Italy is showing it can produce more than fast cars, fashion and soccer stars and that mozzarella, cannoli and Sambuca aren't the only things that need no translation.

Suddenly, Italy is a basketball hotbed, a welcome stop for every NBA scout with a passport. While enjoying espressos and la dolce vita they hope to find the next big thing, and this year Danilo Gallinari may fit that description.

The versatile 19-year-old forward is expected to be the only international player taken in the lottery — he's high on the New Jersey Nets' list at 10 if the Knicks don't take him at 6 — in Thursday's NBA draft.

When Gallinari's name is called, it will mark the third straight draft an Italian is taken in the first round. Marco Belinelli went No. 18 last year and Andrea Bargnani was the top overall pick in 2006.

Italians may call this abbondanza. One proud countryman says bravo, bellissimo to what he never imagined would happen.

"It's amazing," said Maurizio Gherardini, the Toronto Raptors vice president and assistant general manager since

2006. "It's a pretty nice surprise. Danilo is not there by coincidence. He can really play with the best young players coming out of college this year.

"But this is great for Italian basketball. The popularity of the game is increasing everywhere. If someone would have told you a few years ago that you would have three guys from Italy taken in the first round for three consecutive years you would say it's not possible. It's impossible. But it happened. That's good."

Gherardini said this trend has Italian players "striving" to reach the NBA rather than dreaming it because "it's becoming reality" now.

As Italy hopes to be heard from again, players around the globe are striving to play on the big stage more than ever.

In this draft, two Frenchmen (Alexis Ajinca and Nicolas Batum), a player from the Congo playing in Spain (Serge Ibaka) and an Australian (Nathan Jawai) could join Gallinari in the first round. Batum is said to be falling because of concerns about his heart, though.

Players from Turkey, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia could hear their name called in the second round.

It may be a few years before these players have an impact in the NBA or it may never happen. France's Frederic Weis is the poster boy for bad draft picks. But teams will continue to take chances and pray they don't make the huge mistake the Knicks did by taking Weis in 1999.

"We're art appraisers," said Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, one of the forerunners in finding talent overseas and bringing it to the NBA. "Instead of projecting real estate or art, we project human beings.

"So if there's a tall guy with good software that's got hands and feet and shows upside there's a good chance there's going to be an NBA scout nearby. I don't care what continent he's on. I don't care what armpit of the world he's in, we will generally find him."

Gallinari clearly is at the head of this international class. Nelson called him "tenacious" and compared him to a taller John Havlicek. Gherardini praised Gallinari's aggressiveness, maturity and leadership abilities.

Overall, though, the international pool may not be as deep as in past years. Nelson doesn't agree with that, and Gherardini, who sees some good foreign players going in the second round, said it may just be a down year.

"The college group is definitely deeper than the average of the past few seasons and the international picture is a little weaker than the past few seasons," Gherardini said. "But I wouldn't read it as a trend.

"Definitely the game is growing and becoming more popular everywhere. Down the road, that leads to more and more youngsters trying to become the players of their dreams."