By CLIFF BRUNT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- The economy wasn't the only reason Pacers president Larry Bird trimmed his international scouting trips during the past year.
There just wasn't as much to see.
"This year, in Europe, there really weren't as many players ready," Bird said this week as he prepared for the NBA draft on Thursday night. "There's some guys ready to come over, but they're not ready to play in the NBA."
Even in years when the talent pool has been stronger, teams have been less eager to draft international players than they were earlier in the decade. A record 21 were drafted in 2003, but the total has dropped each year since and it fell to 13 last season.
If mock drafts hold up, that number could dip again on Thursday.
Ricky Rubio of Spain and Tanzanian Hasheem Thabeet from Connecticut are expected to be among the top five picks, but there are few other sure things from other countries this year.
Experts say there is still plenty of NBA-caliber talent outside the United States and they don't see a trend, but past failures have caused teams to be more careful about their selections. Of those 21 international players drafted in 2003, eight never played a minute in the NBA, and just one, Leandro Barbosa, has a career average of more than 10 points per game.
For every Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Steve Nash (Canada) or Yao Ming (China), there have been several Peter Fehses (Germany) -- good foreign players who never panned out.
Maurizio Gherardini, former general manager of Italian power Benetton Treviso, is now vice president of basketball operations for the Toronto Raptors. He has seen both sides of what happens when a foreign player doesn't work out in the NBA.
"There's too many examples of players that have come here too early, not ready, and ended up not having the experience that they should have had," he said. "The international element needs to be there, but only when it makes sense from a technical standpoint, from a quality standpoint."
This year, only a few players appear to make sense.
"It's just about when players develop," said Ryan Blake, the NBA's assistant director of scouting. "I think in the NBA, it really doesn't matter what type of player you are, as long as you're a talented player, a needed player, a desirable player. Right now, internationally, there are not that many desirable players that teams would want."
Blake said the talent pool goes in cycles.
"I do think it's a down year, but I don't think it's a trend," he said. "It's just how it goes and how people developed."
The 2003 draft is best remembered for the astounding domestic talent, including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh.
It was also the same year that Serbian Darko Milicic was picked second overall by Detroit, and he has averaged just 17 minutes per game during his six years in the league. Barbosa, Mickael Pietrus, Sasha Pavlovic, Boris Diaw, Carlos Delfino and Zaza Pachulia were successful international players drafted that year. Others were busts.
In those days, teams were simply in a race to make sure they didn't miss the next superstar. Now, all parties are smarter about when a player should make the jump. Some of the top eligible overseas players backed out and will likely enter the draft in 2010.
"Now, next year, there's a group of kids coming through that's probably going to be ready to go, and we'll spend more time over there," Bird said.
Joe Ash, Indiana's director of scouting, said teams spend more time and money tracking prospects at a young age so they have a shorter list of players to get serious about. For now, teams tend to draft young European players with potential in the second round, then leave them abroad to develop. Many teams hold rights to such players.
The Pacers have two such players, Erazem Lorbek (Slovenia) and Stanko Barac (Croatia). Neither has played in the NBA, but Ash said both players have improved and that Lorbek now is an NBA-caliber player.
Gherardini, the Raptors' VP, said he expects the number of international players getting drafted to go back up in the coming years.
"Overall, I think if we would have looked at this class a few years ago, we would have anticipated that it would not have been as good as some other years," he said. "Just like looking forward, we can say the class two years from now or four years from now would be very, very good."