With the 2010 NBA Draft now a thing of the past, history books are beginning to reveal something interesting; I dare to even call it alarming, and it may prove to be a budding new trend: the international basketball market is in severe decline.
Take a look at this past 2010 NBA draft. There was only one international draft pick in the first round, Kevin Seraphin. And after Seraphin suffered a minor knee injury, it was rumored that he might withdraw from the draft. That would have meant no international draft picks in the first round, a scenario that hasn’t occurred since the 1997 NBA Draft. As for round two, there were only five foreign picks.
So why was Seraphin the only international first rounder? When Donatas Motiejunas and Jan Vesely both pulled out of early entry, no doubt the international market took a hit. Most early entries withdraw from the draft because of poor draft status, but this was not the case with Motiejunas and Vesley. Although both prospects were projected as locks in the first round, there was speculation that contract buyouts could hinder Vesley’s and Motiejunas’s prospects. But even if you factor in these two “no shows”, the numbers still dictate a decline.
Over the course of 14 years the first round has seen an average of four international draftees. Despite the outcome in 2010, early forecasts for the 2011 NBA draft has three first round foreigners, so why am I even talking about this?
GMs and scouts have long drooled over international players with booms in recruitment dating back to 2002. Foreign players became golden boys with qualities in sharp contrast to American ballers. Internationals didn’t have a sense of entitlement. They were considered smarter, because their professional careers began at an earlier age, and they were more fundamentally sound. These traits were reiterated consistently among GMs and scouts, and caused American players to take a back seat. This international love story reached its peak in 2003 with 8 first rounders and 12 second rounders. With 58 spots in the 2003 NBA Draft, a staggering 20 of those positions were filled by international players. That’s 34% percent of the draft market and it didn’t slow down for quite some time.
From 2003 to 2006 an average of 16 international players were selected per year by NBA teams. The overseas market remained strong after its peak (2003-2006), but from 2007-2009 there was a slight drop as 12 international players were being selected per year by NBA teams. After 2010 the international market took a total crash as only 6 total international players were selected in the 2010 NBA draft. This number has not been seen since the 1999 NBA draft when 6 total international players were selected.
So who’s to blame? I point the finger at both parties. There is a good deal of responsibility to go around. For one, NBA teams were greedily taking internationals that were basically high school players. Who can forget Darko Milicic, Yaroslav Korolev, Nickoloz Tskitishvili and Maciej Lampe? They were all selected at the age of an American high schooler or freshmen in college. Not only were they not at their peak, but their development hardly started. Delusional scouts who sent back tales of greatness locked in gyms of Serbia, Italy, Croatia, and France, to name a few might have been a tad bit too optimistic and lacked reality.
Second, the market saturation, with lack of pay-off for teams had who took their chances on international stock, created a backlash in how American GM’s and scouts viewed the market. What was once the international basketball market of milk and honey has become barren soil with few keepers. It’s now a near-frivolous idea that international players (drafted in the first round) will immediately head over to the states to play for their respective NBA teams.
International players Fran Vazquez, Tiago Splitter and Ricky Rubio in some ways represent the dark side of drafting international players in the first round. When Rubio was picked up in the 2009 NBA draft, Minnesota GM David Kahn shrewdly selected him with the 5th pick. You could tell Rubio wasn’t happy. His hope was to go to the New York Knicks or a bigger market club. No offense to Minnesota, but Rubio and his agent Dan Fegan have dragged their feet about when he is coming over to the club. For right now it appears Rubio’s future will be in Spain and he will not attempt to come over for another year at the earliest, stating his need to continue to develop. Kahn is not only attempting to build a rapport with Rubio and his team of consultants, but in many ways he has spent this past summer in Spain trying to recruit Rubio like a college coach chasing a blue chip athlete.
This is the NBA, not college, but at least there is hope in the Rubio situation, unlike what’s happening with the Orlando Magic and Fran Vazquez. He will never come to America. In frustration it seems as if the Magic stopped courting Vazquez as he enjoys his life overseas. It’s unfortunate that Minnesota could be Orlando in two more years. Rubio will play in the NBA. I just don’t think it will be for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Lastly, the Spurs made a little noise when they brought over Tiago Splitter this year. He was drafted in 2007 at the 27th pick. Splitter is a solid player, but I don’t think he’ll ever be exceptional, only a low to mid level starter in the NBA. With Splitter's attempts to avoid the NBA, coupled with the fact he never played college, he circumvented the NBA Draft pay scale. He’ll get 11 million over three years, which is a decent contract, but he’s a rookie - maybe not professionally, but in the NBA he is as green and unknown as 2010 third pick overall Derrick Favors.
Despite being drafted 27th, Splitter is getting top-three pick money. If drafted this past season he would have made roughly 2.7 million over the course of three years. Time will tell if he is worth the money. I understand he was the Spanish League MVP, but so were Walter Herrmann and Juan Carlos Navarro, who both played in the NBA with mixed results before going back overseas.
Agents for these international players knew a great thing when they saw it. A close look at Early Entries speaks volumes for what International players and agents thought of their draft stock. Again you see three separate trends. From 1997-2002, only 12 early entry players had international roots. After the boom of the 2003 NBA draft with its 20 players, from 2003 to 2006 we see an average of 32 players entering early entry for the NBA Draft. From 2007-2010 the total number of international players opting for early entry dropped to 24 players per year. This communicates the mindset of these early entries – with a trend of less international draft success, fewer candidates feeling they have a shot.
Like everything in life, trends happen. There are ups and downs, so don’t think this slow International Market will be the industry standard forever. But take a look at the forecast for the 2011 NBA Draft. There are only four international players projected as draftees. Ouch.