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International Draft

June 30, 2003 Columns No Comments

Message Sent to US Players. Was it received?

by Phil Kasiecki

Heading into Thursday’s NBA Draft, there was much anticipation about the role of international players. Some projections had the number of such players drafted in the first round in double figures, and this continues to be the subject of much discussion. With this was also supposed to be a message sent to American-born players, especially those leaving school early before being ready, or high school kids skipping college.

The message may be on its way, but it seems to be mixed, or a little distorted. Even if it were to come through clearly, whether or not it would be clearly received is debateable.

The first round of the NBA Draft saw nine international players taken, including high school senior Ndudi Ebi (taken by Minnesota with the 26th pick), who was born in London, England. That set a new record for international players selected in the first round, surpassing the seven chosen in 2000 – much to the dismay of the many fans who greeted most of the international picks with chants of “USA, USA”. With 12 more taken in the second round, a record 21 international players were selected overall.

For a while, it looked like it might be a good night for American college players, as just two of the first 16 picks were international players. The first round ended with seven of the last 13 players being from outside the United States, though it should be noted that Ebi played high school basketball in Houston, Texas.

In the meantime, four of the five high school players in the draft went in the first round, and the lone player not drafted in the first round, James Lang, was taken by New Orleans with the 48th overall selection.

A message to American players? Let’s examine it.

Certainly, having more than one third of the players drafted being from outside the United States should send a message, by itself. The perception has generally been that players from overseas come into the NBA more ready to make an immediate impact because they are more skilled and fundamentally sound than many American players, especially those leaving college early or coming straight out of high school. In the case of European players, though, there is also a cultural difference in that many of them have played with professional players in their native countries. This is not lost on Carmelo Anthony, who spent one season at Syracuse and was drafted third overall by the Denver Nuggets.

“They come over here, young, because they’ve been playing professional basketball over there,” Anthony said. “Our talents are the same, but (NBA GMs) look at them as having played professional basketball since they were about 14, 15, so they might be more mature.”

In fact, it’s not entirely common with many players coming out of college or even entering college to have to note several deficiencies or a physical aspect that will need maturity. Of course, this is natural, as players are seldom close to a finished product at the end of their high school days. But in today’s basketball culture – as in many sports – too many players seem to care more about making the highlight reels than helping their team win a game. To see this, we need look no further than the emphasis on the dunk or quick moves on a defender (“breaking ankles”), while the mid-range jump shot almost seems like an anachronism, as well as free throw shooting and defense. Scoring is down in the NBA from the late 1980s – a prime reason the NBA wanted hand-checks to be called more tightly – but as much as analysts and observers attribute this to better defense and more of a focus on it, watching games closely lends the perspective that fundamentals appear to have gone out the window with much of the current generation of basketball players at all levels.

Making the message a little distorted was the selections of four high school players in the first round, three of whom have significant room for improvement. Travis Outlaw (drafted by Portland with the 23rd pick) might actually be the best athlete in the entire draft, but his ball skills have a lot of catching up to do. Ebi is very long, athletic and capable of dominating games, but is rail-thin at 6’9″ and 195 pounds in addition to needing to improve aspects of his game for the small forward position. Kendrick Perkins (drafted 27th by Memphis and subsequently traded in a package deal to Boston) is a load in the low post, but doesn’t run the floor exceedingly well and isn’t a dominant defensive player.

The United States appeared to have been exposed in the World Championships last year, when Team USA finished in fourth place – unheard of for an American team – and struggled offensively along the way. Granted, it was not the best group of NBA players from the United States, but they are still professional basketball players and they were not bench-warmers for lottery teams. They were still among the league’s upper echelon of individual talents.

With Pau Gasol, a native of Spain, winning the NBA Rookie of the Year award in 2001-02, interest in international players soared, and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Memphis saw instant results with Gasol, and teams like seeing the instant results, even as the draft has become more about long-term upside than immediate impact in recent years. In fact, part of the allure of international players has been the fact that many may not play in the United States immediately due to contractual obligations with a team in their native country. This allows a team to draft a player in the first round, but not have to worry immediately about the contractual obligations to a first round draft pick.

Perspectives on this new phenomenon vary, including those on what is behind it. Some think the NBA wants this in large part to increase its presence outside the United States, which will also increase its revenue stream. LeBron James, the number one pick, ultimately sees positives in this new influx of international players.

“I have no take on that,” he said when asked why this may be happening. “I just feel that certain people are made for certain systems, so the people across the water or across the country play for a certain system. I think it’s great, I think it’s great for basketball, because it’s making the game of basketball in the NBA more competitive that we’re getting people from overseas that can also play with us. I think it’s great for basketball.

Dwyane Wade, drafted fifth overall by the Miami Heat, has similar thoughts to James, but also talked about the role of college coaches after praising Tom Crean, his college coach.

“I really don’t know if (NBA teams) are sending a message,” he said. “I think they’re just saying that we’re going to take the best, no matter where they’re from, we’re going to take who we feel is the best at that position. International players coming over here is great, it’s great for our culture.

“I believe in fundamentals. It’s something that a lot of college coaches don’t teach over here, great fundamentals – they try to put you right in and do it. You get certain coaches that teach you fundamentals, and that helps your game a lot.”

Sacramento Kings guard Bobby Jackson, who has three teammates who did not play high school or college basketball in the United States, senses a seeming complacency among American ballplayers, as well as misplaced priorities.

“European guys play and develop their game like U.S. players used to,” Jackson says. “(American players) have to continue to mature and work on their weaknesses; most try to work on their strengths now.”

He also drew on the story of Lenny Cooke, one of the top high school players in the class of 2002 who declared for the Draft out of high school despite not being a likely draft pick at the time (he was never drafted).

“Americans take things for granted,” Jackson adds. He also talked about some of the things the top high school players consistently get nowadays, from free shoes from sneaker companies to getting their egos constantly stroked by others in the business.

Knowing that the draft has been more about upside recently, underclassmen and high school players have declared with thoughts of growing into being a good pro player. But this has not often worked out, and this is one place where a clear message may be getting sent. In this draft, early entrants like Mario Austin (36th overall), Maurice Williams (47th), Rick Rickert (55th), and Carl English and Josh Powell (not drafted) all declared and stayed in the draft despite being borderline first round picks at best. Powell was viewed all along as a borderline second round pick, but stayed nonetheless after saying he was testing the waters.

Ultimately, the message being sent seems clear to outsiders, but if history is any indication, it isn’t likely to be received well. Time and time again, players have received bad advice, or taken the good opinions seriously while dismissing negative opinions that those in the know have of them, and declared for the draft thinking they will be a first round pick or better. In most cases, when they decide to enter, they are certain they will be drafted where they want to be, and no one can tell them any differently. Powell stayed in the draft despite the buzz being that he would be lucky to get drafted at all; Rickert signed with an agent not long after declaring despite the buzz on him being mixed at best because he is rail-thin. And on and on we could go.

While the message might seem mixed in light of the high school players drafted in the first round, it really should be clear: American players have a challenge coming their way. The NBA is becoming more global, and teams are being more sold on the value of foreigners with the results teams have had from players like Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, Peja Stojakovic, Hedo Turkoglu and Emanuel Ginobili, to name a few. The challenge is also two-fold: the first is for those who don’t play four years of college basketball to leave school for the draft only if they will go in the lottery (which is how it used to be). The second is a more daunting task because it requires a complete culture change: players need to go back to fundamentals and the team concept, and get away from the highlight-film mentality that has engulfed so many of today’s young players.

Anthony sees the increasing interest in international players as a motivator for young American players to do just that and improve what they bring to the table.

“I think that’s a motivation right there,” he said.

Wade thinks the American players will rise to the challenge.

“I think the players in the United States will take that and say, ‘well I got to work harder’,” he said.

Let’s hope Wade is right. If he is, ultimately college basketball will be better for it as well as the NBA, and in general, the sport of basketball in America will be better.


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