The NBA draft can be a fickle, arduous process. With 20-20 hindsight it becomes obvious who is a bust and who is a baller, but why are the “experts” seemingly so incompetent? What compelled Detroit to take Darko over Melo, Bosh and D Wade? Why did Cleveland take Wiggins over Embiid? Why did Donavan Mitchell, Draymond Green, Kyle Kuzma, Kawhi Leonard and a bevy of other players seemingly drop out of the top 5 when they had clear upside?
What system is used by GMs to gauge talent, and why is there a stigma around international players that they are all high probability busts? In an interview with The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor Sacramento guard De’Aaron Fox said “Not too many foreign guys have been stars in the league.” When asked about whether he would want his team to draft Luka Doncic.
It’s a stigma that has followed foreign players since Detroit took Darko, a giant oversight that has people scratching their heads to this day. For every Darko Milicic, there is an Anthony Bennett, a Derrick Williams a Jahlil Okafor, so why is Darko the principle for the rule and not the exception? This seems to be more of an old wives tale and not so much the case when you take a deeper look.
In order to compare international vs US born players I have compiled the first 5 picks from the drafts between 2010 and 2015. This timeline gives players at least 3 seasons to prove their value. There were 7 players not born in the US who were in the top 5 of the draft during this timeframe. Enes Kanter, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving, Jonas Valanciunas, Dante Exum, Kristaps Porzingis and Mario Hezonja. Of the 7 Kyrie, Joel and Kristaps are the three stars but none of these players can really be considered a bust. Sure Hezonja is a role player on a tanking team and Kanter was taken above guys like Klay Thompson and Kawhi but he has been a much better player than Derrick Williams who was picked one spot before him. So if the success meter is measured by players not being total busts, it seems like the foreign guys aren’t getting a fair shake.
How is it possible that players like Giannis, Dirk, Tony Parker, Marc Gasol and Manu Ginobili fall through the cracks and guys like Anthony Bennett, Jahlil Okafor, Derrick Williams, Dion Waiters and Michael Kidd Gilchrist get picked top 5 purely from pedigree? Does it really all stem from the old European model of the white uncoordinated 7 footer with lead feet and a bad shot who played in the 80s and 90s? That might be part of it but the biggest component might just be the fact that GMs and coaches are more inclined to value ceiling over drive and ambition.
Look at last years draft. Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball were both drafted above Jayson Tatum who was a great player, playing in the toughest conference in the NCAA, with the drive to succeed at the next level. Sure Lonzo had a pretty good rookie year but Magic Johnson comparisons? Come on! And Fultz had a very small sample size but the James Harden comparisons with that shot and lack of confidence is that’s just laughable.
This brings me to this years draft. For a while it was Doncic and Ayton sitting at 1a and 1b. Doncic the gifted leader with great vision to go along with the ability to knock down jumpers from anywhere and he also won the Euroleague final. Ayton on the other hand has a limitless ceiling, he can shoot extremely well for a center but his team got upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament, that’s with a very good team around him. On top of that Ayton is a center at heart and while most teams covet a big man the best teams usually have some form of a hybrid big who can shoot and defend well and not a slow post up center with below average defensive skills. Still, Aytons stock continues to rise while Doncic’s continues to fall and is now projected to be the fourth pick.
What Phoenix and Sacramento can’t comprehend is the importance of a winning culture, Ayton will be busy padding his box score while Doncic will be trying to win games. I’m sure both will be great players but when all is said and done I believe Doncic will be the one sporting rings and that’s the ultimate goal here right?
I guess my point is that no matter where a player comes from, even from a bad team, their confidence, motor and ambitions have to be valued as much as their potential.
My only other caveat is, the NBA is a fast break league, and the NCAA for the most part is catered around half court sets and while it may make for enjoyable basketball, it makes finding talent and standouts that much harder for the NBA. FIBA uses a 24 second shot clock, the same as the NBA so the transition in pace is less dramatic for international players. Comparing that to the college shot clock at 30 seconds and in past years 35 seconds, that’s a dramatic difference. The half court is played faster in the NBA and Euroleague which makes the transition that much easier.