Since 1988, when he crashed on Sarunas Marciulionis' couch in Lithuania for three months while prying the Hall of Famer from the Soviets' grip, Donnie Nelson has recommended, drafted or acquired five first-round draft picks that he got to know through a vast network of international connections.
The quintet includes a Hall of Famer (Steve Nash), another in waiting (Dirk Nowitzki), and a superstar (Giannis Antetokounmpo) whom Donnie doesn't bring up anymore around Mark Cuban.
And to think, that group doesn't include Marciulionis, if only because he was a sixth-rounder.
Given Nelson's first-round success rate on international players, then, I'd say the prospects bode well for his latest, Luka Doncic.
None of the above is better prepared, apparently.
"People compare him to Steve Nash," Nelson said this week from Las Vegas, where he's watching the kids play. "Look, he's truly head and shoulders above where Steve was.
"This is a guy that's 19 years old, 6-7, has won everything there is, and he's just starting to scratch the surface."
Even as you're reading this, I know what you're thinking: What about Wang Zhizhi or Renaldas Seibutis?
Milovan Rakovic and Targuy Ngombo and Satnam Singh?
They were also second-round draft picks, which are long shots to make it no matter where you find them. Most of the Mavs' international types were never expected to amount to much. Just the same, they deepened foreign relationships, potentially enabling further discoveries. A couple even tapped global markets.
The point is, don't confuse Vassilis Spanoulis or Mladen Sekularac or Xue Yuyang with the likes of Doncic.
Before we get to the Mavs' newest teenager, though, let's consider Nelson's history with foreign players, and what it portends for the team's recovery.
Donnie's international interests go back to his college days at Wheaton. His mother, Sharon, insisted he spend the summer playing worldwide for Athletes in Action. To his surprise, he ended up liking it. At least until his fourth summer, when he found himself guarding Marciulionis.
"I held him to 57 points," Nelson said. "But I got the license plate."
He also formed a relationship. Next thing you know, he's working for his father, Don, at Golden State, which is how he ended up on Marciulionis' couch. And that led to a job as an assistant in the '90s for Lithuania's tie-dyed, Grateful Dead-inspired Olympic teams.
Next stop: Phoenix. Along with Danny Ainge, he's an assistant under Cotton Fitzsimmons going into the '96 draft. The Suns were leaning toward John Wallace, a 6-8 forward out of Syracuse. When anyone asked Nelson his opinion, he recalled a scouting report from a Canadian national coach four years earlier. The kid in question was skinny and slow, and he played no defense. The only college coach interested was Dick Davey, from Santa Clara.
Four years later, Steve Nash was still skinny and slow and played no D. But Donnie trusted his instincts and reports from his Canadian pal. And on the day of the '96 draft, this is what he told Jerry Colangelo when asked for the umpteenth time about Nash:
"If this kid can't play, you can have my job."
The Suns took Nash with the 15th pick, and he didn't play much behind Kevin Johnson or Jason Kidd. As it turned out, Donnie didn't need the job anyway. After joining his father in Dallas, Donnie told the old man, "Your quarterback is the third-string backup in Phoenix."
Donnie sold Nellie on Nash, and then he did it again with Dirk, and for a long time after that the international connection dried up. Donnie didn't help the organization, or his reputation, in the draft, either. Still, he and Cuban put together quality teams year after year, and they won a title in 2011 with an unlikely collection.
But it's hard to sustain such success without superstars, and it's hard to find them when you're drafting at the back of the lottery.
Except in 2013, when, a long, raw talent out of Greece was still available at 13. Once again, Donnie stepped up with a pitch. But the Mavs passed, ultimately ending up with Shane Larkin.
So how did they miss on the Greek Freak?
"It was me," Cuban said last summer in a Sirius XM NBA Radio interview. "Donnie was like, 'OK, I'm putting my you-know-whats on the table.' He was doing the Sam Cassell, Nick Van Exel dance. ... It's all in. And I'm like, 'Donnie we have this plan.' "
And the plan did not include Antetokounmpo, much to the Mavs' regret these days. If you were wondering, Donnie doesn't boast about being right. In fact, he didn't appreciate that I brought it up.
But it certainly supported the notion that the next time Donnie was sold on a Euro, Cuban should, you know, give it some thought.
Not that that's what happened with Doncic.
"Doncic needed no selling," Donnie said. "The really good ones, or great ones, you know who they are when they're 15, 16, 17."
Whatever else the rest of the NBA knew about Doncic, the Mavs knew more. Most executives might see a Euro once or twice. In the last year alone, Donnie saw Doncic play 10 times. Over the years, he's probably seen a couple of dozen of his games. And that doesn't count the reports from his international scouts or right-hand man, Tony Ronzone.
"Not to mention all the relationships we've built up over the Olympics and in coaching clinics," Donnie said. "Lot of information shared in all that."
Which is good, and keeps Donnie's passport in stamps, but what you really need to know from all of this is that, when he really believes in an international player, Nelson's track record is nearly impeccable.
And he believes in Doncic.
"Does it mean he's surefire?" Donnie asked. "There's nothing surefire going from Europe to playing against the greatest athletes on Earth.
"But he's got the stuff."
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