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Italian Nicolo Melli Will Play for the New Orleans Pelicans

Italian Nicolo Melli Will Play for the New Orleans Pelicans

It was only a tiny message in the basketball world in the last few days: New Orleans Pelicans sign Italian forward Nicolo Melli to a two-year deal. Of course, it’s not very surprising that it did not result in big headlines, as NBA stars as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard and Kemba Walker all demanded attention at the exact same time. But, it was definitely big news in Italy, as it’s not very often that an Italian player makes the step to the NBA. The question is, why is that?

Why is it that Italy has so few NBA players? At this moment the count stops at just nine Italian players who made it to the NBA.

And that number includes a Canadian citizen, born in Italy, who only played 6 NBA games in 1946 (Hank Biasatti), an American who had been granted Italian citizenship (Mike D’Antoni) and an American (Travis Diener) who acquired Italian citizenship through his wife, who is of Italian descent. So with an honest count, the number would stop at six.

That’s the same number NBA of players a country like the Netherlands has produced and far less than Germany (10), Slovenia (10), Turkey (11), Senegal (11), Greece (12) and neighbour Spain (17) to name a few.

So a country that is a powerhouse in basketball, that was the champion in Europe twice, played two Olympic Finals, and produced 14 EuroLeague winners can’t deliver players to the NBA on a regular base. How is that possible?

Italy has made some marks in basketball history. Italy won 10 medals at European championships and was present at eight World Cups. Next to the NBA, the Italian league was the best pro league in the world in the mid-sixties, seventies and eighties

So, Italy belongs to the best basketball countries in the world but doesn’t produce NBA talent? That’s not completely true, there always has been a lot of talent in Italy, but these players choose not to go to the NBA.

In the past, part of the problem was that Italian players didn’t want to play in America. Pierluigi Marzorati was considered one of the best point-guards of the seventies in Europe but he didn’t play a single second in the NBA because he never went. He just wasn’t interested to play in the NBA because life in Italy was good and the money was good too. He would have been a great fit for several teams, but it wasn’t to be.

His teammate at Cantu? Dino Meneghin came a lot closer to playing in the NBA but didn’t make it either. He had the perfect body for a NBA-center, he had power, wasn’t afraid, a tough player, rebounded like a lion and had a soft touch around the basket. He made a great impression in the Italian national team when he was young and it came as no surprise the Atlanta Hawks drafted him in 1970 although he just turned 20-years-old. He was the first European player to be drafted, ever. But in the end Meneghin decided not to go to the Hawks as he considered himself too young. Four years later, in 1974, he did get another chance as the New York Knicks invited him to summer camp, but sadly an injury to his knee prevented him to participate. And that was it. Meneghin never went for another try-out.

However, in Italy it is said that being the first league to have big sponsors providing the teams with lots of money was a disadvantage as the best teams paid their stars so good leaving Italy for the NBA wasn’t a wise financial decision. Companies like Benetton, Ignis, Simmenthal, Il Messagero, Tracer, Philips and Kinder could pay extremely good salaries, salaries even NBA teams could not match.  So why would they leave and play far more games for less money? A player like Antonello Riva, all-time topscorer in the Italian League, 14.397 points scored, a natural scorer, didn’t give the NBA a real chance. Why should he? The amount of money he earned in Italy was not even matched by an NBA team.

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The sponsorships had another negative effect. Teams hired very expensive American players and these players had to play a lot of minutes to earn their money. And these players demanded the ball every other minute. That meant less playing minutes for Italian players, less scoring opportunities and less minutes to prove yourself as an Italian player. From 1968 to 1992 no Italian player led the league in scoring. So it was more difficult for Italian players to make an impact.

Of course, Italy has some NBA success stories too. Andrea Bargnani was selected as the first pick in the NBA draft in 2006 by the Toronto Raptors. The first European player ever to be chosen first, although Bargnani never reached his full potential as an NBA player. He had a decent 10  year career and returned to Europe in 2016 a bit disappointed. He never became the All-Star many though he could be.

Luigi Datome is another example of high expectations. Much was expected of him when he went to the Detroit Pistons in 2013. He was the MVP of the Italian League, he was respected as an extremely good shooter and…it didn’t work out. In his two NBA seasons (Detroit and Boston) he never averaged more than 5 points a game. He showed flashes of his shooting touch in his first game as a starter for the Celtics when he torched the Milwaukee Bucks for 22 points, but he never played on that level in another game.

Photo: FIBA

Marco Belinelli is the best NBA player Italy ever had. As an extremely good shooter there always was a team that needed his service. He may not be as talented as Danilo Gallinari but he has accomplished more. Belinelli played in more NBA regular season and play-off games than any other Italian player. And in 2014, as a member of the San Antonio Spurs, he became the only Italian to ever win an NBA championship. However, Gallinari and Belinelli were the only two Italians playing in the NBA in the 2018-1019 season. Just two.

However, things might change in the near future. The pipeline from Italy to the USA is growing. More than 10 Italian players played NCAA division 1 basketball last season. Guard David Moretti even had an extremely good season in which his team, Texas Tech, reached the NCAA final. Moretti showed a lot of promise and scored 15 points versus Virginia in the final game of the NCAA season. And super prospect Nico Mannion will crash college basketball next season. He is the no. 1 point guard in high school basketball in the US in 2018. Duke, Marquette, Arizona and Kansas all fought for his signature and early September he decided he wanted to play at Arizona. An obvious choice as he lives  with his parents is Scottsdale (Arizona).

Photo: USA TODAY Sports

Nico is the son of former NBA player Pace Mannion and former Italian volleyball star Gaia Mannion. American Pace met his wife when he played in Italy professionally. The family moved to the US when Nico was two years old. He has dual citizenship and could have played internationally for the USA. But when he did not make the U16 USA team he chose to play for Italy. A choice the USA might regret as Mannion developed into an explosive guard with a high basketball IQ. Last July, Mannion made an impressive debut in the Italian senior national team versus the Netherlands as a seventeen-year-old. In his first game for Italy, he played a team-high 29 minutes. He is projected to be a first round draft pick in the near future. And to put a smile on Italian faces: people in the USA have started to pronounce his name, Mannion, with an Italian accent since he started playing for the national team.

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