In a hotel suite on the Las Vegas strip, Sonny Vaccaro negotiated the contract of high school star Brandon Jennings with the owners of Lottomatica Virtus Roma. Vaccaro has been one of basketball’s greatest business visionaries ever, but he insists that he’s baffled for the way the Euroleague franchise has been so stingy over the point guard’s playing time.
“I haven’t figured out the European game yet,” Vaccaro said. “I don’t know why if they were going to pay him a half a million dollars, that they don’t play him. It’ll be illogical to pay this kind of money and keep him on the bench.”
As much as anything, Jennings delivered Lottomatica immense publicity with his signing straight out of Compton, Calif. Few NBA executives believed that Jennings’ leap to the Euroleague would be without a sluggish transition. All along, they planned to watch closely and see how he handled it. Despite an average of just 18 minutes a game, NBA executives and scouts don’t consider him a disappointment.
NBA teams know Jennings is gifted, but most are intrigued with his staying power. How’s he handling adversity? How’s he interacting with his older teammates? Just three weeks ago, Jennings' first coach with Lottomatica quit. For most draft picks, Jennings is experiencing a much more realistic simulation of a rookie year than had he been jacking up shots and getting coddled at the University of Arizona. Two NBA executives who’ve watched Jennings practice in Italy left impressed with his progress.
“It shows that he had the [guts] to be a trailblazer,” one Eastern Conference executive said. “This isn’t ideal if his confidence is frail, but so far he hasn’t shown to be a wuss. If the team can get to the Euroleague Final Four, he still has a chance to shine.”
Vaccaro, the retired sneaker executive, has turned himself into a conduit between Euro teams and the families of high school stars. He says that 13 different families of the top class of 2009 prospects have talked with him about the European option. With the NBA mandating that players must wait until one year after high school graduation to enter the draft, the possibility of making a few hundred thousand dollars in Europe is incredibly intriguing.
This move isn’t for everyone. Most kids couldn’t handle living in a strange country, never mind adapting to Europe’s far more team-oriented, passing game. Vaccaro says one team destined for the draft lottery has told him that Jennings won’t slip past it. Another Eastern GM says that unless Jennings gets into trouble between now and the June draft, nothing will push him out of the lottery. In what’s considered a thin 2009 draft, Jennings picked a good year to be a test case.
“If Brandon goes over there, makes a good dollar and goes in the [draft] lottery, I think that the balance of scales will be tested here,” Vaccaro said. “I think you’ll see more players wanting to do this. All 13 families have said to me, in one way or another, ‘How can they criticize us for thinking about going pro and making some money when the coaches and everyone else around us are making millions?’ None of them are saying they’re ruling out college – nor should they – but this is a legitimate option now.”
Nevertheless, it’s inevitable that the financial crises in Europe promise to change pay scales for players this summer. Several agents say that there’s no telling how dramatically contracts could decline this summer, but no one believes that Russian and Euro teams will be offering the lucrative deals available a summer ago. The bottoming out of oil prices have hit Russian teams the hardest. Teams have been late paying American players, and even later paying agent’s fees.
Moscow Triumph was glad to let center Nenad Krstic out of his multi-million dollar contract so he could sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Triumph had paid him on time, his agent, Marc Cornstein said, but sources insist that the Russian team was relieved to rid itself of the financial burden with Krstic. Jannero Pargo, the ex-New Orleans Hornets guard, is returning to Moscow Dynamo after its holiday break, but league sources say there is still a chance he could return to the NBA this season.
“There’s no question that this year has brought up issues [in Europe] that have never existed before in this business,” Cornstein said. “There are teams that they thought had a legitimate budget for this year, but for one reason or another, have been greatly affected.”
Three NBA executives say that the Golden State Warriors are pushing Corey Maggette hard in trade talks. Other players that executives say are available include Philadelphia 76ers center Sam Dalembert, Charlotte Bobcats guard Raymond Felton and forward Adam Morrison, Chicago Bulls forward Drew Gooden and guard Larry Hughes and Sacramento Kings center Brad Miller. …Most league executives believed that Charlotte traded for Phoenix Suns forward Boris Diaw to eventually move him to New York, but sources say the Knicks have never even called about Diaw, one of Mike D’Antoni’s favorite former players. Several other teams have inquired about Diaw, but Bobcats GM Rod Higgins has told everyone that the franchise isn’t motivated to trade him. …There were nearly 30 NBA executives and scouts at the Connecticut-Georgetown game on Monday night in Hartford, and as one respected scout said, “Thirty men absolutely fell in love with Greg Monroe.” Monroe is the 6-foot-9 Hoyas freshman who was considered the No. 1 high school player in his class. Said the scout, “He plays like an old pro, the way he sees the floor, takes good shots, throws the back-door passes. He’s even got a hook shot. [Hasheem] Thabeet didn’t [block] his shot once.”