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For the past decade the Euroleague Final Four has been a fruitful event for NBA scouts, who have used it to size up such future stars as Toni Kukoc and Arvydas Sabonis. At least 10 teams sent scouts to last weekend's tournament in Barcelona, where they expected to be wowed by—among others—20-year-old Anderson Varej�o, a 6'10" Brazilian forward. Instead they found a batch of young talent as undeveloped as most of the potential draft picks coming out of U.S. colleges and high schools.
After he averaged 9.2 points in 28.0 minutes for Brazil at the world championships in Indianapolis last summer, Varej�o (pronounced Vahray-ZHOWN) was seen by some NBA teams as a potential lottery pick. But in Sunday's final between the continent's powerhouses, he scored only one point in FC Barcelona's 76-65 win over Benetton Treviso. Scouts saw a poor shooter who lacked court sense and needed to build up his 230-pound frame. "He's so raw that you can't even define his position," said one. Added another, "Aren't there eight NCAA guys who can rebound and block shots as well as he can? Maybe three years down the line he'll surpass them, but right now I'd rather take [ Kansas senior] Nick Collison."
The success of the Grizzlies' Pau Gasol and the Spurs' Tony Parker and Emanuel Ginobili—each of whom entered the league with a full complement of skills and big-game experience—has intensified the search for players in Europe. But several years of fishing by the NBA has depleted the talent pool. Other than 7-foot Darko Milicic, an 18-year-old from Serbia-Montenegro who will probably be one of the top three picks, there is no player overseas perceived as a safe choice.
That won't stop teams from gambling, though. As many as 10 foreigners may go in the first round, including 21-year-old French swingman Micka�l Pietrus ("he's like a lot of athletes back home who haven't developed their outside shot," says an NBA scout) and 18-year-old Greek forward Sofoklis Schortsianitis, a.k.a. Baby Shaq ("he's listed at 6'10", but he's really a 6'8", undersized big man, like Carlos Boozer or Lonny Baxter—and both of those guys were second-round picks," says another scout).
Lately scouts have been touting 18-year-old Maciej Lampe, a 7-foot Polish forward for Real Madrid, but that buzz brings guffaws from a top European G.M. "If you rate Lampe as a top 10 pick," the executive says, "then I can give you 40 other players in Europe who deserve to go in the first round." Still, it would not be surprising for a team to use a high choice on Lampe, then let him remain overseas to develop for two or three years, as the Spurs did with Ginobili.
That may also be the scenario for the 230-pound Varej�o, who was a soccer player in Franca, Brazil, until a late growth spurt led him to take up basketball at 16. He has had a hard time getting minutes in the Spanish league because of a rule that says a team can suit up only two non-Europeans, and Barcelona tends to use its more experienced ones in league play. The rule on foreigners is less restrictive in Euroleague competition, but Varej�o still averaged only 13.3 minutes and 4.1 points points in 22 Euroleague games this season.
Spanish agent Arturo Ortega says Varej�o will stay in the draft as an early entry if a team promises to pick him in the top 15, assuring him enough money to pay his $1 million buyout to Barcelona. Otherwise he plans to withdraw his name, return to Barcelona and hope the Spanish league will relax its rule on foreigners next season. That might allow him to get enough experience so that he can make the quantum leap expected of him.
Nuggets' Foreign Exchange
Noting that international players make up almost one fifth of the league's rosters, Nuggets G.M. Kiki Vandeweghe predicts that the next globalizing step will be to hire a foreign coach to run an NBA team. Vandeweghe accelerated the process by agreeing last week to import Ettore Messina of Benetton Treviso to coach Denver at the L.A. summer league this July, when he will work with 2002 first-round picks Nene Hilario of Brazil and Nikoloz Tskitishvili of Georgia.