What Will The NBA's Next Wave of International Players Look Like?
One of the defining characteristics of the NBA in the 2000s was the unprecedented impact of international players on the league. There were first-ever MVPs from Europe (Dirk Nowitzki) and Canada (Steve Nash), a first-ever European Finals MVP (Tony Parker), plus players who played big roles in both NBA championships and in winning gold medals in major international events in which the U.S. was toppled (Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol), as well as other All-Stars, such as Yao Ming.
Looking ahead, the interesting question is whether international players will have as much impact on the 2010s as they did in the 2000s. Certainly, there are plenty of promising young international players already in the league – under-25 guys include Spaniards Marc Gasol and Rudy Fernandez, the Italian triumvirate of Andrea Bargnani, Marco Belinelli and Danilo Gallinari, Australian Andrew Bogut, Latvian Andris Biedrins, Frenchmen Nic Batum and Rodrigue Beaubois, and Israeli rookie Omri Casspi among others. Other top prospects who have been drafted and are poised to come over in the next couple years include Spaniard Ricky Rubio (Timberwolves), Brazilian Tiago Splitter (Spurs), Montenegran Nikola Pekovic (Timberwolves) and Turkish center Omer Asik (Bulls).
There are enough quality ballers listed above that it’s certain internationals will continue to play key roles on NBA contenders, it’s just hard to tell if any of these young players will emerge as true stars, on the level of the players listed in the first paragraph, and exactly who they will be.
Also, we may be in line for a slight changing of the guard in terms of countries which produce NBA players. Argentina seems to have been blessed with a remarkable confluence of several NBA-worthy players who meshed together beautifully in the 2000s, but there does not appear to be another wave of top talent behind them. With the emergence of Nene and the impending entrance of Splitter, Brazil should take over the mantle as South America’s top NBA talent producer.
Given that Yi Jianlian increasingly looks like a colossal bust, one must question how much talent is on the way behind Yao Ming from China in the 2010s, considering that the talent level on the Chinese national team is pretty thin, with no major draft prospects in the immediate future.
But considering that the Chinese government is building a basketball court in every village, and that NBA basketball is widely exposed in the country, it seems like a matter of time before more Chinese prospects emerge. It’s just unclear who will follow Yao, which must be of concern to the NBA from a business perspective in the short-term.
In Europe, France and Spain and Italy should continue to be top talent producers, but Dirk appears to have been a one-hit wonder out of Germany, and traditional powers Lithuania and Serbia should re-emerge after a few years of relative drought in terms of prospects.
The only two internationals projected as top-10 picks in Draft Express’ mock drafts for 2010 and 2011 are both Lithuanian. Donatas Montiejunas, in particular, has some Dirk-like attributes and is projected as a top-5 pick in 2010, while 6-10 Jonas Valanciunas is tabbed as a top-5 prospect for 2011.
After the crash from Yugoslavia’s 2002 world championship to Serbia’s failing to qualify for the 2008 Olympics, the Serbs rebounded nicely with a young roster which won a surprising silver medal at Eurobasket 2009. Milos Teodosic and Novica Velickovic are players who could come over at some point.
Unsung country to watch: Czech Republic, as prospects Jan Vesely and Tomas Satoransky are projected as first-round picks in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
The NBA is still working on developing the talent out of Africa. David Stern has said, "We're very intently focused on Africa ... I wouldn't be surprised if we had three offices on the continent by the (2012) Olympics…. In Africa, we’re beginning to see new countries challenging the traditional powers like Angola — the Ivory Coast, Tunisia. I’ve said this before: Africa could be a continent as important to the development of players as Eastern and Western Europe combined.”
That said, Tanzanian Hasheem Thabeet nor anyone else seems poised to inhabit the giant footsteps of retired lions Olajuwon and Mutombo.
One last note is that we do expect that we’ll see the first European NBA coach sometime in the 2010s. Ettore Messina is still the favorite, especially since he has spent the last four years going to the Euroleague Final Four with CSKA Moscow, funded by prospective Nets owner Prokhorov, and previously coached for Benetton Treviso, working for current Raptors VP Mauricio Gherardini, who could become the first European NBA GM this decade, as well.