DALLAS (AP) — The roots of Donnie Nelson’s discovery of Dirk Nowitzki grew from helping make Lithuania relevant on the world basketball stage.
The Dallas Mavericks personnel guru is one of the NBA pioneers of European scouting. Nowitzki is retiring and the Mavs hope two young Euro starts — one from the sister country of the big German who spent a record 21 seasons with the franchise — will help lead them into a new age of prosperity.
Now that Nelson has paired Latvia’s Kristaps Porzingis with first-year phenom Luka Doncic , he figures to be a spectator for most of Thursday’s NBA draft — an event that has had an international flavor for years.
“When he made his entre with the Lithuanians and became intimately involved with that country and their national team and so forth, that changed a lot of things,” said former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, another executive who was ahead of his time with the NBA and Europe. “I just think he deserves a lot of credit for paving the way.”
Many have walked the path since.
San Antonio has had far more success than Dallas with significant Euro help, winning four titles with point guard Tony Parker of France, taken late in the first round in 2001.
The other parts of the Big Three for those championships were Argentina’s Manu Ginobili, an early second-round choice in 1999, and Tim Duncan. The No. 1 overall pick in 1997 was technically an international player since he’s from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Toronto, which beat Golden State for the franchise’s first championship Thursday, has five international players from five countries, not to mention team president Masai Ujiri. There were more than 100 international players on season-opening rosters for the fifth straight year.
When the Mavericks took Sarunas Marciulionis in the sixth round of a much longer draft 32 years ago, international picks were much less frequent. This year, there were 47 foreign players who considered early entry before withdrawing.
Draft-eligible players from former Soviet republics are routine now, the latest notable entry being Goga Bitadze of Georgia. It was unheard of 30 years ago when Nelson was trying to get Marciulionis out of Lithuania around the time the Soviet Union was breaking up.
From that effort, Nelson turned into one of the architects of a Lithuanian team that won bronze in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the first time NBA players were allowed to compete.
Nelson’s Euro reputation was cemented by Nowitzki, who led the Mavericks to their only championship and is the highest-scoring foreign-born player in NBA history.
The Mavericks weren’t alone in their interest in the smooth-shooting 7-footer, particularly after Nowitzki’s standout showing against a U.S. team in a youth all-star event packed with scouts. But Nelson and his dad, former coach Don Nelson, were building that relationship early, just as the younger Nelson was a decade earlier with Marciulionis.
“I was lucky,” Nelson said. “I think a lot of folks for the right reasons just didn’t see the wall ever coming down. I was too dumb and lucky. And I just knew after growing up in the (Boston Celtics) locker room with my dad and (John) Havlicek and (Dave) Cowens and going to practices, I knew what the NBA player walked and talked and looked like.”
The Mavericks traded down to get Nowitzki 21 years ago. Securing Doncic illustrated how much things have changed.
The Slovenian, who was 19 on draft day and had been playing with pros in Spain for years, topped Nelson’s draft board because he possessed the skills of a point guard and the size of a forward.
Dallas had the fifth pick. When Doncic was still there at No. 3, the Mavericks gave this year’s first-round choice to Atlanta, which got the fifth overall pick in high-scoring point guard Trae Young. This year, Nelson doesn’t have a pick until No. 37 overall in the second round.
Doncic’s standout season — he’s the favorite to win rookie of the year honors later this month — led to the addition of Porzingis when the Mavericks sent 2017 first-round pick Dennis Smith Jr., another point guard, to New York for the 7-3 Porzingis before the trade deadline in February.
The Mavericks haven’t won a playoff series since winning the title eight years ago. They’re looking for a return to relevance in a way that seems appropriate given Nelson’s history: two Euro stars, plus whatever Dallas can get in free agency.
“It’s by coincidence, kind of by surprise, kind of exciting,” director of player personnel Tony Ronzone said. “Donnie’s very open-minded and I think it’s due to both our travels and seeing the world that you learn to respect cultures, you learn to respect teams. Now the game’s changed where these coaches believe in these European kids.”
Nelson credits the growth to the success of the some of the 1990s Euro transplants, Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic among them. He and Colangelo point to the Dream Team’s Olympic debut as a key.
“Barcelona kind of opened the door in a big way where many of the young European players started to believe that they could at least compete on the same floor,” Colangelo said. “Although they weren’t quite ready for prime time, they were very close. I could feel it coming.”
They are ready now, just take a look around the NBA.