Which international league produces the best NBA talent?

A Crossover International data analysis compared the NBA production of four of the most prominent international leagues.

Theo Maledon, one of the youngest prospects in the 2020 NBA draft class, has a 6’8 wingspan and soft-scoring touch — attributes that helped fuel the 19-year-old guard’s climb up the draft boards where he now projects as a mid-first round pick in the delayed October selection show. Maledon didn’t play for a blue-blood ACC program or match-up against Kansas in the Sweet 16, but one of his main draws is success against elite competition.

“He’s proven he can play big minutes at a high level, one of the highest levels outside of the NBA already,” Chris Ebersole told Forbes.

Maledon played for ASVEL of the LNB Pro A, France’s top professional league, and, like the other international talent projected to be taken in the 2020 draft, hopes to join the 108 current foreign-born players who made 2019 opening-night NBA rosters. While many of those players came to NCAA programs prior to joining the NBA, 34 of them transitioned directly from four of the most prominent international basketball leagues: the Spanish Liga ACB, the Turkish Super League, the Adriatic League, and the LNB Pro A.

While the production averages of these four leagues differ from the NBA — due to shorter quarters and a slower pace of play — the international leagues share similar scoring and rebounding rates, making performance comparisons difficult. However, a Crossover International data analysis averaging the performance of NBA players on 2019-20 NBA rosters from these four international leagues — using both traditional metrics and advanced analytics such as win shares and PER — can be used to compare the leagues and the type of players who come out of them.

Spanish Liga ACB:


Producing 15 current NBA players — more than any two other international leagues combined — and three recent NBA champions, Liga ACB is widely considered the “toughest league outside the NBA.” The dominance of Spanish basketball is displayed at the international level, earning medals in the last three Olympics. At the club level — a Liga ACB team has won the EuroLeague 13 times, the most of any competing league.

While stars such as the Gasol brothers have been the face of Spanish basketball in the NBA for years, the performance of ACB players transitioning to North America has been inconsistent. Players such as Nikola Mirotic and Alex Abrines returned to Spain after a few seasons, and for every Luka Dončić there has been another highly touted star such as Ricky Rubio — feared at the European level and could “fake-out entire defenses” — who fizzled when they first arrived on NBA courts.

Though Liga ACB players have contributed the highest average win share per-season, the other aggregate statistics are pedestrian. Spanish league players have been less efficient than those of the lesser-known Adriatic League, and are out-rebounded and out-scored by other leagues as well. 

Where ACB players consistently succeed is ball distribution. Rubio, as advertised, is one of the best passers in the league and young guards Dončić and Tomáš Satoranský are both averaging over five assists per-game — even former ACB centers Pau and Marc Gasol and Domantas Sabonis average over 2.5 assists per-game.

Turkish Super League:


Home to just a single EuroLeague champion, the Turkish professional basketball league has produced some of the most efficient shooting imports currently in the NBA. Four of the five NBA players from the Turkish league have posted above-average career three-point percentages — all except center Enes Kanter. 

The most recent Super League import, 76ers guard Furkan Korkmaz, was drafted in the first round in 2016 as an efficient long-range weapon. 

“He is a sharpshooter with a high percentage behind the arc,” an NBADraft.net scouting report read.

The trend is particularly interesting considering the Super League averages fewer three-point attempts per-game than both the Spanish and Adriatic leagues and averages less efficient shooting than the Spanish and French leagues. An explanation for this three-point success could be a positional coincidence. Three of the six former-Super League players are scoring wingers (Bojan Bogdonavic, Cedi Osman, and Korkmaz) and a fourth (Nemanja Bjelica) is a floor-spacing big.

French LNB:    


Despite the recent retirement of former LNB guard and four-time NBA champion Tony Parker, the French Ligue Nationale de Basket is home to the second most games played by active international NBA players. 

While the LNB is the only evaluated league with a below average (16) aggregate PER and the lowest points-per-game at 9.97, one must look beyond the offensive metrics to evaluate the contribution of LNB exports.

Contributing an average of 5.44 win shares per season (which accounts for blocks and steals but still does not fully encapsulate individual defense), the LNB was home to two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy “The Stifle Tower” Gobert and one of the best rim-protectors in the NBA, Clint Capela. Gobert, alongside former LNB players Frank Ntilikina, Nicolas Batum, and Evan Fournier helped hold the United States to just 79 points (their fewest points in a loss) during the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

Even former LNB wing and 2019 Detroit Piston’s first-round draft pick Sekou Doumbouya — who did not meet the minimum 100-games threshold used in this analysis — was scouted as a “prototypical new age, two-way combo forward with great defensive upside,” and likened to NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Doumboya is “not afraid to bang bodies while defending in the post,” the NBADraft.net scouting report read. “Really active while guarding the ball.”

Evan Fournier played four years of professional French basketball, including two in LNB Pro A, before he was drafted in the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Adriatic Basketball Association:


Nuggets center Nikola Jokić was the eighth non-NCAA selection in the 2014 NBA draft. The 41st overall pick was the second player selected from the Adriatic League — behind Jusuf Nurkić — and was projected to have “major problems on defense” and be limited to “a role player on offense.” 

“He also won’t be as effective on the boards as he is in the Adriatic League,” a Bleacher Report scouting report said.

Five years later, Jokić is the centerpiece of the Nuggets, a two-time All Star, an MVP candidate, and just one example of the little-known Adriatic League’s ability to produce dominant NBA bigs.

A 20-year-old league of just 14 teams is the origin-league of four NBA starting centers: Jokić, Nurkić, Nikola Vučević, and Ivica Zubac. Coupled with Suns starting power forward Dario Šarić and bench bigs Boban Marjanović and Ante Žižić, the ABA has produced the highest average rebounding and most efficient players of any major international league.
As the league continues to build its reputation as a developer of premier big men, NBA teams keep drafting young ABA rebounders. The Adriatic League’s 2019 top prospect and MVP, center Goga Bitadze, was drafted 18th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Indiana Pacers and appeared in 49 games in 2019-20. Additionally, 20-year-old Marko Simonovic has received buzz as a potential 2020 draft choice.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.