NBA broadcasters got a reprieve this season: They haven't often had to work tongue twisters such as Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Virginius Praskevicius or Sasha Djordjevic into their play-by-play. Unlike the 1992 Olympics, which showcased a host of foreign stars who would soon make names for themselves in the NBA, the '96 Games in Atlanta yielded only three newcomers to the league. And they, along with a handful of other rookies from abroad, haven't seen much action.
"The good ones from overseas are already here," says Boston center Dino Radja, a star on the Croatian national team in 1992 and '96. "I think you're going to have to wait a few years before another group can come over here and make an impact. Over there, the level of competition is down."
Djordjevic, a Croatian Olympian, was waived by Portland on Dec. 27 and now suits up in Barcelona. Praskevicius, a 6'8" Lithuanian with the Timberwolves, and Ilgauskas, his 7'3" countryman with the Cavaliers, did little before going on the injured list. Two Australians who starred in Atlanta, Minnesota guard Shane Heal (2.4 points a game) and Philadelphia forward Mark Bradtke (2.0), have struggled. And the Heat has used Estonian forward Martin Muursepp in only seven games.
Ukraine's Vitaly Potapenko, a rugged 6'10" center, has been the best new arrival, and he was averaging only 5.1 points for Cleveland at week's end. The most disappointing foreigner isn't a rookie but a retread: center Stojko Vrankovic, who represented Croatia in 1996. After playing sparingly for the Celtics from 1990 to '92, he returned to Europe. He is back with the Timberwolves, but he has been slow an defense and foul prone.
"My wife [Lola] is worried because I used to play 35-40 minutes over in Europe," he says. "Now I'm hardly playing. It's hard for me." And for most of his fellow imports this season.