Sporting management icon and General Manager of Fenerbahce Beko, Maurizio Gherardini speaks to Future Stars about the challenges of modern basketball and the development of young talent.
As a website which mainly deals with young players entering their professional life we are very curious on your opinion on the relatively poor impact of young players on leading European teams. In the past we had teams like Jugoplatica which were able to win the European Cup being based on very young super talented players. This is unthinkable right now.
I think young talent especially in Europe appears in waves and cycles. There doesn’t seem to be a matter of prescribed rules which would decide whether this players will find a chance in pro basketball or not. This goes almost on a season to season basis, some seasons produce amazing talent some others not. It must also be said that the level of basketball is constantly rising, especially physically so it is not easy for young undeveloped players. The recent trend, especially in the NBA shows that there is a market for more developed players. Bogdan Bogdanovic went to the NBA at the age of 25 as a fully developed player both physically and mentally. Luca Doncic is an exception so its difficult to use him as an example. We have never seen before a player who could play on such a level in every aspect of the game at such a young age. On the other hand, you see many young guys who made the jump to the NBA and are struggling because they don’t have any experience on this level. While you are talking about lack of opportunities for young players you need to consider that Giannis Antetokounmpo who is very young and came from Europe a couple of years ago was just voted MVP of the NBA regular season. A player who never played in Euroleague, Nikola Jokic was not very far behind him. So there are exceptions on a very high level. Sadly, there is also plenty examples of players that came with great expectations and never fulfilled their potential like Dragan Bender or Mario Henzonja. The main difference between the NBA of old time and modern clubs is in their scouting systems. These systems are so sophisticated, monitoring literally all available talent all over the world. The key is to get a player at the right time by the right team. I will use the example of Brooklyn Nets. Rodion Kurucs without a single minute in Euroleague to his name had a very successful season in a very progressive club like Nets, while Dzanan Musa is struggling very much. Here we are touching a very common issue of young players who are over optimistic about their current possibilities and make a jump too quick. I would also question the role of their handlers or agents. These players would be much better served if they had a couple years of experience at a high level in Europe.
And here is the problem. Where are these players supposed to get this experience? When you recruited Toni Kukoc for Benneton he was 23 and had already won 3 European Cups and was fully developed player. Musa has never played in Euroleague. Players are trying to make a move around the clubs so quickly that this completely destabilizes the entire system. This can’t be conducive to the development of talent. When you look at Euroleague, Euro Cup or Champions League clubs their rosters are not necessary full of young talent.
Young players must find clubs and situations which would push them to the absolute maximum. This is the only way to develop. Also, the club must find the way to develop young talent without affecting their overall results. This was our philosophy when we ran Bennetton for so many years. We have spent resources to scout the best players from all over the world but at the same time we wanted to develop young players. We wanted them to play alongside these top senior players in highly pressurised situations. We are talking about playing a serious amount time and working with top coaches. We are trying to do the same now at Fenerbahce. We mentioned Bogdanovic previously in our conversation, three years of playing in Euroleague with a coach like Zelijko Obradovic has developed him into a complete NBA star. There is however a major difference in the time when Kukoc played and the time when Bogdanovic is playing. For Kukoc, movement to the NBA was something extraordinary, available only for a very few. Nowadays playing in the NBA seems to be like something obvious to young talent. It is impossible to have a conversation nowadays with agents of these players about longer term contracts. They want to have an opportunity to move to the NBA at every possible moment. On one hand this is understandable because the NBA represents an ultimate dream for a basketball player, but on the other you must understand when it is the right time to make such a move. Going to the NBA too early could be very damaging. Generally, I would say that too many players underestimate the importance of getting a couple of seasons of experience before making a great move.
Let’s go back to the beginning of your career in sporting management. During your years with Benetton you came up with absolutely ground breaking, at least in European terms ideas such as Eurocamp. Big Man Camp, and Benneton Summer League. Where did your inspirations come from?
Not everyone has an opportunity to work in a set up like Benetton was at the time. Ghirada Centre was something unique in Europe and the Benetton family was very committed to sport and supporting whatever we were doing. From my first days in the office we were thinking about how we can improve basketball in general and of course how to improve our team using these amazing facilities.
When you look at NBA clubs nowadays everyone wants to make their facilities look absolutely fabulous. Everyone understands that this is a very important part of the image and the way how other people portray you. From the very beginning at Benneton we said that we have to use our facilities as a recruiting card with new players and think very creatively what events we can run. These events had to bring exposure to our programme and the place itself. This was combined with heavy investment into scouting and bringing new talent. You simply cant survive on just paying top dollar to your current stars, you must have a steady influx of new blood. These players must come with the right amount of talent at the right time and for the right price. Very soon we started travelling all over the world looking for players. We achieved the situation when the small town of Treviso (85.000 people) had 3 players in the NBA Draft in very quick succession. In 2002 Bostjan Nachbar was 15th pick and Nikoloz Tskitishvili was 5th pick. Four years later in 2006 Andrea Bargnani was 1st Draft Pick. We never stopped developing our events and were always looking for new ideas. Big Man Camp was developed with Donnie Nelson and the Mavericks organisation and was obviously inspired by the work of Pete Newell. We created an event which was very needed by the basketball community in Europe and we literally had every big player here in Treviso. The key was to have great teachers on the floor demonstrating drills. I remember very well Kiki VanDeWeghe demonstrating drills and how young European kids were absorbing this knowledge. Eurocamp became a focal point for all young prospects from Europe and something which young players were literally dreaming about. That made us a very exciting organisation which a lot of people wanted to work with. We hosted four first editions of Basketball Without Borders and now this event has morphed into an international NBA brand which is the most recognised exposure camp in the world. Then we turned our attention to the Summer League. The first editions of Summer League were a true summer league full of players fighting for contracts. I remember Theo Papaloukas and Denis Marconato playing there. We even had a couple guys of who ended up with NBA contracts.
Now times have changed and relationships have also changed and it is not so easy to organise things like that. Especially a good Summer League. We were very lucky to live in times when events like that were possible and have the backing of an organisation which believed in me.
So maybe a lack of these type of events is partially to blame for the situation which we have discussed at the beginning of our conversation. Surely Basketball Without Borders can’t serve all purposes.
Basketball Without Borders has expanded immensely and exists as a separate event on four different continents and provides exposure to a great number young players. Eurocamp has existed for twenty years and I really hope it will survive in some form. You must remember that all these exposure events are crowning a whole year of work of scouts, coaches and other people which work with these players. These events are not to improve players, but to give them more opportunities to be seen. Another role of events like that is an opportunity for the basketball community to meet and discuss new ideas. What is more interesting is the ability of the clubs to build well founded programmes which can nurture real talent. Clubs must be able to invest into a junior programme which employs top coaches, this is a key to the development of the game. I remember speaking to an assembly of basketball people in Canada in times when Canada had Steve Nash and Joel Anthony playing in the NBA. The topic was how to improve the standard of Canadian basketball and the first thing which was agreed upon was a massive investment into the coaching structure for young players. The effects were amazing, now Canada has the second biggest contingent of players in the league. The quality of teachers and coaches is paramount to the success of the programme, this will very quickly translate to the quality of the entire organisation. This is a massive problem since we know how difficult it is to make a basketball organisation a money making operation. Very often clubs think in very short terms trying to find money only for professional teams. Of course, it is very important to have a very successful first team but it is equally important to have a healthy development model with preferably a separate, solid budget for young teams.
After one ground breaking team at Treviso and a prolonged spell at Toronto Raptors you have started changing the landscape at Fenerbahce. True to your philosophy you have started from recruiting an amazing coach, Zelijko Obradovic and you have won the first ever Euroleague title in 2017. Could Istanbul project be equally innovative for you?
Well my passion for the game is absolutely the same. I was very blessed to be involved in the organisations which you have mentioned. Fenerbahce is a very appealing and challenging project. To establish Fenerbahce as an elite European organisation it is a very long process which needs to be continued also by the next generation. Competition is absolutely fierce and we constantly need to think outside the box to keep up with the rest of the top clubs. Talking about thinking outside the box we need to think what kind of global competition for clubs we could create. Basketball is the most global sport outside of football and we need to create events and competitions which truly reflect this and are attractive to millennials and new generations. In the process of doing it we have to create organisations which are sustainable and able to generate their own income. We have to have far better structures in basketball which can stand on their own legs. This is a proper challenge for basketball in the future. Of course we are not taking about NBA which is completely separate entity.
Well, basketball right now is doing something opposite creating a picture which is very difficult to read for potential sponsors and spectators. We have two different streams of club competitions in Europe and a World Cup where top teams use completely different rosters in the qualification stages than in the main tournament.
Let’s not venture into answering this question, we would need another 2 days to discuss it and we wouldn’t come up with a clear answer. I will only repeat which I have already said before. Basketball needs a much better structure and sustainable clubs to make a significant step forward.
In this case let’s concentrate on the immediate future. What does the future hold for Fenerbahce? For a variety of reasons the end of the season both domestically and internationally wasn’t as expected. There will be significant changes in the roster with departure of Nicolo Meli and Marko Guduric and the arrival of Nando Del Colo. You will face fierce competition from clubs like Barcelona which goes absolutely ballistic with their reinforcements.
Qualification to the Euroleague Final Four automatically means that your season was very successful. We have done that in five consecutive seasons which is amazing. This season we even broke the record for wins in the regular season. We had a lot of bad luck with injuries at the final stage of the season and that definitely played a role in the outcome of Final Four and the finals of the Turkish league. Certain things you can control some other not so much. We were very happy that Meli and Guduric had an opportunity to go to the NBA. We have counter balanced it with signing a special player like Nando del Colo, we have signed Leo Westermann and we are trying to finalise a deal with Derrick Williams. All these changes makes us very excited about the next season, but I’m equally excited how strong Euroleague becomes. Barcelona is putting together a super roster but other clubs are also not sleeping. The addition of two extra teams will make Euroleague even more unpredictable and demanding but also more exciting.
Many thanks for a fascinating insight into world basketball