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NBA Players Head Abroad: The Effects on International Basketball and the Future of the NBA

Nenad Kristic has committed to playing overseas, while Paul Pierce has not (Photo courtesy of Reuters)

The NBA lockout will soon reach the two month mark, and with union leaders and NBA officials declining to meet with one another in the past few weeks, it appears the problems causing the lockout will not be resolved before the start of the new season. Many players, from star Deron Williams to rookie Kyle Singler, have already made contingency plans for a prolonged stoppage, agreeing to contracts with basketball teams overseas.

FIBA, the international basketball federation, sanctioned players under contract with NBA teams to play overseas as long as their contracts with foreign teams include opt-out clauses. Depending on how long the lockout lasts, these players may end up staying abroad for the entirety of the year or coming back to the States in a few months.

However, no matter the amount of time spent abroad, it is difficult to foresee the players currently signed to play overseas having a lasting impact on international basketball. Most players who have agreed to go abroad are young players or career journeymen. If a few more stars agree to play abroad (and quite a few, including Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge, have said they will revisit the opportunity if the lockout drags on) the potential impact of NBA players in Europe could certainly change. Players under NBA contracts are playing at their own risk (without insurance on their contracts), however, which makes playing abroad a more perilous proposition for star players, as they have more money to lose if they get hurt internationally.

Will NBA Players improve the International Game?

Williams is a two time NBA All-Star, an Olympic Gold Medal winner, and generally considered one of the best point guards in the NBA today. No other players going abroad have been All-Stars, and very few have been regular starters in the league. Many leagues abroad already have quality players. While the players who have signed abroad will certainly be useful (otherwise the teams wouldn’t have signed them), it is tough to envision them becoming game changers in international leagues.

Not only are the players who signed abroad not the best the NBA has to offer, they will have to adjust to the rigors of the international game. While the games themselves are not as physical, the lifestyle is much more demanding: teams frequently ride buses to games. When they do fly, according to the Suns’ Josh Childress, who played for two years in Greece, it is commercial “nine out of ten times.” Some teams practice daily, sometimes even the mornings of games, and the European game is much more about tactics and execution than it is about athleticism.

Additionally, there are many dangers that face NBA players who are looking to play abroad. Players who have fallen out of favor will often not receive their paychecks, and those who are not performing will have the electricity and water shut off at their team-owned apartment. Fans are unruly, and many will riot after losses, throwing debris at players and setting fires in and around the arenas.

It is difficult to envision NBA players, even stars, being able to adapt to the changes in lifestyle and game play quickly. Childress averaged 8.8 points per game in the Euroleague, Europe’s best competition, during 2008-2009, his first season. This was lower than his career average in the NBA to that point (11.1 ppg), and although Childress improved his scoring average to 15.2 ppg his second Euroleague season, he noted that moving to Greece and playing a different style of basketball took a period of adjustment. There will certainly be an adjustment period for the players who are going to, or looking to go to, Europe during the lockout; neither stars nor role players will fit into rigid systems overnight, and, if the lockout only lasts a few months, it seems likely that many NBA players will have little to no impact on their European teams.

Will more International Players come to the NBA?

It is difficult to see the NBA lockout helping to bring more international players to the NBA. Many international players who were scheduled to be free agents, such as former Celtics’ center Nenad Kristic, signed contracts to play for European teams that do not include opt out clauses. Many other players under contract, such as Trailblazer Nicolas Batum, have signed international contracts with opt out clauses. While this isn’t surprising, since many NBA players have decided to play abroad during the lockout, it can’t be encouraging for European players to see their counterparts in America returning due to labor unrest.

The pool of international players courted by the NBA is also as large as it will ever be. Scouts for NBA teams are in virtually every country with a professional league, and most young players harboring ambition will make an effort to come to the NBA regardless of how well they play against journeymen such as Mario West and Chris Quinn (both of whom have signed foreign contracts during the lockout).

The players who want to come to the NBA will continue to want to come to the NBA after the lockout is lifted. They want to play with, and against, the best. Those who didn’t want to come to the NBA still won’t. The decision for many NBA players to play abroad during the lockout should not have an impact on the decision of international players to come to the NBA.

What is the Impact on the Celtics?

As of right now, Kristic and Von Wafer (both free agents) are the only players from last year’s Celtics team to agree to contracts overseas. While Kristic’s contract does not have an opt-out clause, Wafer’s does, and he plans to use it if the NBA resumes play at some point this season. Rookie E’Twaun Moore, the Celtics’ second round pick this past draft, has signed a contract to play in Italy which also includes an opt out clause.

Carlos Arroyo, Avery Bradley and Glen Davis are also thinking about playing abroad depending on the length of the lockout. However, Arroyo, Davis, and Wafer will be free agents when the lockout is lifted, so the return of the NBA does not guarantee seeing them wearing Celtics’ green.

Unlike these players, the core of the Celtics team will not be pursuing opportunities in Europe. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo have all said they will not be pursuing overseas opportunities at this time, as has first-round draft choice JaJuan Johnson. Delonte West, who is a free agent, cannot leave the country due to his parole agreement stemming from weapons charges.

The players who stay in America will not be playing games, but the competitiveness of Allen, Pierce, Garnett and Rondo will ensure they are ready and able to play whenever the lockout is lifted. They will likely be better rested and more physically prepared for a short season than their counterparts who spend months traveling throughout Europe on long bus rides.

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One comment for “NBA Players Head Abroad: The Effects on International Basketball and the Future of the NBA”

  1. Why aren’t the owners considering bring over international players to replace the NBA players I wonder. Surely there are great players out there that are willing to play for less. Somehow a message needs to be sent to the players that they are extremely lucky to have what they get and if they don’t want it there are plenty of eager, hungry, talented players that will entertain us instead.

    Posted by Andy | September 5, 2011, 1:50 pm

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