How Mexico aims to up its game, develop more potential NBA talent

NBA Mexico director Raul Zarraga wants to see his country to improve its system for developing basketball talent. Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty Images

MEXICO CITY -- Raul Zarraga, managing director for NBA Mexico, displays an almost electric enthusiasm when discussing the league's global push, and it only amplifies when the discussion moves closer to home.

The truth is that the NBA has been playing games for 25 years in Mexico, including two contests in the nation's capital this week. So it's apparent that growing the game for the fans remains at the forefront of the NBA's goals. But where Zarraga's excitement escalates is from the movement afoot locally to develop Mexican players for the international stage and potentially the NBA.

"Mexico City has more basketball courts than any other sport," Zarraga said. "We need to work much more closely with the local authorities to see how we can grow the basketball professionally to find new players that in the future can play in the NBA. Because I'm sure the talent is there. But we need to look for it, and we need to boost our level of talent, to make them grow, and hopefully in the future we can have another NBA player or even in other international leagues. There's a lot to do on that side."

But don't think for a second Mexico and the NBA haven't already started.

The NBA and Basketball Australia announced back in November the launch of the NBA Global Academy, an elite training center expected to serve as a hub for top international prospects from around the world. The players there will be able to train with NBA-level coaches in elite facilities. The league also has recently opened or revealed plans to open academies in China, India and Africa.

Mexico has a development academy, too, one that was opened by the national team, but Zarraga would like to see the NBA take on a larger role.

"We are trying to work with them [the NBA] to see how much we can add value to this current academy that they have where we're looking for this talent," he said. "Then in the future, we can possibly have a much better selection for Mexico players that could be playing in FIBA world championships, in the Olympics or hopefully in some other international league, including ours [the NBA]."

The path to a better development system in Mexico goes beyond high-level training for the top players.

"It's complicated because ... the infrastructure for professional basketball here is not as developed as in other countries -- as maybe Brazil or Argentina," Zarraga said. "So we are trying to work from the basics and also working with the authorities to make sure that the kids can keep growing and practicing basketball and sort of live their lives through the basketball."

In the '90s, Horacio Llamas became the first Mexican-born player to reach the NBA, but only three others have followed. Eduardo Najera has been the most successful, playing 12 NBA seasons with five teams and participating in nearly three times as many games as all other Mexican-born players combined. Gustavo Ayon, who led the national team to gold in the 2013 FIBA Americas Championship, and Jorge Gutierrez also have reached the NBA, although neither has appeared in more than 24 games in a season.

Zarraga is convinced more players capable of competing at the highest levels exist in Mexico. But as Najera recently explained, sometimes bureaucracy can stymie the talent's growth.

"It was really challenging when I was playing, because there was a lot of corrupt people involved in our sport," Najera recently told ESPN.com. "Their main objective was to take, not to create or to support athletes or to extend ways to better our basketball."

Najera, currently a scout for the Dallas Mavericks, went on to note that the situation has improved.

"It seems like in the last few years, new people have come in, and these people are aware of the problems and politics and how corrupt it was for a long time," he said. "So it's changing. I see a big future. I see more players from my country coming out and playing in college and playing in the NBA. It's just a matter of finding them and also providing a platform for them to develop. It is doable. It's a lot of hard work, but it is possible."

If Mexico grows the talent, the NBA will certainly try to harvest it. San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford has been with his team off and on since 1988 and said the scouting hot spots have changed dramatically over the years, as the NBA's globalization push has led to a deeper, wider talent pool. There were a league-high 113 international players from 41 countries on rosters heading into the current season.

"I think the must-see scouting events, evaluation opportunities, all of those have grown exponentially," Buford said. "I think the amount of time we spend on young guys really is dominated in that environment because of the lack of exposure to under-18 [players] that we have in the U.S. I think the quality of the game around the world through FIBA programs, through the terrific club programs and hopefully with some influence through the NBA and Basketball Without Borders programs have all helped grow this game."

The Mavericks and Phoenix Suns conducted a basketball clinic Wednesday as part of an NBA Cares event for the Special Olympics. The Mavericks then invited local kids to the American School in Mexico City for their shootaround in preparation for Thursday night's victory over Suns at Mexico City Arena.

Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki said he had fun working with the kids while adding the team had "been welcomed here with open arms" by the locals.

Longtime Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called the globalization of the NBA a "night and day" proposition when comparing the talent cultivated internationally now by the league to when he first came into the league.

"When you look at all the countries that have developed basketball-wise, it's been a great thing for the league in terms of adding more talent," said Popovich, whose team will face the Suns here at 6 p.m. ET Saturday. "It started with David Stern and has continued with Adam Silver. It's just been a steady progression of growth."

Zarraga now wants to see that growth take root in his country.

"It's amazing how the kids feel like they can relate with the stars. But when they see the Mexican players with the local Mexican team when it's in international competitions, they see themselves playing like them or really like the NBA stars as well," Zarraga said. "So at the end, what we're looking for is -- precisely with us, with the NBA creating programs like the junior NBA -- is to make sure that they have an organized platform to play -- to play in tournaments to be sure that in the future we can grow the game for the kids."