Not long ago, around this time of the year with the draft approaching, NBA fans would flock to the internet in the hope of discovering grainy footage of a player overseas touted as ‘the next big thing’.
In 2016, the grainy footage has been replaced by countless highlight videos and scouting profiles, but the mystery and intrigue over international prospects headed for America remains. But what was once a massive gap in the style and level of play between NBA and Europe has now closed significantly in the past half-decade.
“It’s a market that’s getting better and better and the players are getting better and better,” coach Scott Roth told Sport360.
There are few who understand both the NBA and European landscape, as well as their relation to each other, better than Roth. He began his professional playing career in Turkey in 1985 before entering the NBA with the Utah Jazz in 1988. Roth also played on the San Antonio Spurs, the Minnesota Timberwolves and several European clubs later in his career before serving as an assistant coach for a number of NBA teams.
Roth was most recently head coach of Baloncesto Sevilla in 2014/15, the same time New York Knicks phenom Kristaps Porzingis was in his final season with the Andalusian club before being selected fourth overall in the NBA draft.
The 20-year-old Latvian was an unknown coming into the league, but had a strong first year and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting.
While the knock on Porzingis heading into the draft was his slight frame as a 7-footer, the Knicks were enamoured with his athleticism, skill level and ability to shoot. Their evaluation paid off and the franchise now has a young, budding star to build on for the coming years.
Porzingis is the exception, not the rule for international prospects, but the stretch big man – a player capable of playing power forward or centre and being a threat on the perimeter – is becoming less and less of a unicorn. For NBA teams trying to find the next Porzingis, going abroad may be their best bet because while shooting has never been more important in the league, that skill has been a staple in Europe for a long time now.
The Euroleague average for 3-pointers made by teams per game in the 2000/01 season was 6.2, while the attempts were 18.1. Taking into account a Euroleague game is 40 minutes, if you adjust those figures per 48 minutes – the length of an NBA game – the makes climb to 7.4 and attempts to 21.7.
For comparison, the NBA league average for 3-pointers made didn’t reach that level until 2012/13, while it took until the 2014/15 season for the attempts to be as high. Athleticism and physicality are characteristics Europe can’t replicate to the level of the NBA, but skill-wise, they’ve been ahead of the curve.
“Even dating back to when I was playing in Europe, they’re so far ahead of us fundamentally and how they have grown basketball,” said Roth. “The evolution of US basketball is AAU. Some of these kids play 100 games in the summer, don’t get any training or teaching, usually the AAU teams are not even run by coaches, they’re run by money people who are investing in these kids to get shoe deals and agents. Our way of training has not been very good over the last 10-20 years.
“The Europeans have stayed steady with fundamentals and growing these kids at a very young age. You don’t have a lot of the exterior things with European players. You don’t have entourages or shoe companies or people chasing these guys down. They’re very job-oriented, focused kind of players and I think it puts them ahead of the US players in most cases.”
There’s a tendency to be American-centric when evaluating players in the NBA draft, so it’s no coincidence the team who’ve hit home run after home run with international players refuse to put “World Champions” on their title banners.
Roth was an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks when they drafted Dirk Nowitzki, an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies (then Vancouver) when they drafted Pau Gasol, and an assistant with the Toronto Raptors when they drafted Jonas Valanciunas.
Yet, the franchise he believes has been the best at succeeding with foreign players is the San Antonio Spurs. One look at their roster and it’s hard to disagree. Frenchman Tony Parker and Argentinian Manu Ginobili stand out immediately as players the Spurs have developed since drafting them, but San Antonio are also famous for assembling squads brimming with various nationalities through free agency and trades.
That approach is part of the reason why they’ve been the most successful NBA franchise in the past two decades, winning five championships while continuing to be perennial contenders.
“The biggest thing is the trust between [general manger R.C.] Buford and [head coach Gregg] Popovich,” said Roth. “It’s easy to draft any player, even an American player coming out of college. But if the coach doesn’t feel like there’s a need for him, can identify with him or find a way to use him, then the pick becomes useless to the team. The thing that strengthens San Antonio is they’re always able to see that player they like and Popovich has been able to use them in a dynamic way.”
Context is often everything when sizing up international prospects and Croatian Dragan Bender, considered to be the top foreign player in this year’s draft which takes place on Thursday, could prove just how much situation means.
Looking at Bender’s stats, it’s hard to see why he’s projected to be selected anywhere from No. 3 to No. 8 when he averaged 1.5 points and 1.2 rebounds in 10 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Euroleague and Eurocup this past season.
Stats don’t tell the whole story though. Bender’s role on the storied Israeli club was limited as they suffered a tumultuous campaign, which saw them miss the Euroleague Top 16 for the first time in history and fire their head coach mid-season.
They were trying to salvage their reputation and giving major minutes to a still-developing 18-year-old wasn’t necessarily going to help the win now. But Bender’s skill-set and shooting ability for someone standing 7ft1ins is what makes him such an appealing talent.
That’s why NBA teams lean on their scouts and make trips overseas to check out prospects in-person, says David Hein, writer of David Hein’s Eye on the Future, a weekly column for FIBA.com, and founder of heinnews.com.
“You have to look at the team he’s on and the level of the team. What’s the level of competition in the league and the club he’s on, where is he playing internationally and take that into account. For some of these guys, stats are such an unfair way to look at it,” he said.
“More than anything else, you have to see the players live. Even if it’s just warm-ups, lay-up drills, shooting, see how he relates with players, how does he encourage team-mates, how does he perform in those five minutes, if he makes a mistake and is pulled then how does he respond? All that is important to see first-hand”
Bender could follow in Porzingis’ footsteps or be another bust, but the risks are just as prevalent when drafting American players. The evolution of the NBA game could be a reason why the success rate of international players starts to climb, but failure has more to do than just where they come from.
Roth said: “It’s just right place, right time, right fit.”
Other stars on the radar
Team: Mega Leks (Serbia)
Possessing appealing size and athleticism for a swingman, the Frenchman has seen his stock rise. He greatly improved his perimeter shooting last season and has all the tools to be a lockdown defender.
Team: Anadolu Efes (Turkey)
He’s one of the best shooters in the draft and should space the floor in the NBA. Korkmaz isn’t overly athletic but has good length and could be a draft-and-stash candidate.
Team: Mega Leks (Serbia);
At 7ft1ins and 265 pounds, he has the physique to be a paint presence. Despite his size, he possesses good mobility and nimbleness, while being a strong finisher at the rim. There’s potential to work with.
Team: Cibona Zagreb (Croatia)
Zizic had one of the most productive seasons in the Adriatic League by a player under 20, thanks to his high efficiency and motor. He’s also a terror on the offensive glass.
Not one, not two, not three, not four… How many championships does it take for LeBron James to reach immortality? Turns out, just one.
James never needed to make good on the ridiculously lofty expectations he brought upon himself when he rattled off numbers at the infamous Miami Heat welcome party in 2010. The only promise truly worth fulfilling was to his city when he returned four years later.
After pouring everything he had into keeping it, James has now reached a level of inscrutability that had so frustratingly eluded him throughout his all-time great career.
Though the stakes heading into Game 7 were at a level we’ve probably never seen before, it was important to keep perspective. Win or lose, LeBron James was one of the three best basketball players of all-time. Regardless of how he played, regardless of the result and regardless of what would happen in the coming years, nothing would change that.
Forty eight minutes later and the sentiment still holds true. What’s changed now is even the staunchest LeBron naysayers have no straws to grasp at. You want to say he’s not clutch? He led the first comeback from 3-1 down in the Finals, produced two 41-point epics in Game 5 and 6, dropped a triple-double on the grandest of stages in Game 7, and led the series in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals.
You want to say he’s never beaten the best? LeBron just destroyed the NBA’s equivalent of a perfect season by beating the 73-win, defending champion Golden State Warriors. This wasn’t a single elimination, one-off fluke. This was a seven-game series in which the most deserving team came out on top.
Finally, and most satisfyingly, no one can ever say again that LeBron can’t win for Cleveland. Imagine carrying the hopes of an entire city on your shoulders, as broad as they are. All these people have known for the past 52 years is heartbreak and they look at you as their saviour.
But what do you really owe them? Love is supposed to be unrelenting, but when James made the decision to leave for Miami in 2010, he was called a traitor, his jersey was burned, and everything he had previously done for the city wiped clean in the memory of those who had adored him so much.
There is no one, and I mean no one, who deserves LeBron less than Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. Putting aside the predatory lending practices of his Quicken Loans, Gilbert was as bitter and vindictive as it gets when he penned his letter cursing LeBron when he left.
Six years later and Gilbert has his hands on the Larry O’Brien trophy with no one to thank more than James. But LeBron never came back for Gilbert, he came back for all the suffering fans who were in need of something to believe in.
To make your sole mission giving those millions of people the feeling they’ve so long yearned for and then deliver on that, is one of the most unselfish feats an athlete has ever accomplished. To see James’ face covered in tears after the final buzzer sounded was one of the most moving images I’ve ever experienced following sport.
It was a moment 13 years in the making and one that becomes more and more cathartic with each passing season of LeBron’s career. I won’t claim to know how it feels to be a Clevelander or a Cavaliers fan right now, but growing up in Boston and witnessing the Red Sox break their own storied curse gives me an idea.
Basketball is a team sport and LeBron didn’t do it alone. There wouldn’t be a championship parade tomorrow if it wasn’t for Kyrie Irving, whose contribution was stellar throughout. But the weight was all on James. He wasn’t just battling the Warriors, he was dealing with history, narrative and expectations.
LeBron defeated them all. There is nothing left to answer for.
It’s a comparison that’s been made repeatedly over the past six months or so – often to the chagrin of football fans- but increasingly it seems like Steph Curry might just well be the lone equivalent Leo Messi has right now.
The reasons for the irritation of those football fans were understandable: just over two years ago Curry wasn’t even in the discussion for the NBA MVP, while Messi has a decade of dominance under his belt. But with every heist and glimpse of genius the gap shortened, and the similarities began to appear more obvious.
And while Curry may not have been Messi in 2016, he certainly could relate to Messi at the turn of the decade. But as the Warriors first stumbled against OKC and then lost their chance at history books against the Cavs, the comparison began to fall – Messi would have never allowed this to happen (at least in a Barca shirt).
The comparisons were easy to make. Both had low key personalities that made the resemblance quite obvious but it wasn’t even as if the comparison was all that unfair, but it’s what happened over the last two years that really pushed his case.
After all, Messi was once an injury prone savant who was expected to be too small for an increasingly athletic game. As he came through the Barca youth teams football was moving further and further away from his sort of player – an small, frail, old school dribbler, who relied overwhelmingly on his technical expertise.
"There isn't any surgery in my future this summer... There's no excuses for what happened on the floor." Stephen Curry on his knee— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) June 20, 2016
The same could be said of Curry as he came out of college, with some even suggesting that he could not even survive in the big leagues with the frame that he had. But it’s the development of his Golden State Warriors team, and the antagonist they found in the last two rounds that made the comparisons more apt.
Of course the teams the duo ended up at show the difference between the two sports. The last two seasons aside the Warriors could never really be compared to Barcelona. Even in a sport that pushes towards parity they were a franchise which continued to find itself in the bottom half of the standings, nearly always devoid of even featuring in the playoffs.
Barca, meanwhile, in the free market rich-get-richer world of European football, are a handful of teams who’ve dominated the game over the past half century.
But over the last 24 months, led by Curry, the Warriors had become the basketball equivalent of the Catalans. Team assists – perhaps the easiest indicator of ball movement – is a stat they’ve topped for two years in a row, with their numbers in both the seasons being better than any put up by a team in this century.
In a sport dominated by 7-ft giants theirs is a team whose best lineup – the Death Lineup as it was referred to – was one with five undersized players (none with a listed height of over 6 ft 8), all capable of handling and shooting the ball.
Quite simply, they believed their technical brilliance would overshadow whatever physical limitations they had. In the end that wasn’t enough, but a championship followed by 73 wins will make history appreciate them more than the world does now.
The Warriors style derives from decades of development, a style built perfectly for the less physical modern NBA. Their inspirations include everything from Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix team to any number of Don Nelson led teams over the past few decades to even Lebron James’ Miami Heat sides which were credited with introducing position-less basketball (if their beat writers had any sense they’d have called it Total Basketball, but that’s just nitpicking).
Of course, until Miami and the Spurs no team had ever reached the mountaintop, and even with one title under their belt, the Warriors continued to be plagued by the orthodox notion that jump shooting teams didn’t win championships.
The Warriors, though, could draw inspiration from other sports – you could draw a comparison between every single one of their backdoor cuts which they used to great effect in the Finals to the overlaps Dani Alves and Jordi Alba master in. Or as Steph Curry said in March of this year: “Coach Kerr showed us films of some soccer greats, especially Messi. We watched how they play, the style and what they do every single game, how they score. He drew a lot of similarities to how we play, moving the ball, using each other.”
Much like the first couple of years of Pep’s Barca the only worthy opponents the Warriors have had over the past two years have been history and the record books. Or that was the case until about a fortnight ago when they ran first into the Oklahoma City Thunder and then the Cavs.
The other two were nothing like Warriors. They were teams that was supposed to dominate this era, a collection of superstars like no other – one was a team that could claim to have two of the best five players in the league, the other three of the best fifteen. And as OKC first took a 3-1 lead in their Western Conference Finals matchup another comparison started to bear shape.
The Thunder and the Cavs were loaded with talent (multiple top-5 draft picks compared to GSW’s only one being a past-it Andrew Bogut), but still relied on individual brilliance, speed and pure athleticism.
Whereas the Warriors were a finely tuned aesthetic machine, the Thunder were all fire and brimstone; ball movement on one side, ball hogging on the other. And yet the reason they were dominating the Warriors had very little to do with their offence. The way they neutralized Golden State was by being too fast, too long and too big.
The Thunder, it turns out, were Mourinho’s Madrid. Their game, particularly the fast breaks, are breathtaking in their own way, but somehow feel like something from a bygone era when compared to the Warriors’ tiki taka. And for all their offensive numbers, it was their mastery on defence that separated them from others.
Eventually the Cavs, never a great defensive team, were to follow suit, including targeting Draymond Green (like OKC did) in a way that would make Mourinho proud. And with Lebron there, they were able to go one step better.
And that was the real difference, peak Messi has never had to be in a match where he wasn’t the best player on the pitch. Messi has never had a Lebron – Messi is Lebron. In the end the comparison fell because unlike football, in basketball one man can dominate the best team.
Earlier, as OKC took a 3-1 lead it seemed as if it was then time to bury the original comparison too – because, after all, whenever Messi was called upon in a Clasico, he responded.
Curry, by comparison, seemed overawed by Westbrook and the OKC Octopus for the majority of the series. Yet somehow (mainly through Klay Thompson turning into a fireball) they managed to come back and force a Game 7. That was where destiny was to be written, and comparisons were to be made or forgotten.
Curry responded by waltzing his way to 36 and back to back finals, even the hardiest soul could admit, he just might be Messi. But then the Cavs went on a similar run to destroy all notions of the Warriors’ invincibility, the Warriors were too banged up to respond again.
For the Warriors, their dreams of invincibility died but history will remember a 73-win team more fondly than it does right now. But the comparisons may never be made again, Lebron made sure of that.