After a full summer of international tournaments after yet another NBA draft where foreign players were scooped up by NBA teams, it's a good time to check in with ESPN college and international basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla for the latest in our Verbatim interview series.
Fraschilla addresses multiple aspects of the international game at the junior and senior levels, why increased international presence would be good for the college game, and looks at the 2013-14 season.
SI.com: I know you were over in Prague for the U19s. You were not in Russia for the World University Games. What’s the overall takeaway on how those teams performed?
FF: The U19s are far more important on the international landscape. It’s a true world championship. The World University Games are a fun event, but they’re a little skewed by who’s eligible and who’s not. Quite frankly, the U.S. usually sends a group of upperclassmen that, at this point in their careers, aren’t going to be NBA-type lottery pick talent, so it’s always a tricky deal with that particular event. Whereas the U19s have become the legitimate world championship at the junior level. The best young players from every country that qualifies are starting to play in those games, so it carries greater significance I think for everyone who follows international basketball.
SI.com: What did you see specifically over there from our individual players and/or Billy Donovan that you liked?
FF: I think first of all, Billy did as good a coaching job, with his staff -- Shaka Smart and Tony Bennett -- as any USA coach at the junior level has done in my memory. He picked a group of guys that for the most part already had FIBA experience and an understanding of the nature of play and the rules. He picked a group of guys who checked their egos at the door, albeit some of them were extremely talented, and he picked a style that was perfect to combat the execution and ball-movement style teams you often see from the European style of play. By pressing and creating a helter-skelter game, he took continuity out of play for the international teams, he utilized a great bench, and quite frankly, in both games against Serbia, their greatest competition for the gold, a very well coached and talented Serbia team was worn out by the fourth quarter.
I thought it was a terrific coaching job and I’ll also say that every single player in that tournament who played for Team USA, in my opinion, came back from that tournament was a better player than three weeks before. People were raving about how Justise Winslow played in the Peach Jam tournament after returning home from Prague because they just couldn’t get over his relentless, and that’s exactly how he played in the U19 world championships.
SI.com: It’s interesting to hear you compliment Billy and his staff on how they had a strategy to counter what the opponents would be doing. You often hear, even at this stage in international level, that the U.S does the dictating, that our talent is so superior in most cases that teams have to try to counter what we do. Where do you think we stand in that area on the senior level?
FF: I think what we’ve seen as the basketball world has grown closer and the talent around the world has improved, that we often have to prepare ourselves for NBA players on the senior level, future NBA picks on the junior level, all of whom are very well coached as well. So the idea of rolling the ball out and just playing these games probably went out the window in 2004 at the Olympics and 2006 at the World Championships, when even Mike Krzyzewski and a great group of NBA players lost to Greece.
So we have a greater understanding of FIBA rules and style of player, but when it’s all said and done, we’re generally in a good position, at both the junior and senior levels, because we still have the best players in the world.
SI.com: Moving to international impact on the college game, we have seen a prolific pipeline of Australian players in recent years. We haven’t seen that same kind of progress in terms of international players coming from other markets. Why is that and do you think that is going to change in the near future?
FF: It’s a different system. Let’s take Europe, for example, where most of the top young players are coming from. The European basketball model is completely different from ours or the model in Australia, where you can play in high school and then you can play in college. If you’re Australian, you have a very easy adjustment to life in the States. There’s no language barrier and the countries are very similar in terms of their education systems.
European basketball is completely different because their organizational structure is much like it probably is in soccer in that they have a club level. Players are signed at an early age, they develop through the club system, they often times get loaned out or even traded. They are, for all intents and purposes, pros in the eyes of the NCAA at an early age.
Now, that doesn’t mean they’re making the money that an NBA player would make. Often times, a pro in Croatia is making $500 to $1,000 a month, which I would jokingly say is less than some guys who play at major-college level. [Laughing] Well, I guess you have to quote me on that since I just said it. But in point of fact, you hear the term “pro” in Europe and think of a guy making a lot of money, that’s not the case, but it does jeopardize their amateur status if they want to come to the States and play. Now having said that, you are going to find from time to time kids from European countries will be playing here in the States, and often times there’s great benefit to that above the club system.
SI.com: Do you think we should revisit the rule to allow European players to come over if they’re not being paid extensively as professionals over there? If we’re talking about $5,000 or $10,000 in interpretation, why is this much different than Josh Selby’s situation [at Kansas]?
FF: I don’t think it is much different but in truth, you talk about Enes Kanter, you put him on the level of Ricky Rubio or Jonas Valanciunas, young European players who are so good at an early age -- 16, 17, 18 years old -- that very rarely does an Enes Kanter come to the United States. That was an aberration, I would say.
What does bother me about the NCAA rules is how it effects a kid from Sweden or Denmark or places where professional basketball in their country is not necessarily considered big business. A lot of kids in Europe don’t really have an understanding of NCAA rules, so they don’t know that they’re putting their eligibility in jeopardy by NCAA standards. I happen to think that the more liberal policy of allowing more European and international players to come would be good for our game, it’s good for the campus, it’s a great educational opportunity for the player and for the campus. We had a Spanish player when I was at Manhattan and we learned as much from him as he did from us being a part of our program.
SI.com: Let’s spin forward to 2013. Talking about international players, Andrew Wiggins is the buzz guy, but can you give a little bit of a flavor as you give your evaluations as to the top-end quality beyond Wiggins and also the quality of depth it appears to have?
FF: What is going to make for a great college basketball season is the fact that we do have a lot of rising young stars, both in players who are returning to college like the Doug McDermotts and the Marcus Smarts, and also the great influx of outstanding freshmen. I think that’s why, in my opinion, while Kentucky is an obvious favorite to get to the Final Four and possibly win it all, by no means do I think they have this thing locked up. I see eight or nine teams, whether it’s Duke, Michigan State, Kansas, Syracuse, maybe Arizona. Right off the top of my head … Michigan certainly … are all teams that can battle Kentucky for a national title despite the fact that they may have had the greatest freshman class of all time.
SI.com: Fran, you’re making people in the Commonwealth very angry. You forgot the defending champs.
FF: Yeah, exactly. I think Louisville is a great example of what I was talking about. They may not have a top-five pick this year, although Montrezl Harrell was terrific this summer, but they have a really good basketball team made up of great depth, both in the backcourt and up front. I think it’s going to be a great year for basketball, both because of the depth of talent and the depth of teams.
SI.com: One story that everyone is interested in is realignment. You were part of the last era at St. John’s where they were really nationally relevant. How much of a help do you think it will be for programs like St. John’s, DePaul, Providence in getting out of the mega-Big East under the impact of the football schools?
FF: I think there’s going to be an aspect of the realignment that’s going to help them in their Big East, but honestly, and I say this as a partisan, the fact that the Big East will not be on ESPN is going to be a detriment to them, at least in the early going as FOX gets their network up and running, because I can’t imagine they’re going to get the kind of exposure they deserve based on the history and tradition of those programs. So that will be interesting to see how that plays out.
You’ve seen it to a lesser degree with the Mountain West and how little exposure really good teams have gotten the last five to 10 years, so I’ll be anxious to see, despite with my buddy Bill Raftery being over there, how that all shakes not. Not from a network competition standpoint, but just in terms of exposure of that conference.
It’s never going to be the same as long as you don’t have the rivalries of the Notre Dames and the Syracuses and the Pittsburghs. That’s what made that league so spectacular over 30 years, so I’m anxious to see how the Big East, in particular, with all basketball-playing schools, whether it can thrive or not given it will be one of the few conferences that’s basketball only.
SI.com: I hear this question a lot about former coaches in the media, that the tenor is often too positive or not critical enough or things are glazed over in order to maintain relationships or because the kid is a 19-year-old college athlete. What’s your perspective having made the transition over a number of years from a multiple-time Division I coach to a broadcaster?
FF: Well, it’s always something that the former coach-turned-broadcaster struggles with early on, and then I think what happens is you either thrive or you don’t because of your objectivity and honesty. I feel that because of the preparation I do for our season and for specific games, that when I do say something that could be perceived as critical of a team or a coach or a player, it’s often grounded in, certainly my opinion, but hopefully based on some facts.
I’ve learned that if you can be constructively critical without being gratuitously negative, that coaches and players will be more apt to appreciate what you say [even though] they disagree with you. I feel that if you choose to play at Kansas and Kentucky, and not Colorado State or Montana, you’re not only going to be open to great praise when you play well, but hand in hand to that is you also get more criticism because you chose to play on the biggest stage.
So in certain cases, I feel sorry for a young player who makes a mistake and I have to criticize a 19-year-old for making that mistake, you have to realize you chose that limelight. You choose to be at a program that will be scrutinized night in and night out because it’s the best team, the best programs, the best players. And as long as my opinions are based in part on how I truly believe with how much I study the game, I’m OK with being critical.
SI.com: This lays the groundwork for the final, critical question: Did you ask ESPN for time off at Thanksgiving so you can go to Alaska with [son] Matt [an incoming freshman at Harvard]?
You know what? Now that both boys are comfortably ensconced in their college settings, I was more nervous about them playing in high school. I’m just nervous about paying that tuition bill every year and I’m very happy that I got both boys who decided to take after what their Dad loves, which is they’re both basketball junkies.