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The Inbounds: NBA schmoe, International Superstar of Mystery

Aug 10, 2012, 4:00 PM EDT

Jose Calderon AP

If you’re a casual NBA fan, most of the players on the Olympic teams other than Team USA don’t ring any bells. You’ll recognize a few.

“Hey, that’s that point guard for the Canada team, right?”

“You mean, the Toronto Raptors?”

“Yeah, that’s what I said, the team in Canada.”

Or:

“Hey, didn’t that guy play for the Grizzlies one year?”

“Yes, he did, he’s actually..”

“Why didn’t he make it? He looks pretty good.”

Yet even to dedicated NBA fans, many of the players on these teams are unfamiliar, strange names and strange games. Dedicated fans of international ball, suddenly available in the internet age, are able to recite their names and games. But they remain a mystery to most U.S. fans. Yet even the players NBA fans know don’t resemble the players who run the floor for the A.

Jose Calderon? Veteran sharpshooter and dynamic offensive leader, not defensive sieve and spot-up shooter, as he is with the Raps. Juan Carlos Navarro was a small-minute reserve player for a single season for the Grizzlies. He’s one of the best players in Euroleague history with his Spanish team, FC Barcelona.

Maybe no player epitomizes the difference than Patty Mills, though. Mills is a fourth-string point guard for the Spurs, and a legitimate star for Australia. He was a big part of Australia hanging around with Team USA on Wednesday, hitting perimeter shots and driving inside.

So what’s the deal? How can these players look this different in international play relative to their performance in the indisputable best league in the world?

There’s  a line of thought that suggests that internationalf coaches just know how to get the best from these players. That, of course, is insane. To suggest coaches like Dwane Casey, Nate McMillan, and Gregg Popovich don’t know how to evaluate the talents of these players and acclimate them throws out everything we know about NBA coaches. There are bad NBA coaches. There are bad international coaches. But the differential in production has more to do with style of play than it does quality of coaches. No one in the NBA is “missing” on these players. There’s a qualitative difference in how the NBA is played, and that style can bring out the abilities of players, with the more wide open structure, and the kind of defense that’s played.

This isn’t about which level of competition is more difficult, the NBA or international ball (HINT: It’s the NBA). It’s about a difference in approach and execution that leaves us with a game that is played with the same rules as the NBA, but is vastly different. Well, except for goaltending. That’s different. And some other things. And the ball is different. But other than that, same game. But the stylistic approach is where it diverges.

So we shouldn’t be surprised by these performances, nor should we slough them off. Calderon, Mills, Timofey Mozgov are all playing excellent, and deserve credit for leading their teams. But at the same time, we shouldn’t assume they’re capable of this in the NBA night after night, nor that there’s something wrong with how the NBA operates that they’re not executing at that level. There’s a great number of players who have struggled with the style in international play. Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, are two to start with.

Paul’s size gives him issues and the amount of pressure allowed in international play outside (while inside might as well be a demilitarized zone — no touching!) creates problems. He’s still very good for Team USA, because he’s Chis Paul. But he’s never the dominant point guard he is in the league.

Dwight Howard, absent from the 2012 team due to his recovery from back surgery, has similar problems. His game just doesn’t translate with the kind of floor spacing that goes on in international play and he accumulates fouls at a rookie-type level.

Do you really want to say that Chris Paul and Dwight Howard aren’t really that good at basketball?

Yeah, didn’t think so.

There’s nothing artificial about the players’ production in these games. It’s legitimate and honestly, refreshing as opposed to the slog of the NBA at times. But it’s no mistake made by the NBA or its coaches that they can’t excel. They are who they are in the NBA, and that’s how they should be judged, because it’s the best league in the world.

Unless you’re not an NBA fan. Then you can believe the ACB is. Or Euroleague. Or South American play. Anything you want.

But to bring the idea of somehow these games being indicative of who they really are as player is as disingenuous as saying their American counterparts aren’t trying. The world’s caught up with the U.S.. Well, not really. But they’re closer, and that leads to these fascinating ripples. Let’s not try and establish which way is better, let’s just enjoy the exposure on a different way to play basketball.

  1. dacapt704 - Aug 10, 2012 at 4:39 PM

    Actually Patty Mills can still get his off in the NBA, he is just buried in SA behind Parker and Neal. He showed when he got a chance to play at the end of last season that he is quick as lightning and can shoot the lights out…I think he had like 20-something points in every game he started? Could be wrong but I remember him balling out..I wish Patty would get a chance to play somewhere, dude can ball

  2. shzastl - Aug 10, 2012 at 4:53 PM

    It’s really simpler than that. The difference in style of play is somewhat of a factor, but the bottom line is that these guys like mills are just the best players on their international teams, and even on a bad team, someone’s got to put up numbers. If the guys ahead of mills on the spurs depth chart played for Australia, they’d likely be the best players on the squad and mills wouldn’t be in position to be putting up the numbers he is.

  3. zblott - Aug 10, 2012 at 5:17 PM

    Calderon *might* be the most underrated PG of all-time. Check out the numbers without the names next to them (compared to CP3 and Steve Nash of all people) and see what I mean:

    http://www.behindthebasket.com/btb/2011/12/18/season-preview-eastern-conference-atlantic-division.html

  4. Tim's Neighbor - Aug 10, 2012 at 6:40 PM

    Bravo. Excellent read.

  5. heathater4lifeson - Aug 10, 2012 at 10:01 PM

    Ahhh yes because we all know how accurate stats are when evaluating a player’s value

  6. pavelfitzgerald - Aug 10, 2012 at 10:54 PM

    A HUGE difference is the way the game is called with travelling actually being enforced (travelling in the NBA is an absolute joke). You also don’t see superstars getting the Kobe/MJ treatment where they go to the line every time someone breathes on them. Kobe’s embarassing in the NBA when he doesn’t get a call, he’s worse then the guy who thinks he’s Kobe in your local rec league

  7. LPad - Aug 11, 2012 at 2:27 PM

    Not sure what games your watching, but Chris Paul is definitely not struggling. Also Calderon is playing exactly how he plays in Toronto, good shooting and passing mixed with bad D. Mozgov is playing well because most teams don’t have anyone taller than 6-10. Patty Mills is showing why Pops think he has a chance to be a good player in the league.

  8. jerkize - Aug 12, 2012 at 1:54 PM

    The NBA is first and foremost a business. The NBA leadership (David Stern, owners, and even some players) think they can maximize their profits best by highlighting the superstars as much as possible and ensuring that big market teams are always in the hunt. This goes a long way towards explaining why foreign players don’t seem to perform as well in the NBA as they do in other leagues. In the NBA, making money is priority one, which is fine. However, with the way they’ve rigged the game, the integrity of the game has suffered too much.

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