Fans once needed a roster to learn about their favorite college basketball players. Nowadays, a map would come in handy. One of those spinning global maps.
Area Division-I schools continue to reach across borders and oceans in search of talent. Five of Gonzaga’s 12 scholarship players were born outside the U.S. Eastern Washington has six international players – three Germans and three Australians. Washington State has a trio of Aussies. Idaho doesn’t have a foreign player this year, a first in coach Don Verlin’s five seasons.
Last year Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s both had seven foreign players. When the teams met for the WCC tournament title, seven of 10 starters were internationals. They’re not alone. In 2000, 143 internationals made up 3 percent of D-I rosters, according to the NCAA. Those figures essentially doubled by 2004 (285, 5.7 percent) and they took another jump the next five years. In 2007, there were 406 foreign players.
There were 79 internationals in the 2009 NCAA tournament, according to Latitude News. That figure soared to 99 last year.
The number of imports keeps growing for a simple reason: supply and demand, on both sides of the equation.
“When I got the job, if we went over to Seattle I was fighting some negative stereotypes in terms that Eastern hadn’t been good,” second-year Eagles coach Jim Hayford said. “Just think about when you go fishing. If you can get with the right people internationally you can get your hook in the water and there’s a lot less hooks there.”
Gonzaga has landed several highly rated recruits, including Jeremy Pargo, Austin Daye, Matt Bouldin and Gary Bell Jr., but the Zags often face an uphill battle for five-star recruits. GU, mainly through assistant coach Tommy Lloyd’s efforts, has had a run of outstanding international players, including Ronny Turiaf, Robert Sacre, Elias Harris and Kevin Pangos. The prize of this year’s recruiting class is Przemek Karnowski, a center from Poland.
“The No. 1 thing is it expands your recruiting base,” Lloyd said. “Being a little isolated in eastern Washington, there’s not a plethora of high level D-I players running around. We have to think outside the box.
“It gives you more options. We look everywhere and throw it all on the table and we make decisions on who is the best fit. And the next question is, Who can we realistically get?”
Two of WSU’s best players in the last decade are Australians Aron Baynes and Brock Motum, thanks in part to the recruiting efforts of assistant coach Ben Johnson. He played professionally in Cairns, Australia, from 1993-95 and returned to Australia to coach in 2002-03, where he first noticed then 15-year-old Baynes.
“I think (WSU) is a great sell because you can come play for a great program and a great coach and play in the best conference top to bottom,” said Johnson, whose wife, Nicky, played professionally in Townsville, Australia. “People can say what they want about the level of play, but the most pros come from this conference the last six years. These kids want that kind of challenge.”
It’s a two-way street. U.S. colleges can strengthen their roster with internationals. Foreign players are able to work on their basketball skills against quality competition and attend college, a combination that usually isn’t possible in their homeland.
“In most countries it’s straight to professional basketball. There’s no real university system set up,” said Motum, a senior who led the Pac-12 in scoring last season. “You don’t have the opportunities you have in America. There’s a lot of opportunities in the U.S. college system, hopefully to achieve your dream.”
That dream, according to EWU center Martin Seiferth, a transfer from the University of Oregon by way of Berlin, isn’t accessible in Germany.
“That’s the sad thing. You couldn’t have a successful basketball life and college life in Germany,” Seiferth said. “It’s a perfect outcome here.”
The preferred outcome is eventually playing in the NBA or at high levels professionally overseas, with a degree in hand.
“Obviously my goal is the NBA,” said Pangos, All-WCC as a freshman last season. “My best chance at getting noticed and making the NBA is through the U.S. There aren’t full scholarships in Canada. It’s only academic and it’s only partials. There’s more money here.
“There’s more competition, way better media coverage. Everything is just bigger here.”
Few players are bigger than Karnowski, the 7-1, 305-pounder who is already showing up on NBA mock draft boards.
“I think this is the best way to develop as a player,” Karnowski said. “The game is much more athletic and much faster than Europe. Here I can develop my body. Secondly, I can study and play basketball. In Europe, it’s hard to play pro and continue (at a) university.”
And Gonzaga’s Harris explained, “You can shoot whenever you want here because the gym is available 24-7.”
In addition to video, scouting services and word of mouth from former players toiling overseas, coaches rely on international contacts, often from their past playing days. In Hayford’s case, one of his longtime friends keeps an eye on Australian players while living in Melbourne.
WSU’s Johnson is well-connected in Australia. “Everywhere we went (during the Cougars’ five-game Australian tour in August) he knew a lot of people,” Motum said. “Especially our last game, it was like a homecoming for him. It was where he played and met his wife and there were a couple of pictures of him hanging up.”
Lloyd played professionally in Australia and Germany. A friend from Germany mentioned Harris to Lloyd, who phoned German national team coach Dirk Bauermann. “He said Elias was the most talented kid in Germany since (Dirk) Nowitzki,” said Lloyd, who was on a plane to Europe five days after hearing about Harris. “We needed to take a hard look at him.”
International players often have a different skill set than U.S. counterparts.
“In America, if you’re a big kid they throw you into the post because how many bigs are at each high school?” Hayford said. “If you’re a big kid in Berlin, youth basketball is not in the schools and if you’re a good player you’re going to be playing against older men on these club teams. If you’re a 15-year-old kid playing against a 27-year old physical guy, it’s kind of a necessity to develop some new skills because you can’t outmuscle them.”
There are academic and amateurism hurdles with international players, but an adjustment by the NCAA a few years ago eased restrictions on the pro/amateur status. Before, a foreign prospect often faced suspension for a number of NCAA games if he had played on a team with at least one professional player. That’s no longer the case if prospects can prove they didn’t have an agent, didn’t sign a contract and didn’t receive pay beyond “actual and necessary expenses.”
“Academically it was never a problem,” EWU freshman forward Venky Jois said. “Most of the people on my (Australian) team were getting paid. I definitely could have gotten paid, but I had to sacrifice that.”
Seiferth’s older brother, Andreas, now 23, plays professionally in Germany and didn’t have the option of coming to the U.S. Andreas, who played on a national team with GU’s Harris, signed a pro contract out of the youth program, Seiferth said.
Foreign players have countless examples of countryman who have excelled at U.S. colleges. Seiferth was coached in Germany by Henrik Rödl, who played at North Carolina. Jois recalled “hearing stories about (Australian) Patty Mills playing at Saint Mary’s and later in the NBA.”
“I think the numbers will keep going up because kids will see what others have done before them,” said Harris, who called ex-Washington Husky/NBA player Detlef Schrempf a pioneer in German basketball. “I heard about Ronny (Turiaf) when I was in Germany. I saw that it was a great deal and I wanted to do that, too. Now other people look up to me and see what the guys at Eastern are doing and what Motum is doing at Washington State.”