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Gregg Popovich: American players don’t work as hard as foreign players

Jun 11, 2013, 6:37 PM EDT

Kawhi Leonard, Gregg Popovich, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Tim Duncan

I always figured the Spurs’ large contingent of international players – Tim Duncan (U.S. Islands), Tony Parker (France), Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Tiago Splitter (Brazil), Boris Diaw (France), Cory Joseph (Canada), Nando De Colo (France), Patty Mills (Australia) and Aron Baynes (Australia) – was the product of three main reasons.

1. Scouting. San Antonio does an excellent job of scouting overseas, which gives the Spurs an edge when it comes to drafting international players who stick in the NBA.

2. Chance. Tony Parker was the best player available when the Spurs’ pick came up in the 2001 draft, but if he had gone one spot earlier, they might have drafted Jamaal Tinsley or Gilbert Arenas instead. Similar situations came into play when San Antonio acquired its other international players.

3. Self-fulfilling prophecy. International players see how well the Spurs treat international players, so they attempt to position themselves to land with San Antonio.

But there’s actually a more-calculated fourth reason. The Spurs prefer international players to American ones. Seth Wickersham of ESPN:

Consider Pop’s brutal assessment that foreign players are “fundamentally harder working than most American kids,” and it’s no wonder the Spurs want to avoid the fate of so many NBA teams

A few months ago, Pop was scouting an opponent. He won’t say which one. On video, Pop saw an international player wide open for a shot, with a confused look on his face. That’s because his point guard, an American, was dribbling in circles. “It has to be a really different experience for him,” Pop says, laughing. “ ’Where am I? Is this is a different game? Is it a different sport?’ ”

Criticism of AAU basketball, which Spurs general manager R.C. Buford engages in, is often heavy-handed and exaggerated. I’ve seen firsthand plenty of America’s top young players sacrifice their individual games to play within a team concept.

It’s hypocritical to claim, as many do, AAU culture has led to players both forming super-teams and and playing for only themselves. Players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant are making it cool to trust your teammates, and the commonly held perception of American players becoming out of date, if it were ever accurate in the first place.

But it’s hard to question the culture the Spurs have created, and to their credit, they’ve drafted Kawhi Leonard and given Danny Green multiple chances. There’s a happy medium somewhere, and San Antonio has probably found it.

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