Best international players? They're not necessarily in the NBA.
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But now, these players are drawn back to Europe. “Basketball is now closer to soccer than ever before,” says Ferdinando Minucci, president of the Montepaschi Siena club and Euroleague executive of the year last season. With no history of fan violence, basketball is perceived as family-friendly, making it an attractive investment for big companies, he adds.Skip to next paragraph
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And with the increased popularity of the game in Europe, continental clubs are now willing to invest in players.“These teams are spending money they don’t have, just to compete,” says Capicchioni. As a result, a handful of clubs are competitive in salary terms with their NBA counterparts.
While the NBA continues to attract the top performers worldwide and pays them accordingly, “mid-level European players in the NBA have recently discovered that they have a much bigger market in Europe, particularly Russia,” Mr. Ricciotti points out.
“The top 20 are Americans – Europeans are not as good. But in the middle [of the NBA], Europeans are very close,” adds Mr. Minucci. “The star system in Italy is not as important as in the NBA,” he says, which makes it easier for mid-level players to make the jump across.
As a result, young players on the verge – not in the twilight – of success are attracted to top European clubs. Mr. Navarro, for example, fulfilled every player’s dream of playing in the NBA. But after one successful season playing for the Memphis Grizzlies, which included being named to the NBA All Rookie second team, the Spaniard decided to head home to finish his career where it started, in Barcelona.
His new four-year contract dwarfs his NBA salary, which topped $500,000 last year. His current earnings are reportedly 10 times that amount.
Two other players represented by Capicchioni’s Interperformances agency also bolted the NBA for European windfalls this summer. Bostjan Nachbar opted not to re-sign with the New Jersey Nets in favor of a reported three-year, $14.3 million salary with Russian club Dynamo Moscow.
Similarly, Jorge Garbajosa left the Toronto Raptors to join the Russian club BC Khimki, where he’ll join fellow Raptor Carlos Delfino next year. No team has been harder hit by player defections than the Toronto Raptors, which has lost three people this offseason to big European contracts. “The money is so high, you can’t turn it down,” says Capicchioni.
Others who took the trans-Atlantic jump include Josh Childress, a forward who left the Atlanta Hawks for Olympiakos in Greece, and high school phenomenon Brandon Jennings, who will play in Rome next year rather than at the University of Arizona.
But there are tradeoffs. Many of the players opting for big contracts are not joining teams that play at the continent’s highest level, the Euroleague. “They’re putting aside personal goals for financial security,” says Ettore Messina, the coach of CSKA Moscow, a top Russian club and last season’s European champion.