Thursday, June 30, 2011

International Prospects: A Risk Not Worth Taking

June 30 has arrived. What typically is a time of rampant free agent speculation and off the wall trade rumors has morphed into a dark day of anxiety. David Stern, Billy Hunter, Derek Fisher, and others have this one last day to come to a new labor agreement. One more day until the CBA expires. One more day until the owners impose a lockout on the players (maybe). One more day until all hell breaks loose and Armageddon is unleashed on the basketball world.

OK, so maybe that last one is extreme…really extreme. At this point, a lockout would mean very little to fans like you and me. Yeah, I’ll likely go into withdrawals soon if the free agent/trade bonanza doesn’t start on time; and I’ll have to find more creative ways to waste my time if I can’t watch crappy summer league games on NBATV; but hey, it’s not like the real games start anytime soon. All a lockout means for us is a summer full of posturing and legal jargon…not unlike our spring actually.

The problem is, not everybody is going to be as logical about the lockout. The mere mention of the word strikes fear into fans hearts and turns them against the sport they love. Here’s a fun idea for all of you at home; go say the word “strike” to a baseball fan and see what happens! Now, before you discount the comparison, remember that an extended lockout cut a large chunk out of the 1998-1999 NBA season. NBA fans remember that season…heck, I was only 13 and I remember that season vividly. You know what? It sucked!

No matter how you slice it, a lockout is rough for the fans and for the league’s image. All in all, it’s bad news. With all this bad news going around the NBA, it would probably be appropriate for me to bring some good news to the table. Unfortunately, I have none (do I ever?). In fact, I have more bad news to share with a few NBA teams; specifically the Utah Jazz, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards, and Charlotte Bobcats. Each of these teams had early lottery picks, and each of these teams selected an international prospect with that pick. Sorry guys, but it’s probably not going to work out.

It’s a very popular thing to rip on foreign prospects, especially after the Darko Milicic fiasco. Most of us haven’t seen them play, and nearly all of us struggle to pronounce their names. The resounding chorus on every local Columbus radio show last week was that “foreign prospects scare me, please, for the love of God, don’t draft Valanciunas.” While there certainly have been some good foreign players like Pau Gasol and Yao Ming, the numbers clearly show this fear of drafting foreign talent early in the draft is VERY justified.

First, let’s look at a big picture breakdown. Here is the data I compiled on how foreign prospects rate against domestic prospects. (All data is from 1999-2008 drafts, top 15 picks only)

There were 18 international players taken in the top 15 from 1999-2008. Of those players, only 16 made it over to play in the NBA (Frederic Weiss, Fran Vazquez never played an NBA game).
International - 5.2 seasons; 2 of 18 players made All-Star teams; 12.6 PER; 19 EWA
Domestic - 6.3 seasons; 25 of 132 players made All-Star teams; 14.8 PER; 25.4 EWA

Domestic players have 17% longer careers, produce 42% more All-Stars, have an astronomically higher PER (2.2 is a HUGE difference), and contribute 25% more EWA over the course of their careers. This is a difficult fact to overcome, but even that doesn’t tell the whole truth. Breaking this down further sheds even more negative light on international prospects. Let’s look at all 18 players individually and compare them to the average of the domestic prospects taken in their respective draft slot. (Remember, this is irrelevant of their value in a particular draft. Whether the players selected around them were good or not isn't the issue. It's strictly a determination of an individual prospect in a given draft slot over the course of history.)


           #12 Aleksandar Radojevic - 2 seasons; 15 games; -0.9 PER; -0.4 EWA
           #12 Overall average - 5.7 seasons; 315.9 games; 12.9 PER; 11.5 EWA

Radojevic was a complete and utter bust, playing 300 games less than the average domestic player in his draft slot.

Score – Domestic: 1   International: 0

           #15 Frederic Weis - Did not play in NBA
           #15 Overall average - 4.9 seasons; 242.5 games; 12.6 PER; 8.9 EWA

Weis is best known for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when Vince Carter jumped clear over him for a dunk. He’s probably second best known for being mercilessly booed by Knicks fans when Stern announced his selection.

Score – Domestic: 2   International: 0

           #3 Pau Gasol - 10 seasons; 731 games; 22.1 PER; 98.0 EWA
           #3 Overall average - 6.6 seasons; 462.8 games; 15.6 PER; 32.1 EWA

Gasol is one of the best PF’s in the game, far outplaying the average production from a #3 overall pick.

Score – Domestic: 2   International: 1

           #12 Vlad Radmanovic - 10 seasons; 663 games; 12.8 PER; 24.8 EWA
           #12 Overall average - 5.7 seasons; 315.9 games; 12.9 PER; 11.5 EWA

Our first truly close match! At first glance, it appears Radmanovic is the winner, but keep in mind that three good former#12 picks are still active; one in the prime of his career (Nick Collison) and two at the very beginning (Jason Thompson, Thaddeus Young). Based on that, the difference in seasons and total EWA are put into perspective. With the PER essentially identical, and the EWA being fairly close given the skewed number of seasons, I’m going to call this one a draw. Also, I’ve watched Radmanovic play many times and I know for a fact he’s far worse than these numbers tell me.

Score – Domestic: 2   International: 1   Tie: 1

           #1 Yao Ming - 8 seasons; 486 games; 23.0 PER; 65.9 EWA
           #1 Overall average - 7.4 seasons; 492.8 games; 19.3 PER; 52.5 EWA
There’s no doubt about it; when Yao’s on the floor, he’s extremely productive. However, while I’ll go ahead and give the nod to Yao, I’m not sure he’s far off from the average. Lebron James, Dwight Howard, and Derrick Rose all have a lot of good years left, and these averages are going to rise dramatically over the course of time. Depending on how you stack him against Elton Brand, Yao is either the fourth or fifth best #1 pick in the last ten years.

Score – Domestic: 2   International: 2   Tie: 1

           #5 Nikoloz Tskitishvili - 4 seasons; 172 games; 5.2 PER; -1.6 EWA 
           #5 Overall average - 6.9 seasons; 453.2 games; 16.4 PER; 32.8 EWA

‘Skita is easily one of the biggest draft busts of all time, and he’s one of the main reasons why GM’s are terrified to take a foreign prospect.

Score – Domestic: 3   International: 2   Tie: 1

           #7 Nene - 9 seasons; 527 games; 17.4 PER; 49.5 EWA
           #7 Overall average - 6.4 seasons; 427.3 games; 14.5 PER; 24 EWA

After a slow start to his career, Nene has really cemented himself as one of the better low post players in the league.

Score – Domestic: 3   International: 3   Tie: 1

           #15 Bostjan Nachba - 6 seasons; 317 games; 11.5 PER; 8.7 EWA
           #15 Overall average - 4.9 seasons; 242.5 games; 12.6 PER; 8.9 EWA

Nachbar’s 11.5 PER is beyond bad, and he put up less EWA despite playing 1.1 seasons more than the average. There are several former #15 picks going strong (Al Jefferson, Rodney Stuckey, Robin Lopez), so you can bet Nachbar’s numbers will only look worse as the years go by.

Score – Domestic: 4   International: 3   Tie: 1

           #2 Darko Milicic -  8 seasons; 438 games; 12.5 PER; 7.2 EWA
           #2 Overall average - 6 seasons; 411 games; 16.7 PER; 31.4 EWA

Darko, even more than Tskitishvili, is the poster child for international prospects gone bad. 7.2 EWA in 8 seasons is bad for the #20 pick…much less the #2 pick!

Score – Domestic: 5   International: 3   Tie: 1

           #11 Mickael Pietrus - 8 seasons; 496 games; 12.1 PER; 18.5 EWA
           #11 Overall average - 4.7 seasons; 232.3 games; 11.6 PER; 5.9 EWA

Similar to Radmanovic, Pietrus’ low PER indicates he’s far less useful than his EWA might suggest…and even that suggests a barely passable rotation player. Still, the #11 pick has been a trash heap and Pietrus, despite being a disappointment, has been OK.

Score – Domestic: 5   International: 4   Tie: 1

           #11 Andris Biedrins - 7 seasons; 410 games; 16.2 PER; 28.4 EWA
           #11 Overall average - 4.7 seasons; 232.3 games; 11.6 PER; 5.9 EWA

Biedrins has actually been fairly solid, despite never developing any semblance of an offensive game.

Score – Domestic: 5   International: 5   Tie: 1

            #11 Fran Vazquez - Did not play in NBA
            #11 Overall average - 4.7 seasons; 232.3 games; 11.6 PER; 5.9 EWA

Vazquez may play for Orlando someday…but it hasn’t happened yet.

Score – Domestic: 6   International: 5   Tie: 1

           #12 Yaroslav Korolev - 2 seasons; 34 games; 5.6 PER; -0.1 EWA

           #12 Overall average - 5.7 seasons; 315.9 games; 12.9 PER; 11.5 EWA

My best memory of Korolev was the look on his face as the draft analysts openly mocked the selection and pretty much said Korolev was a bad player. Just a wonderful moment. Still, it was a nice 34 game run…

Score – Domestic: 7   International: 5   Tie: 1

           #1 Andrea Bargnani - 5 seasons; 367 games; 14.3 PER; 13.9 EWA
           #1 Overall average - 7.4 seasons; 492.8 games; 19.3 PER; 52.5 EWA

Bargnani has been a decent player, but he hasn’t come anywhere near giving Toronto the type of play expected out of a #1 overall pick. You’d expect a meager 14.3 PER from your backup PF, but not your franchise player.

Score – Domestic: 8   International: 5   Tie: 1

           #10 Saer Sene - 3 seasons; 47 games; 13.5 PER; 0.3 EWA
           #10 Overall average - 7.3 seasons; 485.9 games; 14.8 PER; 29.4 EWA

Like Bismack Biyombo, Sene burst onto the scene at the Nike Hoop Summit game when he dominated the game defensively due to his length and shot blocking. Of course, that rarely amounts to anything in the NBA if you can’t do anything else…are you listening Charlotte? 47 games later, Sene was headed back overseas.

Score – Domestic: 9   International: 5   Tie: 1

           #13 Thabo Sefalosha - 5 seasons; 367 game; 10.5 PER; 12.7 EWA
           #13 Overall average - 6.1 seasons; 348.6 games; 12.7 PER; 17.4 EWA

Sefalosha is a pretty solid defender and the numbers don’t really tell that story, but even still,  a 10.5 PER is un-excusable.

Score – Domestic: 10   International: 5   Tie: 1

           #6 Yi Jianlian - 4 seasons; 242 games; 11.2 PER; 3.1 EWA
           #6 Overall average - 6.9 seasons; 420.6 games; 14.0 PER; 27.2 EWA

3.1 EWA in 4 seasons about tells it all. Even Washington doesn’t want him (didn’t tender his Qualifying Offer).

Score – Domestic: 11   International: 5   Tie: 1

           #6 Danilo Galinari - 3 seasons; 171 games; 15.1 PER; 12.7 EWA
           #6 Overall average - 6.9 seasons; 420.6 games; 14.0 PER; 27.2 EWA

Galinari’s a nice player that hasn’t totally lived up to his hype. Still, he’s very young and he’s getting better.

Score – Domestic: 11   International: 6   Tie: 1

11-6 is already a pretty wide margin, but even the 6 “wins” for the international prospects are somewhat hollow. Yao is in the middle of the pack for #1 overall picks, Pietrus isn’t a very good player and I probably should have labeled that one a tie, and Galinari could still go either way. Their “losses” however, have been epic. Frederic Weis and Fran Vazquez never made it over; and Radojevic, Tskitishvili, Milicic, Korolev, Sene and Yi have been epic, franchise altering busts.

Perhaps Enes Kanter will end up being a dominant center.  Maybe Jonas Valanciunas really is the next Pau Gasol. Its possible Jan Vesely is the European Blake Griffin. There’s a chance Bismack Biyombo is the second coming of Ben Wallace. Each of these players has talent and each could become stars. All I’m saying is, don’t bet on it. For whatever reason, it’s nearly impossible to accurately project an international prospects future. Obviously, as the above numbers show, they don’t usually work out.

So, good luck Utah, Toronto, Washington, and Charlotte! Maybe you really do have something there; but my guess is we’ll see you in the lottery next year.


  1. Can you put this clip on Facebook so I can click "Like" repeatedly?

  2. You've seen that before, right?

  3. Landrum, I seriously don't know what you are going to be able to talk about since teams won't be able to hand out horrible contracts for awhile.