International players gain notice as college stars pass on NBA draft
Not everybody groans when another top NBA draft prospect decides to return to school.
The fans certainly do, if only because the June 23 event will be much more fun if the names coming through their televisions aren't being heard for the first time. The front-office types are moaning, maybe even on the brink of tears as their options in this slim-pickings draft continue to be limited. But when projected top-five picks like Jared Sullinger (Ohio State), Perry Jones (Baylor) and Harrison Barnes (North Carolina) shock the hoops world and delay their NBA experience, someone else gleefully moves up the board.
That goes for Kemba Walker, the Connecticut guard who is suddenly looking like a top-five pick; Kawhi Leonard, the San Diego State sophomore small forward who was once considered a mid-to-late first-round pick but who is now believed to be firmly entrenched in the lottery. Colorado's Alec Burks might make that cut now, too, as the sophomore is considered the best of a weak shooting guard class. (Side note for Connecticut freshman Jeremy Lamb: One personnel director suggests you take advantage of this opportunity to put your name in this weak draft and promises to place you above Burks on his shooting guard list.)
The result, it also appears, is that this draft menu is suddenly heavy on international flavor near the top.
Much will happen between now and the big night in Newark, N.J., including Sunday's early entry eligibility deadline; a pivotal league-wide workout in Newark on May 7 and 8; the NCAA's May 8 deadline by which underclassmen must withdrawal to retain eligibility; the May 17 draft lottery; and the NBA's June 13 early entrant withdrawal deadline. But as many as six international players could be taken in the lottery.
Lithuanian centers Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas, Congolese forward Bismack Biyombo, Czech Republic forward Jan Vesely, Turkish center Enes Kanter (who was ruled ineligible at Kentucky in his one season there) and perhaps even Montenegrin small forward Nikola Mirotic could be taken in those top 14 picks.
The current field could challenge the 2003 draft class for historic overseas appeal. Eight such prospects were chosen in the first round eight years ago, including Detroit's ill-fated selection of Darko Milicic with the No. 2 pick. The number of international first-round picks has never returned to those levels and was especially low last year. Kevin Seraphin was the only international player to be taken in the 2010 first round, at No. 17 by Chicago, which dealt the French power forward to Washington in a draft-day trade.
None of the executives polled by SI.com sounded pleased with this development, though. In fact, the reality that these particular players are on the rise is seen by some as an indictment of the American-born crop as it currently stands.
"I guarantee you, if this was next year's class, with the guys who are going back to school and the incoming freshmen, nobody would feel the need to spend months of time in Kaunas, Lithuania [Motiejunas' hometown]," one general manager said. "But you start staring at Kemba Walker and [Kentucky guard] Brandon Knight and [Kentucky forward] Terrence Jones and Kawhi Leonard in the lottery, and you start going, 'Oh, my God, I'd better get on a plane and go find somebody.' "
The need for a player who can make an impact early will be greater than normal because of the league's labor situation. The owners are pushing hard for the sort of hard salary cap that -- should they eventually be granted their wish -- would demand more roster efficiency. There would be less patience for players who are deemed projects, which is a problem that Duke point guard Kyrie Irving certainly does not have.
Despite missing more than three months of his freshman season with a ligament injury, his standing atop the early draft boards seems secure. Asked if Irving could be considered a consensus No. 1 pick at this point, the GM said that anyone not seeing it that way was "out of their mind" while adding, "I could pick five teams in the playoffs right now where Kyrie Irving could go out and start."
Added the personnel director: "He's got a chance to be real good. A lot of people compare him to Chris Paul, and I think that's a good comparison. He's a better shooter coming out than Chris was [coming out of Wake Forest in 2005] -- maybe not as quick, but a legit NBA body and size."
Kentucky announced on Wednesday that Knight and Jones have declared for the draft, but they will not sign with agents so as to retain eligibility should they decide to withdrawal. Like so many others, they will certainly be considering the effects of a looming NBA lockout.
Rookies don't get paid for the first time until mid-November, meaning a short lockout would not affect their early earnings. What's more, most agents offer to loan their new clients money while the waiting game drags on. The absence of actual games and general uncertainty of the situation, though, are surely reasons enough to make prospects pause.
"I think the lockout is definitely coming into play," the personnel director said. "All year long I've been asking agents what you think is going to happen with guys, and the consensus is: 'If guys don't need money, then why would they lose a year of development sitting at home doing nothing?' It's the guys who need money saying, 'Well, my agent will loan me the money, so the fact that we're not getting paid is not an issue.' "
As for the always-important talent level? It's nothing short of a global issue.