Survival of the skillest – How Europe is no longer reacting to basketball trends; it’s setting them

Dirk Nowitzki helping out at junior NBA camp during All-Star weekend. (Christopher Cadeau/Medill)

By Louis Ricard
Medill Reports

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic may be on the verge of a historic moment. There has never been multiple European NBA award winners in the same season. But 2019 could be different with Doncic as the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year and the Greek Freak firmly in the mix for Most Valuable Player.

This new generation of European superstars is taking over the league, and could become its future–as well as the focal point of a championship team.

So what changed?

“We kinda taught the game to the rest of the world,” said Tony Ronzone, the Director of Player Personnel for the Dallas Mavericks – and former international scout. “What they did is they countered back with us and tried to find ways where they can be creative to compete with us, which they have.”

There were 108 international players at the start of the 2018-19 season–a league record. Fifteen of them played a part in the 2019 All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, N.C.,with  two of them calling Dallas home now.

Dirk Nowitzki, former NBA finals MVP in 2011, accompanied his younger teammate Doncic for the Slovenian’s first All-Star game, while Nowitzki was experiencing his last. The duo could have been a trio had newly acquired forward Kristaps Porzingis been healthy.

Dallas could be onto the next basketball era, one that is crowded with European players who overcame their lack of athleticism with a different set of skills.

“Their philosophy was, if you teach basketball, you gotta teach everybody every position,” Ronzone said. “When I would go to practices in the late 80s, I would see these 7 footers, these 6’10” players before practice or games, working on their guard skills.”

Nowitzki, arguably the best European player in NBA history – and currently 7th on the all-time scoring list – is responsible for that shift in the NBA.

The German native came into the league during the big-man era when designated forwards still caught it on the block with their backs to the basket, and took one or two dribbles before laying it up or dunking it.

Once Nowitzki stepped back and faced up, the game started to turn around.

“When I first got in, the 4s and the 5s were all big guys who couldn’t really shoot past the elbow, and now we have 5s dribbling the ball up, shooting threes,” Nowitzki said. “Everybody is skilled, everybody can bring the ball up, so everybody’s just so much more skilled than back in the days, and it’s been fun to watch.”

Despite inspiring an entire generation and an entire continent, no Europeans have won multiple trophies in a single season. Pau Gasol, of Spain, was the last European to win Rookie of the Year in 2002. Nowitzki won MVP in 2007. That’s it.  

It feels like yesterday when Porzingis’ name was followed by angry boos from the New York Knicks fans during the 2015 NBA draft. It took the 7’3” Latvian less than a week of playing to become known as the “Unicorn” and rock the Madison Square Garden with put-back dunks and threes.

West of New York, Nikola Jokic is putting the Denver Nuggets on the NBA map, currently holding the second seed in the Western Conference. The big man was also in the MVP discussion earlier this season.

Yet, the Joker doesn’t jump the highest, run the fastest, or tower over his opponents like Shaquille O’neal used to. Same thing can be said for Porzingis, Doncic, or even Nowitzki.

“Anybody could beat Dirk Nowitzki in a race one on one, but his footwork is off the chart,” Ronzone said. “The eurostep, that comes from handball. If you look at handball, the big poppin’ sport in Europe, they step through all the time when they’re attacking the goal.”

Not only do the sports they play growing up help set a foundation for their skillset, the way basketball is played in Europe makes them more aware of how valuable each possession is.

FIBA games are 40-minute long, eight minutes less than an NBA game, the equivalent of 35 less possessions as Ronzone explains it.

“They learn that the ball is very important, that turnovers are not acceptable, that good shots are important,” he said. “You can’t force shots because if you get an 8-10 point lead in Europe and you’re in command, you have the chance to win the game. In the NBA, if you have a 10-point lead that doesn’t mean anything.”

Current NBA players are taking notes.

Sacramento Kings De’Aaron Fox, one of the fastest players in the league, says that his Serbian teammate Bogdan Bogdanovich has helped him slow down his usual furious pace.

“Just patience,” Fox said. “It’s a lot more uptempo pacewise here than it is over there, so just trying to control the tempo of the game and slow down a little bit, and just be able to pace, trying to keep the same pace throughout the entire game.”

“When we play, we try to go up and down, but we don’t want to sacrifice execution with style of play.”

But what the European players teach that’s most valuable goes beyond basketball. It’s selflessness.

Ronzone believes that the way they are brought up is a huge factor in their ability to succeed in the league.

There is no AAU for young stars, no shoe deals, just basketball. Teenagers can turn pro much earlier than NCAA athletes (Doncic started at 14), but they also learn basketball as a whole.

Playing in the Euroleague will not put them on a stage like the NCAA does. The exposure is limited, the fans are too. European players are focused on the “we,” not the “I” as Ronzone describes it.

Another cultural difference is that of players having to pay their dues and defer to their elders in the Euroleague. An old-school method that seems to be doing wonders on the other side of the Atlantic. Ricky Rubio, stud from Barcelona at the time, only averaged 5.7 points a game and 4.1 assists the year before he got drafted to Minnesota.

He became a top 5 pick that year.

“But on his team in Barcelona, he wasn’t the man,” Ronzone said. “Juan Carlos Navarro was, he’s the legend. Over there, you defer to your elders, you respect players that have been there for a while, you pay your dues, so that means you’re not gonna start, you come off the bench.”

The contrast between the Euroleague and the American system could not be brighter, as kids are being exposed to fame starting in high school in the U.S.

It’s tough for Europeans to adapt and transition from that “we” to an “I” when they come into the league, and while Ronzone has found a lot of success, he also learned from his failures.

In 2003, the Detroit Pistons, who had just lost in the Eastern Conference Finals against the New Jersey Nets, held the second overall pick. Ronzone worked with the organization at the time, and felt confident about this 17-year-old Serbian named Darko Milicic.

“I thought that he was gonna be able to adjust quicker, I thought he’d be able to handle it,” Ronzone said. “I think what I missed on him is probably more the intel and background, and could he handle this stage, because again it’s not for everyone.”

While Milicic did not work out for the Pistons, it did make the league more aware and a lot smarter according to Ronzone.

While the NBA is not for everyone, teams will risk it all for that special someone.

We saw the big-man era end thanks to the three-pointer. We saw the high school player era end with the one-and-done. The small-ball era is still going strong with Stephen Curry and James Harden running point, but who knows for how long?

The European era never really got started, and while Nowitzki broke through in 2011, this new wave of European-born players might be their best chance at an era of their own. The question remains, will it become a phenomenon, or a footnote?

Dirk Nowitzki helping out at junior NBA camp during All-Star weekend. (Christopher Cadeau/Medill)