Hawks look to improve foreign relations

First came Lucas Nogueira, the Brazilian 7-footer who may be closer to 8-feet tall from the tip of his lush, rain forest ’fro.

Then came Dennis Schroeder, the considerably shorter German who has been likened by some to a sort of Rhineland Rajon Rondo.

Hair Nogueira and Herr Schroeder, the first two players taken in Thursday’s NBA draft by the Hawks, fell neatly into line with the trend of the evening. A full dozen of the first 30 picks were not American born. Sweeping immigration reform has begun with the longest among us.

That old notion that the rest of the world is populated only by floppers and finesse players has been truly crushed. This draft, topped by a Canadian-born chap, was a record setter for foreign first-rounders.

Not surprising that the Hawks would shop the globe. Their general manager, Danny Ferry is a world traveler, who in addition to leaning on the team’s international scout has been abroad three times himself since signing on with the Hawks just over a year ago. And he wasn’t just there for the museums.

Ferry, of course, cut his front-office molars with a franchise, San Antonio, that has had as much success going global as any franchise in the league. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili forever proved the worth of casting a worldwide net for talent.

“We are willing to get anyone who can play, willing to go anywhere to find a player who’s talented and who fits into what we’re trying to do,” Ferry said, underscoring his tilt in this draft.

One of the GM’s many challenges with the Hawks is to discover a lasting use for the import in Atlanta. There have been some strictly foreign players who have contributed, but none who has made a fundamental difference. (Part of that assertion depends on how technical you want to get with Al Horford, born in the Dominican Republic but schooled in the United States.)

There is not yet an ort of evidence that either Nogueira or Schroeder will play a significant minute for the Hawks. Nor is there reason to dismiss them out of hand because of their nationalities. The foreign basketball player has earned more latitude than that.

Given that the Hawks haven’t exactly trotted out a parade of domestic stars, it can be no surprise that they haven’t really struck gold abroad, either.

Yet in the relatively brief history of drafting internationally, this franchise enjoys a little known place as a pioneer. In 1970, with the late, great Marty Blake doing the picking, the Hawks were the first team to dip into faraway leagues when they took Mexico’s Manuel Raga and Italy’s Dino Meneghin in rounds 10 and 11. Neither was lured away from their teams abroad, but Blake’s instincts were sound (Meneghin is in the Hall of Fame).

This also is the franchise that made a joke of the whole concept in 1988 when it drafted Jorge Gonzalez, a 7-6, 400-pound Argentinian. He and his size 19EEEEE shoes were a sideshow. He was as mobile as a construction crane and possessed the skills of a park statue.

“They took him because the company wanted him as a wrestler, it was a PR thing,” remembered the Hawks’ long-time radio announcer Steve Holman. Indeed, the team owner at the time, Ted Turner, repurposed Gonzalez as El Gigante and put him to work for a couple of years with his World Championship Wrestling.

Gonzalez, the proverbial gentle giant, died in 2010 at the age of 44.

Other Hawks forays abroad can be filed away under What Might Have Been. They took Hall of Fame center Arvydas Sabonis in the fourth round in 1985, but he wouldn’t surface in the States for another decade, with Portland. They also drafted Pau Gasol in the first round of 2001, then turned around and traded him as part of a package to land Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Jamaal Tinsley.

In the years since then, the demand for foreign players has ebbed and flowed. It is likely to peak, Ferry pointed out, during drafts such as the recent one, considered fairly light on U.S. collegiate talent.

Another benefit to going abroad is that foreign players, particularly those drafted later, may choose to stay overseas and develop their talents. They remain potential assets for the NBA teams that drafted them. Young American players who don’t fit right away, however, are more likely waived by teams that then lose their rights.

Holman cautions that there is nothing about the Hawks’ past failed expeditions into foreign lands that can be currently held against them.

“You can’t equate anything Danny Ferry is doing or will do in the future with anything that has happened in the past,” he said.

“I certainly have a lot more faith in what Danny is doing internationally than anything we’ve done before.”

As the wait begins for returns on increased overseas investment, the title of best foreign-born Hawks player of all time is unlikely to be contested any time soon.

The son of an Air Force man stationed overseas, Jacques Dominique Wilkins was born in Paris. Case closed.

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