NEW YORK– The NBA draft continues to evolve out of necessity.
The American college system is no longer developing an assembly line of players who are intriguing to personnel directors and general managers.
Ordinarily, Yogi Ferrell and Troy Williams of Indiana, Jarrod Uthoff of Iowa, Gary Payton II of Oregon State, Ron Baker of Wichita State, Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden of Kansas could expect to hear their names called during ESPN’s four and a half hour draft coverage. But none were selected. Even McDonald’s All Americas are being overlooked. Of the nine 2015 McDonald’s All Americans who declared for the draft, four drifted into the second round.
The NBA invited 19 players to the Green Room this year, but college freshman like centers Skal Labissiere of Kentucky, Deyonta Davis of Michigan State and point guard Dejounte Murray of Washington– who were all considered lottery pick material at one time– sat nervously backstage until the end of the first round and the start of the second while Hall of Fame coaches like John Calipari and Tom Izzo frantically worked the phones, trying to drum up interest in their young players. Freshman center Diamond Stone of Maryland, who had been considered a Top 10 prospect at the start of the season, didn’t go until 40.
The NBA is expanding its horizons, searching for the next Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming or Kristaps Porzingas. Scouts are scouring the globe in an effort to discover true international players who are more fundamentally sound all around prospects, better shooters and have better work habits than American college players and have not been spoiled by a summer travel team culture that sometimes does not place enough value on wins and losses and accepts flaws as long as stars can provide enough Sports Center moments.
The U 17 and U 19 World Championships and U 18 and U 20 Euro championships have become must-see summer events for NBA franchises.
“I just think European players are way more skillful,” Lakers’ great Kobe Bryant, who grew up in Italy when his father Joe played overseas before moving back to Lower Merion, Pa. in eighth grade, said last year. “They are just taught the game the right way at an early age”
An ever growing amount of international stars has made globalization a reality in the NBA. Hakeem Olajuwon of Nigeria, Pau Gasol of Spain and Nowitzki of Germany have all helped teams win championships and increased the league’s fan base and revenue with international TV rights. The NBA had 100 international players at the start of the 2015-16 season. Canada tops the list with 12 players, followed by France with 10 and Australia with eight. The NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers had five foreign-born players on their roster.
There is no end in sight to this tidal wave.
Some 14 international players were among the first 30 players selected, a record for the most foreign-born prospects in the first round of the draft, The previous record was 12, which was set in 2013. A record 26 internationals were selected in the top 60. They come from Austria, Cameroon, Canada, China, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Haiti, Serbia, Spain, Sudan and Turkey
By contrast, only 16 American born players went in the first round. It was the lowest number of American-born, NBA first round picks since 1973 when 16 of 18 were born in the United States.
Two international players were selected in the first four picks and four more went in the Top 10. The Philadelphia 76ers drafted 6-10 point forward Ben Simmons, a multi-dimensional freshman guard/forward from LSU who was born in Melbourne, Australia with the No. 1 pick overall. The Phoenix Suns selected 18-year old, 7-0 center Dragan Bender from Croatia and Maccabi Tel Aviv at 4. Guard Buddy Hield, a senior All American guard from Oklahoma who was born in the Bahamas and had 15 30 point games, went 6 to New Orleans and Kentucky freshman guard Jamal Murray, another Canadian import who led his country to a semi-final win over the U.S. in the 2015 Pan American games at age 18, , went 8 to Denver and 7-1 20-year old sophomore center Jakob Poeltl of Utah, the first Austrian to be drafted by the NBA, went ninth to Toronto. Milwaukee took 7-1 power forward Thon Maker, a refugee from the Sudanese civil war and Australia who spent time in both U.S. and Canadian prep schools and never played college basketball, with the 10th pick.
Other internationals to go in the first round included 7-2, 275- pound center Georgios Pappagiannis of Greece and Panathinaikos, who went to Phoenix at 13 and was later traded to Sacramento; 6-9 forward Juan Hernangomez of Spain and CB Estudiantes of Turkey went to Denver. Forward Guerschon Yabusele of France, who played for Rouen in the French League, went to Boston at 16. Power forward Ante Zizic of Croatia and Cibona Zagreb went to Boston at 23. Timothe Luwawu, a 6-7 forward from France who plays for Mega Leks in the Adriatic League, went to Philadelphia at 24 and 6-7 wing guard Furkan Korkmaz of Turkey and Anadolu Efes in the Turkish League went to the Sixers at 26. Pascal Siakam, a 6-10 junior power forward from Cameroon and New Mexico State who went 27 to Toronto and the 7-0 Labissiere, a survivor of the 2010 Haiti earthquake who attended high school in Memphis before enrolling at Kentucky and went 28 to Phoenix.
The 19-year old Simmons, who was the top ranked player in the Class of 2015 when he played for Montverde, Fla. Academy, is destined to be a huge star in this league. He may have taken some hits last season when LSU failed to make the NCAA tournament. There were questions about his mid-range shooting, the fact he made only one three pointer and had some off-court academic issues. But he averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists and became the only player in the Southeastern Conference history to finish in the top five in all three categories. He had too much potential to pass up. He has the body of a power forward and the vision and passing of a point guard. He knows how to get to the rim and made 79 percent of his free throws.
Simmons endeared himself to long suffering Sixers’ fans when he appeared on the Jim Fallon Show, eating a Philly cheese steak from Dellasandro’s in the Roxborough section of the city.
“I’m the type of player who can be put anywhere and contribute. as a point forward, who you can put in the one through five, offensively and defensively.” Simmons said at an introductory press conference. “I know how to get the ball to the bigger guys down low. I’m comfortable in coming in to play with this team.”
Nike, which rarely or ever makes a mistake on top prospects, agreed, reportedly giving Simmons a five year, $16 million shoe deal.
Bleacher Report declared the Sixers, who selected three internationals with their three first round picks, the biggest winners in this draft. The Sixers, who won just 10 games last season, not only made the right pick at the top of the draft but also made smart picks later on, taking Lawuwu, who has NBA size and athleticism but also blossomed after making the shift from the French Pro B division to the Adriatic League, bumping his scoring average from 7.1 points. to 14.6 points,. 4.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists in 31 minutes of play against tougher competition while shooting 37.2 percent from the international three point line.
The slender Korkmaz, a 19-year old who is a likely draft and stash, averaged just 5.1 points in 13 minutes of play but has an effortless release on his shot and made 43 percent of his threes in European league competition. The Sixers’ roster is now loaded with international talent– 7-0 center Joel Embiid from the Cameroon and Kansas, wing shooter Nik Staukas, a 6-7 shooter from Canada and Michigan 6-10, 22-year old forward Dario Saric of Croatia, who is a young star in Turkey. Embiid, who was the third pick overall in the 2014 draft, has yet to play in an NBA game in two years because of a foot injury but has been cleared to scrimmage five on five. Saric was chosen 12th in that draft, but opted to play overseas the past two years and is uncertain of his future plans.
Simmons will be the face of the Sixers going forward and should provide more momentum for the league’s growing international presence.