'We're scouting third-graders in Nigeria': How the Mavs search the globe for the next Dirk Nowitzki
by Eddie Sefko
It was a lovely day in Sri Lanka, right up until Tony Ronzone spent those two hours at gunpoint.
That kind of soured the mood.
As one of the Mavericks' international scouts, Ronzone spends a large amount of his time going to the ends of the earth to find basketball talent. Occasionally, he has found himself in compromising situations.
The Sri Lanka trip tops everything else on the scouting road for Ronzone.
"They had rebels -- it's like civil war in the country," he said. "We got stopped and they had rifles pointed at us for two hours and wouldn't let us do anything. Was I little concerned about that one? Yeah. I probably wouldn't do that one these days, being a little older and a little smarter."
In the interest of mining basketball talent, sometimes you have to go above and beyond the normal call of duty. Too often, it's a wild goose chase for players who aren't as tall or as skilled as rumors suggested.
This is what the NBA has become. The Mavericks -- and every other NBA team -- spend an extraordinary amount of time, manpower and money trying to locate the next Dirk Nowitzki.
Or even the next J.J. Barea.
Just over the past month, president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson and Ronzone have been to Italy, Serbia, Germany (several times), France (several times), Iceland, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York. Much of the time in France was spent watching and talking to point guard Frank Ntilikina, a potential choice for the Mavericks with the No. 9 pick in the draft on June 22.
A global game
The Mavericks are always on the lookout for players. After player payroll and travel for the team during the season, scouting future players is the next biggest expenditure that comes out of Mark Cuban's pocket.
With Nelson in charge of the process, the Mavericks have been ahead of the curve ever since international scouting boomed in the early 1990s. And it has paid off handsomely with quality players that might otherwise have gone undetected. The Mavs have fetched Salah Mejri from Tunisia and, most recently, Nicolas Brussino from Argentina.
It's a monster undertaking trying to cultivate relationships around the world in order to keep up with the NBA competition when it comes to international intelligence.
When you look at the Mavericks' international scouting department and find three full-time and well-paid employees who live in foreign countries, a half-dozen experienced world travelers based in the U.S. and a president and general manager who has a worn-out passport, you get an idea of the breadth of this talent-searching machine.
"We got guys everywhere," Nelson said. "We're scouting third-graders in Nigeria. There's millions of kids who play basketball around the world, outside of the U.S. that people question their competition and whether they can play. We keep on investing in our player development so we can take chances on those guys and take them to the next level.
"At some point, you have to say, OK, I may not be able to develop somebody into a star, but can I develop them into a rotation player or a starter?"
There are at least two international players projected to be taken in the top 10 of the upcoming draft. And the Mavericks know both Ntilikina and Finland's Lauri Markkanen well.
But it's not just this draft class. The Mavericks have books on players signed with international teams who one day be NBA caliber, or Americans who are playing overseas. They have a scout in South America, Lisandro Miranda, who alerted the Mavericks to Bruissino years ago. After watching him develop, their connections with his camp helped the Mavericks to sign him.
"It's critical, and it's changing now," Cuban said of international scouting. "It used to be you only looked at the 16-year-olds, then the 18-year-olds, then the 21-year-olds. Now it's the 20- through 28-year-olds because they already know how to play and maybe the NBA game is better suited to them now."
Ronzone has been doing this for decades. His world travels - and travails - have taken him to more than 90 countries and some obscure outposts. He was in North Korea to scout a 7-8 player named Michael Ri but was denied entry to the country because of visa problems. He spent a week in Thailand trying to get the issue resolved. He eventually did - two months later after returning to the U.S. All this, and Ri was not an NBA-caliber player.
Normally these days, travel is relatively safe, even in remote lands. And the friendships Nelson and Ronzone have formed with basketball federation leaders around the globe have paid off in many ways.
Mostly, they have entry into just about any practice session for any team in any league, including national junior teams and the like.
"You save time and energy knowing so many people," Ronzone said. "The bottom line is you got to know college and you got to know free agency, but you better know the rest of the world, too, because there are a lot of good players out there. You want the best players no matter where they come from. And information wins."
Such information was crucial in the Mavericks' uncovering of Mejri, who was virtually unknown before he played for Tunisia's national team.
Ronzone was helping out the USA Olympic team when they played the Tunisian team.
"We beat them by 40, but he played well for them," Ronzone said. "And our guys noticed. The way our game is now, his game translated. I'll give Mark Cuban a ton of credit. It's amazing how much he's in touch with the rest of the world. He watches games from the Adriatic League. You got to be on your toes working with him."
The Mavericks may or may not take Ntilkina or Markkanen in the draft. But no matter who they take, you can be certain they have a logbook of information on all the international players available.
You never know when one of them will turn into the next Barea. Or maybe even the next Dirk.