If you’ve been looking at NBA mock drafts this year, the names might be getting a little hard to pronounce. Zhoi Qi. Ante Zizic. Guerschon Yabusele. At this point, it almost seems that they’re just stirring letters together to make up names. But that means something. It means the NBA is getting more global at an astounding rate.
This year is shaping up the be the most international draft in the league’s history. On Draft Express’s mock draft, has 15 of their first 30 picks listed as players with international ties. On nbadraft.net, nine of the first 14 picks grew up somewhere out of the United States. At Hoops Hype, their mock draft lists four of the first five and six of the first nine players prognosticated to be picked as international players.
Are NBA execs getting caught up in the recent rash of young internationals in the game? Is it all hype? Can they really ball? Maybe this vid of presumptive top pick, Australian Ben Simmons can answer that.
Ok that might have been a dangerous clip to show the everyday xenophobe.
Don’t worry. The NBA is not going to turn into a futbol/baloncesto hybrid game. Aside from the soccer chops, these soon-to-be-pros can have serious skills. The NBA is pressing it’s own global agenda, constantly sending representatives to their respective continents to stoke the flames of basketball. Dikembe Mutumbo is a constant presence across Africa. Yao Ming is ubiquitous in Asia. The league is starting to see talent from all over the world, as the NBA is quickening it’s pace as it chases soccer as the world’s preeminent athletic diversion.
Among the prognosticated top picks, other than Simmons, include Canada’s Jamal Murray, the Bahama’s Buddy Heild and Dragan Bender of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The former two, along with Simmons, played their college basketball in the United States, while Bender plays as a pro in Israel. There had been aversion to taking Euro big men (Bender is 7’1) after busts like Darko Milicic and Nikoloz Tskitishvili tainted stigma of all foreign prospects just after the turn of the century. Last year’s unicorn, the 7’3 Latvian Kristaps Porzingis who strokes threes like a guard, revitalized GM’s belief in the Euro big.
Bender, however, is a light-for-his-height 225 pounds, and doesn’t even start for his Euro league team. That’s often the case for the talented young bigs, who’s draw is potential, rather than gaudy stat lines. Still doubts have arisen, but when a 7-footer can attack the basket like this, people have to take notice.
The NCAA remains the major pipeline for NBA talent, but it’s now a stream that the best foreign players are riding as well. The last three NBA Drafts featured foreigners with NCAA pedigrees as first overall picks. In 2013, UNLV’s Anthony Bennett became the first Canadian selected first overall. The next year his countryman, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, was the top pick. Last year, Kentucky’s Karl Anthony-Towns became the first Dominican to lead the draft board.
Despite the recent trends, being a foreigner isn’t a surefire road to success. Bennett is already out of the league, quelling what seemed to be a Canadian Invasion into the league. Still, Murray hopes to continue his country’s recent successes. His sweet shooting touch seems tailor made for the 3-point-heavy climate of the league right now, and he has drawn the favorable but weighty comparison to 2-time reigning MVP Steph Curry.
This draft class’s foreigners are an even mix of NCAA bred players and athletes who started their careers in the European leagues, which allow players to turn professional in their early teens. It’s also common for a player like Domantas Sabonis to play professionally overseas, then take his talents to the NCAA once he turns 18. Sabonis played in Spain, but didn’t accept any pay to maintain his eligibility at Gonzaga, where he played for two seasons. Utah’s Jakob Poeltl followed a similar path and both expect to be lottery picks.
There is plenty of talent among the young euro leaguers. Furkan Korkmaz of Turkey is expected to be a high pick. The Spanish Juan Hernangomez, a former teammate of Porzingis, could sneak into the first round. As many as four Frenchmen could wind up in the first round, or at least carry such a pedigree. Along with Yabusele, Petr Cornelie, Isaia Cordinier and Timothe Luwawu all could make an early impact in the league. If that’s too many names to remember, maybe hang on to Luwawu as a name to remember.
One of the most intriguing prospects remains to be Thon Maker, who will be the first player in 10 years to make the jump from high school to the NBA, which was permitted after the 19-year-old petitioned the league. Maker is truly an international wonder. He was born in the Sudan, moved to Australia, went to grade school in Lousiana and high school in Virginia, all before transferring to a school in Canada. The amount of time he spent in school(s) was enough to convince the NBA that Maker was enough removed from what would have been his high school graduation to be eligible to be drafted.
Just where Maker will get drafted is anyone’s guess. The 7’2 lank monster with whip-quick handles was once thought to be a potential top overall pick. The luster has since worn off, as his brittle frame just didn’t bulk up the way people expected it to, but an other-worldly potential still rests in the gangly baller.
This draft class, along with any, will have to prove their mettle in the league. Foreigners or otherwise, draft position means nothing once you’re on the court. The games must be played. But if this trend of globalization continues, we’re going to seeing a lot more of the world speaking in the universal language of basketball.