F.C. Barcelona had a disappointing year in basketball in 2018. They had to change coaches in mid-season and did little in either the ACB, the Spanish League, or the Euroleague.
Moreover, they decided near the beginning of the season on what looks now to be a controversial and ultimately self-defeating strategy. No longer would they be a “farm team” for the NBA, Barca official said. So, they benched their two best young players, both NBA prospects: Aleksandar Vezenkov, a 6’9” power forward from Bulgaria, and Rodions Kurucs, a slightly taller wingman from Latvia. Familiar names now for Nets fans.
It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time for the Nets, what with all the other issues floating around the HSS Training Center. But now, that corporate decision is reverberating 3,000 miles away … and Brooklyn, not Barcelona, may very well wind up the beneficiary.
It started a year ago with the benching of Vezenkov, who the Nets had taken months earlier in the NBA Draft, and Kurucs, who had also captured the Nets interest.
Initially, the coach said simply that the team needed a change. There was no real rationale other than the team, which got off to a bad start, needed a change. For two months, neither played, weren’t active … one player who was good enough to get drafted by an NBA team, the other who had been projected as a lottery pick in the January 2017.
Vezenkov sat on the bench from the end of October till New Year’s Eve, when he got a slight reprieve, then it was back to street clothes. Indeed, for the season, Vezenkov played 13 minutes a game in 34 games, missing 30 completely.
Kurucs, seen as one of Europe’s top young players, didn’t play at all for Barcelona until January, then sparingly. Over the course of the season, he played a an average of 5.9 minutes in 10 games for Barcelona, six in the ACB, the Spanish League, four in the Euroleague, averaging a mere 2.3 points a game. Kurucs spent most of his playing time in the Spanish equivalent of the G-League, where he played another 16, but had just four starts.
Finally, in February, there was an explanation. The decision was corporate and had nothing to do with either players’ skills, just their ambitions. F.C. Barcelona was tired of having its players poached by the NBA.
The NBA “invasion,” new coach Svetislav Pesic told a Spanish newspaper, overshadows everything in European basketball, especially in the case of young players.
“Barcelona basketball is a section of F.C. Barcelona, but not a section of the NBA’,” he said, recounting a conversation he had with the head of Barça basketball. Time to develop players who planned to stay! He noted that Barca should have learned its lesson two years earlier, cultivating Mario Hezonja who then left Barca at 19 for the NBA.
“For example, you put your chips on Mario Hezonja, but everyone knew that Hezonja was going to use Barça to go to the NBA,” he argued, seemingly hinting that wasn’t going to happen with Kurucs.
There was other ugliness related specifically to Kurucs as well, as Jonathan Givony of Draft Express and ESPN recounted back in April.
He entered the 2017 NBA draft against the wishes of Barcelona but was forced to withdraw at the deadline despite strong interest in the late first round, as his exorbitant buyout, which reportedly was around 4 million euros (roughly $5 million), would have made it difficult for him to have joined the NBA immediately. Kurucs has been embroiled in conflict since then due to his refusal to sign a contract extension with Barcelona. He has one year remaining on his deal.
So, Kurucs draft stock suffered. After being as high as No. 14 in Draft Express’s 2017 mock before he dropped out and No. 19 in ESPN’s first 2018 mock last summer, his lack of playing time took a toll. In short, he became a forgotten man even if, as Givony wrote, many scouts considered him to be the third-best international prospect in the 2018 draft, after Luka Doncic and Dzanan Musa.
It took a toll on his confidence, too, as he told NetsDaily on Media Day.
“It was a tough year, last year in Barcelona. because I didn’t play at all,” he said. “I played like 20 games for the second team. For the first team, I played like maybe five games so it was tough.
Barca even went to extremes to keep him off the NBA scouting radar, Givony and his colleague Mike Schmitz later wrote.
“Scouts also aren’t allowed into Barcelona practices. One NBA team in particular has assigned an international scout to follow Kurucs around to every game, hoping to catch a glimpse of the 20-year-old forward.”
And after the Nets drafted him, he, the Nets and Barcelona couldn’t complete a buyout until July 12, after the Las Vegas Summer League had ended. Kurucs was supposed to play in Vegas, but the buyout issue prevented it. Eventually, Barca agreed on a buyout of reportedly $750,000, around the max an NBA team can contribute to an international buyout.
Still, it’s worked out for the Latvian. He’s very happy in Brooklyn. There’s plenty of intelligence suggesting that even if other teams forgot about Kurucs, the Nets did not. Sean Marks had traveled to Barcelona in 2017 to get a brief look at him and in May of this year, there was a suggestion, just a hint, that the Nets thought highly of him.
Gregg Polinsky, then the Nets chief scout, talked to an Alabama radio station about the European talent in this year’s draft.
“I can’t go into names, but I can talk about the talent there is in Europe,” he told one of the hosts. “In my own opinion … I think there is two lottery picks there, possibly three, a guy who will be taken in the first two or three or four players in the draft (no doubt referring to Doncic) and another kid there,” his voice trailing off as if he realized he might have said too much, then adding, “There’s some other kids that you look at, they’re potential first rounders.”
Then, in late May, the Nets sent seven staffers, including Marks, to his “Pro Day” scouting session in Los Angeles.
Kurucs in fact told NetsDaily on Media Day that he thought he might be taken at No. 29 instead of Musa. Indeed, at this point, it doesn’t take much of a leap to think that the Nets were very much interested in Musa and Kurucs going into the Draft.
And so far, so good. The Nets are very happy with the two players and Kurucs talked about how the Nets had helped his confidence.
“Everyone is always telling me, be ready to shoot,” he said even before his big game vs. the Knicks. “That’s great because I like to shoot the ball. In Europe, it was different. You’re a young guy. You can’t just shoot. you have to respect the older players. Here, everybody is pushing you, everybody is helping you to get better. It’s hard in Europe for young players to get better in big teams.”
As for Vezenkov, he’s happy to be out of Barcelona as well. Like Kurucs, he had a year left on his deal and like Kurucs, he moved on to Olympiacos whose coach, David Blatt, doesn’t have a problem with players who have NBA ambitions.
The two Nets prospects in fact are good friends, Kurucs told NetsDaily. They bonded during their time on the bench in Barcelona.
“He’s a really cool guy, a really good guy,” said Kurucs of Vezenkov. “He didn’t play last year either and we were close. We were hanging out in the weight room … always. We were in the same situation. We’re really good friends now.”
Vezenkov, like Kurucs, won’t talk much about his troubles in Barcelona, but has said he’ll let his game speak for itself. Olympiacos in fact opens its season today in the Greek League.
And so, if Kurucs plays as well this year as he did in his debut and Vezenkov resurrects his career in Greece, the Nets may wind up as the big winners of F.C. Barcelona’s corporate decision. And in fact, as word of Kurucs’ play against the Knicks reached Spain last week, more than one Spanish sports site wondered aloud about what was lost. Not our problem.