Not all of the best NCAA or International players always make it to the NBA, and its not always the best players that see themselves being drafted. Sometimes certain prospects slip through the cracks (for various reasons, mostly justifiable ones) and it's only natural to continue to watch them carry on their careers in Europe and evaluate their progress to see if they have improved on the weaknesses that kept them out of the league in the first place. This helps estimate whether or not they are ready for a first or second shot. With the recent influx of high school players and extremely raw Europeans on to almost every NBA roster, more and more potential NBA players are being pushed aside right from the get go because of a relative lack of upside, and solid NBA veterans are losing their spot on NBA rosters to make way for potential laden players who are being stockpiled for the future. The new rules regarding the NBDL is only going to make things worse most likely. It isn't out of sight, out of mind for this group of outcasted players as far as NBA scouts are concerned, as there are too many good examples of players who were brought into the NBA after a year or a couple of years of seasoning in Europe to ignore them. Some great examples being: Brad Miller, PJ Brown, Stephen Jackson, Darrell Armstrong, Udonis Haslem, Carlos Arroyo, Bruce Bowen, Anthony Mason, Chris Anderson, Mike James and others.
This type of scouting is becoming more and more important then ever now. The following players have caught our eyes over the past year and could be considered NBA prospects this summer. None of them are going to be stars right off the bat, though. If they were, they most likely wouldn't be in Europe in the first place, so please take what is said here in relative terms and assume that unless noted these players would be brought in to serve as excellent role players off the bench.
Update from last year:
Last year we singled out 7 players to make up our list of the top overseas free agents on the market. Three of them, Andres Nocioni, Maurice Evans and David Bluthenthal, made the league. Nocioni is looked at as a steal for the Bulls and played a nice role in Chicago's return to the NBA playoffs. Evans came over on a non guaranteed contract and is now fielding multi-year guaranteed contract offers as a free agent. Bluthenthal (who we labeled as a very borderline candidate) got a partial guarantee from the Sacramento Kings before being cut at the December 15th deadline and returning to Europe. The only player we "missed" last year from this crop of free agents was Ibrahim Kutluay, as 6-5 sharpshooter that impressed the Sonics enough in the pre-Olympic matchups with Team USA to land a two year guaranteed contract. Kutluay was not an NBA prospect in our eyes and eventually got bought out of his contract after the Sonics caught on to that themselves. He only ended up playing 12 minutes all season, but was rewarded handsomely for his time in the States.
Out of the 4 remaining players we wrote about last year, all make a return to this year's top overseas free agent list. Sarunas Jasikevicius looks to be a lock to sign with one NBA team or another. Two others, Fabricio Oberto and Arvydas Macijuaskas are also considered excellent candidates and have been mentioned in free agent discussions in the States. The last one, Anthony Parker, might be the best NBA prospect of the bunch. Unfortunately for the NBA, though, teams whiffed badly on him and he decided to sign an extension with Maccabi Tel Aviv with no NBA buyout, which is strictly their loss.
6-8, 225, Small Forward, Unicaja Mבlaga (Argentina), Age: 26
Written by Luis Fernandez
This season, suffering a few up and downs in his game that included an excellent performance in the Kings Cup won by Unicaja, he has fared a little better than last year, even if he saw his playing time reduced coming off the bench. He finished the season averaging 8.2 points and 2.8 rebounds. Truly non-impressive numbers. However, his 48% of three pointers in the regular season (second in the ACB League) is pretty remarkable for a streaky shooter like him. Anyway, out of all the guys in this article, he has been the worst performer last season.
Unlike most players featured in this article, theres no 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 a NBA court.
Hermanns main strength rests in his slashing ability. He has a nice first step and some handles (not that good, 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. He can take advantage of his size and strength in the lane. His shot has improved lately, becoming pretty reliable from the perimeter, although its usually a static jumper. Walter is a pretty intense player, like most Argentineans, showing character on court.
Hes not too fundamentally sound; a combo forward that has evolved into a small forward. His handles are certainly improvable, his shot still streaky, his left hand almost useless and his court vision rather poor. Hes not a finesse guy, but a wild player. Given that his basketball IQ is not off-the-charts, hes not as effective as you would like him to be. Defensively, he lacks some lateral quickness.
Particularly he has yet to prove that he can be a star in Europe. Hes already 26 years old and he still comes off the bench for his Euro team.
Why sign him?:
At the end of the day, to play in the NBA is a matter of talent, but also, and perhaps more important, 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.
Im not particularly confident about his chances of succeeding in the NBA. He would struggle with the NBA three-point line, and I dont think he would be able to provide a significant offensive or defensive production.
Herrmann has still one year left of his contract in Mבlaga, but according to media reports in Spain the team doesn't seem too interested in keeping him given his high salary (750,000 Euros) and disappointing seasons, and wouldn't put too much opposition to let him go. His buyout is 750,000 Euros, so its unclear if they would be willing to settle for less than that. NBA teams can contribute 500,000 dollars now under the new CBA. Apparently, one NBA team might be interested in signing him. It could be the Bobcats, as it was rumored a few months ago, and whose international scout Tim Shea has praised him in public. Other strong European teams will be interested too (Tau Vitoria among them).
6-9, 246 lbs., PF, Climamio Bologna, Slovenia, Age 25
This 25-year old forward has been playing for the European powerhouse Climamio Bologna over the last couple of seasons. Before that he was playing for another Bologna powerhouse in Kinder. Climamio has good depth under the basket so Smodis only played around 20 minutes per night. Nevertheless, he put up very solid numbers. Matjaz averaged 12.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per game in the Italian league, while in the Euroleague he logged 10.4 points and 4.0 rebounds per game. He missed the first months of the season due to an injury, but when he came back Smodis became Climamios most reliable big man.
Smodis has an NBA body, he is quiet stong player (especially upper body). Matjaz is your typical, fundamentaly sound big men who can play with his back or face to the basket.
Matjaz has a very solid back to the basket game, knowing how to establish position in the post and showing solid footwork there. He doesnt have a huge repertoire of post moves, but can take advantage of his size and strength to perform a turnaround jumper or a semi-hook shot. He has a very soft touch around the basket and can finish with contact due to his strength and toughness.
There is no question that he prefers to play with his face to the basket. Matjaz is a skilled player, and one of his best assets, especially as far as the NBA is concerned, has to be his jumper. He has very good mechanics and elevation on his shot. Smodis has range out to the international three-point line and is consistent from there, shooting 37% in the Italian league and 44% in the Euroleague, combined making 68 of his 148 three-point attempts.
Smodis has good ball-handling skills for a big man and clearly likes to put the ball on the floor. He doesnt show it very often, but can definitely take his man of the dribble in Europe.
Defensively, he is very solid. His man-to-man defense is good, using his strength and grit to stay in front of his man. Smodis is an intelligent player who understands knows his role on the team and will never force things. He has plenty of experience at the highest level of play outside the NBA, the Euroleague.
Matjaz lacks NBA athleticism and that will be his biggest problem if hes to come to the League. At 6-9 he doesnt have great size either and is almost undersized for the power forward position. His vertical leap is limited right now, so you will rarely see him finishing with a dunk or blocking shots.
His back to the basket game will have to improve in order for him to become a scoring threat in the post in the NBA. Due to his athletic ability he would probably have some problem finishing around the rim.
Matjaz is also not a great rebounder. While he knows how to box out his man he is sometimes just outmatched by his opponents size and athleticism.
While he might have the tools to be more then a role player, Matjaz seems just happy with his current role.
WHY SIGN HIM?
While Smodis might not be NBA starting material, he could probably play a solid role for someone off the bench because of the skills he brings to the table. Obviously his best asset is his jumper. There are few better shooting big men in the NBA as of right now. He has an acceptable buyout of 500,000 Euros (most of which can be paid off by an NBA team) and teams should have no problem bringing him over should the offer by close to what he is about to land in Europe. Washington and Charlotte have both showed the most interest in Smodis, who is seeking a 3 year guaranteed deal for about 2 million dollars per season. This is the sum of the contract he is about to sign for a top level Euroleague team, which would make him on the highest paid players on the continent should he decide to take it If he cant get an NBA team to offer him comparable money (which seems to be the case right now) look for him to sign with one of the top teams in Europe. CSKA, Real Madrid, Tau Vitoria and Barcelona have all shown the most interest so far and appear to be bidding against each other for his services.
Marcus Brown, 6-3, CSKA Moscow, SG, 31 years old
Brown spent four years at Murray State in the Ohio Valley conference, being one of the top scorers in the country in his two finals seasons while averaging 26.7 points in his senior year on 50% shooting from the field and 42% shooting from behind the arc. Following his senior year in 1996, he was drafted 46th in the 2nd round by the Portland Trailblazers where he averaged 4 pts and 2 assists in 9 minutes per game while shooting 41% from behind the arc in his rookie season. His play as a rookie was enough to impress the Vancouver Grizzlies, and after a successful summer league campaign he managed to garner a contract from the expansion team. The Grizzlies were terrible that season, and Brown was cut midway through the year after not even playing a minute. From there he went to France to join Pau Orthez in February, where he quickly familiarized himself with European basketball and helped them win the French Championship while scoring 20 points per game, but also tore his ACL in the final game of the playoffs.
After taking that entire season off to rehab his knee, Brown went to summer league that following summer and earned a spot in the NBA once again, this time with the Detroit Pistons. With the Pistons starting off the season poorly, Brown was cut once again after only six games and 45 minutes in the league that year. Back to France it was for him, where he once again won the French championship (this time with Limoges,) while picking up the European Korac Cup, the French Cup and MVP of the French league along the way. At that point the heavy hitters of European basketball started to take notice of his play and he was signed to a contract by European powerhouse Benetton (then Pallacanestro) Treviso in Italy. There Brown averaged over 20 points per game in the Euroleague and helped his team to the Top 16.
Not one to stay in one place for too long, Brown was signed by one of the best teams in Europe at the team, Efes Pilsen in Turkey for the next two seasons. Brown dominated his competition in Turkey and helped his team to two straight championships to go along with two straight MVP awards for himself as well. In between those two seasons in Turkey, Brown tried out for the Utah Jazz in summer league and did not make the team.
After that Brown was signed by probably the richest and most ambitious team in all of Europe, CSKA Moscow. He stayed there for another two years, helping his team to reach the Euroleague Final Four in both years, winning the Russian Championship and Cup in both years, and being named the MVP of the Russian league in both years as well, bringing his MVP count to five and his championship total to six in seven seasons in Europe.
For his trouble, Brown became the highest paid player in all of Europe last season. While his representatives would only state that he signed for a lot of money, sources in Europe indicate that his contract was worth no less than three million dollars, an incredible sum for any player in any league. The only player that ever even came close to making that type of money was Dominque Wilkens when he came to play in Greece for Panathinaikos for one year. Brown was bought out of the last year of his contract in Russia after they failed to win the Euroleague and a new coach was brought in. From what we understand the feeling was mutual.
Despite the fact that he will have to take a huge pay cut in order to do so, Brown is looking to take one last stab at the NBA before he is too old to try again. According to his agent Craig McKenzie, Brown is currently fielding offers from three different NBA teams that made the playoffs last year. He will not play in summer league, and is only looking for a guaranteed contract offer. While this is our own personal speculation, its possible that a winning team that can offer him an opportunity to come off the bench and bring athleticism, outside shooting, energy and defense for 15 minutes or so a night can get him for the minimum. Since Brown already played in the NBA for a couple of years, his minimum scale salary would be around 750,000$. Exact numbers will only be known once the new CBA is agreed upon, signed and published. If not, Brown will go back overseas and play for a boatload of cash once again for one of the top teams in Europe.
As a former high jumper, you can imagine that Marcus Brown has some explosiveness to his game. He is indeed one of the more athletic players in Europe that also combine excellent basketball skills with raw explosiveness. He is also strong and fearless going to the hoop, not backing down from anyone and showing the confidence of a player who has been the man on every team he has played for in his basketball career besides his two NBA adventures. He is a strong ball-hander as well. All those things combined, his athleticism, strength, ball-handling and tenaciousness make him an outstanding slasher at any level. When he gets to the line he shoots 90% or more. Brown indeed loves to put the ball on the floor and take it strong to the hoop, showing some ability on the drive and dish as well. On top of that he is a solid shooter, although a bit streaky at times, who has shot well over 40% from behind the arc in his European career. He can catch and shoot or make it off the dribble thanks to a fairly quick release. At the end of the day, Brown is a scorer, and a very accomplished one at that. He has some NBA experience and has been one of the best American players in Europe over the past four years or so, playing and winning at the highest levels basketball has to offer outside the NBA. Defensively he can hold his own as well thanks to his strength and quickness.
Hes your prototypical shooting guard caught in a point guards body. He can probably bring the ball up the floor and start up your offense, but he is certainly not a lead guard. With that comes all the questions we always have about undersized shooting guards. Who will they guard? Can they get their shot off at the same level of success against strong and athletic 6-6 NBA shooting guards? Can he adapt to being a role player in the league rather than a high volume shooting superstar in Europe? Most of his strengths in Europe lie in the fact that he is so much stronger and more athletic than whoever is guarding him, not to mention his talent level which is extremely high. These are questions that can only be answered on an individual case by case basis. Brown seems to want to play in the NBA, which means that he would be willing to sacrifice (certainly from a financial perspective) to do so. At age 31, this is probably Brown's last chance to stick in the NBA, and he probably realizes that.
Why Sign Him?
When you have such a talented and accomplished player who is willing to come to the NBA for pennies on the dollar and adapt his game for a winning team, the risk involved in signing him isnt that high considering that he might be had for the minimum. He can be a decent scoring combo guard to bring off the bench for the right team and provide energy, slashing, shooting and defense. If things dont work out for both sides he can always go back to Europe.
Igor Rakocevic, 6-2, PG/SG, Pamesa Valencia, Serbia and Montenegro, Age 27
The 27 year old Rakocevic started his career at Red Star Belgrade in Serbia & Montenegro. He was a well known player in International circles and was even named the MVP of the 1998 European Under-22 Championship after leading his team to a gold medal. Rakocevic entered his name into the draft in 1999 at age 21 and withdrew right at the deadline. He returned to Red Star Belgrade and played there until becoming automatically eligible in the 2000 draft as a 1978 International prospect, and was drafted with the #51 pick in the 2nd round by Minnesota. Rakocevic was named to Serbias 2000 Olympic squad, and then played one more season overseas in Serbia at Buducnost in 2001 (helping them win a championship) before being signed by the Timberwolves the following summer (2002-03). Rakocevic played one unimpressive season in Minnesota (1.8 points, 0.8 assists, 5.8 minutes in 42 games coming on and off the IR) and was let go when the season done. He was invited to the Rocky Mountain Revue to play on the Denver Nuggets summer league team, but could not find a place there either. He was briefly signed by the Spurs the following year but was cut right shortly after in October.
Rakocevic returned to Red Star Belgrade and absolutely tore the Adriatic League to shreds, averaging 23 points per game on 56% shooting from the field (42.5% from outside) to go along with 4.4 assists per game. Just to give you an idea about his dominance there, in possibly his last game of his career in Serbia, he scored 38 points while drawing 20 fouls from his opponents and being sent to the foul line 24 times in a win against Reflex.
Rakocevic was a below average shooter before and during his short stint in the NBA, and this is probably the part of his game which has improved the most to lead you to believe that he still has a future in the league. The season before he came over to Minnesota, Rakocevic hit only 10 (of 27) three pointers all year long while playing for Buducnost. In his 244 minutes in the NBA, Rakocevic only hit 5 threes in 42 games. The year after his American adventure, Rakocevic showed off his much improved range by shooting 51/120 (42.5%) in the Adriatic League from behind the arc, also improving his free throw percentage by 12 points (73 compared with 85). Last year in the very competitive ACB league, Rakocevic went 69/148 from behind the arc (47%) in 32 games while hitting 87% of his free throws. Obviously he has been working on that part of his game. When you combine that with his incredible quickness and creativity to get inside the lane, you are talking about a very tough player to guard.
Igor Rakocevic is an excellent scoring guard, as his 21 point per game average playing for Pamesa Valencia in Spain will tell you. Thats what best defines him, his ability to score, even if his skills go beyond that. Hes a very quick player with good athleticism and a great first step. So what we have is a tough guy to contain for any defender. And if you take into account his great perimeter stroke (which is much improved from his NBA days), its easy to guess what kind of player were taking about.
Rakocevic can kill you from the perimeter with his jumper. He uses a very high release difficult to stop. Hes pretty good playing without the ball, cutting around until he finds an open look to fire. And if his matchup tries to defend him anticipating his movements, he punishes him with backdoor cuts. He also can deliver his jumper off the dribble with high accuracy, although usually from the mid-range area.
His quickness, first step and nice handles make him quite a good slasher that can opt for the layup, the mid-ranger or dishing a teammate. He usually displays good decision making and nice court vision. Those skills are particularly interesting, because Rakocevic can play both guard positions, therefore it wont be any problem for him to be a playmaker in the NBA. He also displays excellent lateral quickness on defense.
Given his size, Rakocevic would have to play point guard in the NBA, but hes not a pure lead guard. However, how many pure points can we find in the NBA these days? He can deal with that position without problems, although handling the point may limit his offensive power.
Obviously, playing in the NBA against much better athletes, everything will be more difficult for him. But he might suffer particularly trying to score around the basket in slashing plays, has hes not especially creative with his layups and hes neither a freak athlete. On defense he should be a little bit more intense, trying to put a more pressure on the ball. After all, he has the tools to be reliable in this department.
Why sign him?
Rakocevic in an extremely talented player with NBA caliber athleticism. Its that simple. Watching him in Europe, it takes little time to realize that he has that extra gear few guys share. He never enjoyed a real chance in Minnesota, and is a much better player now anyway. Now, hes two years older, more experienced and probably smarter. Considering that he wont be a rookie, the transition period for him should be short as he knows exactly what he needs to do to adapt and succeed. He can be an excellent point guard to bring off the bench, even to start at some point, providing a nice offensive punch with his various skills while not likely being a defensive liability.
Rakocevic has played in the NBA already so the fascination of making it isn't necessarily there the way it might be for others. It doesnt look like we will be willing to go to the NBA to be an 11th or 12th man. According to his agent Marc Cornstein, No one can guarantee Igor playing time, but he wants to land in a situation where he can compete for a starting spot or at least significant playing time. A lot of teams are interested both in the NBA and Europe. It will all depend on the contract were being offered and the situation hell be put in. Further complicating matters is the fact that Rakocevic has some huge numbers being thrown at him from some of the best teams in Europe. According to reliable sources in Spain, Rakocevic may have already signed a contract with Real Madrid for next year that would keep him in Spain for around three years in return for over a million dollars per season. What is clear from talking to Cornstein is that he will most definitely not take a minimum contract offer and will certainly be looking for multiple guaranteed years like he would get from top teams in Europe.