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The center was an architect. The power forward was a software consultant. At 28 and 30 years old, respectively, they were the frontcourt elders of the all-amateur German ProB club BIS Baskets Speyer, which had as its small forward a 19-year-old high schooler named Elias Harris—the player whom Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd had flown halfway around the globe to evaluate. It was Oct. 5, 2008, the final day of the NCAA's fall recruiting contact period. Five days earlier Lloyd had received a tip from Thorsten Daume, a German ProA coach to whom Lloyd had once recommended a talented American junior college player. "There's a big, athletic kid in Speyer that I want to sign," Daume said of the 6'8", 215-pound Harris. "But he won't [take a contract] because he wants to play in the U.S."
What Lloyd saw in that small gym in Speyer made the trip worthwhile. "If this kid had been in the U.S.," Lloyd says he was thinking while watching Harris play against a club of seasoned professionals, "he would have been a McDonald's All-American." Yet the only other Division I recruiter Harris had seen in person was from Delaware. Lloyd made an official recruiting visit to Harris's home that night and walked out thinking he was about to pull off a colossal recruiting coup.
After 10 straight NCAA tournament trips under coach Mark Few, Gonzaga has raised its national profile to the point that it can lure very good U.S. prospects—among them five-star forward Austin Daye and four-star guard Steven Gray in 2007 and four-star guard Matt Bouldin in 2006—but McDonald's All-Americans, whose courtships are often lengthy and complicated and tend to be dominated by power-conference bluebloods, have remained out of reach. "We can get in the door on those guys now," Few says, "but you might waste a lot of time and effort, and then, for whatever reason, something pops up that's just not going to let it happen."
Harris's recruitment was much more straightforward. His main adviser (aside from his father, Michael, an American who had played pro basketball in Speyer, and his mother, Svenja, a German native) was German national team coach Dirk Bauermann, who supported Harris's signing with the Zags that November. He arrived the next summer and immediately began wowing teammates in pickup games. "He dunked on everybody," says Bouldin, "and it was clear he was on another level of athleticism—an NBA level." Harris, who has established himself as a first-round prospect, at week's end was averaging 15.3 points and 7.9 rebounds for the 22--5 Bulldogs. He is on track to become only the second NCAA player from Europe to be taken in the first round of the NBA draft.
Harris has taken the West Coast Conference by storm in much the same way that Kentucky superfreshman DeMarcus Cousins has dominated the SEC, but Lloyd says the time ratio of recruiting a player like Cousins compared with a player like Harris was "100 to 1." Rather than focus on a traditional recruiting market that overvalues players who impress at national AAU events or All-Star camps, the Zags have had sustained success by developing the necessary international connections to find players like Harris, whose Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is on par with the top American freshmen (chart, below).
In addition to signing Harris, Gonzaga mined the growing talent base of British Columbia, Washington's northern neighbor, for one college transfer (6'6" forward Bol Kong, a Sudanese-Canadian) and two members of the Canadian junior national team (6'5" Mangisto Arop, another Sudanese-Canadian, and 6'11" Kelly Olynyk), all of whom are seeing significant minutes as freshmen and have skills equal to those of the top 100 American recruits.
International recruiting is not a recent phenomenon. (BYU claims to have signed the first foreigner to play in Division I, Finland's Timo Lampen, in 1960.) But for a perennially ranked school like Gonzaga, in 2009, to have a recruiting class comprising mostly non-U.S. players is unheard of. Thanks to new NCAA legislation, Bulldogs scouts might soon have more company as they travel the globe. In January the NCAA approved resolution 2009-22, which, if it goes into effect as planned in August, will allow players who've played with pros but not signed an agreement—such as West Virginia's Turkish forward Deniz Kilicli, who had to serve a 20-game suspension this season under the current rules—to be eligible immediately.
The value in having recruiters with international connections could be immense. Lloyd, who played professionally in Australia and Germany and whose family hosted nine foreign exchange students when he was growing up in Kelso, Wash., is responsible for bringing in Gonzaga's first top-flight international recruit. In 2000, while watching video of a French junior national team that included future NBA first-round picks Tony Parker, Mickael Pietrus and Boris Diaw, he spotted Ronny Turiaf, an exuberant 6'10" reserve from Martinique, and recruited him over the phone. In a year when five of the top eight high school seniors were post players who jumped directly to the NBA and competition was even more fierce for the remaining big men, the Zags got a future NBA draft pick for the cost of a few phone calls.
The foreign country on most American schools' radar is Australia, which has produced stars such as Andrew Bogut (Utah) and Patty Mills (St. Mary's) and has approximately 40 players in Division I this season. But the globalization of basketball has expanded the talent pool, and schools are finding top-quality players in less-exposed places. Rice has the first Iranian to play in Division I (Arsalan Kazemi) and has reportedly been recruiting elsewhere in the Middle East. Temple went back to Argentina (where it found 1990s star Pepe Sánchez) for shooting guard Juan Fernández. And Radford went to the basketball backwater of Belarus to find 6'11" senior center Artsiom Parakhouski.
Last season Parakhouski led Radford to its second NCAA tournament berth, and he has been so productive as a senior that he ranks sixth nationally in PER. Big Art was averaging 21.4 points and 13.2 rebounds through Sunday and has a shot to become the first NBA draft pick from the Big South.