Norbert Thelissen is newest piece in Utah basketball’s growing European connection

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak as the University of Utah hosts Oregon State, NCAA men's basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020.

Andy Hill was driving to Montana for some vacation time earlier this summer when his phone rang, a familiar name showing up on his Caller ID.

Roel Van de Graaf, a director with Dutch professional basketball club Heroes Den Bosch, had a player for Hill. Norbert Thelissen is a 6-foot-7 wing who played 41 games for Den Bosch across the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Thelissen had the option to continue playing professionally, but long term, he wants to be a doctor. The road to that goal is easier going through the United States, so Van de Graff called Hill.

Hill has effectively recruited in Europe for years, while he and Van De Graff have a relationship, the latter having been through Salt Lake City before. Another Dutch teenager Van De Graff helped get to the United States, Tristan Enaruna, spent his senior year at budding national contender Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant before winding up at the University of Kansas.

Utah has a well-regarded pre-med program, the Runnin’ Utes had one scholarship to burn for 2020-21, Van De Graff trusts Hill to take care of Thelissen, so it didn’t take long for things to come together. On July 27, Utah announced Thelissen’s signing. While he is not eligible until the 2021-22 season due to NCAA amateurism rules, Thelissen is on scholarship starting this season, filling out Utah’s roster for 2020-21.

“European kids are interesting just because they are typically so much further along in their games, their thought process because of the way things work over there,” Hill told The Salt Lake Tribune late last month, days after Thelissen’s signing was announced. “With the options that kids have professionally over there, college is a bit risky right now because of the unknowns, but we’re excited he ultimately chose to take this option and make this move.”

To say Thelissen’s situation as it pertains to Utah is unorthodox might be an understatement.

In a July 27 text message to The Tribune, Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak clarified that Thelissen is on scholarship immediately despite not being eligible until 2021-22. Hill clarified the situation further to The Tribune, saying Thelissen will remain in the Netherlands this academic year, taking classes online before coming to the United States next year. Hill also shed some light on the amateurism issue making Thelissen ineligible until 2021-22.

Thelissen preserved his amateur status by never signing a professional contract, but he did play in games as a professional. NCAA rules international players to play in no more than 13 contests as a post-graduate. Thelissen exceeded the 13 games in the Netherlands, triggering the need to spend a year in residency before becoming eligible. Had Thelissen actually signed a professional contract, it would have been a non-starter in terms of gaining collegiate eligibility.

Another Euro kid Hill recruited to Utah, incoming freshman guard Pelle Larsson, played 26 professional games in his native Sweden last season, but did so before he graduated from school. Therefore, he is not subject to the same NCAA rules Thelissen is.

The fact Thelissen has played professionally, not to mention he will be an older, more mature 21-years old when he presumably will make his collegiate debut, will both be beneficial.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r University of Utah basketball assistant coach Andy Hill directs the team during Thursday, October 6, 2016 at the Huntsman Basketball Facility.

“The game is a lot different, especially coming to college with the shot clock, the pace, the officiating, the adjustment is significant,” Hill said. “They figure it out, though. The style, how quickly they play, I believe they adjust. With Norbert, I believe the level he played at, the pace, strength, the differences in the game here, I think he’ll have less of an adjustment.”

Between Thelissen, Larsson and sophomore forward Mikael Jantunen, the presumed opening-night starter at one forward spot, the Utes have an interesting overseas flair on a roster otherwise populated mostly with kids from the state of Utah and the Western United States.

All three kids spent their entire lives in Europe, never emigrating to the United States for high school, as is sometimes the case with European prospects. All three have extensive FIBA experience playing with their respective national team programs, Thelissen in the Netherlands, Larsson in Sweden and Jantunen in Finland. The first two have professional experience, all three project as present and future rotation pieces.

“I think the national team experience is very significant,” Hill said. “You can compare it to the American players playing AAU and for their high schools, but it’s different. No disrespect to the American system, but these kids are playing and training at a different level to represent their country. They’re doing film, scouting reports, making adjustments to qualify internationally. That whole body of work over a summer is huge.”