Stunned Gasol becomes highest foreign draftee
Updated: Thursday June 28, 2001 8:08 AM
By Albert Lin, CNNSI.com
NEW YORK -- Lost in all the hubbub surrounding Kwame Brown becoming the first high school player to be drafted No. 1 was the fact that Wednesday was also a historic night for basketball across the pond.
Spain's Pau Gasol became another draft superlative when he was selected by the Atlanta Hawks third overall, six spots ahead of where Germany's Dirk Nowitzki was tabbed in 1998 by the Milwaukee Bucks (Nowitzki was immediately shipped to the Dallas Mavericks). No foreign-trained player has ever been picked higher.
"It's a great moment for me," said Gasol, a Barcelona native, who seemed dazed after the selection and who paused to collect himself before addressing the media. "I cannot imagine it will happen. It's great. I'm really, really happy."
Coincidentally, Gasol also was traded, to the Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies (though because of salary-cap reasons the deal will not be consummated until July 18) in a package for All-Star Shareef Abdur-Rahim, a member of the U.S. Dream Team at the Sydney Olympics. The 7-foot, 227-pound Gasol, who turns 21 a week from Friday, seemed unable to comprehend how much the Grizzlies evidently wanted him.
"It doesn't matter to me," said Gasol, wearing a Hawks baseball cap. "I got the third pick. I'm really, really excited. I'm happy like most men will [be]. I can have no more words."
Gasol is billed as a do-it-all wing man with the skills of a player eight inches shorter. He has been compared to the likes of Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett, but he isn't the pure shooter Nowitzki is nor is he an athlete in Garnett's class. He can, however, hit the 3-pointer, put the ball on the floor and finish and score with either hand.
NBA bird dogs started finding their way to Spain earlier this calendar year, and Gasol noticed. "I began to realize I had capabilities to come [to the NBA]," he said.
Scouts were drawn by his quantum leap from the previous season. He went from averaging 4.2 points and 2.6 rebounds per game in 1999-2000 to 11.3 points and 5.2 rebounds last year.
"[The improvement was] basically mental," Gasol said in passable, if somewhat broken, English. "I got more experience. I play really hard this year. I did a lot of things on court technically, play more free."
Despite assurances that he was an almost certain lottery pick, Gasol still strongly considered withdrawing his name. He is under contract to F.C. Barcelona for next season, though the deal has a $2.5 million buyout. An NBA club is only allowed to contribute $350,000, so Gasol is on the hook for $2.15 million if he wants to play this fall. His agent, Herb Rudnoy, figured that unless Gasol were a top-six pick, it would make no sense for him to essentially play for free next season.
All's well that ends well. Rest assured, Gasol will be in Memphis for training camp.
"I think I can develop a lot," he said in passable if somewhat broken English. "I'm a player with a lot of possibilities. I want to improve, get better as a player, become a good player in league. I put all my effort to do that as quick as possible."
Nine picks after Gasol, Vladimir Radmanovic of Yugoslavia was picked by the Seattle SuperSonics, which meant at that point more foreigners (two) had been taken than four-year college players (one). The 6-10, 227-pounder also is a perimeter player, but he is stronger physically than Gasol and might be able to play inside if needed.
Like Darius Miles, whose reign as highest-selected high schooler lasted one year, Gasol's time in the record book will be brief. Seven-foot-6 Chinese center Yao Ming is virtually a lock to go No. 1 next June.
Needless to say, the rest of the world is beginning to catch up to America. The globalization of the game is indeed a reality.