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NCAA and Spain. Why not?

Juan Cobos
Eurohopes collaborator

These days, Stanford University is in Spain on a tour in which they will face a few ACB clubs like Real Madrid, Murcia, Manresa and Barcelona on what will be nothing more than preseason scrimmages. With many of their players currently with their national teams fighting for a spot in the Olympics, it should not surprise anyone seeing these teams giving many minutes to their youngsters, guys who could have actually been playing college basketball considering their ages.


Josep Franch (’91) after his quite a performance at the u20 European Championship is set to start with Murcia. Former Spain U18 players, 6’9’’ PF/C Pierre Oriola (’92) and PG Alex Hernández (’90) will take part in the tour as members of Manresa. Iceland’s Haukur Palsson (’92), formerly with the University of Maryland Terrapins, and young Congolese prospect Johann Kody (’93), might play against the Cardinals too.


And we have to wait and see what lineups finally Real and Barcelona play with. Montenegro born Spanish superstar Nikola Mirotic (’91), whose NBA rights belong to the Chicago Bulls, will have a nice occasion to show what heck of a player he would have been in college. Daniel Díez (’93), outstanding in Poland as a member of the Spanish u18 team last July, and now with Real’s 1st team, will also have an opportunity to show his skills against a US major school.


Anyway, we will have to take a look at what players Real Madrid and Barcelona take to the event from their youth systems, but the list might include more Eurohopes ranked prospects like Victor Arteaga (’92), Marcus Eriksson (’93), Pape Amadou (’93) -he is injured- and less likely 94 born prospects like Swedish Nick Spires, Willy Hernangómez, Josep Pérez, Alexander Zigulin or African Modou Mbaye and Placide Nakidjim.


PG Jorge Sanz (’93), will likely play backup point guard for Real Madrid, considering Sergio Llull is at the Eurobasket.


All in all, this Stanford’s Spain Tour is a great occasion to compare the skills of Spain’s finest (prospects) against a Pac12 school.


But…what’s the point of this column?


Well, this incoming 2011/2012 season there will only be two Spanish-born players in the NCAA DI…who actually were raised and play high school basketball in the USA, and who will have limited roles this season in their teams. 6’4’’ SG Marco Porcher (’92), after playing for two seasons at Oak Hill Academy, enjoyed a few good games as a freshman last season at Fairleigh Dickinson but never got rhythm and has transferred to Florida International where he will redshirt this year.  Stetson’s Diego Morales (’90) was born in Madrid but raised in Orlando and we still have to check his background to find out his Spanish roots. He will walk on as a junior.


And that’s all as long as we talk about DI. We know there are players who play in lower divisions or NAIA who drew some interest even offers from DI schools. We have heard about the interest some programs showed in Spanish prospects this past summer in Poland at the u18s. But those two players are all we have at DI basketball.


A huge difference with the last seasons of the 90s, when there were more than 10 Spaniards on average playing DI basketball. Javier Rodríguez (Boston College), Rodrigo de la Fuente (Washington State) and Iker Iturbe (Clemson) made it to the National Team after their NCAA careers (Mike Hansen, Louisiana State, Artur Llopis, Harvard, and Ricardo Peral, Wake Forest, had previously achieved that during their NCAA careers. The latter two did not play any FIBA official competition though).


What has happened?


Why there were so many players back then? 

  1. During the early 90s Spain suffered from an economic crisis. At the same time, there was an evolution in education (and I am mainly talking about English knowledge) and in sports (there was a strong investment due to the 1992 Olympics).

  2. The junior age-group, back then u20 disappeared. Players found themselves in a situation where they had to jump to the ACB league with 18 years old or start to travel around Spain playing in lower divisions and you had to see the conditions.

  3. There was a rule that allow 3 foreigners at the same time in the ACB. That reduced the amount of playing time for national players drastically. Not even necessary to say who would be suffering it most (youngsters).

  4. University and elite professional sport are (still) not very compatible in Spain.

  5. There were several people around basketball in Spain with contacts in the USA, who did not mind sending players for 4 years there.

These 5 points helped top (or not that top) prospects in Spain to be part of the great first wave of European immigration to the NCAA DI.


Why cannot we find them now?

  1. During the late 90s and early 00s, the economic situation changed in Spain, and there was a huge construction boom. Education and sports kept growing.

  2. The EBA league was created as a league where young players could grow. With the economic development, FEB created the LEB league first, and a few years later the LEB2 league. Youngsters could find a team where they would fit. And even top teams started to have their own B team, instead of looking for agreements.

  3. The three-foreigner rule was ruled out. It was enough with the new Bosman market. Luckily, 1980 generation won the 1st European Championship for the Spanish Basketball in 1998 in Bulgaria (u18), and the following year the u19 World Championships in Portugal. Joventut was forced to rely on Raül López, and coaches like García Reneses, Pepu Hernández and Bozidar Maljkovic were crucial giving important roles in their teams to talents like Juan Carlos Navarro, Pau Gasol, Felipe Reyes, Carlos Cabezas, Bernardo Rodríguez or Germán Gabriel.

  4. University and elite professional sport are (still) not very compatible in Spain, but with money and the success of the 1980 generation as a reference, school lost importance.

  5. The 1980 golden generation boom, and the evolution in Spain of players who remained here like Carlos Jiménez and Jorge Garbajosa, who quickly became part of the national team (and eventually starters) made noticeable the cons of the USA system where schools have a limited schedule for team practice, and where many players find themselves in specialist roles. It was easy to hear the “Ricky Peral was Toni Kukoc before Wake Forest and now he barely plays in Greece” comment. It was not as easy as that, and it should be looked at on a case by case basis, but that definitely prevented more players from going to the USA. Well connected people started to mind sending them overseas.

These other 5 points (there are more factors, and probably we are forgetting something we would consider as important as the things stated) explained why during the last decade the amount of Spanish guys playing there was year by year smaller. Even the NBA looked closer remaining in Spain (agree).


Has the NCAA DI lost Spain forever?


No. But the scenario must be evaluated. Let’s focus first on the different group of players we can evaluate. 

  1. There are obviously players who lack the playing and/or physical talent to play there. I know there are big differences between big time programs and small schools, so there might always be a chance.

  2. There are players with the playing and/or physical talent to play there, but who don’t look as ACB prospects at first sight. The so called late bloomers are included in this group. The NCAA here appears as a great opportunity to get a degree, live a different experience, and progress as a player during a few years out of the professional circuit. You can always try it when you can back. Players like Javier Mendiburu (Wisconsin Green Bay) or Sergio Olmos (Temple) didn’t look like ACB players before going there and it looks like they will both end their careers having played in the Spanish top division. Small school to mid-major prospects.

  3. There are players with the playing and/or physical talent to play there, but who look as clearly ACB prospects. Most of these players actually have signed with an agent before they reach 18 years old. If they play for a club with a solid B team, and even more if this club actually promotes players to the ACB team…it would be difficult to get one of those players going to the States. Definitely the guy must show his desire to play there. Not signing with an agent, considering he’d rather spent a few years in the states than playing for beans in Spain and without having a clear mid-term spot in the 1st team. Mid-to-high major prospects.

  4. Straight-from-u18s-to-ACB players. With the talent and body ready to play there, they should be regarded as high-major prospects. Some of them can start making fast money and the better ones could end up playing in the NBA (Sergio Rodríguez, Rudy Fernández, Sergio Llull, Víctor Claver…). It is difficult to find players like these willing to play in a USA school. Anyway, it could happen. And if the player is a real deal, it is something they must study. How many potential lottery picks from Spain (or playing in Spain) have not been selected as one, and remained in Spain for buyout related issues? How much money has Enes Kanter saved by attending the University of Kentucky? Scenario worked fine for him (3rd pick in the NBA draft) but would have been much better if the NCAA would have allowed him to play. There must be a balance between the experience the player gets by playing as a pro being a high school student, and how good he becomes being that young, and the money you can make/lose.

Furthermore, there are reasons to believe there could be a little 2nd wave of Spanish players in the NCAA DI.

  1. There is another economic crisis. Lower professional divisions began to see how their teams cannot survive and salaries are not important.

  2. There is a trend. Just look at the amount of enterprises dedicated to get scholarships. And there are also many girls from the Spanish u18 team have been moving to the NCAA lately. Word of mouth.

  3. With an u16 and an u18 European Championship and an u17 World Championship every two years, there is no reason for the Spanish prospects to find themselves underrecruited.

  4. New labor agreement at FEB/ACB. The Spanish clubs every year import lots of foreigner prospects to their youth teams. With the new rule, these players will not count as foreigners in their future as pros, limiting the competitive advantage local prospects used to have until this year over them. That is one of the reasons why many of these prospects “got lost”. Many of these international prospects in Spain actually moved to the States to play college basketball. Youssoupha Mbao (’90), now in Marshall, Ugo Okam (’90) now in Harvard, Levan Patsatsia who played for Arkansas and Troy…


To sum up, during the last ten years the NCAA lost Spain as a source of talent, but there is a chance Spanish prospects start to look back again to the States. And US schools should consider them.


Every player must study his situation and decide what he and his family believe is the best for them.


Note 1: We haven’t talked about the CBA as it is an international project somehow “outside” of the Spanish youth basketball. But it is definitely a NCAA D1 source of prospects.
Note 2: there actually several Spanish players who look like clear NCAA prospects playing in Spain and even in the United States in a prep school, whose eligibility status should not be an issue. Speaking of players in general not any in particular. 


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