Note: This is the first of three short articles I will be writing addressing topics of importance to the Phoenix Suns in the draft and in free agency. The next two will focus on the recent history of 'trading up' and the enigma that is the 'stretch 4'.
The popular perception among Bright Siders and draft aficionados is that if the Phoenix Suns retain their three first round picks this season, the strong likelihood is they take a draft and stash foreign player with at least one pick. This stems from McDonough stating, almost unequivocally, that the team has no intention of bringing in 3 rookies next season.
In this article, I thought I would address the recent history of international players in the first round. Ideally, this would help many of us to better contextualize a number of different aspects of what goes into evaluating overseas talents, and some factors that might impact whether those players ever materialize into valuable NBA commodities. For the rosterbators and draft junkees among us, consider it fodder for ever more detailed and insightful roster imaginations.
I looked at every NBA Draft 1st Round from 2000, and selected any player who was a) born in another country, and b) played most recently for a professional team in another country. This left me with 67 players taken in this time frame in the first round. Of these players, only 20 were picked in the lottery (a slightly lower percentage of players than you would expect).
While players came from nearly every country, there were some obvious patterns:
- 1 Argentinian (Carlos Delfino)
- 4 Brazilians (Nene Hilario, Leandro Barbosa, Tiago Splitter, Lucas Nogueira)
- 2 Chinese (Yi Jianlian, Yao Ming)
- 1 Congolese (Serge Ibaka)
- 2 Croatians (Zoran Planinic, Dalibor Bagaric)
- 2 Czechs (Jiri Welsch, Jan Vesely)
- 2 Democratic Congolese (Bismack Biyombo, Christian Eyenga)
- 1 Finn (Petteri Koponen)
- 12 French (Boris Diaw, Tony Parker, Alexis Ajinca, Johan Petro, Evan Fournier, Kevin Seraphin, Mikael Pietrus, Nicolas Batum, Rodrigue Beaubois, Rudy Gobert, Ian Mahinmi, Livio Jean-Charles)
- 1 Georgian (Nikoloz Tskitishvili)
- 1 German (Dennis Schroder)
- 2 Greeks (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jake Tsakalidis)
- 1 Israeli (Omri Casspi)
- 3 Italians (Andrea Bargnani, Marco Belinelli, Danilo Gallinari)
- 1 Latvian (Andris Biedrins)
- 2 Lithuanians (Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas)
- 5 Russians (Yaroslav Korolev, Sergey Karasev, Pavel Podkolzin, Viktor Khryapa, Sergei Monia)
- 1 Senegalese (Mouhamed Sene)
- 6 Serbians (Darko Milicic, Vladimir Radmanovic, Zarko Cabarkapa, Sasha Pavlovic, Nenad Krstic, Nemanja Nedovic)
- 4 Slovenians (Sasa Vujacic, Beno Udrih, Bostjan Nachbar, Primoz Brezec)
- 8 Spaniards (Pau Gasol, Rudy Fernandez, Ricky Rubio, Fran Vazquez, Sergio Rodriguez, Victor Claver, Nikola Mirotic, Raul Lopez)
- 1 Swiss (Thabo Sefolosha)
- 2 Turks (Enes Kanter, Hedo Turkoglu)
- 1 Brit (Joel Freeland)
- 1 Ukrainian (Oleksiy Pecherov)
The largest number of players came from France, followed by Spain, Serbia, Russia, Slovenia and Brazil. I have divided the players into 4 categories: Bona Fide Stars, Hits, Near-Misses, and Busts. Bona Fide Stars are those players who clearly established themselves as All-Star caliber players; Hits, those players who established themselves as worthy of a generic first round pick (basically, a starter or 6th man); Near Misses, those players who might have failed to live up to expectations, but at least showed enough talent to stick it out in the league for a while; and Busts, those players who failed to play more than a couple of years or never played a significant number of games in the NBA. Because this grouping depends on being able to look at a player's body of work, I only evaluated players from the 2000-2010 draft classes (53 players).
Bona Fide Stars
There are really only 3 bona fide stars to come out of the ranks of international players taken in the first round: Tony Parker, Yao Ming and Pau Gasol. These guys are likely all three Hall of Fame Players (Parker may be the biggest stretch). Each were arguably the best player at their position for at least one season.
The hits are more numerous, but still not exactly prolific. Carlos Delfino, Nene Hilario, Leandro Barbosa, Tiago Splitter, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, Andrea Bargnani, Danilo Gallinari, Andris Biedrins, Vladimir Radmanovic, Beno Udrih, Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez, Thabo Sefolosha and Hedo Turkoglu. While some of these are questionable inclusions (particularly Fernandez, Biedrins, Delfino and Udrih), I went with a fairly low requirement here: either the player had to have a career PER 14 or over for at least 4 seasons of playing time, or to have played for a longer time period with a career PER over 12. **Boris Diaw moved to this category due to popular consternation.**
A lot of players fall here - players who were borderline contributors, but never really either found the right place, or quite fit into American-style play. Included here are Yi Jianlian, Mikael Pietrus, Kevin Seraphin, Alexis Ajinca, Johan Petro, Rodrigue Beaubois, Ian Mahinmi, Jake Tsakalidis, Omri Casspi, Marco Belinelli, Darko Milicic, Sasha Pavlovic, Nenad Krstic, Sasa Vujacic, Victor Claver, Sergio Rodriguez, Joel Freeland and Bostjan Nachbar. A few of these players get generous bumps because a) I ignored performance to position taken comparisons (looking at you, Darko) and how long it took the player to come over (Joel Freeland wins this award - 6 years before his first appearance).
These players include Zoran Planinic, Dalibor Bagaric, Jiri Welsch, Christian Eyenga, Petteri Koponen, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Pavel Podkolzin, Yaroslav Korolev, Viktor Khryapa, Sergei Monia, Mouhamed Sene, Zarko Cabarkapa, Primoz Brezec, Fran Vazquez, Raul Lopez, Oleksiy Pecherov. Two of these players are the ultimate busts: neither Vazquez or Koponen ever came over, though at least Koponen participated in a handful of Summer Leagues.
Are there any patterns to be identified among these picks? I think there are a few things to take away from this evaluation.
The first is that drafting and stashing in the first round is a relatively infrequent event, and also a mixed bag in terms of results. 14 players were drafted and stashed for at least a year between 2000-2010, and only 3 seem to have undeniably benefited from the experience: Rubio, Splitter and Serge.
Another trend seems to be that younger, at least for 1st round international players, does not equal better. 13 players in the time frame were drafted at either 18 or 19. 4 were absolute busts. 5 were Misses. Biedrins, Serge and Rubio score as Hits, but Biedrins is a stretch. Only Tony Parker is an undeniable great in this age range, though Serge could develop into a great player still.
Something that did NOT seem to matter much, which was surprising to me at least, was team pedigree. Big name European teams, such as Benetton Treviso, Real Madrid, Partizan and CSKA Moscow did not have a noticeably better record than smaller name teams. In fact, CSKA Moscow has the odious distinction of having all 3 players it sent to the NBA busting out.
There were also regional and national patterns that may matter. Despite sending a ton of players, the former Yugoslav states (Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro) have a relatively low success rate - they represented 11 of the 53 picks in the time frame, but only 2 of those players could be considered Hits (Udrih and Radmanovic), and both are questionable hits. Russia sent 4 players, all of whom busted. While Spain and France both sent a large chunk of the players, Spain had a higher Bust rate, with 2 Busts out of 6 players sent; France had no Busts out of 8 players sent (though you could debate that both Ajinca and Petro busted; we can get into that in the comments.)
A final note that I don't know what to make of entirely - outside of the Bona Fide Stars and Serge Ibaka, it is hard to find an international players on this list who put up consistently high PER numbers. The advanced stats really don't seem to like even players we generally feel have value - Danilo Galinari's career PER is only 15.7, while Vladimir Radmanovic, Marco Belinelli and Hedo Turkoglu all have career PER values of under 15.
So, what does this mean for the Phoenix Suns and the upcoming draft season. I think there are four takeaways for pursuing international players in the first round this year:
1) Oftentimes, the younger prospects aren't worth the risk with higher picks:
This is important. A number of Bright Siders (myself included) have become infatuated with young international players like Clint Capela, Kristaps Porzingis or Nikola Jokic. The track record for young players like this taken in the first round isn't all that strong. This isn't to say that they can't be developed, but that teams have to have done extremely due diligence in ensuring the player has the mental capability to transition to the NBA, not just the physical. This can be notoriously hard to judge, but I think it is probably even harder with younger players.
2) Stash a pick only if there is a legitimate reason to do so in terms of development:
The record for stashed first round picks is, frankly, kind of bad. There are at times legitimate developmental reasons to stash players abroad (Splitter, for instance, needed to add weight and muscle mass before he could play the NBA game, something he could do in Europe while still getting playing time). Some prospects have gotten all they can get from the European leagues, and would be better served by simply being brought over.
3) French players are safe, if often unspectacular, picks:
The French players, for whatever reason, seem to have a much better track record when coming over than almost any other national grouping. These guys tend to have very low bust potential - even guys who seem to bust out come back (see Alexis Ajinca's 2013-14 comeback tour, in which he started 30 games for New Orleans, posted a 14.7 PER and played fairly well), and marginal players just seem to hang around the league (Johan Petro played for 8 seasons despite never really materializing into anything more than a backup big).
4) Avoid Russian players in the first round:
Russian players have something of a poor track record, something scouts have noticed as well as more casual observers like myself. These players, while not untalented, just generally struggle once they make the transition to the NBA. Its hard to pinpoint why, exactly, and we have examples of relatively successful Russian players in Andrei Kirilenko (falls just outside the time frame) and Timofey Mozgov (undrafted), but the first round track record isn't that good.
Applying these rules to the Draft Express Top 100 players list, there are 9 international players projected between picks 8 and 40 (realistic picks given our pick distribution). Here are those players broken down:
8) Dario Saric: while Croatians don't have a great track record, players aged 20 seem to be fairly strong in terms of development - there are very few busts with 20 year old draftees. He doesn't seem like a player who would benefit from stashing, though - and there may be some questions about his mental ability to transition to the NBA, given his repeatedly contradictory comments about when he might want to come over.
11) Jusuf Nurkic: Nurkic is in the younger range, which hasn't traditionally been all that good for players looking to transition.
18) Clint Capela: Capela is in something of a sweet spot age wise, though the fact that he is so raw means this might be a moot point. He plays IN France, which may be just as good as being French (a lot of potential correlation between those two factors).
23) Kristaps Porzingis: His youth may be a detriment to him at this point - though he may be a legitimate candidate for stashing. However, he does play in Spain, which may help him - foreign players playing in Spain have a slightly better than average track record.
31) Bogdan Bogdanovic: Age might not be a concern, but Partizan hasn't been all that successful with first rounders. His position might also hurt: guards from former Yugoslav states have seemed to struggle, with only Beno Udrih enjoying moderate success.
33) Walter Tavares: At 22, Tavares is a little old, and really raw. Bigs at 22, however, seem to do okay: Yao, Splitter, and Yi Jianlian were all taken at age 22. His team however, Gran Canaria, recently developed another NBA draft and stash big (Joel Freeland) with mixed results.
38) Vasilije Micic: Micic is at the sweet spot age wise. Again, former Yugoslav guards haven't enjoyed much success as first round picks. There might be stash potential here, though, as Micic seems to have things to learn still that can be gained in Europe (like cutting turnovers).
39) Artem Klimenko: Klimenko is Russian, but at the sweet spot age wise. He has really high stash potential, though, as a 7'1 player who has not played against top flight competition - if he gets in with a higher tier European club he could benefit greatly.
40) Damien Inglis: Ingles is French (well, from French Guiana), and is playing in France, both pluses. However, he is on the young side - just 19. He might legitimately have something to be gained from stashing him, though French players have not been stashed often; only Ian Mahinmi was stashed, with mixed results.
via content.draftexpress.com and Tuan Nguyen
The track record for international prospects taken in the first round is particularly mixed. There have been only really 3 true stars in that time frame (Tony Parker, Yao Ming, Pau Gasol), and potentially two stars in the making (Rubio and Ibaka), out of 53 picks from 2000-2010. 2/3 of the players in that time frame either never moved beyond role-player status, or busted entirely. European first rounders, generally, aren't well liked by advanced statistics.
A few key points:
- From 2000-2010, draft-and-stash first rounders were not all that successful in transitioning to the NBA and being contributors (3/13).
- Younger isn't always better: players drafted at age 18-19 busted at a relatively higher rate (9/13 busted or never got beyond role-player status).
- French players are relatively safe picks - arguably no busts between 2000-2010.
- Russian players struggle mightily - all 4 picks between 2000-2010 busted.
In potentially drafting an international draft-and-stash player with one of our first round picks, we should consider carefully these trends. First rounders are a stronger commitment than second rounders, and are also more useful assets all around.