Top-10 International Draft Picks: Their Track Record, Resume and OutcomesA Historical Perspective on International Prospects and the 2015 NBA Draft, Part OneJust as Darko Milicic became a cautionary tale for drafting international prospects, the success of Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki have kept the interest in global scouting at all-time high. To better understand how Kristaps Porzingis and Mario Hezonja stack up with their predecessors, we've made an effort to compile statistics for every season of each of the true international players from Europe who have been drafted in the top-10, to see compare where those prospects stood at the same point in their development.
Growing up playing for Stella Azzurra Roma, Bargnani made waves against lower caliber competition with his size and skill level, even if he wasn't particularly dominant in FIBA competition at that point in his career. Moving to Euroleague team Benetton Treviso, he turned in a strong rookie season in the Italian league on a per-minute basis, but made only 18 appearances. Appearing at the Nike Hoop Summit before averaging 15.8 points per game at the FIBA U20 European Championships in 2004, Bargnani truly emerged as a high level talent during the 2005 season, showing off an extremely promising skill set against the top competition in the world, not unlike what Mario Hezonja has done this year in terms of pure production.
Making a strong impression on scouts at the Reebok Eurocamp in 2005, Bargnani played one more season in Treviso at age 20. Though he faced high expectations, his performance that season under David Blatt put him in position to hear his name called at the top of the 2006 NBA Draft, as he averaged an outstanding 11.8 points per game, while making 41% of his 3-pointers and coming up with 2.4 steals and 2 blocks per-40 minutes, playing a prominent role for his team. Though Bargnani wasn't particularly dominant in his mid-teens, he came on extremely strong, posting great numbers against the best competition outside of the NBA.
Bargnani owns a 15 points per game (in 30 minutes per) career scoring average, but is often judged heavily on what he doesn't bring to the table. A below average rebounder, defender and passer throughout his career, Bargnani disappointingly never became the prolific 50%/40% inside-outside scorer many hoped he would, but has held steady at 47%/36%. Injuries have been perhaps his biggest issue, leading him to play just 34 games on average over the course of the last four seasons.
Popping up almost entirely out of the blue as a very mature looking 17-year old in the Spanish 3rd division, Biyombo ascended to prominence in the ACB at age 18, not unlike Porzingis has this year, before turning in the single one of the most memorable defensive performances in the history of the Nike Hoop Summit. Biyombo then decided not to return to his club after his week in Portland, instead going back home to the Congo to try and resolve visa issues he had encountered. NBA teams have learned to be leery of players who came out of nowhere like Biyombo, have questionable ages and background stories, and fade into obscurity just as easily as soon as they encounter a bit of scrutiny, which makes him somewhat of a unique case study in his own right (very different than Porzingis and Hezonja)
Following one of the more unique career trajectories of any player we've covered in recent memory, Biyombo is still developing the offensive skills that would help him turn the corner at the NBA level. His value as a defender and rebounder are readily apparent, as he ranked as the sixth best per-minute shot-blocker in the league this season, and was a top-25 rebounder. While his offensive limitations are glaring, there is certainly a niche for role-players in Biyombo's mold, so don't be surprised if someone puts a huge offer sheet in the 8-10 million dollars per year range in front of him this summer.
Danilo Gallinari's career path shares quite a few similarities with that of Mario Hezonja in terms of the magnitude and timing of their early success. A dominant player at the junior level, Gallinari relished his opportunity to be a first option in the Italian 2nd division at age 17, much like Hezonja took to the LEB Gold. The key difference between Gallinari and Hezonja is the freedom he got with Milano in his late teens. While Hezonja has been largely buried on Barcelona's bench, Gallinari got every opportunity to emerge as an elite contributor in the Euroleague, putting up huge numbers the year before he entered the draft. Noted for his confident attitude early in his career, Gallinari's success at the NBA level amid injuries (his biggest downfall) will be an interesting barometer to compare Hezonja to down the road.
A reliable player at the junior level, Milicic was fairly effective as an 18 year old playing in three lower tier leagues which are now defunct (the North European Basketball League, the often renamed EuroCup Challenge, and YUBA League). Much has been made of Milicic's 1 on 0 workouts when he was going through the draft process, not unlike those of Porzingis this year.
The obvious difference between the two players is Porzingis's 3-point shooting and the quality of competition he faced on a regular basis. Milicic went 6 of 11 from beyond the arc shooting under 0.3 3's per game, while playing against some fairly solid clubs, but many unimpressive ones as well. Porzingis, on the other hand went 42 of 117 this year playing in the top domestic competition outside of the NBA and Europe's 2nd tier international competition, the EuroCup. Though the expectations are high for the young Latvian, he has a far more useful skill set to fall back on in the short term, especially if his terrific mechanics and touch translate to the NBA 3-point line.
Averaging 8.8 points and 5.2 rebounds in his best season in the NBA, Milicic's struggles at the NBA level are magnified by the players that were drafted around him. Never seeming to plant roots in a suitable development environment or taking another major step forward as a player throughout his career, Milcicic is one of the more harrowing tales of drafting internationally.
With that said, it's important to remember that Milicic's problem wasn't his talent or lack thereof, but rather his immaturity upon arriving in the NBA, and the fact that he wasn't really in love with the game of basketball. Since his last stint in the NBA in 2012, Milicic had an opportunity to play basketball at a very high level in Europe the past few years for significant amounts of money, but instead elected to pursue a career in mixed martial arts, as you can see in the following video.
Next year Darko will reportedly be playing for Serbian team Metalac in the Adriatic League, giving him a chance to get some redemption with his basketball career at age 30.
Making his 2nd division debut with Wurzburg in 1994, Nowitzki established himself as a starter during the 1995-1996 season before developing into a dominant force in the league by the time he was 19. His statistics from his final season in the second division before he was drafted are the only ones we found access to, but his 28.2 points and 9.9 rebounds per game are simply spectacular. Nowitzki showed up at the Nike Hoop Summit, which was held in San Antonio with practices in Dallas at the time, and was outstanding not just against his international peers in the week leading up to the game, but in the game itself, turning in one of the most thoroughly impressive Hoop Summit performances in recent memory. Scoring 33 points to go along with 14 rebounds, and 3 steals while shooting 2-3 from beyond the arc and an unreal 19-23 from the line. The future Hall of Famer dominated the game scoring in transition, using his rangy strides to get to the rim, and being extremely aggressive against a crop of American high schoolers that included Al Harrington and Rashard Lewis.
Nowitzki had a strong reputation in Germany, but had yet to compete against first division competition. The Hoop Summit was a significant springboard for his career in an era when Synergy Sports Technology didn't exist and video was far more difficult to come by.
Though Nowitzki has shot an impressive 38.2% from beyond the arc on his NBA career and ranks among the greatest perimeter scoring big men in NBA history, his beginnings as a shooter were far more humble. He made 33% of his 3s from the shorter international line with Wurzburg, before struggling from deep in the NBA during the lockout shortened season he debuted in making only 20.6% from the NBA line. From that point on he never shot more than a fraction under 37%, while making as high as 42% of his attempts.
This is something to keep in mind as Kristaps Porzingis makes his leap to the NBA, as Porzingis could have some early growing pains with the NBA 3-point line. It will be interesting to see how his midrange game stacks up with Nowitzki and his trademark one-legged jump shot. Few players have been as consistent from the midrange as the Mavericks legend, and his high release has made him one of the tougher matchups in the NBA for over a decade. Porzingis doesn't have as a high of a release, nor is he quite as adept at creating space at the moment, but he does flash outstanding touch from 12-18 feet.
One interesting anecdote we uncovered in our research is that Nowitzki went back to Germany during the first part of his rookie season because of the lockout. Having helped Wurzburg get promoted before he was drafted, Nowitzki rejoined the X-Rays for 16 games, averaging 22.9 points. 8.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.9 steals, and 1.8 blocks per game pouring it on thick in Germany's top league before returning to the United States before the NBA season started.
From a scouting perspective, Nowitzki is truly one-of-a-kind. At this point in the development of the global game, we're far more likely to uncover an extremely promising physical marvel like Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second division of one of the more prominent basketball countries in Europe than to ever see a prospect as thoroughly dominant as Nowitzki ever again. Players of his caliber simply do not stay in one place as long as he managed to, often jetting for a bigger clubs in other countries in their mid-teens not long after they are discovered.
Following a similar trajectory to Bismack Biyombo, Sene appeared largely out of the blue in the Belgian 1st division playing for Pepinster in 2006 with a dubious date of birth in his passport. Posting a PER of 20.8 that season, Sene proved he could be productive as a shot blocker and rebounder at that level, but struggled to stay out of foul trouble and was strictly a catch and finish option offensively. A strong Nike Hoop Summit performance during which he blocked 9 shots earned him valuable exposure which later led to his selection in the lottery.
A steadily productive shot blocker throughout his career who never quite took the next step forward skill wise, and struggled badly with injuries, Sene lasted 3 years in the NBA and played last season with Austin Toros in the D-League while recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in France.
Playing up a year in FIBA competition in his youth, Jan Vesely emerged as a promising forward when he was already seeing playing time in the Adriatic League regularly at age 17 for Slovan. Dominating his peers in his second year playing in the FIBA U18 European Division B Championship averaging 20.4 points per game for the Czech Republic, Vesely signed with historic Serbian club Partizan Belgrade, earning rotation minutes in the Euroleague at age 18. Making his National Team debut at 19 and averaging 10.2 points and 4.1 rebounds per game against quality competition at age 20, Vesely had three years of high level experience with a team that prides itself on player development before making the leap to the NBA.
Owning career averages of 3.7 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, Vesely never carved out a significant niche in the NBA as his jump shot has yet to become a reliable tool for him, and he was reportedly initially more interested in the nightlife in Washington than working on his craft in the gym. Rebranding himself as a power forward/center, and not the small forward he was drafted to become in 2011, he returned to Europe this season and posted a career high 24.7 PER while averaging 10.9 points and 5.3 rebounds per game for Fenerbahce in the Euroleague and Turkish 1st division. Only 25 years old, it isn't out of the question that Vesely returns to the NBA down the road, as his work ethic has reportedly improved and he's figured out how to make himself useful with his tremendous athleticism on both ends of the floor, despite never developing a jumper.
One of the most ballyhooed international prospects in recent memory, Jonas Valanciunas emerged as a potential lottery pick at age 16 when he averaged a double-double at the FIBA U16 European Championships, dominated the NIJT, and turned in a strong performance in the Lithuanian 2nd division as well.
Earning instant playing time in the Lithuanian 1st division for Lietuvos Rytas when he joined the team in 2010 at 17, Valanciunas was primed for the large role he took on for the club in Euroleague and VTB United play the following season at 18. Posting a PER of 26.4 playing against terrific competition, Valanciunas was viewed as one of the safer young European prospects in recent memory. Still only 23 and posting a PER of 20 (a top-20 mark at his position) in his third NBA season, he's been a solid contributor at the NBA level thus far and will seemingly easily live up to his draft status, especially considering how poor of a class 2011 ended up being in the top-10.
As much as many people marked Darko Milicic as the player whose lack of experience played against him most heavily in the NBA among international draft picks, Tskitishvili might have a stronger case. Emerging as a prospect with strong performances at the junior level in his early teens, the Georgian power forward moved to Slovenian club Slovan. Competing in the Korac Cup and the Slovenian league, Tskitishvili began seeing rotation minutes at age 17 before moving to Treviso, where he played a limited role in the Euroleague, but averaged 6.2 points over 12 minutes per game in the Italian league.
For reference, Mario Hezonja averaged 7.7 points over 16.5 minutes per game in the Euroleague this season, and 4.8 points over 14.3 minutes per game in the ACB.
Despite averaging 25.7 points and 6 rebounds per game at the 2004 Las Vegas Summer League and 25 points in 17 minutes in Minnesota Summer League game in 2005, Tskitishvili never made a real splash at the NBA level, returning to Europe with career averages of 2.9 points and 1.8 rebounds per game. Making 10 of his 31 3-point attempts in his final season in Europe before the draft, Tskitishvili shot 24% from 3 in the NBA. Considering how little he did prior to being picked, it's very difficult to envision a player like Skita enduring the incredible amount of scrutiny prospects face during the draft process these days and not being completely picked apart.
Making his ACB debut at 18, Paul Gasol began seeing rotation minutes in the Euroleague at age 19. He exploded in 2001 at age 20, posting a PER of 30.6 in the Euroleague and emerging as one of the elite big men in European basketball finishing that season averaging 18.5 points and 6 rebounds over 6 appearances in the top league outside of the NBA. Gasol's play in the Euroleague that season ranks among the most productive ever for a draft eligible player. It wasn't difficult to see how he'd be able to translate his fundamentals and intelligence to the NBA level, and indeed he ended up putting together one of the best careers ever for an international player.
The only European point guard to ever be selected in the top-10 picks of the NBA Draft, Ricky Rubio, like Mario Hezonja, was identified as an elite prospect very early in his career. He more than held his own at the FIBA U16 European Championships as a 15 year old, before thoroughly dominating the 2006 edition of the event a year later. Making his ACB debut for Joventut between those two competitions, Rubio was a prominent contributor against quality competition by the team he was 16. Holding his own at the Olympics when he was only 17. Rubio's advanced feel for the game made him a coveted prospect, but there were questions about his scoring ability. Interestingly, Rubio shot 39% from 2-point range, but an uncharacteristically strong 41% from beyond the arc the year before he was drafted. Rubio's next two seasons in Spain were a struggle at times as he moved to a talented Barcelona squad with other ball dominant guards. Nonetheless, the elite passing ability that helped Rubio see the floor at a high level early in his career translated nicely to the NBA, even if injuries have been a serious issue thus far.
Kristaps Porzingis was identified as a highly intriguing young talent by Sevilla who signed him out of his native Latvia in 2011 at age 16. Playing primarily in the Spanish 4th division the following season, Porzingis subsequently solidified himself as a potential NBA player averaging 11.6 points, 10 rebounds, and 4.9 blocks per game at the 2013 FIBA U18 European Championship. Playing rotation minutes with Sevilla in the ACB the following fall, Porzingis declared himself eligible for the 2014 draft before withdrawing and returning to Spain, where he averaged 11 points and 4.6 rebounds per game this year.
Making major strides this season and last season, Porzingis hasn't been as productive in his draft eligible year as a Gasol or Gallinari, and wasn't a contributor at a very young age like Rubio or Valanciunas. He falls somewhere in the middle between that group of players in terms of his development track, but unlike Tskitishvili, he's been a consistent contributor at a high level. Getting drafted into the right situation will play a major role in how we view Porzingis's climb to prominence as a prospect. His strong performances in workouts conjure bad memories for some fan bases who got burned by prospects who anecdotally look terrific in 1-0 settings, but there's quite a bit of substance to Porzingis' stock at this stage as well.
Making his Croatian League debut with Dubrovnik at age 14, Mario Hezonja was identified as an elite prospect very early in his career. Playing the next season at the junior level, Hezonja played sporadically for KK Zagreb at the senior level at age 16, showcasing his talent for scouts at the NIJT with their U-18 team alongside Dario Saric, averaging 23.1 points and 10.1 rebounds per game despite being one of the younger players in attendance. Averaging an outstanding 20 points and 8.2 rebounds per game at the FIBA U16 European Championship before putting up 8 points per game playing up three age groups at the FIBA U19 World Championship, Hezonja, not unlike Ricky Rubio, seemed destined for the NBA years before he could even declare for the draft.
Signing with FC Barcelona in 2012, Hezonja spent much of the coming year as the top option on the club's 2nd team in the Spanish 2nd division, posting averages of 14.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per game at age 17, right on par with the numbers Danilo Gallinari posted in the Italian 2nd division when he was 17. Unlike Gallinari however, Hezonja has yet to receive the opportunity to showcase his talents against quality competition in a featured role. Averaging 9.7 and 15.1 minutes per game last season and this season playing exclusively for Barcelona's 1st team in the ACB and Euroleague, Hezonja has never received the freedom offensively to test his mettle as a top option at the senior level. Relegated to roleplayer status, he's turned in a number of explosive performances, but didn't get a crack at first-option status that could have helped quiet his detractors.
The biggest challenge in scouting the international game isn't so much identifying the talent as it is accurately projecting their ability to succeed in given situations. Some of the players above failed, where other would have enjoyed some degree of success and vice-versa.
Traditional scouting says that power forwards with Kristaps Porzingis's length, athleticism and shooting and wings with Mario Hezonja's blend of skill and explosiveness belong in the top-10, but their ability to live up to the hype will depend greatly on who drafts them, how they're developed, and how good a job their teams put them in position to be successful.