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Maintaining an International Influence in Memphis

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As the 2019 FIBA Basketball Championship continues, the Memphis Grizzlies are well represented.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

For 17 straight years, Grizzlies fans had the privilege of seeing Pau and Marc Gasol be at the center (pun intended) of almost every memorable moment this city has experienced with the Grizzlies. Though both could be polarizing in terms of their style of play, there is no doubt both Gasol brothers are two of the best players in the history of the franchise. A big reason for their success was their passion for basketball and passion for the city of Memphis. That same passion also extended itself to their home country of Spain. For over a decade, both in the Olympics and in other international tournaments, the Gasol brothers have made Spain one of the more consistent basketball powers in the world. Marc currently is one of the main reasons Spain has made it to the semifinals in the 2019 FIBA World Cup Tournament.

Obviously, there is plenty of excitement for the upcoming season in Memphis due to the plethora of young talent that has been acquired over the past few years. However, it will seem odd at times that the Grizzlies will be without a Gasol on the roster. Memphis is one of the few franchises in the NBA whose record books are filled with the accomplishments of players born on foreign soil. Other franchises such as the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs have experienced similar success. While on an individual level many of these players may not be all time greats (Dirk and Duncan aside), there is a special pride in seeing an organization experience success with significant contributions from players with unique backgrounds and skill sets.

Despite the absence of an international talent on the level of a Gasol, Memphis has no shortage of international influence on its roster. In fact, Memphis’s current roster has one of the highest amounts of foreign born players of any roster in franchise history. Jonas Valanciunas (Lithuania), Yuta Watanabe (Japan), Bruno Caboclo (Brazil), and Marko Guduric (Serbia) have all participated in 2019 FIBA World Cup for their home countries. Much like their expected roles with the Grizzlies, these players have made various levels of impact for their teams during the World Cup. However, as a group, they bring several benefits to a Grizzlies’ roster that, while talented, needs every advantage it can get.

If the Grizzlies can maintain a significant international presence on their roster in the present and future, it offers a variety of benefits both on and off the court. Without a doubt, the focus for Memphis should always on building a sustainable winner. However, adding value and diversity to the franchise culture is also important.

Here are a few ways in which international players can improve the Grizzlies now and into the future:

Brand Exposure

On the surface, Yuta Watanabe is probably best described as a fringe NBA talent when it comes to his skill set. That is not meant to be a negative toward him or his production, but just a logical observation. However, he is the type of player that still brings value to the Grizzlies. As seen above, Watanabe is currently one of, if not the, best basketball talents in the country of Japan. Not only is his style of play impressive for a man his size, it is fun to watch, and Watanabe is a very competitive yet fun personality on and off the court.

The main value Watanabe brings to the Grizzlies is marketability. In terms of countries, the county of Japan could easily be compared to city of Memphis. An isolated location that proudly promotes an individual culture and has an immense love for sports. There have been several occasions where Watanabe had one of the biggest media followings of any player on the team, mainly due to the presence of Japanese reporters. He also is one of the Grizzlies’ and Hustle’s most popular players among fans in Memphis.

For one of the smaller markets in the NBA, this type of international exposure is a valuable way to increase the profitability and value of the franchise. Sure, that may have little impact on the court in the present. But in an area of the world where the sport of basketball is becoming more popular and NBA teams are finding more talent, recognition is never a bad thing. In time, building your brand off the court is a good way to increase the amount of sources you can use to add talent on the court.

Production Value

The signing of Marko Guduric was a mystery at times this offseason, but it eventually became official in August. These type of signings of foreign-born players such as Guduric have continued to grow as a valuable resource for teams to use over the past few decades. The San Antonio Spurs have found tremendous long term success implementing this style of roster construction. Without a doubt, the most prolific European and International talents will continue to be drafted. However, not every overseas talent that can thrive in the NBA develops at a young age. As a result, it is critical that NBA teams maintain a scouting presence and awareness internationally to identify talents that could improve their roster.

The signing of Guduric is the first of its type for the Grizzlies in many years. The value of the signing goes beyond the potential for good production at a low cost. There is also significance in the type of production Guduric can provide. Obviously, the biggest need for the Grizzlies this year and beyond is perimeter offense, especially shooting. As can be seen on this ranking of every NBA player participating in the 2019 FIBA World Cup, several international talents have come to the NBA in the recent past and have had success as perimeter scoring options. A big reason is the style of play these players encounter in foreign leagues (mainly European leagues).

For a market such as Memphis that has to be frugal with their money, getting good production from players who will not cost much against the cap is a high priority. Besides the draft, the foreign market could be the next best resource to achieve this goal. Furthermore, the fact that several players whose strengths directly align with the some of Memphis’s long-standing weaknesses makes it imperative for the Grizzlies to maintain an international presence. Hopefully, Gurduric is just the beginning in a new trend of heavy involvement for Memphis on the international market.

Positional Versatility

In Caboclo and Valanciunas, the Grizzlies’ roster possesses two versatile frontcourt performers who can offer an advantage on both sides of the court. Valanciunas gives the Grizzlies a presence at the rim they have not had since Zach Randolph. Caboclo’s ability to shoot the three and defend multiple positions off the bench can be a valuable weapon when games become more up and down as second units enter the game. The development of both of these players since they have been in America certainly is a big reason for their various levels of success. However, their upbringing and natural abilities are a result of how they were trained on foreign soil in their youth. Their pedigrees are a big reason they have established themselves as significant NBA talents.

Many foreign talents that have come from overseas offer advantageous psychological and physical traits when compared to their American peers. Some younger players from European countries have advanced approaches and higher levels of basketball IQ due to playing older competition at young ages. Other players have naturally impressive length and athleticism when compared to players of a similar age from America. If a team can acquire these players and possess these characteristics, it allows for them to show different offensive and defensive concepts to their competition. The result is a schematic advantage that helps a team either secure or steal victories.


Dominican Rep v Lithuania: Group L - FIBA World Cup 2019 Photo by Shi Tang/Getty Images

For these reasons, the Grizzlies must be open-minded to how they can acquire an international talent that they desire. Some of the best teams currently in the NBA have achieved their status through drafting or trading for young foreign talent whom they feel can reach a higher ceiling than expected. That type of mindset has helped smaller markets such as Indiana, Oklahoma City, and Milwaukee develop some of the more enviable rosters across the league in the present and recent past. Whether it be a developmental talent, a specialist that can add value in a specific area, or a franchise cornerstone, the Grizzlies should look to add foreign-born players to their roster on a consistent basis. Due to the likely low financial burden, if the Grizzlies hit on a talent, it will provide tremendous value.

The Grizzlies have shown they can be creative and intelligent with their transactions this offseason. If they can apply that same approach in finding and adding international talent to their young core, it could raise the future ceiling of this franchise as a whole and achieve the desired status of a sustainable winner sooner than expected.

Follow @sbngrizzlies.