MILAN — When Celtics coach Brad Stevens coached at Butler in 2011, he served as a US assistant for the World University Games team that traveled to China. Like so many of these international trips, it was a chance to see a foreign country and have someone else pay for it.
But it should come as no surprise to those familiar with Stevens that he found great value in other ways. He viewed the excursion as an opportunity for enrichment as a coach, a chance to digest and study so many different styles and approaches that he had yet to consider.
He studied Russia and Finland particularly closely and developed a greater appreciation and understanding of the European game.
“For me,” he said, “it was incredible.”
After the tournament, Stevens assembled a 23-minute tape of plays he learned during that brief stop in China. He calls that tape his most prized keepsake from the excursion. He sent copies to some friends in coaching and said he still consults the tape now that he is in the NBA.
And as the Celtics on Sunday held the first practice of their six-day European trip — they face Olimpia Milano here Tuesday before traveling to Spain to face Real Madrid on Thursday — Stevens said he was most eager to once again assume the role of a student studying abroad.
“The coaching and the styles are things I’m going to steal from and take from,” he said. “I really get excited about watching the international game anyway, so getting a chance to play against both Milano and Real Madrid later in the week is a treat.”
Stevens is not overly concerned about how these teams will match up against the Celtics in a pair of essentially meaningless exhibition games. But he is forever focused on the bigger picture, so when there is an opportunity to improve his team while furthering his basketball education, he will take it.
“I love the spacing [in European basketball],” Stevens said. “I love the emphasis on team. I love the pace of the game. I mean, there’s not a lot I don’t like.”
These traditionally European concepts have become especially relevant in today’s NBA, as many teams are embracing the notions of smaller lineups, well-spaced offenses, and sometimes relentless 3-point shooting.
Olimpia Milano and Real Madrid play the game with great sophistication. And the fact that both started practicing several weeks before the Celtics did should make them more crisp this week.
In a regular-season scenario, that would be a concern. But set against the backdrop of teaching and learning, Stevens understands there is more to gain by being a step behind.
“I think we’ll get spun around a little bit,” he said. “And that’s a good thing this time of year . . . It’s a great challenge. It’s going to be tough. But it’s a great chance to study these players on film, more so I can put a tape together that I like so I might steal some things later on. That’s the fun part for me.”
This trip also has given Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge an extra opportunity to gather intelligence on European prospects. Ainge typically goes overseas about four times per year.
On Sunday, as the Celtics toured Lake Como before several players planned to attend an AC Milan soccer game, Ainge took a train to scout at an Italian League basketball season opener. He intended to be back here in time for the Celtics’ Monday afternoon practice.
Since the Celtics will be in Madrid for only about 48 hours, Ainge will not have time to watch a game there. But he does intend to meet with the agents of a few prospects.
He will probably return to Europe during college Christmas break, because few marquee NCAA games are played then. But he said organizing these trips can be challenging.
“I can look at an NCAA schedule for February and know exactly when teams are playing,” Ainge said. “In Europe, they wait until a week or two before the game to schedule it, so everything you schedule has to be last minute. There are a lot of changed-flight fees.”