Every general manager would love to add an immediate contributor through the draft. But executives who are willing to be patient also employ the "draft-and-stash" approach, which, when used well, can be gold for an NBA franchise.
For instance, Oklahoma City center Serge Ibaka, the 24th pick two years ago, played a key role in the Thunder's dramatic turnaround this season after spending the 2008-09 campaign with Ricoh Manresa in the Spanish ACB. Thunder general manager Sam Presti closely monitored Ibaka's progress overseas and made known the team's interest in bringing the Congo native to the NBA, persistence that paid off as Ibaka averaged 6.3 points and 5.4 rebounds in 18.1 minutes off the bench in '09-10.
Looking back even further, the likes of Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Andrei Kirilenko, Hedo Turkoglu, Peja Stojakovic and Rudy Fernandez serve as examples of important players who were not signed right away by the NBA teams that drafted them. Instead, they were given time to continue to develop in Europe, on someone else's dime, while playing at the highest level of competition outside the NBA.
Until they are signed, these players do not count against a team's salary cap or take up a valuable roster spot. Their draft rights are held in perpetuity -- that is, until a team decides to relinquish them or sign the player. (Similarly, if an NBA restricted free agent elects to go overseas rather than sign his qualifying offer -- such as Denver's Linas Kleiza last season or Atlanta's Josh Childress the year before -- the team continues to hold the right of first refusal for as long as it chooses.)
There are a number of "rights held" prospects who could emerge as significant signings for their NBA teams this summer or beyond. Let's explore the most interesting among them.
•Ricky Rubio, Timberwolves, No. 5 pick in 2009 draft. The golden boy of Spanish basketball declined to join a crowded backcourt in Minnesota last summer, instead opting to stay in Spain. He appears to have made the right choice: After moving from DKV Joventut to crosstown rival Regal FC Barcelona, Rubio won the Euroleague title, mostly as the team's starting point guard.
Rubio is still only 19 but already has experience playing in an Olympic gold-medal game, a Euroleague Final Four, a EuroCup Final Four, a Copa del Rey final and a Spanish ACB league playoff finals series. His maturity, creativity and feel for the game are exceedingly rare for a teenager, making him arguably the most hyped European talent ever.
Rubio said recently that he will not play in the NBA before 2011, when he can exercise a 1 million euro buyout in his Barcelona contract. The point guard remains noncommittal when discussing his desire to play for the Timberwolves, as opposed to the NBA in general; Minnesota -- which drafted another point guard, Jonny Flynn, one pick after selecting Rubio last year -- still has work to do to sell him on playing there, according to high-level sources in the Rubio camp.
But there's no guarantee that you'll see Rubio in any NBA uniform in 2011. In fact, in large part because of a potential lockout and money considerations, the more likely scenario for now is Rubio's arrival in 2012.
Rubio will not be inclined to terminate his contract with Barcelona next summer if there's no new collective bargaining agreement by then. Also, if Rubio waits until 2012 -- three years removed from his draft year -- he'll no longer be bound by the rules of the NBA rookie scale, which, under the current CBA, would pay him an average of about $3.6 million his first two years, a sum that will likely be below market value. Freed from the rookie scale, Rubio could negotiate like a free agent with the team that holds his rights, receiving anything from the mid-level exception ($5.85 million this season) to a maximum contract if a team has the requisite room under the salary cap.
Another factor to consider could be Rubio's contract with Nike, which expires in two years. The company has made no secret of its preference to see Rubio in a bigger NBA market than Minnesota, according to sources, and it will be interesting to see whether the dollars Nike throw into the equation sways things. His agent, Dan Fegan, just put the finishing touches on a $25 million contract with Reebok for John Wall, the presumed No. 1 pick in next Thursday's draft, and will likely be looking to make a similar splash for Rubio, who is already the most marketable player in Europe.
• Tiago Splitter, Spurs, No. 28 pick in 2007 draft. The Brazilian 7-footer is no stranger to diehard NBA fans, as his name has been on the radar for what seems like years now. He entered his name into the draft pool for the first time in 2004, and has continued to flirt with the NBA for the better part of six years.
Fresh off an ACB championship and Finals MVP award with Caja Laboral, the 25-year-old Splitter has never been more ready to come to the NBA than he is now. He's clearly the best center in Europe, averaging 16 points and 7 rebounds, shooting 58 percent from the field and showing promising defensive ability in the ultracompetitive ACB. Splitter is a mobile center with a good frame, great hands, excellent fundamentals and a high basketball IQ. He could step in and start for many NBA teams immediately and, unlike a lot of international prospects, will have few issues making the transition to the league's style of play.
Splitter finally could be poised to jump to the NBA: He can opt out of his deal in Spain this summer, and because he's three years removed from being drafted, he is eligible to be paid like an NBA free agent. Splitter will likely ask capped-out San Antonio to pay him the full mid-level exception, and he'll be worth every penny considering how desperately it needs him.
• Nikola Pekovic, Timberwolves, No. 31 pick in 2008 draft. The tough, aggressive 6-10 Serbian center is the most productive per-minute scorer in European basketball (30 points per 40 in Greece with Panathinaikos Athens, 27 points per 40 in the Euroleague). Pekovic, 24, would be a valuable addition to an NBA frontcourt, despite his limitations as a perimeter defender and defensive rebounder. Panathinaikos has offered him a contract worth three million euro, but sources in Europe say Pekovic is likely to head Stateside this summer.
• Sergio Llull, Rockets, No. 34 pick in 2009 draft. The Rockets bought the rights to three second-round picks last year, including Real Madrid's Llull, who reportedly cost them more than $2 million. Llull, a 6-3 point guard with NBA-caliber athleticism, has improved as a passer and perimeter shooter over the past two seasons, to the point that he's looking like a major steal for the Rockets. But getting the 22-year-old out of Spain figures to be challenging. He's under contract with Real Madrid until next year and the club could seek to extend his deal this summer.
• Omer Asik, Bulls, No. 36 pick in 2008 draft. The Bulls acquired the 23-year-old Turkish center in a draft-night trade with Portland two years ago. According to sources, the Bulls remain highly interested in signing the athletic, late-blooming 7-footer despite his two injury-plagued seasons with Fenerbahce in Turkey. His game is similar to that of Chicago center Joakim Noah; Asik is a high-energy rebounder, he's raw offensively and he has a knack for shot-blocking. If he can stay healthy -- he missed a lot of time the past two seasons with torn knee ligaments and a broken collarbone -- Asik could help the Bulls' frontcourt soon. Asik wants to play in the NBA and, unlike other players on this list, his European contract expired after this season.
• Fran Vazquez, Magic, No. 11 pick in 2005 draft. The Spanish big man could start on a number of NBA teams thanks to his athleticism, shot-blocking ability and rebounding prowess. But that seems unlikely at this point, as Vazquez, Rubio's teammate in Barcelona, is comfortable in his native country and hasn't really been courted all that heavily by Orlando.
• Ante Tomic, Jazz, No. 44 pick in 2008 draft. The 7-2 Croatian center was a revelation for Real Madrid late in the season after jumping from KK Zagreb of the Adriatic League. He has a contract for another three years in Spain, but does possess an NBA buyout clause in 2011 if the Jazz decide to make a large financial commitment to sign him. His combination of size and scoring ability will be enticing, but his skinny frame leaves questions about whether he can hold own physically in the NBA, particularly on the defensive end.