CHICAGO – It’s possible Tom Thibodeau, in the heat of a tight Chicago Bulls game next season, will pull a cheat sheet out of his suit pocket. Or maybe he’ll go with one of those fold-out wrist bands NFL quarterbacks use to tote their crib notes.
¡Haz tu trabajo!
¡No dejar de lado la cuerda!
It might lend a continental flair to what, after four seasons, has become a familiar soundtrack near the Chicago bench. Opting for the Spanish translations of Thibodeau’s greatest courtside hits – Ice! Do your job! Don’t let go of the rope! – would seem appropriate with the team’s acquisitions for 2014-15 of veteran NBA forward Pau Gasol and Euro prospect Nikola Mirotic.
Gasol, 34, signed with Chicago as a free agent after 13 NBA seasons, the past six-plus with the Los Angeles Lakers. Mirotic, 23, is a Spanish-Montenegrin described by Bulls GM Gar Forman, off his performance for Real Madrid in recent seasons, as “the best young prospect not playing in the NBA.”
Thibodeau should be fine, of course, what with Gasol’s mastery of English – he’s better than a lot of the league’s domestic membership, frankly – and Mirotic’s improving bilingual game. The 6-foot-10, 225-pound “spacing 4” had an interpreter at his side for the news conference at United Center Friday, but Thibodeau said when they went to dinner Thursday, Mirotic did just fine on his own.
Besides, the Bulls head coach’s volume and occasional NSFW word choices combine in their own universal language of sorts. And this isn’t Thibodeau’s first Berlitz course.
“I went through this once before, in Houston with Yao Ming,” said Thibodeau, a member of Jeff Van Gundy‘s staff when they took over in 2003-04, the second NBA season for the 7-foot-6 center from China. “Yao seemed to understand when it was praise, and he had a hard time when it was criticism [laughs].
“I think it will be fine. Nikola is ready for this. I think he’s going to be a good fit for our team. We’re gonna start the process of getting him up to speed right away.”
The coincidence of the two foreign-born players being signed and introduced on the same day served as a reminder of how far the NBA and the global game have come in the span of a single player’s career.
When Gasol arrived as the No. 3 pick overall in the 2001 Draft, the practice of importing international talent was underway but still to the left on most teams’ learning curve on both sides of the various ponds. The 7-footer from Barcelona was the best of five foreign-born players taken in the first round who hadn’t played at a U.S. college. Five such prospects also were picked in 2000.
But only two went in the first round in 1999, four (including Dirk Nowitzki) in 1998, one in 1997 and four in 1996. And from 1991 through 1995, there were none.
Gasol was the first player from Spain to test the NBA since Fernando Martin, a 6-foot-9 Madrid native who played 24 games for Portland in the 1986-87 season. He had been drafted 38th overall by New Jersey in 1985.
Of course, when Gasol was a boy, only one NBA game per week was available on television in Spain. By the time he was drafted, fans had their choice of five TV games weekly. Now NBA Spain has its own Twitter account @NBA_Spain.
“The infrastructure is a lot better now in Europe and the rest of the world,” Tony Ronzone said by phone Friday during a break in Las Vegas Summer League action. “And the world’s becoming smaller with the Internet and the video. You can see now how many games are televised all around the world.”
Ronzone, a longtime NBA executive, is one of the league’s most experienced evaluators of international talent. He is director of player personnel for the Dallas Mavericks, worked for Minnesota and Detroit in similar capacities and served as head coach of teams in United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. He also is director of international player personnel for the USA Basketball men’s team.
He has seen the growth and comfort level in both directions – international players and coaches becoming more NBA savvy, the league embracing more players and concepts from overseas – throughout his career.
Consider: In Gasol’s rookie season, 2001-02, there were 52 international players from 31 different countries on NBA rosters. By Opening Night 2013-14, the number had grown to a record 92 players from 39 countries.
“What’s happening now is, our game has grown and with the NBA as the best league in the world, these players internationally are able to watch athletes on the floor and mimic their moves,” Ronzone said.
“There’s a lot more player-development going on to create more foot speed. Because the biggest adjustment the Europeans have coming over to America is, defensively they’d be behind and their foot speed, they’d be behind. What they’re learning to do is, with less foot speed, they’re understanding angles and they’re doing a better job of watching these athletes and getting scouting reports on how to play them.”
There have been milestones along the way in this shrinking of basketball’s globe. International competition has been huge, and not just at the highest level of the Olympics and the World Championship tournaments. The Nike Hoop Summit, featuring many of the best players in the world age 19 or younger, has been held for 17 years. Nineteen alumni of the World team were active in the NBA last season, including Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, Andrea Bargnani, Patty Mills and Tristan Thompson.
Exposure to the game got a major bump in 1996, when Toni Kukoc of Croatia played a vital role on Michael Jordan‘s second three-peat of NBA championships with the Bulls. Nowitzki’s success in Dallas opened a lot of eyes to international talent pools, and the NBA’s outreach overseas with exhibitions and development programs furthered the cross-pollination.
“You can see over the years how many more teams have gone overseas and played Real Madrid or have played Barcelona,” Ronzone said. “Teams have gone to China, to Brazil. These teams are going over and you have players there saying, ‘Shoot, I feel I’m as good as them.’ So now the work ethic and the desire go up, and the fear factor’s gone. They’re able to adjust and make it happen.”
All of which suggests Mirotic should have an easier time acclimating in Chicago this season than Gasol did in Memphis. The older player talked about, and compared a little, their transitions 13 years apart.
“It’s going to be an adjustment year for him. I think he’s going to be homesick for a while,” Gasol said. “But coming into such an exciting situation, an exciting team, is going to make a big difference for him. And I think the city of Chicago is going to help as well, because there’s a big Serbian community as well.
“My situation, 13 years ago, it was a little different. I was lucky that my family was able to join me and make that transition much easier.”
Gasol’s parents Agusti and Maria brought Pau’s chubby, 16-year-old brother Marc along to Memphis. You may have heard of him. Gasol was a runaway winner of the 2001 Rookie of the Year Award and has gone on to average 18.3 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists while winning two NBA titles and four All-Star selections.
Ronzone said the hardest adjustments for international players are foot speed, game speed, terminology and learning the referees. But Mirotic has a plush resume that should aid in his move to the NBA. The No. 23 pick in 2011 by Houston – traded first to Minnesota and then to the Bulls – averaged 12.4 points and shot 46.1 percent from the international 3-point line for Real Madrid CF of the Liga ACB. He won the Euroleague’s Rising Star Award in 2011 and 2012, presented to the league’s best player under 22, and he was an all-Euroleague second team selection and Spanish Cup Final MVP in 2014.
Said Thibodeau: “I think it’s great having Pau here for [Mirotic’s adjustment]. But there are a lot of international players in our league and they have done quite well, so I don’t think it will be a hard transition for him. There are some things he’s going to have to get used to – it’s a new culture, the NBA’s different – but he’s been preparing for this for, really, three years now. Once he gets here, it’ll move along well.”
Thibodeau said Mirotic should be OK learning the Bulls’ five-man defensive strategies because he has “good body-position defense already.” Ronzone thinks the continued blending of styles, NBA and international, will work in his favor, too.
“The American game has become more European – we were just watching San Antonio play in The Finals with more passing, more cutting, moving without the ball,” Ronzone said. “And the European game actually has become a little more American at times in how some guys are dominating the ball.
“So it’s actually helping both worlds out.”