In early 2011, Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo joined a group of a dozen or so NBA scouts in a packed gym in Vilnius, Lithuania. They were there to see center Jonas Valanciunas, an 18-year-old phenom. Valanciunas showcased a blend of power moves in the paint and bursts of energy in the open floor. Colangelo was sold, and that summer he used the fifth pick in the draft to get him. "It's not often you find a 7-footer with personality, energy and bounce," says Colangelo.
Valanciunas, who had a $2.5 million buyout in his contract with Lietuvos Rytas, spent last season playing in Lithuania. This year he will be counted on to help bolster the front line for the Raptors, who were 27th in the league last year in points in the paint. At 6'11" and 231 pounds, Valanciunas has the size of a center and a hyperactive game. "He's a finisher. He's going to run out on pick-and-rolls, run out in transition, and as he gets stronger he has a low post game that's going to be effective," says former college coach and ESPN overseas expert Fran Fraschilla.
The latest import to enter the NBA with lofty expectations, Valanciunas was one of five overseas first-rounders in 2011. That number declined to one in '12, but the disparity can largely be attributed to overseas prospects' being overly eager to come out in '11, when the impending lockout kept many top college players out of the draft.
Europe is still clearly a breeding ground for talent—but filtering out potential lottery busts has become a little easier. The emergence of Eurocup and the general strengthening of the Euroleague have taken away some of the guesswork. "We went through a stretch where European players were drafted mostly on potential, which generally ended in failure," says Colangelo. "The best results come from studying a body of work [in] Euroleague play or legitimate international competition."
October 8, 2012
Moreover, the declining European economy is pushing more players toward U.S. colleges. "The money isn't what it used to be," says Fraschilla. "For the Ricky Rubios, the money will be there. But for the guys on the next level, the college system is becoming a better alternative." So now, instead of seeing players once or twice, scouts are able to evaluate them closely over a full season. Ukraine's Alex Len (a sophomore at Maryland), Germany's Patrick Heckmann (a sophomore at Boston College) and Poland's Przemek Karnowski (a freshman at Gonzaga) are the most prominent of a growing number of players who are eschewing the European pro ranks for a college career.
This trend, league executives hope, will keep the blue-chippers coming to the NBA while limiting the number of mistakes. "Teams just aren't tricked as easily anymore," says Fraschilla. "They are not just taking fliers on kids. The players are still there; it has just become easier to identify real talent."
The jury is still out on the five international players who were taken in the first round of the 2011 draft: Only two played in the U.S., and, thanks to the lockout, they were rushed into their rookie seasons. But chances are, most of the class will pan out. The number of overseas players taken in the first round who turned out to be busts* has declined drastically in recent years.
DARKO MILICIC, BUST 2003
RICKY RUBIO, NONBUST 2009
*Defined as a player who never contributed at least two win shares in a single season or who averaged less than one win share per season (as calculated by basketball-reference.com). One pick from 2009 (Victor Claver) and one from 2006 (Joel Freeland) are planning to make their NBA debuts this year (both with Portland) and were not included in the data. All other picks are classified as busts or nonbusts.