San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich makes no bones about it: He prefers young international players over those from the United States.
The Spurs’ astounding success over the past decade and a half—namely, four NBA championships and 14 straight 50-win seasons—can directly be traced back to that sentiment. It continues to fuel San Antonio’s success to this day, in fact.
Popovich had just finished his first season as an NBA assistant coach, under San Antonio’s Larry Brown, when he traveled to Zagreb, in the former Yugoslavia, to witness the 1989 European championships. In retrospect, it sounds like a can’t-miss event. There were six future NBA players on the Yugoslavian roster, including Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, and Toni Kukoc. The powerful Soviet team featured Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, and Alexander Volkov. As far as American interests were concerned, though, it was a veritable ghost town.
Popovich recalled that “the only other NBA guy in the building” was Donnie Nelson, scouting for a Warriors team coached by his father, Don Nelson, and about to make Marciulionis the first Soviet player (later representing Lithuania) in the NBA. “I was like a kid in a candy store, looking around. I knew early on it was a market we wanted to tap. That’s why we took Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, so many others.”
In countries far removed from American playgrounds, Popovich saw players who were raw in many respects but had fundamental skills, having been taught the essence of team basketball. Today, it’s common for NBA teams to take draft-day gambles on overseas players, many of whom never quite make it. Popovich has nothing short of a magic touch.
In an ESPN The Magazine feature from June 2013, Popovich explained his international-friendly rationale to writer Seth Wickersham: “When Pop looks at American talent he sees many players who “have been coddled since eighth, ninth, 10th grade by various factions or groups of people. But the foreign kids don’t live with that. So they don’t feel entitled,” he says, noting how many clubs work on fundamentals in two-a-day practices, each lasting up to three hours. “Now, you can’t paint it with too wide of a brush, but in general, that’s a fact.”
In the eyes of Pop and Buford, international players spend far more of their developmental years focusing on the right basketball fundamentals, such as passing to an open teammate. By the time they come to the NBA, they’re far more advanced in terms of basic, rudimentary skills than a typical U.S. player.
The Spurs set a record for the most-ever international players on one opening-night roster in 2012-13, according to NBA.com. They started the season with eight players born outside the continental U.S.—Nando De Colo, Boris Diaw, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Cory Joseph, Patrick Mills, Tony Parker, and Tiago Splitter—then added Australian Aron Baynes in late January.
It’s no exaggeration to say Pop, Buford, and the Spurs were ahead of the game in that regard.