Happy in Houston
It was a typical NBA play in a very non-NBA game.
With 30 seconds left and Argentina leading by four in overtime of their quarterfinal matchup with Brazil, Luis Scola moved towards the top of the key to set a screen for Argentinean guard Pablo Prigioni. With Brazil's Nene attached to his hip, Scola set a textbook screen that freed Prigioni and forced Nene to shift off Scola. Prigioni lobbed the ball back to Scola for a wide open 15-foot jump shot on the left elbow. Swish. Ballgame.
Scola may be the best player in this tournament who has never played an NBA minute, though as a recently signed property of the Houston Rockets that will certainly change. The 6-foot-10 power forward is averaging 17.9 points on 53.8 percent shooting in the FIBA America's tournament and has a depleted Brazil team (they are without Manu Ginobili, Fabricio Oberto, Andres Nocioni, Carlos Delfino and Walter Hermann) undefeated heading into Thursday's game against the United States.
"I really like Scola," says former Rockets coach and Lakers scout Rudy Tomjanovich. "He's the kind of guy who doesn't do anything great but does everything well. He's smart and he has the size and strength to be an NBA power forward."
So why has the 27-year old Scola, a two-time Spanish League MVP, been toiling in Europe with Tau Ceramica the last five years while Argentinean national teammates Oberto and Ginobili have been racking up titles in San Antonio?
Part of the blame for that has to be placed on the Spurs, who have a history of drafting players and leaving them overseas until they need them. In 2005 San Antonio attempted to bring Scola aboard but failed to come to terms with Tau on a buyout (Tau initially was asking for a staggering $14.5 million for Scola). While continuing negotiations in 2006, the Spurs reportedly told Scola after the season that they would probably not sign him, due to the fact that they did not want to invest in another power forward after signing Oberto and trading for Matt Bonner. They also had questions about how well Scola would play alongside to Tim Duncan.
The decision prompted outrage from Scola's camp, which claimed the Spurs were holding Scola "prisoner" and that they were trying to "impede him" from playing in the NBA. "I did want to play in the NBA last season," admitted Scola moments scoring 23 points in Argentina's 86-79 victory over Brazil. "But it just didn't work out."
That's not to say there wasn't interest in Scola from other teams. With the Spurs again passing on signing Scola this summer, they opened the bidding to other teams interested in vying for his draft rights. Detroit, Seattle and Cleveland all expressed interest but it was Houston who emerged the winner, dealing Vassilis Spanoulis (who later bolted for Europe), a second-round draft pick and cash considerations for a man who has been touted as Europe's top player. "As an organization, we felt responsible to allow Luis to pursue his dream of the NBA," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said at the time, "and this was the best opportunity to realize his value." The Rockets immediately signed Scola to a three-year, $9.3 million contract and paid $500,000 toward his buyout.
"He's a very active player," said LeBron James. "He's the kind of guy you have to find and keep a body on all the time."
"I think Scola is going to fit in great in Houston's system," says Tomjanovich, who compares Scola to former Laker Kurt Rambis. "He's very active and he passes the ball extremely well. Houston's not going to ask much of him offensively because of all the weapons they have their, but he is showing in this tournament that he can knock down that perimeter jump shot."
Scola will probably get a number of chances to do just that. The Rockets have a gaping hole at the power forward position next season and will likely pencil Scola's name into the starting slot. It's a role he is prepared for, even if it is long overdue.
"I feel like I'm ready," says Scola, who says he feels no animosity for San Antonio. "It's the next step in my career. When this tournament is over, it's all I am going to think about."