By PEDRO VELAZCO Kokomo Tribune
---- — A pair of local hoopsters who squared off against each other in high school found professional opportunities overseas this week when former Kokomo standout Brandon Wood and former Tipton standout Derek Elston signed with teams in Europe.
Wood is in his second season in Europe and will play for Affrico Basket Firenze in the Italian second division after leading Hungarian squad Alba Fehérvár to a domestic league championship last season. Elston has signed to play with Floriana Francesco French Greens in the Maltese basketball league.
A strong season capped with an MVP turn in the championship series last June put Wood in a position to move up a rung on the European basketball ladder. After weighing offers with agent Mike Naditch, Wood selected the Firenze squad, located in the city of Florence.
“Oh man, I have to start by saying God is great, just to be blessed in this position to be coming off a successful season and have another job opportunity lined up,” Wood said. “My agent, he’s been negotiating the last couple months and putting offers in front of me and seeing what I think. We’ve been going through them and seeing the positive and possible negatives no matter what the place may be and the possible money may be, just trying to find the right situation for my goals.”
The move to Italy was the most attractive option. Firenze earned promotion to Italy’s second division. Italy is one of the hotbeds of European basketball.
“I have a lot of friends who played in Italy. I’ve heard nothing but good things about the league,” Wood said. “It’s a very competitive league, very well respected. They are real competitive, have a lot of good players, they like to get up and down a lot so that really suits my game.”
In weighing options, Wood was enthused that Firenze’s coach Gabriele Giordani was so high on the former Wildkat. Indeed, a day after signing, Wood is the lead story on the Firenze website, www.affrico basketfirenze.com/abf/.
“The head coach was very interested in me,” Wood said. “That’s a positive, especially in Europe, which is a lot about finding the right situation. Some players have gotten released one, two or three times til they find the right situation and their career took off.
“I haven’t had a chance to talk to them yet but I did read an article earlier where [Giordani] stated I was his first [choice]. To read that I was the person he was most interested in on his list, I’m honored to be that name.”
Now that it’s moving up, the club is signing an American player for the first time. Wood expects to head to Italy in the middle or end of August to start training with Firenze. He said the first order of business upon going overseas is getting a mobile phone connection that puts him in easy contact with friends, family and social media. Otherwise, it’s much harder to adjust. Next is greeting his new teammates and getting his feet wet with the squad.
“I’m just blessed,” said Wood, who played college basketball at Valparaiso and Michigan State. “Ever since I figured out I was going to Italy it’s been surreal. When you hear about overseas basketball, you hear about Italy and Greece. To say I played in one of those leagues, that I’ve got to that point ... I’m blessed, and I’m proud of myself and proud of my family for staying on track.”
THE MALTESE HOOSIER
Former Tipton and Indiana University player Elston has signed to play with Floriana Francesco French Greens in the Maltese Powerade League. Malta is an island nation of more than 400,000 people south of Italy.
“The first thing that went through my mind was relief in being able to keep playing basketball and to live a dream of playing basketball professionally,” Elston said in a release from IU. “I couldn’t stop smiling after I signed that contract. They have really been telling me that they wanted me on their team. I was waiting on a couple other options to see if they would work out. But when they didn’t, [Floriana] were quick to let me know that they were behind me 100 percent and told me that they wanted me. So I said yes and they sent me a contract and we got it done.”
Floriana won the regular season title last season and went on to beat Athleta in the decisive fifth game of a best-of-five championship series to claim its first-ever league title in the 35 seasons of Floriana’s existence.
“We are excited that Derek has this opportunity,” IU coach Tom Crean said in the release. “He has continued to work hard since the season ended and he has developed a great spirit about himself after facing many physical challenges throughout his career. More than anything, however, Derek will leave IU this summer with two degrees in hand and for that, we are extremely proud.”
Elston already has his bachelor’s degree and will earn a master’s in sport administration this summer. The Maltese league begins in October.
Elston played in 115 games over his Indiana career, averaging 4.3 points and 2.9 rebounds. He shot 48 percent from the field and 37.5 from behind the 3-point line.
“That has been the whole process these last four years, to prepare me to get to the next level,” Elston said. “Coaches with professional teams wanted to see how I had played the last four years. I wasn’t able to send them much from my senior year but what they saw from my first three years got the attention of a lot of coaches. This team was looking for a guy about my height and [who] can get out there and shoot the ball and run the court. Once this team came along and said I was the kind of player they were looking for, it put a huge smile on my face.”