Each year, just before Christmas, Nets' GM Ed Stefanski quietly slips out of the Champion Center in East Rutherford and hops a plane for Europe. There, he meets with Nets' superscout Rob Meurs and review a list of top European prospects before heading off to gyms, both well-lit and dark, to find the next Nenad Krstic.
But if past trips are any indicator, Stefanski will also visit two prospects the Nets already have in hand: 2004 draft pick Christian Drejer, the 6'9" Danish shooting guard who plays in Italy, and 2005 draft pick Mile Ilic, the 7'2" Bosnian Serb center who plays in Serbia-Montenegro.
So far, the two second round draft picks are as inconsistent as the team that holds their rights--scoring 20+ points one night, then two or four a few nights later--winning rave reviews and drawing boos.
But the Nets' two European league players have done relatively well--at least judging by the box scores. Whether they will ever wear the Nets' uniform remains an open question. Draft rights to both could be part of any trades the Nets make.
Still they are both averaging double figures, Drejer 12.9 ppg in the Italian League, Ilic 10.8 in the Euroleague's ULEB Cup competition...less in the Adriatic League. Although Ilic's numbers don't look that impressive, international rules try to limit big men's natural advantage. Pau Gasol, for example, averaged 6 ppg more in his first NBA season than he had in his last season in Europe. Drejer faces the better competition of the two, the Italian League being one of the top two national leagues in Europe, Spain’s ACB being the other.
Drejer is the less consistent but also the one more likely to blow up a box score on any given night. Drejer has had two 29-point games two weeks apart, both in critical games for Virtus Bologna. Only eight Italian League players have had better games this season. He also scored 39 at the end of last summer for the Danish National Team in a do-or-die battle with Ireland for an invitation to the European championships in 2007.
The Dane is in the Italian League top ten in three offensive categories: 4th in foul shooting at 92.9%, and 9th in both points per minute at .57; and high game with those two 29-point efforts. Beyond his 12.8 scoring average, he is also averaging 2.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists. Although the assist total may seem low, international scorers are more stingy with assists and that number puts him in the top 20 for assists league-wide. He was also selected for the Italian League All-Star game, scoring 8 points in 16 minutes and shooting well inspite of being the last player selected.
The season, in fact, has been a year of redemption for a player a Spanish sports writer called "El Enigma" for his often moody ways, which in college earned him the more Shakespearian sobriquet: "the Hamlet of the Hardwoods". After averaging 4 ppg in a backup role with F.C. Barcelona last season, earning public criticism from his [soon to be fired] coach, he played poorly for the Nets' summer league team in Las Vegas, in a fog on offense and a non-entity on defense. If he had done well, the Nets were prepared to offer him a training camp invite. Instead, he was advised to go back to Europe. By then, he had cut ties with the Spanish club, by mutual agreement giving up a $1 million salary. He signed with Virtus for about half that, 450,000 euros.
Drejer is the more experienced player by far. Although only a year and a half older than Ilic, he has played in three Eurobasket competitions, averaging better than 20 points per game in each of them; the Spanish and Italian leagues; and the SEC during his year and a half with the University of Florida...before his unceremonious departure for Barcelona.
By comparison, Ilic has played in the Goodyear Adriatic League, the ULEB Cup competition and the World University Games in 2003, where he was a small part of the Yugoslavian championship team. Still, he has been playing a lot of European teams this year in the ULEB, which is part of the Euroleague, but comprised of lesser teams than the big league. FMP Zeleznik will travel this season from the Atlantic coast of Portugal to the banks of the Volga River deep in the heart of Russia, a greater distance than from Los Angeles to Boston.
Ilic has been consistent of late, regularly putting up double figures for FMP Zeleznik, particularly in the Euroleague and there is no doubt that the Nets have much higher hopes for Ilic than for Drejer.
In addition to the 10.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, Ilic is averaging 2 blocks per game, putting him second in the ULEB Cup competition and third overall in the Euroleague. His biggest problem, like Drejer’s, has been minutes or more specifically personal fouls per minute. Because of recurring foul problems, Ilic is only averaging 19 minutes a game, or about a half an international game.
How does Ilic compare with the Nets' Nenad Krstic at comparable points in their careers? Both are athletic 7-foot Serbians. Ilic has even said his game resembles Krstic’s. On draft night, Rod Thorn compared the two saying Ilic is more athletic, Krstic more skilled.
Ilic was drafted just after his 21st birthday, Krstic just before his 19th so Krstic would appear to be far ahead of Ilic when comparing ages. Krstic was also drafted at #24, Ilic at #43, an indication of their relative value, even noting the 2005 draft was deeper than the 2002 draft.
But if you compare Krstic with Ilic in terms of how they did statistically in their first years after being drafted, the difference between the two Serbians, at least in European-wide competition, is less dramatic...and in some areas, Ilic has better numbers.
In the 2002-03 season, Krstic averaged 12.8 ppg and 6.2 rebounds, but only 0.6 blocks in 10 Euroleague games.
This season, Ilic is so far averaging 10.8, 5.8, and 2.0 blocks in his 6 Euroleague-ULEB Cup games...and those numbers are picking up as he continues to avoid foul trouble.
Krstic shot only 48.9% from the floor in his first European-wide competition after the draft, while Ilic is shooting a phenomenal 76.5%. Krstic is a much better foul shooter, shooting 71.7% to Ilic's 46.4%. In both cases, neither were their teams' first option.
Admittedly, the competition in the main Euroleague is somewhat better than in the league’s ULEB Cup and Krstic did much better in the Serbian national league than Ilic is doing in the Adriatic league. Krstic's average in 2002-03 is roughly double what Ilic is doing now. Still, Ilic looks like he was a small gamble at #43 in the NBA Draft. No one drafted after him is making Stefanski look bad. The same goes for Drejer. No one drafted after him at #51 in 2004 is even in the NBA now.
Both have buyouts after this year, with Drejer's contract a bit more complicated. Drejer has always said his dream is to play in the NBA and even before the Nets drafted him, he said his favorite NBA player, his model, is Jason Kidd. So while his contract with Virtus is for three years, there are reportedly two "outs" should he want to try to make an NBA roster: a buyout after this season and an "NBA opt-out" in 2007, meaning he has a player option but only if he is leaving Virtus for an NBA team and not another European team. Ilic has two years remaining on his contract, with a negotiable buyout after this year, but the Nets have said he might stay in Europe for two years rather than one. Stefanski has noted that Krstic wasn't ready for the NBA one year after being drafted, but he made great strides in that second year.
One other financial issue could become a problem for the Nets. European teams have been increasingly willing to outbid NBA teams if they really want a player. Both the Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors lost draft picks last summer because the player they drafted opted for a bigger contract with a Spanish league team rather than the ones the NBA teams offered. There is nothing to prevent an established Spanish league team--or a rich Russian team owned by an oil oligarch--from offering Drejer or Ilic a better deal than the Nets. Drejer in fact has made three times more money the past two years in Europe than he could have if the Nets had given him an NBA minimum contract last year. He earned $800,000 last year with Barcelona and is getting about $500,000 this year from Virtus, compared to the NBA minimum of less than $400,000 for second rounders.
Of course, one or both of them could be gone in trades. But the Nets can be confident that they picked two players late in the draft that showed off the talent evaluation and scouting skills of Stefanski and Meurs. It all bodes well for the next Draft Night. No team other than the Spurs has invested more of its recent draft picks on European players, having used at least one pick in the past four drafts to grab a European. In fact, of the 12 players drafted by the Nets in the Thorn era, half have carried international passports on Draft Night.
And the addition of Meurs two years ago was unheralded except in scouting circles. Meurs has been called the "MJ of international scouting". When with the Spurs, Meurs recommended San Antonio take Manu Ginobili at #57 in 1999, and Tony Parker at #29 in 2001. It's hard to imagine a better record than that! And it was Meurs who recommended the Nets take Ilic last year even though the Nets never worked him out, never talked to him before the draft.
So, at least in this area, the Nets are still doing well...even if it's 3,000 miles away.