An expanding pool of global talent seeks to join international NBA stars such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokić. You need to know these rising prospects.
FIBA, the world’s largest governing basketball body, still ranks the U.S. as the best national team on the planet, despite the Americans’ most recent struggle on the global stage. And although it was second-ranked Spain that won the 2019 FIBA World Cup, the U.S. has long been recognized for its basketball prominence. But NBA rosters have featured an increasing number of foreign-born players in recent years, making up nearly 108 players on opening night of the 2019-20 season. As more international players transition to the NBA, the style of play around the league has evolved.
“You watch a team like the Warriors of the past five years, and you know, everybody one through five makes the right pass,” said Jack Leasure, who won the Big South Conference player of the year in 2005-06 for Coastal Carolina. “Everybody’s skilled, everybody can handle the ball, everybody can shoot it. I think that’s a very international influence. If you went back 20 years, you didn’t see that kind of game in the NBA.”
Leasure played pro basketball in Austria and led the New Zealand NBL in 3-pointers for four straight seasons before retiring to become the head coach at his former high school. Though Leasure made clear that the right path to the NBA is different for every young player, there’s no doubt that international leagues offer closer rules to those of the NBA than those of the NCAA. That’s largely because the professional leagues share a 24-second shot clock and a more similar distance for the 3-point line, whereas the NCAA has a 30-second shot clock and shorter 3-line. Grant Hughes, NBA featured columnist for Bleacher Report, dug a bit deeper into how international players impacted the NBA’s style of play.
The growing similarities between international and NBA games are also partially, as Leasure pointed out, thanks to the dominant Golden State Warriors of recent years who wowed fans with the ball movement, unselfish awareness, and elite shooting ability that is prominent in some international leagues (though there’s never been a Steph Curry or Klay Thompson, anywhere). They did this with a team made up of mostly Americans but with the international influence that seeks precise ball movement. But it isn’t just that American players have adopted that fluid and positionless offense – the NBA is flush with international talent, especially on some of the league’s top teams.
Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece developed into a star quickly after being drafted in 2013 and he hasn’t stopped since, winning MVP for the 2018-2019 season and likely to win it again this year. The Toronto Raptors have found themselves a new star in Cameroonian Pascal Siakam, who picked up the sport thanks to NBA’s Basketball Without Borders in South Africa back in 2012. And in Dallas, Luka Donĉić (Slovenia) and Kristaps Porziņģis (Latvia) have formed an international tandem for the Mavericks, where German legend Dirk Nowitzki built a likely Hall of Fame career.
So, who’s next? For the 2020 NBA Draft, which the league recently pushed back to October 16, every basketball fan should know these six players. Based on analyzed game film and scouting reports from SB Nation’s Peachtree Hoops, The Stepien, the NBA, and Eurohopes, these six have the type of game that should translate well if they can develop at the next level.
Crossover International purposefully left off some more well-known names, such as Killian Hayes of France and Deni Avdija of Israel, who are both expected to be drafted in the top 10. Also missing are young players like Makur Maker, cousin of Pistons center/power forward Thon Maker, who is expected to withdraw his name from the NBA Draft after committing to Howard University.
Théo Maledon – France – ASVEL (LNB Pro A)
The Build • • • Combo guard • 6’5” • 180 pounds • 19-years-old
The Backstory • • • Maledon, who turned 19 years old on June 12, 2020, is Sports Illustrated’s second-highest rated French player in the draft and has a chance to be a lottery pick. Maledon’s game film as a member of ASVEL Basket of the LNB Pro A showcases a young player with a crafty arsenal of finishes near the bucket. His twisting ability to get around defensive arms often led to buckets or nifty assists. He possesses a high basketball IQ and scouts “rave about his work ethic,” according to ESPN’s Jonathan Givony. All signs point to a Manu Ginóbili-type of skill set, though Maledon will need a bit of growth and development to build a career like Ginóbili’s.
The Destination • • • Maledon goes mid to late first-round in the draft to the Dallas Mavericks, where he rounds out a core international trio in Dallas along with Donĉić and Porziņģis. “Maledon could be the right type of utility piece in the backcourt here, capable of playing next to Luka Donĉić or helping lead bench units as a big combo guard,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Jeremy Woo. “The Mavericks are competitive and in a good spot financially with their key pieces for the next couple seasons, and should be thinking long-term with this selection.”
Aleksej Pokuševski – Serbia/Greece – Olympiacos B.C B (Greece A2)
The Build • • • Forward/Point-forward • 7’0” • 195 pounds • 18-years-old
The Backstory • • • The 18-year-old still has some bulking up to do, which will complement his need to develop a more physical game. As of now, Pokuševski stands seven feet tall and plays a point-forward position, showcasing ball-handling ability with strong court vision and a solid shooting motion for a big guy, as his game highlights display. For him to succeed in the NBA, however, he’ll need that weight and physicality. Considering that he’s only played professionally in the Greek second-tier league, he may need a year in the G League to build on his skills. Even so, he has the type of tall-guy skillset that’s highly sought after and can be very successful in the league. It’s worth noting that the Greece A2 Basket League is the same in which Giannis Antetokounmpo played before moving to the NBA.
The Destination • • • Late first-round to the Boston Celtics. The Celtics are projected to have three first round picks, and they’ll take a flyer with Pokuševski in hopes that he becomes a more versatile Kristaps Porziņģis. Alongside Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Pokuševski could help the Celtics develop better ball movement to allow their scorers to do just that, score.
Abdoulaye N’Doye – France – Cholet (LNB Pro A)
The Build • • • Combo guard/PG • 6’7” • 183 pounds • 22-years-old
The Backstory • • • N’Doye has the size and shooting ability to become a successful two-guard in the league. He is one of the oldest players eligible in the draft at 22-years-old, but he also brings four years of experience in France’s top league, playing against international professionals. That will mean something to NBA scouts and executives. He initially planned to enter the 2019 NBA Draft before withdrawing his name for one more season with Cholet. Along with the athleticism he already possessed, N’Doye improved his 3-point percentage to 44% this past season, which should bode well for his draft position.
The Destination • • • Mid to late first-round to the Brooklyn Nets, where the organization will try to develop him as a 3-point shooter and defensive role player standing between Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. N’Doye, with his pass-first mindset, would complement those scorers in addition to Caris LeVert and Joe Harris and he could step in right away as a depth guard with size.
Marko Simonović – Montenegro – KK Mega Bemax (Adriatic Basketball Association)
The Build • • • Forward/Center • 6’11” • 215 pounds • 20-years-old
The Backstory • • • Montenegro has had a few players represented in the NBA, but Marko Simonović, not to be confused with his Serbian elder of the same name, has a chance to stick around. At 6’11” and 215 pounds, Simonovic has the size of an NBA center, but the tools of a wing or guard, much like the aforementioned Pokuševski. His style of play fits into the ever-globalizing NBA, and he’s been turning heads in international competitions since at least 2016. If the right team picks him up and he buys into their coaching and system, he could be a dangerous player at the highest level.
The Destination • • • Late in the second round to the Sacramento Kings, where he’ll catch the eyes of international legends Vlade Divac and Peja Stojaković, the General Manager and assistant GM, respectively, for the Kings. In Sacramento, Simonović could learn from Ukrainian center Alex Len and add some more size and skill to a lineup already featuring De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley III and Richaun Holmes.
Paul Eboua – Cameroon – Carpegna Prosciutto Basket Pesaro (Lega Basket Serie A)
The Build • • • Forward/PF • 6’8” • 209 pounds • 20-years-old
The Backstory • • • Eboua has a lot of similarities to fellow Cameroonian and Toronto Raptors centerpiece Pascal Siakam; a few of which are nationality, a late introduction to the game of basketball, and all the physical tools for NBA success with the right work ethic and development. He’s certainly a raw talent at the moment but has had a reasonable amount of success at the highest level of Italian basketball and could potentially use a G League year to refine some skills. For players such as Eboua, who begin playing the game at an older age than many of their peers, the more coaching and training they can experience, the better they’ll be for it in the long run.
The Destination • • • Eboua falls out of the 2020 Draft but is picked up and placed on a G League roster, where he rounds out some skills and impresses before joining an NBA roster for the 2021-2022 season.
Artūrs Žagars – Latvia – Divina Seguros Joventut (Liga ACB)
The Build • • • Point Guard • 6’3” • 172 pounds • 20-years-old
The Backstory • • • The 20-year-old Latvian hasn’t accrued a ton of minutes in his three seasons in Spain’s top league, but he’s impressed at international competitions, especially with his performance at the NBA’s 2018 Basketball Without Borders Global Camp. According to ESPN’s Jonathan Givony, Žagars looks up to Kyrie Irving and modeled much of his game on the NBA Champion’s tool kit. Though, like most young prospects not named Zion, Žagars needs to add bulk to his frame before he has the chance to develop into a successful point guard running the offense for an NBA squad.
The Destination • • • If he’s not taken late in the second round, the Phoenix Suns pick him up after the draft and give him an opportunity to impress them. Although the Suns could pick up a more highly regarded point guard in the first round, Žagars could be a nice depth piece that can develop to be a play-making combo guard alongside Devin Booker. In addition, the Suns already have Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio, who turns 30 this year and could serve as a mentor for Žagars.