Commentary

The foreign flavor to this NBA draft

What does the number of internationals taken say about the American college game?

Originally Published: June 25, 2011
By Michael Wilbon | ESPN.com

Is it fair to conclude that the 2011 NBA draft was a referendum on college basketball? OK, it might not sound like a big deal that 14 of the 60 players drafted Thursday night were born outside North America. That's only 23 percent, or about the same percentage of foreign-born players in the NBA already. Thing is, four of the first seven players drafted were internationals, including Congolese shot-swatter Bismack Biyombo (by the Kings, who traded his rights to Charlotte), who seems to have been playing organized basketball for about a minute and a half.

Bismack Biyombo
AP Photo/Julio CortezThe Congo's Bismack Biyombo hasn't been a household name for long, but there might not be a shot he can't block.

And at the end of the night, when teams are looking to get lucky, when they're taking a flyer on a kid who just might turn into something with a lot of work and a little luck, NBA scouts again looked overseas. Five of the last seven players chosen were foreign-born, including kids from Nigeria, the Congo and Sudan. By the time it was over, the Congo had produced two more draft picks than North Carolina, Indiana, Louisville and Georgetown combined.

The possibility of a lockout might have kept some of the top college players in school this year; and by next year's draft, the trend toward internationals might look different. But the Rest of the World has been producing great basketball players for some time now, and that won't stop. Arvydas Sabonis, who belonged to the old Soviet Union when he burst onto the scene in the early 1980s, might have been the best prospect in the world but didn't get to play in the NBA until the 1990s, when he was a shell of his younger self. And Croatian sensation Toni Kukoc was indispensible to the Chicago Bulls' final three championship teams in the late 1990s.

Still, international players -- most notably the Europeans -- carried the "soft" label right up through the NBA Finals a week ago. So perhaps all 11 of the Euros drafted Thursday night should send a check, or at the very least a thank-you note, to Dirk Nowitzki, who in a two-week period did as much to change the perception of European players as anything. No way, starting now and going forward, will a player the caliber of France's Tony Parker last until the end of the first round, or Argentina's Manu Ginobili for that matter last until late in the second round.

Kwame Brown would never be selected ahead of Pau Gasol if the 2001 draft was held again today. The Bulls went as far as to trade up for a young Serbian forward, Nikola Mirotic, who was selected 23rd overall but probably won't play in Chicago for at least three seasons, maybe four.

[+] EnlargeJonas Valanciunas
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesIn one sense, Lithuania's Jonas Valanciunas will still be playing internationally: He was drafted by Toronto.

Players drafted Thursday night hail from Turkey, Lithuania (which had two players drafted), the Czech Republic, the Congo, Montenegro, Serbia (also with two players), Bosnia, Latvia, Nigeria, Qatar, Sudan and Hungary. If the NBA could figure out a way to successfully mine the talent in China, the number of internationals drafted might have been more like 18. That's the real effect of the Barcelona Dream Team, as the 20th anniversary approaches. The world plays basketball, and it isn't afraid of the college kids -- or, more accurately put, the AAU kids.

The NBA scouts realize they're getting, in the internationals, players who are more likely to be raw. They're also getting players who are less weighed down by sycophantic family members, handlers and -- worst of all -- a sense of entitlement from the age of 12 on. A college basketball coach who wears an NCAA championship ring told me the story of a recent encounter with a recruit who brought an uninvited "personal coach" to the coach's university office to discuss how the young prodigy would be best handled. This apparently is becoming everyday stuff.

The NBA, both management and the players' association, would be best served by simply negotiating a two-year stay-in-college agreement. High school kids who don't want to attend college could play professionally overseas until eligible for the NBA draft, the way Brandon Jennings did with all kinds of success a couple of years ago. But the NBA doesn't seem interested, and maybe that's because the NBA has an increasing supply of international talent from which to draw. Why worry about knuckleheads in your own backyard when kids from all over the world are begging for the chance? It'll be fascinating to see how quickly 23 international draftees becomes 33.

Basketball isn't dependent on American college talent the way professional football is. In fact, a successful draft last night seemed dependent on both international and homegrown players. For several years early in the new century, high school players gave the draft its personality, but they're no longer eligible for the draft. With Africa starting to produce players and South America a consistent force on the world basketball stage, foreign-born players may start to give the draft more than just depth.

I'll admit, of the players I'm most excited about seeing from this rookie class, at the top of the list are Kemba Walker, Jan Vesely (a 6-foot-11 athletic freak from the Czech Republic) and Biyombo, who seems as if he could block every single shot if the NBA played by the international rules that look more kindly on what we call "goaltending."

[+] EnlargeEnes Kanter
AP Photo/Bill KostrounTurkey's Enes Kanter spent a year at Kentucky, but didn't play there. He was the first international player chosen Thursday night.

Perhaps we simply see too much of American college players now, given the glut of televised games from November through the Final Four. Perhaps the international players aren't any better, just more novel. We don't get sick of them nearly as quickly. But a bit of fascinating news came later Thursday, after the draft proceedings were over. The league champion Dallas Mavericks had improved themselves, one would think, by trading a pick to acquire Spaniard Rudy Fernandez from Portland. It surely had more to do with the fact that Fernandez fits a need and is a young veteran who makes more sense as an addition than a rookie who would be lost with the Mavericks' 30-somethings.

But there is something consistent about this last month of the season, from Nowitzki leading his team to the title to the draft being peppered by so many internationals to the Mavericks addressing a need by acquiring another European.

Cleveland is betting on a couple of homegrown products to revive the franchise LeBron James left for dead. Kyrie Irving, according to most scouts, was the best prospect in the draft; and No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams, selected by Minnesota, probably has the most star appeal. But for perhaps the first time, the NBA draft featured more than just a novel international player or two. It included foreign-born prospects whom teams hope can change their franchises, and as a result, the league.

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.

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Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon