The oldest NBA rookie in more than 40 years is a seasoned professional
By NATE TAYLOR
The New York Times | October 22,2012
Pablo Prigioni of the New York Knicks, top left, chases down a loose ball with Boston’s Jamar Smith, center, as Dionte Christmas, right, defends in a recent preseason game.
Pablo Prigioni called his best friend again and again. Prigioni, in Spain, needed advice this summer — about the NBA, the New York Knicks and the United States — so he reached out to his friend Luis Scola to talk about a tough decision. Prigioni remembered that Scola faced a similar choice five years ago, and for Scola, the decision to join an NBA team had been an easy one, because that was his dream.
Prigioni now had a chance to follow Scola to the U.S. The Knicks had made Prigioni a proposal, and he found it too attractive not to consider. Still, he had doubts about saying yes. Where would the new path lead? Could he succeed? Would he find happiness?
During their many phone calls this summer, Scola, now a Phoenix Suns forward, gave positive feedback. He promised Prigioni he would enjoy the adventure. Prigioni, now a 35-year-old rookie with the Knicks, knows he is here in large part because of Scola.
“I have a lot of respect for him both as a person and a player,” said Prigioni, who is the oldest NBA rookie in the last 40 years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. “He really wanted me to make the jump, and I appreciated that.”
Prigioni did not need to prove he could play. He had become a passing prodigy in his homeland, Argentina. In Spain, Prigioni developed into one of the best point guards in the Euroleague, the highest level of basketball in Europe.
Last summer at the London Olympics, he started for the Argentine team that included Scola, Manu Ginobili and Carlos Delfino, countrymen who had NBA pedigrees. Prigioni, however, did not dream of the NBA. “Most of the guys of my generation didn’t focus on that,” he said.
In 1999, Prigioni went to Spain to play for Baloncesto Fuenlabrada and, he said, fell in love with the country. He soon met his wife, Raquel, and was voted the best point guard three times in the ABC, the top league in the country.
Prigioni and Scola forged their friendship in 2003 as teammates on the Spanish team Caja Laboral. Prigioni taught Scola how to score from different spots on the floor. The two also grew closer because they became fathers around the same time.
Scola, who moved to the Houston Rockets from Caja Laboral in 2007, said he always believed Prigioni had the skills to thrive in the NBA and thought it was his responsibility to let Prigioni know this summer.
“He didn’t just make me better — he made everyone better,” Scola said. “I really, really wanted him to come.”
So did Glen Grunwald, now the Knicks’ general manager. Grunwald appreciated Prigioni’s passion for passing and his basketball IQ.
Each summer, Grunwald made calls overseas wondering if Prigioni was ready for the NBA.
“Glen and I have talked for at least the past five years about Pablo,” said George Bass, one of Prigioni’s agents.
Besides preferring to stay in Europe, though, the 6-foot-3, 180-pound Prigioni had a buyout in his contract that was worth about $2 million, and the Knicks had point guards under contract.
That changed this year. Prigioni became a free agent, and the Knicks were in need of a reliable point guard. Grunwald brought Prigioni to New York for a workout before the Olympics, and he impressed coach Mike Woodson with his passing ability and his tenacity on defense.
“He’s a playmaker,” Woodson said of Prigioni. “If you’re open, he’s going to find you. And he gets up into you defensively.”
After the tryout, Prigioni said, he was still unsure about joining the Knicks. But one by one, his Argentine teammates urged him to reconsider. Scola, Ginobili and Delfino asked Prigioni the same question: when your career is over, will you regret not playing at the highest level?
“He achieved everything in Europe,” Scola said. “This was the next step.”
Prigioni said he did not like to think a lot when it came to life-altering decisions. Explaining his willingness to give the Knicks a try, he said, “I felt something different this summer in my heart.” Prigioni signed a one-year deal.
With the Knicks, Prigioni says he finds everything a little different. He works at the same drills, but there is a sense of excitement that comes with a new experience.
Prigioni realizes he is a basketball contradiction. Although he has been a professional overseas for 15 years, he will still be considered in the same category as the rookie Kendall Marshall, a 21-year-old point guard the Phoenix Suns drafted in June in the first round.
Prigioni’s family and friends, and even some members of the Spanish news media, have kidded him about his status as an old rookie.
“We’ll see how it works,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for me to play with such great players.”
One consideration that intrigued Prigioni was the chance to play alongside Jason Kidd, a point guard he modeled himself after. They have been on the court together during the preseason, sharing duties at point guard.
“We connected right away,” Kidd said. “He understands how to play the game and he keeps it simple. He’s fun to play with.”
Compared with his teammates, Prigioni, who is close to fluent in English, is quiet on most days. As the lone international player on the Knicks’ roster, he chooses to learn by watching his teammates and Woodson. Most of the Knicks, Prigioni acknowledged, do not know Spanish.
Prigioni has tried to become acclimated to the U.S. for the last month. He and his wife have seen the Broadway show “Evita” and have shopped on Fifth Avenue. Prigioni took less money to be with the Knicks — about half of his salary last year with Caja Laboral — and he had to quickly obtain a driver’s license, a Social Security number and visas for his family.
Scola said Prigioni would have to adjust to the 82-game NBA season. NBA games are also longer, the trips are rougher and the level of competition is greater.
“The NBA is a different world,” Scola said.
But Prigioni has been quick to modify his game, while showing a bit of flash, too. Through three preseason games, he has 19 points, 28 assists and 6 steals.
Prigioni is at his best in the pick-and-roll. He is quick enough to get by defenders, and he can slip passes between defenders in tight space. He has made impressive assists to Tyson Chandler for alley-oop dunks.
On defense, Prigioni likes to be aggressive and steal the ball. One thing he does not do often, however, is score. His reason is simple: with the Knicks, it is not his job.
“The most important thing for me is that my teammates want to play with me,” he said.
Prigioni knows that if he were a 21-year-old rookie, he would be nervous about the coming season. But he is closer to the end of his career than to the beginning.
“A lot of rookies come in and they are trying to gain confidence,” said Chandler, who met Prigioni this summer when the U.S. national team played Argentina in Barcelona. “Pablo knows who he is. He definitely doesn’t play like a rookie. And he shouldn’t.”