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How the Nuggets Built Their International Basketball Army

Denver has struck gold with international prospects for the past five years. What are the Nuggets seeing that other teams aren’t?

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

This is How Basketball Works Week. We’ll be looking at the scouts, stats, coaches, and tactical developments that are shaping the game.

When it comes to international players, the Nuggets have become the new Spurs. Since 2011, they have acquired a whopping 11 players born outside the United States, and their hit rate has been remarkable. In 2014, they found Nikola Jokic, one of the best young big men in the league, in the middle of the second round. Evan Fournier, the no. 20 pick in 2012, spent two years with Denver before being traded to Orlando in 2014; he signed an $85 million extension with the Magic this summer. They acquired another promising center (Jusuf Nurkic) in the middle of the first round in a draft-day trade with the Chicago Bulls in 2014 and acquired Joffrey Lauvergne, a late second-round pick, in a draft-day trade with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2013. Their track record is a good sign for Juan Hernangomez, the no. 15 pick in 2016, who impressed observers around the NBA with his play at summer league.

GM Tim Connelly and his staff came on board in 2013, but there has to be something in the DNA of the Nuggets organization that has allowed the team to identify quality foreign players that other teams have missed. It’s even more impressive when you consider how interconnected the world of basketball has become since the turn of the century, when the Spurs drafted Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. “It’s hard to find a guy somewhere that nobody knows,” said Arturas Karnisovas, the Nuggets assistant GM. “These days, with social media, it’s hard to miss a guy.”

“I don’t think it matters where a guy plays,” said Joshua Riddell, a scout for DraftExpress, in an email. “You can basically see anyone on Synergy [a scouting service with a database of league games from around the world] a few hours after their game ends.”

A general manager can have a player’s entire career on his laptop in a matter of seconds. The problems teams had with international scouting in the last generation have inverted. Instead of having too little information, now there’s too much. If the draft is all about finding needles in a haystack, there’s more hay than ever before.

“Your list of contacts in each region has to be profound because players nowadays are coming from anywhere,” Karnisovas said. “You have to know people, from coaches to GMs to agents. You have to be familiar with all the layers.”

The biggest advantage the Nuggets have is the familiarity of their front office with the international game. Connelly was a longtime international scout, and Karnisovas was one of the greatest players in European history before starting a career in management. They still travel overseas regularly, but their man on the ground in Europe these days is Rafal Juc, a 24-year-old from Poland who has quickly made a name for himself in the industry.

“Rafal is the most popular man in Europe. He’s really well connected around the continent,” said Elan Vinokurov, the president and owner of EV Hoops, a scouting and consulting service used by NBA teams. “He has established himself at a young age. When he talks about a player, you sit up and take notice.”

Juc fell in love with basketball as a teenager, but he quickly realized he didn’t have much of a future as a player. He won an internship with the Polish Basketball Federation when he was 17, which turned into a job as part of the coaching staff for the Polish junior national team. From there, he started working with Eurohopes, the biggest private scouting service in Europe, where he eventually became the director of scouting. He was getting ready to work as a graduate assistant at St. John’s in 2014 when the Nuggets brought him on board as a full-time scout at the age of 22.

“Friends often tell me that you get paid to watch basketball, that’s not really a job,” said Juc in an email. “However, I bet some people that think it’s a dream wouldn’t last very long doing it. You have to be passionately in love with basketball because you are watching thousands of games a year, most of them far below the NBA level. It’s not a 9-to-5. You have to be available 24/7. When I am home, I am watching at least two games a day, and I’m always networking with coaches, agents, and players and my colleagues back in the U.S.”

Scouts are always working on two timetables. They are evaluating and ranking players for the current draft, while also monitoring the best younger players who are still years away from being eligible. Watching a player over as long a time period as possible gives a talent evaluator a feel for his learning curve and his work ethic, and it gives them chances to see how players fare when placed in different roles on teams.

“A more experienced scout told me that when you are on time with a player, you are late,” Juc said. “You have to look at the big picture when evaluating an international player. Not only the player, but his coach, opposition, and teammates should be scouted too. That’s why some teams still do not feel comfortable scouting Europeans.”

The developmental path in Europe is a lot more varied than in the United States. Players go pro at different ages, they compete in different leagues across the continent with different basketball cultures and levels of play, and they have wildly different roles on their respective teams.

“Probably the biggest challenge is assessing the competition and seeing these guys play against other potential NBA players,” Riddell said. “You’ll see Kentucky or Duke players matched up against other draft hopefuls all year round in meaningful games to provide some context for how they look compared to their peers. International players are all spread out and don’t get the same type of exposure in professional games where their coaches have more pressure to win.”

The paths of Jokic and Lauvergne were opposite sides of the same coin. Lauvergne bounced around Europe, playing for three different teams in three different countries the year before the Nuggets drafted him. Jokic was a featured player on Mega Leks, a smaller club that only played in the Adriatic League, a step below the best competition in Europe. His skill level was clear, but there were significant questions about his athleticism, and whether it would translate to the NBA.

“Nikola was a classic late bloomer who had a late growth spurt and it took him a little while to grow into his body,” Juc said. “We rolled the dice with him. We all expected him to develop into a high-level player, but it happened much sooner than expected. All credit goes to Nikola. He’s an extremely hard worker who is obsessed with basketball.”

“Everyone can get a pretty good feel for how well a guy can play,” Karnisovas said. “It’s the other stuff that matters. As simple as it sounds, you are looking for a guy who loves to play. That’s one of the first questions.”

Trying to find more about a prospect’s background is why Juc spends most of the year crisscrossing the continent. There are things about players’ games better analyzed in person, like the way their feet move and how well they carry weight on their body, and there are even more things about their character. How do they interact with the officials? How involved in the game are they when they are on the bench? How do they respond to coaching? How early do they come to the gym to work?

Most importantly, he gets to talk to people. Scouts can’t have any contact with the prospects until very late in the draft process, but they can talk to everyone around the team, and they can talk to each other.

“The community of European scouts is pretty small and close-knit. In a business like this one, where you get better the more experience you have, turnover is pretty small,” Juc said. “We all work for our respective organizations and the NBA is extremely competitive, but we also spend a better part of the year on the road, often with the same people, so it’s natural that friendships are developed. I was extremely fortunate to be welcomed by many other international scouts despite my age. I wouldn’t hesitate to share a contact if another scout needed it, but it’s up to him to make that call and do his homework.”

No one in the Nuggets front office claims to have all the answers, and they are all quick to deflect credit for the success they have had in the draft. There’s nothing all that remarkable about the way they have emphasized scouting, drafting, and developing international players. It’s a team effort.

“Everyone in the staff watches film. It’s not that one guy watches and everyone believes,” Karnisovas said. “They all get acquainted during the year. We have an international scout that gets most of the information, but all of the staff sees a guy live and watches multiple times on video. During the year, we all do power rankings. Having one scout watch and know about him makes it hard to rank a player. We make sure that all our staff is familiar.”

In a league where all 30 teams are furiously trying to get a leg up on each other in finding the next market inefficiency, it’s amazing how effective simply getting the basics right can be. The only conclusion to draw from what the Nuggets have done overseas is there is still free money lying on the ground, waiting to be picked up. Every team in the league could have had Jokic for nothing.

The Nuggets have been stuck in the middle of the NBA for the past few seasons, not good enough to make the playoffs and not bad enough to land a high pick. If they hadn’t been able to find players that other teams missed on in the draft, there would be little reason for hope in Denver. With all the money that is being invested in the sport, there’s still no substitute for scouts who can talk to the right people, ask the right questions, and make educated guesses about how young players will develop. Projecting what 18- to 21-year-old players will look like in five years is more art than science, and the Nuggets have reaped the rewards of employing people who have an eye for both.

“Somebody once told me, ‘Stats paint a picture, tape tells the story, and your eyes make you keep reading,’” Juc said.