The last two drafts, the Nets have selected a 6’9” forward out of F.C. Barcelona, the Spanish powerhouse, in the second round — Aleksandar Vezenkov at No. 57 in 2017 and Rodions Kurucs at No. 40 this year. But in both cases, the success of the picks has been colored by how Barça, as it’s called, treated the two: They didn’t play them.
Vezenkov, a Bulgarian, had played well enough in 2016-17 to warrant the Nets calling him an “elite shooter” and taking him in the second round. Brooklyn wanted the then 21-year-old to spend another year, maybe two, in Europe to hone his other skills. Since he was under contract in Spain, he headed back to Barcelona where was expected to be a key piece for the venerable club.
Not so fast. A few weeks into the season, the coach of Barca, then Alonso Sito, stopped playing him ... altogether. There was no real rationale other than the team, which got off to a bad start, needed a change. For two months, he didn’t play, wasn’t active ... a player who was good enough to get drafted by an NBA team.
He sat on the bench from the end of October till New Year’s Eve, when he got a slight reprieve, then it was back to the bench. In early February, as Barcelona sank to a 7-15 record, Alonso was fired and Svetislav Pesic, a veteran European coach, replaced him. Vezenkov played Vezenkov a bit, but only twice did he get more than 10 minutes to show his stuff.
Then just before the Spanish league playoffs at the end of March, Pesic released his post-season roster. No Vezenkov. Season Over. Finally, there was (somewhat) of an explanation. It was a corporate decision that had nothing to do with Vezenkov, little to do with the Nets.
Pesic suggested that the decision to keep Vezenkov on the bench had to do with his —and F.C. Barcelona’s—belief that the NBA has too much influence on his players and cited examples where young European stars saw their Euroleague teams as mere stepping stones to the NBA.
And it wasn’t just Vezenkov. Barcelona didn’t play Kurucs, their 20-year-old NBA prospect, this year either, consciously limiting his playing time to its development team. The NBA “invasion,” Pesic told a Spanish newspaper, overshadows everything in European basketball, especially in the case of young players.
“Barcelona basketball is a section of F.C. Barcelona, but not a section of the NBA’,” he said, recounting a conversation he had with the head of Barça basketball. “For example, you put your chips on Mario Hezonja, but everyone knew that Hezonja was going to use Barça to go to the NBA.”
Vezenkov has had little to say publicly. Last week, practicing for the Bulgarian national team, he declined to talk about his experience, noting that Barcelona had until next Monday to exercise a player option in contract.
“At the moment, I am only interested in Bulgaria,” Vezenkov told local reporters. “After July 2 we will see what happens. I’m waiting for Barcelona and I’m concentrating on the national team.”
On Thursday, the club agreed to let him go. He’s now a free agent. Already there are rumors he’ll sign next season with a team in Greece or perhaps Turkey. But he’s lost a full year of development. He does not seem enamored with the G-League either, according to Bulgarian reporter Maria Mitsova.
For the season, Vezenkov played 13 minutes a game in 34 games, missing 30 completely. He still shot 40 percent from three. Vezenkov has no plans, he said, to join the Nets summer league team and it would be difficult anyway. His commitments to the Bulgarian national team in the FIBA World Cup Qualifiers ends July 2. Summer league practice normally begins that day and flying from Sofia, Bulgaria, to Las Vegas, USA, across nine time zones, would take a full day.
Kurucs, who before this season was seen as a lottery talent, fell in the Draft as a result of his lost season.
Even with Barça’s B-Team, Kurucs saw a limited role — 16 appearances and just four starts, averaging 10.7 points per game.
Ultimately, that could help the Nets, more than a good counterbalance for Vezenkov’s lost season. They may have gotten a player better than his draft position because Barcelona, for all intents and purposes, hid him!
Kurucs was asked during Friday’s press conference if he thought his benching hurt his draft stock. ESPN’s Mike Schmitz said that at one point, Draft Express had him as a lottery pick, based on his national team performances!
“Maybe. Who knows? I was in a situation,” Kurucs said. “I can’t say anything about Coach Sito. I like him like a person, like a coach. He’s a great coach. He gave me some opportunities, too, in some games. I appreciate that. I used my chances, and I was waiting for my moment. Maybe there is a little bit difference where I landed, but I’m happy I’m here.”
But he admitted it rankled.
“It was a tough season for me, but I know I can do that. I believe that the guys in the club, they believe in me and they give me this chance to prove myself here. And I know that I can do that.”
On Friday, David Pick, the European hoops tipster, tweeted that Brooklyn and Kurucs had quickly reached an agreement on a long-term four-year deal through 2022, That’s essentially a first-rounder’s deal. Pick also noted that Barcelona and the Nets finalized buyout terms. Kurucs originally had a buyout estimated at between $4 million and $5 million. which ESPN reported Barça had used to scare away NBA teams. But his reps got that reduced in the weeks before the Draft. No word on how much the buyout amounted to, but the Nets can pay up to $675,000 of whatever it is.
Sean Marks declined to discuss the report at Friday’s press conference, but he didn’t deny it either. Later, Kurucs essentially confirmed Pick’s information in a response to Pick’s tweet. He added a “Thank God” emoji.