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  • Writer's pictureCord Thomas

Why European Players Don't Stay in the US

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

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Every once in a while I have decided that I want to try and do a deep dive on a certain player, their lives, their mindset, and what we can maybe expect from them moving forward. Today I’m tackling this from a bit of a different angle though, with Eurobasket going on, and the news of a couple of great players in Dzanan Musa and Tomas Satoransky leaving the NBA to go back to the Spanish NBL.

Of course, they join other Spanish and European greats such as Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Llull, Sergio Rodriguez, Alex Abrines, and Nikola Mirotic, as others have before they decided to never go to the NBA when they had offers or to leave after a few seasons to go back to Europe. But why? I’m going to do my best to cover this topic holistically, both from the athlete’s motivations to the athlete’s comfort and the psychology behind such decisions.

Let’s talk money, shall we?

When it comes to being paid in Europe vs. in the NBA, there isn’t that large of a difference, especially if we’re talking to mid to lower-level players of the NBA vs. high-quality starters or stars of teams in Europe. It might be a couple of million dollars more money in Europe, and probably a longer contract if that’s what the player wants, so more security.

Most Americans will know the answer to this question: Why does LeBron like being closer to Portland, and spending lots of time there? That’s where his sponsors NIKE are. The easiest channel to make money as an athlete is through sponsorship. The level of fame equals more and better sponsors, which means more money for the athlete. An end-of-the-bench player from Europe in the NBA isn’t getting any interesting sponsorship offers in the U.S.

On the other hand, if they’re someone like Tomas Satoransky or Dzanan Musa, they are the best players from their country, and at home, the sponsors can’t get in line fast enough. There are millions of people who know their names and recognize their faces everywhere. Yes, Tomas Satoransky is the LeBron of Czech basketball at the moment. On top of that, being the starting point guard for a team like Barcelona should attract Spanish sponsors as well.

So if fame and being widely known means getting a much larger paycheck, and being much closer to my sponsors meaning I can do much more for them and therefore earn more money, from a purely financial motivation this makes a lot of sense.

So where’s the line?

Nikola Mirotic is the highest paid Euroleague player at the moment at about 5.5 million Euros. Right now the exchange rate for the Euro has completely plummeted against the dollar, and they’re the same. Before Covid and the war in Ukraine hit, the euro was often up at about 10-15% higher than the dollar.

In any case, for quality starters in Europe, salaries between 1.5m euros and 2m euros are quite common. Less than the veteran’s minimum in the NBA, more than what a rookie contract would look like. So that line is probably around the $10m per year mark, where the financial benefits of playing in the NBA outweigh the fame and sponsorship benefits of playing in Europe.

Money isn’t everything.

I think there are a few types of players that thrive in European-style basketball over the NBA. Let’s talk about some of the stylistic differences. FIBA has a shorter 3-point line distance similar to college hoops in the US. There isn’t any defensive 3 seconds violation. And once the ball hits the rim, there’s no goaltending.

Stylistically for players, these rules require teams to have an all-time one-on-one talent like Luka Doncic or to play more team basketball. Players like Tomas Satoransky and Dzanan Musa are not one on one Gods. They thrive in a system of pass, screen, and cut, with lots of player and ball movement. The other type of player that thrives is the sharp catch-and-shoot shooter. Players like Rudy Fernandez who still at 37 years of age and making a huge impact with Real Madrid because they are dead-eye shooters, but in a system of movement. Then you have your tall lanky bigs that are good shooters but don’t have the weight to deal with the bigs of the NBA like Jan Vesely. These players thrive in Europe due to all the help-defense and shrunk court. So basically, your off-ball slashers and your great shooters are who are going to thrive in a European system.

Most European players come up with this knowledge, and in systems leveraging the fact that other teams often play in a zone or clog the middle of the court, and so it tends to create these types of players. When they get to the NBA, the lack of movement on offense and individualistic basketball is something not only shocking but detrimental to a lot of players’ games. I think we saw both Satoransky and Musa struggle with this while they were in the NBA.

With the overall talent in Europe being a bit closer together, and not having the level of superstars of Damian Lillard, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Luka Doncic most years, there’s a lot more room for a good or great coach to come in, get a team to work together in a system, and find success. I believe that’s partially why the Euro players thrive so much in San Antonio, because coach Popovich has created the closest thing in the NBA to a European club culture where everyone works towards the same goal, and individuals are put after the team.

The better I am as a player, in a system that makes me look better, the more I get paid long-term, and the larger role I have.

Success on the court equals more playing time, which equals more screen time, which means more fame and money. Therefore yes, role matters. And it matters a lot.

Imagine you are a big-shot manager at a company of 500 employees, where you managed 50 of them. You transfer over to a huge corporation of thousands of employees, do the same job, get paid more, but now with a team of only 3 employees. How fulfilling is that going to be? You’re probably going to feel like you’ve taken a huge step back in your career.

There’s a reason why those looking to move up in the corporate world usually start at the largest company they can, and then spend some time at higher positions in smaller companies, before returning to a large company with experience at that higher position. I’ve seen it hundreds of times. Someone works up to director's level, gets a few years of experience, gets an offer to be CEO somewhere, and then after 5 years of being a successful CEO returns to the bigger corporate world with a much larger title and paycheck than director level.

So what’s happening to our European players? Unless they leave Europe just as they’re finishing High School, most players feel like that big-shot manager. Going from a job they love with lots of responsibilities, to being a nobody. If they believe that they can make it, become somebody, and have the skill and talent, then it’s worth the risk.

But until that happens, if it ever happens, there’s going to be a heavy pull back to the safety and enjoyment of the previous job. If you’ve ever had a truly fulfilling job and left it to take a risk to have an even better life, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

So there’s a balance here between how much effort, and how much time it takes to reach a certain level in the NBA where it all seems worth it, in comparison to having a guaranteed great role on a Euroleague team. I’m guessing a lot of players coming to the NBA give themselves up to 3 years, that at the end of three years they want to be part of the rotation at minimum, and after 4 or 5 starters. And if that doesn’t happen then they want to move back to Europe. And when playing careers are often 15-20 years in the best scenarios, that’s a lot of time to invest.

What is the greatest determining factor of an athlete’s success once they get up to the professional level? And no, it’s not God-like talent, superior skill-set, or work ethic.

The greatest determining factor when it comes to an athlete’s success is their support system. It’s their family, their manager, their coaches, their trainers, their managers, their support staff, and their friends. I’ve had multiple clients whose families don’t see professional sports as an acceptable career for an adult with a family, and I can confidently say that this heavily negatively impacted the athlete’s career, their level of success, as well as the family dynamics. I’ve seen this issue even tear families apart if a life partner isn’t willing to make the sacrifices necessary for their partner to pursue their sport.

Most European players are going to feel a lot more understood, supported, and closer to this support system being in Europe than if they’re 10-hour flights away from their families, and in time zones where the only chance of talking to the family is after they’ve finished dinner, and I’ve just eaten breakfast.

It’s not impossible. And a lot easier in today’s world of international transportation than it used to be. But for a professional athlete, a 5% boost in effectivity because I feel more comfortable with friends and family around me in a place that feels like home can be the difference between being an all-star and being benched.

A place that feels like home…

The cultures between Europe, and I mean all of Europe are so different from anything the US can offer. It’s such a consumption-driven place, and it never seems like people just hang out in the city. People are always either at home, or someone else’s home, shopping, or working. In Europe, Spain, Italy, and France especially, things are different.

There is a siesta culture, where everyone goes out around 3 pm for snacks and to have a chat, an espresso, or a glass of wine. There’s an enjoyment to things where people much more appreciate and savor the experiences they’re having and are going through. To us, it often seems like Americans take everything they have for granted, and are always pushing for the next thing instead of taking a deep breath and truly savoring and appreciating what it is they have.

Maybe that’s because the US hasn’t experienced war on US soil since a tiny bit of World War 2, and a major economical collapse since the 1930s. In any case, who wouldn’t want to live in Gaudi’s city of Barcelona with the most amazing architecture and a great beach right in the center of the city in little Barca?

Like honestly, in the NBA I always hear discussions about players choosing the team they want to play for based on the city they want to live in. Barcelona, Madrid, Canary Islands, Milan, Bologna, Istanbul, Paris, Munich, Prague… Do I even need to continue? If you ask me, every one of these cities rivals anything and everything each one of the major US cities could give, with more interesting architecture and history, but more importantly a more interesting culture and life with people who share more of their values.

On top of all this, travel time is a real concern for athletes. If the majority of my games are in the same time zone, a maximum of 3 hours travel away, I am always close to my family, my friends, and my support system. The reality of an NBA athlete is that they’re away from home, in hotels, not only for half the games of the season but for much longer during road trips of 10+ days.

Imagine that other than a night here or there, you always get to return to your bed and your home. This is huge in terms of comfort.

Something I haven’t touched on is loyalty. European clubs have much more of almost a school-like team feeling in the sense that kids are usually brought in around or before the age of 15 and trained up to join the adult team and become professional players.

I guess for Americans, you could try and imagine it like this: If your middle school, high school, university, and professional team, say the Boston Celtics, were all one organization. And you’d been groomed, invested in, and became part of the family from that young age.

Athletes truly have a feeling of gratitude towards the club that allowed them to become the athlete they are today, and therefore want to do what they can to display that gratitude. I believe that this applies to Tomas Satoransky, who after a few years at Sevilla, and then a couple at Barcelona left for the NBA, now returning at 30 years old to Barcelona not only to his old team, with tons of history and amazing club culture and fanbase, but also to play with his national team friend and big, Jan Vesely. NBA players do this all the time trying to move to play with their friends and people who they’ve played with and want to play with again, why shouldn’t Europeans?

Playing in the NBA is great, it’s a dream for a lot of kids growing up. But the realities of living in the US for many people and athletes just aren’t necessarily fulfilling, and that’s okay. Being far away from your family, your friends, your sponsors, and your home doesn’t make things easy. And one of the keys to making athletes great is their support system.

That’s why when European players go to the US, or vice versa, there’s a larger need for stronger support staff, and definitely, a sports psychologist to help them bridge the gap between learning a new style of play, and language, and creating a new support system to help them feel cared for and at least a bit at home in their new settings.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it again and again. Athletes are human beings, with real emotions that truly affect their motivation and ability to focus on their craft. The happier and more content an athlete is in other areas of their lives, the more they’re able to focus on their sport and drive themselves to be better because there aren’t other distractions.

I believe that it’s great that players are more often choosing where they want to play, including moving closer to home when financially and for the role, they want it makes sense. This isn’t some reason to say they couldn’t make it in the NBA.

I hate when I hear someone say that European players choosing to come back to Europe couldn’t cut it. That’s not the reality. As it’s not the reality for many Americans who chose to stay and play in Europe. It’s just a better situation for them. They have different goals than the fans of a given team who think that every player’s biggest goal should be to play for their favorite or the most famous team. News flash! It’s not.

So let’s congratulate these players the same way we did Jimmy Butler when he finally reached Miami, the place where he had been wanting to go for years it seemed. So Tomas Satoransky, and Dzanan Musa, I wish you both the best in the upcoming Spanish NBL Season, the Euroleague, and you dear readers, I wish you a wonderful day.

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