Next week, Nets GM Ed Stefanski will take the first of his European scouting trips, heading to Munich, Barcelona and Bologna.
Munich is not a basketball hub, but playing nearby is Brose Bamberg and its 6'11" power forward, Tim Ohlbrecht, who is or isn't a Dirk Nowitzki clone. Since he is just 18, there will be plenty of time to determine that.
The other two stops raise more interesting questions.
Barcelona is the home of two top Euroleague powers, FC Barcelona and DKV Joventut Badalona. Barcelona has its typically solid roster, but most of the players there are spoken for: European veterans with either long term contracts and/or draft rights already held by NBA teams.
Still, Barcelona will be playing a top French team with a top NBA prospect next Thursday in the Catalan city. Pau Orthez and its skinny 18 year old, 7'1" center, Alexis Ajinca, will be on hand that night. Ajinca turns 19 in May, making him eligible for the draft. He is seen as long and athletic, but very thin and very raw, a more likely candidate for the 2008 draft than for the 2007.
Badalona, on the other hand, has two NBA prospects who will be playing at home next week--one who will likely to be a first rounder this summer and the other still three years down the road, but a player with the potential to be Europe's best ever. It's never too early to start scouting. Rudy Fernandez, a 6'5" swingman with great athleticism and energy, is listed on several mocks as falling in the mid to late 20's where Nets fans hope their team will be picking.
Ricky Rubio, a 6'3" guard, is the youngest player on a Euroleague roster at age 16, and this is his third season! Rubio is described by some scouts as the next Pete Maravich with all the skills and flair that entails. In the FIBA Europe U16 championships last summer, he had a quadruple-double, including 51 points, in the final which Spain won. They play Tuesday night vs. Unicaja, a veteran club with former NBA players like Pepe Sanchez and Jiri Welsch, in the Spanish League, then again on Thursday against Panathianakos, the Greek powerhouse, in the Euroleague. Pana's young 6'9" shooting forward, Ntousan Sakota, is also seen as an NBA prospect, but a second rounder at best.
In Bologna, there are two other possibilities: Marco Belinelli, the marvelous 6'6" shooting guard for Climamio Bologna, and the resurgent Christian Drejer, the 6'9" point forward drafted by the Nets in 2004. Drejer celebrated his 24th birthday on Friday. He is in his second year with Virtus Bologna.
Belinelli, while thin, is a well-rounded player. Against Team USA last summer, he scored 25 points for the Italian National Team, prompting coach Mike Krzyzewski to wonder aloud if the 20-year-old would be interesed in a scholarship to Duke. What a lot of scouts rave about is Belinelli's defense. Unlike most Euro's, Belinelli enjoys defense, takes pride in his "D". Belinelli is seen as a mid to late first rounder in this big man-heavy draft. Climamio plays Wednesday against LeMans in Bologna. LeMans, like DKV Joventut, has an immediate prospect, 6'4" guard Yannick Bokolo, and one for the future, 6'8" swingman Nicolas Batum. Batum is not as young as Rubio, having turned 18 this year, but is viewed as a possible Joe Johnson clone.
Drejer is at home Tuesday in the FIBA EuroCup and next Sunday in the Lega A, the Italian League. Drejer is, as ever, tantalizing, but frustrating. He has a great skillset: he can shoot from beyond the NBA arc; he has great court vision--his favorite player is Jason Kidd; and NBA size at 6'9"...some even say 6'10". After a solid year last season for Virtus, winning a spot on the Italian League all-star team, he is matching most of those numbers in Lega A and Virtus is atop the standings.
FIBA's Euro Cup is where Drejer is truly excelling. The season-long competition matches teams from around the countinent. Drejer is averaging 15.8 ppg and 58.3% in the competition's first four games. In his last game, the Dane had his best outing since the Nets drafted him, putting up spectacular numbers. In 32 minutes of action against a top French team, Drejer shot 10 for 13 from the floor, incluing 5 for 7 from beyond the arc, made all four of his foul shots and handed out three assists, walking off the court with 29 points and a win that ensured Virtus would play in the next round. At one point, he scored 11 straight points to seal the win.
But Nets officials have quietly said they believe he is too soft for the league and his defense is suspect. In 2005, he played for the Nets' Las Vegas summer league team and looked like a complete bust. The former University of Florida star shot only 18%, averaged less than two points a game and in a matchup with fellow Gator, David Lee, was absolutely abused.
Still, he is Nets' property. Next summer, he and the Nets will have a choice. His contract with Virtus, which pays him around a million dollars a year, permits him an "NBA option", meaning he can leave the team without a buyout but only for an NBA team. The Nets on the other hand must offer him a contract, even if only another summer league contract. (The team might get some help from one of Drejer's Bologna teammates--Travis Best, who played with the Nets in 2004-05.)
So, it is now crunchtime for Drejer and the Nets, something that no doubt will be on the table at some fine Italian restaurant should they meet up in Bologna.