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Overseas: The Next Frontier for Thunder scouting and development

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A soccer innovation could provide the Thunder with a way of developing a talent pipeline

Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets - Game Seven Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Over the course of the last twenty years, talent evaluation has changed hugely in the NBA. There is greater consideration for overseas talent and the G-League. The talent pool has increased dramatically and teams have worked on finding advancements in roster building to maximise their ability to contend for a championship.

The San Antonio Spurs are one of the foremost pioneers when it comes to international players. Coach Popovich and RC Buford were adept at identifying talented foreign players who could feasibly make the leap to the NBA. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are the two most successful Spurs of all time and both of them came from European basketball.

Popovich saw talent in both of these players and was undeterred by the stereotypes that surrounded players who played in the Europe. He took a chance on Ginobili and Parker which paid off in a huge way. San Antonio won five championships behind Duncan, Ginobili and Parker.

The Spurs’ success was not limited to home-runs, the Spurs were excellent at hitting singles; the Spurs consistently found rotation pieces abroad who could contribute to winning. Davis Bertans, Beno Udrih and Boban Marjanovic are a few examples of Buford’s ability to spot a NBA player.

In terms of the G-League, it was Pat Riley and his team in South Beach who worked out how to best utilise this talent pool. The life of a professional basketball player is often portrayed to be a glamorous existence. Players travel from city to city on private planes and eat the finest food. That is the common perception of most basketball players.

The G-League shatters those illusions. It is a ruthless league in which players are pitted against each other to see who has the skill and mental strength to make it to the NBA. The Heat like this type of player, Pat Riley loves grinders who will give every fibre of their being to be the best basketball player possible.

There was a natural synergy between Riley’s taste in players and the Heat’s desperate need of fresh blood in a post-LeBron world. Miami needed talent quickly and the G-League was a method of developing talent who could contribute at a high level for the Heat. Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson are two of the most notable names who spent time with the Sioux Falls Skyforce.

Last season, the Heat had three players on the roster who had all spent time in the G-League. Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn and Derrick Jones Jr were all players who honed their skills in South Dakota. All three players played important roles during the season.

A G-League player is fantastic value for money for an organisation if they are talented. Their benefits on the court far outweigh the financial costs. Good usage of the G-League can mean good financial flexibility.

Two strong proponents of the G-League, the Raptors and Heat, have not had to trawl through free agency to find players who can fill out the roster. For both teams, they have had in house solutions readily available at a lower cost. This means that Miami and Toronto both have the financial flexibility to make moves in the market.

Miami made their move last offseason when they signed Jimmy Butler. Pat Riley was able to be risk-tolerant and commit his cap space as he knew that he had Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson and Derrick Jones Jr to fill out the bench.

In Toronto’s case, Masai Ujiri has been shrewd in preserving flexibility for 2021 and a run at Giannis Antetokounmpo. Toronto’s operating procedures did not change after Kawhi left, Ujiri stuck to the game plan and focused on young talent. Chris Boucher and Matt Thomas were integrated into the senior side and did well this season.

Those marginal gains have been lost over time as talent evaluation has changed. The NBA is a copycat league and techniques used by innovative front offices are soon adopted league-wide.

To my mind, there is only one noticeable competitive edge left. At this moment in time, we have seen teams mould talent to fit their requirements. What if an NBA team was able to outline a player’s growth from their adolescence to the NBA? That would be a ground-breaking talent pipeline and a brilliant resource to have.

The idea of a talent pipeline is not a wholly new idea; it has been well executed in other sports such as soccer. One such example is RB Leipzig. Leipzig are one of the best teams in the Bundesliga and yet, the Lower Saxony side were playing in the amateur divisions of German football in 2009. Red Bull’s investment obviously brought capital to the club but Red Bull also brought a network of scouts, academies and other clubs.

The combination of clubs in different leagues and a strong scouting network meant that the Red Bull Football Group was churning out talented youngster after talented youngster. Erling Braut Haaland, Sadio Mane and Timo Werner are three of the most high-profile players to come through Red Bull’s school of development but there are countless other examples.

The pipeline has been incredibly valuable for RB Leipzig, the club has been able to climb through the divisions to the Bundesliga due to an abundance of youth talent. It is a model which has worked effectively for the German side in terms of team quality and finances.

The NBA is obviously a hugely different operating environment to football. There is no salary cap in football and the idea of academies developing young players has been around for years. Moreover, scouting in the NBA does not focus on adolescents. Talent evaluators in the league usually focus on players who are draft eligible.

For years, we have heard people like Mark Cuban and Kobe Bryant rave about the coaching that European players receive from a young age. There are clear benefits to this approach and prominent examples of this model’s success. Luka Doncic is a testament to this model’s effectiveness.

From the age of 12, Doncic practiced and learned skills which would make him a very good professional basketball player. The focus of his coaches was honing Luka’s skill-set. This style of coaching meant that Luka had the technical level to play in the Euroleague and win the MVP as an 18 year old.

It is also the reason why Doncic was able to acclimatise to the NBA so easily. Doncic did not struggle with the speed and skill of the NBA game as he could compensate for his physical weaknesses with sound fundamentals.

The logistics of a youth development program is a little tricky to work out. There are a lot of issues attached with creating academies ran by NBA teams in the USA. Young players choosing to go into an academy system would reduce the influence of college basketball and creates a political quagmire for the league to deal with.

Moreover, there is a romanticism associated with high school basketball that would be difficult to walk away from for many teenagers. Every young player wants to ball out in front of their friends and family; that would not be possible if the player went into the academy of an NBA team. It’s a hard sell in the USA but this idea could work in Europe.

Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic and Kristaps Porzingis all moved away from home to make the NBA dream a reality. Young players will move away from home if there is a good offer awaiting them. From previous evidence, it is clear that European players are willing to move to different countries for basketball.

In order to set up the talent pipeline, the Thunder ownership will need to buy a team in Europe. Oklahoma City needs a base to develop talent and this is not possible without facilities or games. It makes sense to buy a team and use that team to be the first level of development.

A team will be relatively cheap when compared to an NBA team. Panathinaikos, a Greek Euroleague team, is currently up for sale and has been priced at €25m. In US dollars, the market value of a Euroleague team stands at just over $29m.

That is an outlay that the Thunder ownership can afford. Clay Bennett and the McClendon estate may not have the liquidity to finance a European team but George B. Kaiser would definitely have the cash flow to do so.

In terms of operating costs, Euroleague teams vary hugely. FC Barcelona, CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid all spend north of €40m ($46m) but they all employ NBA-calibre players. The average team spends closer to €16m ($19m). These are affordable costs in the grand scheme of the Thunder’s strategy.

From this base, the Thunder’s ownership group can scout Europe closely and identify youth players who have the talent to be NBA players. The Thunder would be following a model which has been used by teams such as Barcelona and Real Madrid for years.

European play would be the first filter of talent for the Thunder organisation. It is a good enough level of play to determine whether a player can make to the NBA. It is also a place where there is a culture of player development from a young age. European teams start working on technical skills when their players are adolescents.

The Thunder front office would have to have an executive who would track the development of international players who play in the Euroleague side. Rob Hennigan has previous experience in international scouting and development which makes him a very good candidate for this responsibility.

The Blue would act as the second stage of the development for the Thunder once the front office identifies players within the Euroleague team who are ready to make the jump to American basketball.

It is often said that the European game and the American style of basketball are vastly different. It can be difficult for European players to grasp the intricacies of a totally different playing style when they come to America. A year spent with the Blue would provide time for a young player to develop their body and acclimatise to how the game is played in US.

The G-League would be another stage of evaluation for prospects who have come through the pipeline. The G-League is a cutthroat ruthless league due to the fact that every single player is vying to make it to the NBA and achieve financial security. The level of competition means that this is a good environment to see if a young player has the mental strength and resilience to play in the NBA.

Over the years, we have seen prospects who are technically brilliant but lack internal fortitude. Strong minds and a short memory is a valuable trait in the NBA. Good players are able to compartmentalise emotional blows and keep going; they do not do giving up.

From that point onwards, the Thunder can decide whether to sign the prospect to a contract with the main roster. The benefit of the academy approach is that the Thunder would have years worth of data on the player.

Oklahoma City would know the player’s traits, personality and current ability deeply. That sort of information is useful when it comes to making well-informed decisions about the roster. It is very easy to make mistakes when it comes to signing players, good information reduces the risk of acquisitions having little impact.

In practice, an academy approach in which the Thunder develop talent from start of adolescence to the NBA works perfectly. Oklahoma City would end up getting young players who fit with the team’s culture. This approach would also provide relatively cheap role players. A team can never go wrong with cheap, young talent.

However, the reality is a lot more challenging than what it seems on paper. To the best of my knowledge, there are very few rules and regulations regarding ownership of a Euroleague team and the direct signing of international players who are under 18 to a G-League roster. The lack of rules means that this is a grey area.

It is entirely possible that the NBA deem this to be an unfair advantage for the Thunder and then move to write laws which outlaw this method of development. In recent times, the league office has made parity a priority. One team having access to a ring-fenced pool of talent could disrupt that idea of parity. These are competition issues which could arise and make the whole enterprise more trouble than it is worth.

Moreover, there would be scouting costs associated with the European operation. Oklahoma City would need to employ a team of scouts across the whole of Europe in order to accurately identify good players. This will require a lot of man hours and cost a fair amount of money.

There are issues with this proposal but I cannot help but think that there is something here worth exploring. We are talking about the Thunder being able to mould players from a young age to fit the team’s culture while also acquiring talent for relatively cheap. That is a huge innovation which could provide the Thunder with a strategic advantage over the rest of the league.