Over the last few years I’ve started asking young basketballers what their goals in the sport are. Maybe it’s a sign of age. Almost always, they respond that they’d ‘love to play in Europe one day’ before anything else. It always puzzles me.
This mindset among young Australian basketballers is becoming an epidemic. It’s the belief that, when compared to playing in our NBL, playing in Europe is:
- Financially beneficial
- A great lifestyle
- Accompanied by a better reputation
- A better pathway to the NBA
Before I go on, like with most things, there are exceptions. Let’s look at Joe Ingles.
Joe’s case isn’t quite what we’re talking about as he went over there in 2009 when times were better than they are now, but it still shows what an ideal outcome looks like.
Before Joe signed in Spain in 2009 he had played in the NBL for three years winning a championship in his last year and he was an Olympian at the age of 20. After a year and a half in Spain’s ACB with Granada, plus killing it at the 2010 worlds and dropping 20+ on Argentina, he signed in Barcelona. He spent three years there then went and won a Euroleague title with Maccabi Tel-Aviv. In between that he played very well at the London Olympics and had 20 on Team USA!
After all that, he signed with the Utah Jazz.
So, if you’re like Joe, who is 6’9, a good athlete and can play the 1,2 and 3 all very well (AND has a European passport) and/or you’re playing for your country at the Olympics or World Championships, then you might want to roll the dice and give Europe a go. If not…
Let’s go through those four misconceptions in a bit more detail.
I understand why people think that Europe is a one way ticket to a huge contract. Before the financial crisis there was huge money in Europe (actually there still is, but only on a few teams).
As an example, I played with a guy from the Argentinian national team, Paolo Quinteros, in Zaragoza, Spain. One year the team got relegated so he was playing in the second division and his salary was rumoured to be €600,000 net (at the time around $1.2 million net, that’s significantly more than the minimum salary in the NBA). A $1.2 million net salary in a second division is mental.
Australian players like David Andersen and Matt Nielsen reaped the rewards of performing well at a great time and had long stints earning great money.
Then, of course, that pesky financial crisis came along and banks/sponsors that were once putting a lot of money into sports were understandably reluctant to sponsor teams. During my five years over there, from 2009-2014, (four in Spain and one in Poland with a Euroleague team) it gradually got harder to sign a lucrative contract. It was like, you would have a really good season then get paid less the next season.
Now days, guys that are trying to break into the European market for the first time are going to find it very difficult to earn more money over there than they could in Australia. For their first year over there this is without a doubt true, but with the state of the European economy I’d go as far as to say the same thing is true for an entire career.
Bottom line, for most guys that could have long NBL careers, in my opinion they would probably be better off financially if they did just that rather than testing their luck in the current climate in Europe.
Side note: Signing a contract and receiving the money are two separate things. I’m still owed money from my time in Europe that I don’t think I will ever get.
I get the feeling that some people in basketball think that the lifestyle playing in Europe is amazing. Maybe it’s because many Aussies that travel to Europe for holidays, do so in the European summer, our winter. Then everyone back home hears of the amazing times that were had on these holidays. Comparing a summer holiday in Barcelona, Berlin or Athens to living for ten months of the year in a small town with an average temperature of -5 to go along with a punishing training schedule and bi-weekly 9-hour bus trips to other freezing small towns is unfair. Day to day life in a place like this is very lonely.
Another misguided perception is the belief that playing in Europe automatically gives you status as a player that is too good for the NBL. Not the case.
Logically, you would define that as a player that has the ability to earn money somewhere else that an NBL team couldn’t pay. Unless you’re lucky enough to be on one of the better teams in Spain, Turkey, Russia or on a Euroleague team, that probably isn’t happening.
Stepping-stone to the NBA
Unless you’re playing for one of the best teams in Europe such as Real Madrid (Mirotic), Maccabi Tel-Aviv (Ingles), Fenerbahce (Bjelica), the chances are the NBA won’t be checking you out. Of course, there are always exceptions (like Porzingis).
To get on one of these teams is very difficult. You’re competing against guys who are good enough to be in the NBA or in the case of Josh Childress and Europeans like Vassilis Spanoulis, guys that actually choose Europe over the NBA.
With that in mind, I’d say a guy playing in the NBL that goes to play in the Summer League in the off-season, has just as much of a chance at an NBA contract if not more than a guy that does the same but plays on an average European team.
Over the past couple of years there has been somewhat of an exodus of players from Europe back to the NBL. Myself, Daniel Kickert, Nathan Jawai, AJ Ogilvy and Kirk Penney all spent multiple years over there and have decided to come home.
I haven’t spoken to these guys about the reasons why they’ve returned but I’m guessing their decision was motivated, at least in part, by two things. The first is the lifestyle; we really are very lucky to live in a really great country. The other is that the money just isn’t as good anymore; either the difference between potential earnings is so small it doesn’t justify living overseas or there is even less money in Europe than here.
All of the guys listed above have played for or are currently playing for Australia (NZ in Penney’s case). I think this illustrates how things are heading south over there. The fact that players of international quality like these guys have come home should be seen as a warning to others that are thinking of making the move to Europe.
Brian Goorjian once told me that “every good decision you make is putting money in your pocket, every bad decision you make is taking money out.” I think young guys that are choosing jobs in small markets overseas over establishing themselves as good NBL players are, as the above advice says, taking money out of their pockets.