The NBA right now might be experiencing one of its greatest talent pools in its history. When you consider there are multiple HOFers still playing, and players making history it seems like every night, it’s a great time to be a basketball fan. There is also a plethora of young talent around the league, however this youth movement is being led by players from outside the U.S.
International players have been a part of the NBA for quite a while and there will always be some allure around them as their games aren’t as readily accessible as someone in the NCAA. Dirk Nowitzki could be looked at as starting the modern day European big man trend. Dirk was a 7 footer that could shoot from the perimeter. Something that was almost never heard of in the league. But with great allure also comes great disappointment. For every Dirk that a scout or team finds overseas there seems to be way more that just don’t pan out. One of the biggest international busts in recent memory happened in the 2003 draft which probably had the best top 5 in NBA history. The Detroit Pistons took Darco Miličić out of Serbia with the second overall pick. They picked him ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. They say that hindsight is 20/20 however at the time the pick made sense. A 7 footer that could play with his back to the basket and hit the three pointer like Dirk, why wouldn’t you take him? However Miličić struggled in the league and bounced around from team to team.
Another international big man that didn’t live up to the hype was Andrea Bargani. Drafted 2006 the 7’o center went #1 to the Raptors. Out of the gate his production was slow mainly due to the fact that Chris Bosh was the star big man in Toronto. It wasn’t until Bosh left for Miami that Bargani started to see some success. In his best season (2010) he averaged just over 21 points and 5 rebounds. His production took a dive over the next few years until he was eventually shipped off to the Knicks. Although he had a solid career in the league it did not live up to the 1st overall pick hype. Yi Jianlian, although not European, is another overseas top 10 big man that didn’t pan out. Drafted 6th overall by the Bucks in 2007, he never played a full season due to constant injuries. In his best season he only averaged 12 points with the Nets. One could even point to Ricky Rubio, although he is a guard, as kind of being a flop in the league. Everyone was in awe over the teenager’s ability to pass the ball in Spain. However, his lack of offensive game outside of his passing ability quickly became evident around the league and he has slowly faded away as just another average guard in the league.
Even with the uncertainty that comes with drafting overseas players, teams are still going to take chances on guys they feel can be a difference maker. One of the teams that has done this recently is the Milwaukee Bucks, who took a chance on a young, skinny 18 year old named Giannis Antetokounmpo from Greece in the 2013 draft. Since his rookie year Antetokounmpo has gotten better and better each season and they aren’t just small increases either. From his first year to his second he doubled his scoring from 6 to 12. Increased it to 16.9 his third year and last year it was up to 22.9. This season however he is averaging a staggering 31.0 ppg which is tops among all players right now. Not only that but he is the team’s focal point on offense. The ball moves through Giannis and he is showing that he can be a playmaker as well. His handles are sneaky good for a player of his size and his vision is even more surprising. This season he’s averaging 5 apg which is second most behind Draymond Green for players at the power forward position. The Greek Freak as many call him also brings it on the defensive end. His length makes him a factor by the basket as his long 7 foot wingspan will send shots into the second row. It’s hard to say what the Greek Freak’s ceiling is because he’s improved literally every year he’s been in the league. He’s gotten high praise from many NBA stars including Kevin Durant. If he continues this pace though there is no doubt an MVP award is in his future.
Nicknamed the Unicorn, there may not be an international player that has come out in the last 5 years that has had as much scrutiny around him than Kristaps Porzingis. Leading up the 2015 draft many of the New York faithful wanted anyone but Kristaps. There wasn’t much known about the 7’3 kid from Latvia other than that he had all the tools. But people have heard that narrative before and were not sold on the young man, even with some impressive highlights. On draft night many Knicks fans wanted Jahlil Okafor to fall to #4. However the Sixers took Big Jah at #3 and the Knicks took the kid out of Latvia amidst a chorus of boos at the Barclay’s Center where the draft was being held. But it didn’t take long before those boos turned to cheers as Kristaps hit the ground running.
In 72 games during his rookie campaign he averaged 14.3 ppg and 7.3 rebounds while receiving rookie of the month honors three times. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Karl Anthony-Towns. The next year his scoring increased by 4 however he did struggle with nagging injuries which only allowed him to play 66 games. But this season is something that even the most diehard Knicks fan couldn’t even have dreamed of. Porzingis, a.k.a Allabaster Ewing is absolutely killing it. He’s second in scoring in the league behind Giannis Antetokounmpo at 30.2 ppg while also pulling down just under 8 rebounds a game. His best game this season came in a comeback win against the Pacers where he dropped 40 points grabbed 8 boards and had 6 blocks. He’s scored over 30 points in 7 of the team’s nine games so far this season and is definitely in the early talks for MVP. Porzingis’ unique skill set allows him to stretch the defense because of his ability to shoot from deep, but his long frame allows him to get to the basket with ease. Defensively you need to know where he is at all times, especially with that 8’0 wingspan, because a seemingly easy layup will get swatted out of the air. Although Phil Jackson did a lot of things wrong in his tenure as Knicks president, the one thing he did get right was drafting the “Unicorn”. With Carmelo gone Kristaps is now the face of the franchise and will look to bring the Knicks back to relevancy again in the East.
Ben Simmons/Joel Embiid
If you’ve been following the NBA for the past few years it was almost impossible to avoid hearing about Philadelphia 76ers and “The Process”. Long story short “The Process” was essentially a few years of “tanking” in order to stock up on top talent in the draft with the hope of it panning out to success on the court. Well that dream may finally be coming true as the Sixers finally have all their draft picks on the court and healthy (with the exception of Markelle Fultz’s recent shoulder problems). Even though both Simmons and Embiid played in the NCAA, they only played their freshman year. Embiid is originally from Cameroon while Simmons is from Australia.
Philly fans got a taste of what the future has in store last season with Joel Embiid after he missed his first two seasons. Although he only played in 31 games the small sample size was enough to turn the basketball world on its head. Lost in that crazy year was Ben Simmons who sat out the entire 2016-2017 season due to injury. This season the two seem to be making up for lost time as they, along with the rest of the Sixers, are making some noise in the East. Embiid is averaging 20 and 10 and is one of the more entertaining young players in the league. He can be seen in commercials and seems to be in a different social media headline every other month. Simmons is also having a stellar start to the season averaging 18 points, 8 rebounds and 9 assists a game. He has already dropped a triple double this season and seems to come close every game he plays. What Embiid and Simmons have done is not only revitalize a struggling Sixers team but also revitalize a Philadelphia fan base who have been starved for a good basketball team since the days of Allen Iverson. That’s why it came as no surprise when the Sixers gave Embiid a huge contract extension. LeBron only has so many years left in the league and by the time Embiid and Simmons reach their prime, the Sixers may be the cream of the crop in the East.
With every draft pick teams are taking a risk. There is no guarantee that a player will pan out in the league, even if they have gone through the American high school and collegiate levels. Going after players who are overseas pose an even bigger risk mainly due to the lack of tape and competition level some of those guys go up against. But just because scouts are looking overseas doesn’t mean they’re looking for franchise players. Some good examples of that are Dario Saric on the Sixers and Dragan Bender on the Suns. Both players are from Croatia and both were first round picks however they weren’t picked with the expectation to be the franchise guy. Even Nikola Jokić, drafted in the second round of the 2014 draft is making some waves as a budding all-star. When you look around the league you’ll notice many of the young names being talked about right now are not from America which leads to the possibility that the face of the league may soon come from outside of the U.S.