Kalin Lucas will get a great chance to improve his game with Olympiakos in Greece. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Kalin Lucas is officially a professional basketball player, and that's something he should be very proud of.
Too often, the NBA is considered the end-all/be-all of basketball success (Terry Foster, I'm looking at you). The fact is, it's absolutely not. Many American players have long, successful careers and make great livings by playing in overseas leagues. Lucas signed with Olympiakos in Greece, one of the more famous teams in Europe (that is the club Josh Childress signed with when he briefly left the NBA and former NBA players Rasho Nesterovic, Vassilis Spanoulis and former Pistons draft pick Andreas Glyniadakis are on the current roster). Many recent former Spartans like Chris Hill, Kelvin Torbert, Drew Neitzel, Goran Suton and Marquise Gray, to name a few, have had great professional success despite never playing a minute of NBA ball.
Undoubtedly, though, Lucas' ultimate dream is to play in the NBA. And if he's paid attention to Spartan history, he has a perfect model for how to get there: Charlie Bell.
Bell found himself in a pretty similar situation in 2001. Like Lucas, he was a well known key player on a team that had sustained success throughout his college career. Also like Lucas, the fact that he was well known and the fact that he'd been around logging heavy minutes for four years gave scouts ample time to pick apart all of the weaknesses in his game.
The 2011 NBA Draft was considered by many to be weak, considering several star underclassmen elected to stay in school rather than enter the NBA when the league was likely heading for a lockout. Still, Lucas went undrafted. The 2001 draft, which Bell was a part of, was also pretty weak. Five of the seven All-Stars the draft produced were picked outside of the lottery. Only five of 29 players picked in the second round managed to hang around on NBA benches for more than a year or so. Bell, who is still in the midst of a NBA career as a useful backup, situational defender and good locker room guy, was not one of those players selected.
How did Bell make the NBA? He went to work. In high school, he was a record setting scorer at Flint Southwestern. He never became an elite scorer at MSU, but his game did start to become more well-rounded. His defense improved. By the time he was a senior, he was competent enough to give spot minutes as a point guard (a necessity considering he wasn't tall enough to be a full-time shooting guard in the NBA). He improved at Michigan State, but once he became typecast as a complimentary player, that label stuck, and it caused NBA teams to overlook him.
After playing briefly with the Dallas Mavericks on a 10-day contract in the 2001-02 season, Bell went to Europe and played with top clubs in Italy and Spain. He helped Benetton Treviso, another storied European team (Toni Kukoc, Vinny Del Negro, Andrea Bargnani and former Piston Zeljko Rebraca are among notables who played for the club), win an Italian League title. He became an all-league performer overseas, but more importantly, he learned to play with the ball in his hands more and he became a much more physical perimeter defender.
It just so happened that when the Milwaukee Bucks needed a backup combo guard who would bring toughness and defense to the team, Bell had molded himself into exactly that player.
Many young players resist going overseas because, even if the pay is better than the NBA D-League, there's a perception that chances at being seen by the NBA are better in the D-League than in another country. That could be true for some guys. But for guys like Bell and Lucas, guys who were big names in college, if they go to tough leagues overseas and produce, the NBA won't forget.
Lucas has an advantage coming out of college that Bell didn't: he has a position. To NBA scouts, Bell was viewed as a shooting guard in a point guard body. Lucas is definitely a point guard, even if he does need some work on his ability to create for others. He's already a good shooter, he has a decent first step and he takes pretty good care of the ball. And, like Bell, he's not only going to a well-known team in Europe, he's going to one where he could have a chance at an expanded role right away:
At Olympiacos he will step into the shoes of former Euroleague MVP Milos Teodosic, who left the club earlier in July.
Lucas' basketball career won't be defined by whether or not he makes it to the NBA. But if that is, in fact, his ultimate goal, he's in a very good position to make it happen. If he follows Bell's model, identifies weaknesses in his game and goes about working hard to improve defensively and to master running a halfcourt offense overseas, he'll have a shot. Point guard remains one of the toughest positions for NBA teams to find contributors and guys who can play defense, take care of the ball and shoot will usually be found at some point.