Looking for a few big men
NBA testing international waters to find legitimate centers
Posted: Saturday June 20, 1998 04:47 PM
ATLANTA (CNN/SI) -- The NBA has seen the future, and it has a gaping hole right through the middle. The void has nothing to do with the potential retirement of Michael Jordan; instead, substantial injuries to Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon and Alonzo Mourning this season provided a look into a world without high-profile, high-impact centers. Though the next wave of pro players arrives on June 24 via the NBA Draft, the answer to the biggest problem at hand does not.
Every spring, the NBA looks to the college ranks to replenish its talent pool. Its quest in recent years to find the next crop of franchise centers, however, has come up dry. So NBA teams have expanded their searches globally for big men like Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Portland's Arvydas Sabonis. It's come down to either overseas or Ostertag.
"As usual, all of us cry out that there's no big men available," said Boston Celtics general manager Chris Wallace. "That seems to be our lament year after year, and that's again an ongoing problem. We'll just have to find these centers somewhere, I don't know, Mongolia or Tibet or some far-flung foreign outpost."
Makhtar Ndiaye, center for the University of North Carolina the past two years, said scouts know what they are looking for when the go abroad.
"People, when they go overseas recruiting, they don't recruit guards," said Ndiaye who was born in Senagal. "They've got enough guards here. So they're usually looking for centers and sometimes power forwards."
Last year, Tim Duncan and Adonal Foyle were lottery picks -- both were born in the Caribbean Islands. This year's draft again should find a handful of international centers taken in the first round. Of the top center prospects available, only Kentucky junior Nazr Mohammed is American-born.
Far and away the best of the bunch is Michael Olowokandi. Born in Nigeria and raised in London, the "Kandiman" spent the past three years at the University of Pacific. Though he's only been playing basketball for three years, he will likely be one of the first two players drafted.
"He's a terrific prospect," said Seattle SuperSonics general manager Wally Walker. "He's gonna be a top prospect. I saw him early in the year and it seems like he got better every game."
Olowokandi is a perfect example of what separates international centers from their American counterparts. Often, they are more agile, more athletic and provide a dimension that the typical born-on-the-blocks homegrown big men cannot.
"Without a doubt, I think soccer and track and field background helped me a whole lot in becoming a good basketball player," said Olowokandi. "When I came, I could outrun a lot of guards just because I played soccer and did track.
"I think growing up here, when you're bigger than most kids, they tell you you're a center, you're not supposed to be as quick or as fast as those guys."
"You look at Toni Kukoc ... he should be a center. If he were an American-born player, he should probably be a center. But I think that's the thing: overseas, they just let you play, they just teach you the game to play wherever you feel comfortable."
Marty Blake, NBA Director of Scouting, said the big men of today don't see themselves in the traditional mold of the lane-clogging center.
"I was asking college coaches, 'When you recruit a center, do you ask him, can you run the floor? Will you rebound? Will you get the ball and throw it to the guard coming through? Will you throw it to the forward in the corner?' And the center invariably will say, 'I can't throw it to the forward in the corner, I'm going to be the forward in the corner,'" Blake said.
And so the search is on to find the men who will man the middle as the NBA enters its next stage of evolution. The only problem is not knowing what to look for, but where.
Like Duncan, many of the top college centers project as power forwards at the pro level. This year, some of the top names -- Kansas' Raef LaFrentz, Purdue's Brad Miller and Michigan's Robert Traylor -- will make a position change when they get to the NBA.
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