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NBA finals: Where in the world will the next Pau Gasol come from?

Looking beyond the current Lakers-Celtics NBA finals, basketball scouts are hunting for the next Pau Gasol. With the NBA's recent push into developing countries, many expect a star to rise from Africa, India, or China.

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“We’re doing a real big push right now in India,” says an NBA spokesman.

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Some see something special in Africa.

The next hotbed for basketball stars?

“To me, the most interesting thing is Africa,” says Jack McCallum, who has covered the NBA for Sports Illustrated since the mid-1980s and is now writing a book about the 1992 Dream Team. That year, the NBA had only 21 international players. Now, it has 79; one in five NBA players is from outside the US.

Mr. McCallum says NBA scouts are constantly searching in Africa for the next Hakeem Olajuwon or Dikembe Mutombo. “It’s just unbelievable. There, you’re literally working around revolutions,” he says.

It may well be worth the hassle. As basketball has gained international popularity, foreign players are now recognized for having a deeper skill set than American players – and are of increasing importance to NBA franchises.

“The players in Europe tend to be raised with a team-first mentality, while the US players tend be raised with a me-first mentality,” says Ian Thomsen, a basketball columnist and senior writer for Sports Illustrated.

In the United States, says Mr. Thomsen, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) dominates teenage basketball, but it's more focused on playing games than building skills. Many players then leave college early to join the NBA (or, like Kobe Bryant, skip college altogether).

“The system in Europe works at the opposite end of the spectrum,” Thomsen says in an email interview. “There, the best players sign with professional clubs in their mid-teens and many of those clubs have them practicing twice per day. The pro clubs in Europe are run very much like college programs, with the club deciding when and what the players eat at team dinners, having them sleep at hotels the night before road AND home games, and holding them accountable for winning games.”

It’s perhaps no surprise that Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitski excel at shooting and passing even at 7-feet-tall.

But before the Western Europe wave, players from Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union dominated the NBA’s international contingent.

What happened to Yugoslavia and USSR?

Croats Toni Kukoč and Dino Raja both started playing in the NBA in 1993, and fellow countryman Peja Stojaković joined in 1998. Lithuania sent Žydrūnas Ilgauskas to the NBA in 1996 and Arvydas Sabonis in 1995. The NBA drafted Serbia’s Peja Stojaković in 1996 and Vlade Divac in 1989.

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