the Timberwolves’ efforts to recruit top-flight free agents to join them. American players seem more enamored with the sun in L.A., the sand in Miami or lights in New York.
It turns out Russians feel right at home around these parts. So do Montenegrins, and it’s even starting to grow on Spaniards and Puerto Ricans.
For years, Minnesota virtually ignored the burgeoning international market, often hesitating to bring in some of the most highly touted European prospects in the draft or free agency in favor of more well-known domestic players.
Now, in the matter of just a few seasons, David Kahn and international scouting coordinator Pete Philo have given meat-and-potatoes Minnesota an international flavor as they’ve turned the Twin Cities into a destination location for top players from basketball hotbeds throughout Europe.
Ricky Rubio, Andrei Kirilenko, Alexey Shved, Nikola Pekovic, JJ Barea. Minnesota has five international players on the roster, tied with Cleveland for
second-most in the NBA. San Antonio has eight international players, a league record.
“I think it’s pretty evident to me that there’s a lot of not just good players, but some of the very best players in our game who have come from overseas,” Kahn said. “To me, it’s just a natural extension of scouting. Just as you can’t afford to be negligent about the domestic side, you can’t afford to not be on top of matters internationally.”
The renewed focus is one of the biggest reasons the Timberwolves are competitive again in the powerful Western Conference. The Wolves drafted Rubio in 2009 – even though some mistakenly speculated he wanted to play in a bigger market – and the Spanish point guard turned into one of the most exciting young players in the NBA.
They signed Russian teammates Kirilenko and Shved this off-season, and the two have helped them weather a rough string of injuries early in the season.
Pekovic was drafted out of Montenegro by the now departed Kevin McHale, but has asserted himself as a very good offensive center under new coach Rick Adelman, while Barea has shown only flashes of the playmaking that made him a key to the Dallas Mavericks’ title run in 2010 thanks to a series of nagging injuries.
“I think we’ve taken an approach of pretty much making the entire world an even playing field,” not recruiting from any particular place along, Philo said.
It’s been a long time coming for Philo, who has worked tirelessly for years to shed light on basketball potential overseas.
He recently stepped down after presiding over the highly respected Eurocamp for nine years, served as the director of scouting for Team China through the London Olympics and has worked as an international scout with the Wolves for seven years.
Philo didn’t always have such receptive ears in the Wolves front office. McHale was often hesitant about bringing in international players through the draft. Players like Rasho Nesterovic, Stojko Vrankovic and Shane Heal all came and went, while other organizations made key acquisitions thanks to the resources and imagination they poured into the process.
Among the top-flight talent found around the globe: Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in San Antonio, Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, Yao Ming in Houston, Serge Ibaka in Oklahoma City, Marc and Pau Gasol (Grizzlies and Lakers).
When Kahn took over in 2009, he put an emphasis on being more productive in the international market. But he didn’t change a whole lot of what the Wolves were already doing. Philo and Zarko Durisic remain the two staffers chiefly responsible for uncovering and evaluating talent overseas, but Kahn seems a little more willing to bring those players in than McHale was.
“David’s big on information and I am, too,” Philo said. “We meshed on that. We’re very, very similar on that front. When it comes to international scouting, if your information isn’t extremely detailed and good, you’re only getting a piece of the picture, not the whole movie.”
Philo’s experience playing overseas and running the Eurocamp has helped put the Wolves in a strong position to get exposure to promising talent, and Kahn routinely makes trips to Europe to see prospects up close.
Philo says the philosophy is simple: “Forget the ‘international’ part of international player.” Where some of the league’s most traditional evaluators still have a line drawn in the sand between American and foreign-born players, the Wolves have no such distinctions. They also have worked hard to educate their domestic scouts and coaches on European leagues so they can have a better idea of what will translate to the NBA game and what won’t.
“The hardest problem with our domestic guys is for them to understand the level of the leagues over there,” Philo said. “You watch a grainy film and the pace of play is slow, it just doesn’t look good. You’ve got to know the level.”
That was key with Rubio, who had been playing in the prestigious ACB league in Spain since he was 14 years old. He never put up gaudy statistics, even after being drafted fifth overall. The Wolves didn’t panic, seeing a young, inventive player who was able to hold his own against grown men in a physical league.
They saw similar traits in Shved, a lesser known talent who was available this summer after going undrafted by an NBA team during his eligible years. That turned off a lot of scouts, but the Wolves stuck with the skinny, 6-foot-6 shooting guard, and it paid off. Shved has quickly emerged as a playmaker, one that coach Rick Adelman trusts implicitly in the fourth quarter.
“Some guys develop later,” Philo said. “A guy like Shved, he was younger. His body was young, his mind was young when he was in his draft years. You could tell even then it was really about his upside. Once he matured, you just knew because of his size he’d be an NBA player.”
Then there are the logistics of navigating a completely different world.
“It’s a challenging thing,” Philo said. “It’s really funny when I see a scout that only does America come over for the first time and I see them in the airport or hotel and you see it in their eyes. They’re nervous about where’s the gym?
“One guy put the wrong gasoline in his car because most of the cars in Europe are diesel and it stalled on him in between Treviso and Milan. Twenty-five cars stopped and they couldn’t communicate. He sat there and froze for hours.”
The final piece of the puzzle has been Adelman, whose wide-open, pass-heavy offense has been more accommodating to European players for years. Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic thrived in the system in Sacramento. Yao Ming, Luis Scola and Goran Dragic were all successful under Adelman in Houston.
“I know that Alexey’s representatives felt that Rick’s system would be a good fit for how he plays and certainly Andrei has been an admirer from afar,” Kahn said. “I think that Rick, whether he knows it or not, played a big role in their recruitment.”
The recent run of success has the Wolves hopeful that it establishes them as a place to be for future foreign players.
“What I’m hearing now is that having several international players on the team makes it more comfortable, and it could beget others,” Kahn said. “That doesn’t mean we’ll become internationally centric, but it probably makes it a little bit easier for us because we’ve had players come from overseas and have a little bit of success.”
The weather may never be ideal here, but the basketball can be. And having several players on the roster who know what it’s like to make the jump stateside serves as a built-in support system for the next one who comes over.
“When the weather is nice this city is amazing,” Rubio said. “I got to see a lot of places and restaurants and I really like the city and it feels like home.”