Over the past 15 years, we've witnessed an unprecedented influx of foreign players to the NBA. A league once dominated almost exclusively by homegrown talent has expanded its reach immensely, as highlighted by the recent rise to stardom of players like Ricky Rubio, Serge Ibaka and Pau and Marc Gasol.
The NBA's global influence has perhaps grown most noticeable in Olympic competition. After a decade of American dominance following the introduction of the Dream Team, the rest of the world caught up – big time. Team USA struggled to a bronze medal finish in 2004, prompting a revamp of the US' international program that had grown accustomed to winning without the country's elite players. Even after convincing an A-list group of stars to participate, Team USA was thoroughly tested in Beijing in 2008 and in London last summer.
While soccer will always reign supreme in much of Europe and South America, both Argentina and Spain – along with a number of other nations – have built formidable and sustainable international programs. Look no further than the 2012 gold medal game in London. Despite Team USA's deepest talent pool since the early 90's (James Harden was the 11th man), the Spaniards played a squad featuring three of the top five NBA players of the past 10 years – not to mention Olympic cyborg Carmelo Anthony – to a narrow, seven-point margin.
But a thin of the talent gap doesn't mean international players will be taking over the NBA anytime soon. For every Dirk Nowitzki there's an Oleksiy Pecherov, and for every Tony Parker there are five Pavel Podkolzins.
Mining international talent is a delicate process, one that requires a combination of extensive scouting and sheer luck. It's as much about a player's talent as it is his desire and emotional security playing in a foreign country, not to mention how he fits in with a franchise. Manu Ginobili was the second-to-last pick of the 1999 draft – the 57th overall selection. He turned out to be the best player in the class. Eleven players were selected ahead of him who never even stepped foot on an NBA court.
Teams love to take chances on international players in hopes of discovering the next Ginobili or Parker, but more often than not, they end up finding the next Yi Jianlian.
In 2012, it appeared the low success rate of import players had finally begun to turn teams off taking a risk on players that they didn't have a comprehensive dossier on. Just two true international players (no American college experience) were selected in the first round of the NBA draft. But one year later – thanks in large part to a painfully weak draft class – eight foreigners heard their names called in the first 32 picks of this years' 2013 NBA Draft.
Let's take a brief look at what to expect from this year's crop of international talent, as well as a few players from recent drafts who are poised to make a leap in 2013-14.
Giannis Antetokounmpo – SF – Bucks
The Bucks took a major gamble when they selected "The Greek Freak" with the 15th pick in June's draft. The 6-10, 205-pound forward's potential is through the roof, but he's extremely raw and has yet to face anything near NBA-level competition. He spent the 2012-13 season in Greece's second-tier league and opted to play with the U-20 national team rather than participate in the Las Vegas Summer League. Typically, a player as raw as Antetokounmpo would be stashed overseas for at least one more year, but the Bucks have made it clear that he will be a part of the 2013-14 roster. The preseason will be important in establishing just how he'll fare against NBA competition, and it would not be surprising if he struggles early and ends up in a very limited role this season. Antetokounmpo has star potential down the road, but at just 18 years old it's far too early to expect him to contribute consistently in his rookie season.
Dennis Schroeder – PG – Hawks (2013)
Schroder is probably the most NBA-ready of any foreign player in the 2013 class. He impressed in Las Vegas with his defense and passing ability, drawing comparisons to Rajon Rondo. Like Rondo, Schroeder's jumper is shaky at best, but he's already an excellent game manager at age 19. The Hawks seemed stuck deciding whether to compete or rebuild at the beginning of the summer, and nearly three months later, the picture isn't much more clear. On paper, Schroeder looks like he'll be the point guard of the future in Atlanta, but the team opted to match a four-year, $32-million offer sheet for Jeff Teague in July, which means Teague will almost certainly open the season as the starting point guard. If the Hawks flounder and Schroeder shows enough off the bench to convince Atlanta he's the future at the position, there's a chance Teague could be dealt around the deadline to clear the way.
Sergey Karasev – SG/SF - Cavaliers
The 19-year-old lefty joins a revamped Cavs roster stacked with wing and backcourt talent. Karasev grew up around the game. His father, Vasily, played 19 seasons in Europe and coaches the Russian national team. Karasev has earned a reputation as an all-around scorer. He'll compete for Russia in EuroBasket – running September 4-22 in Slovenia before joining the Cavs for training camp. Adding strength is a must to survive in the NBA, and it will take some time for him to adjust to the pace of the NBA game. Karasev is expected to see minutes at both shooting guard and small forward, but given Cleveland's depth at both positions, it wouldn't be much of a surprise if he was limited to a reserve role for much of the year.
Luigi "Gigi" Datome – SF - Pistons
Detroit inked the 2012-13 Italian League MVP to a two-year, $3.5 million deal in July. He's drawn comparisons to fellow countryman Danilo Gallinari, particularly for his shooting ability. Over his last three seasons, Datome averaged over 41 percent shooting from beyond the arc, and had a true-shooting percentage of 61 percent in 2012-13. Like Karasev, he's a bit of a tweener, but at 6-9 he projects as a small forward in the long term. This season, on the other hand, he may see some minutes at shooting guard – the Pistons' weakest position – while switching to small forward in certain lineup situations. Like most European players, the 25-year-old will require some time to adjust, but Detroit brought him in for a reason, and he's going to get every chance to earn a rotation spot. Even if he's a total disaster, Datome's NBA legacy is already partially written. A true pioneer, he'll be the league's first "Luigi."
Rudy Gobert – C – Jazz
Gobert stood out to me more than any player at the Orlando Summer League for one reason: his length. The 21-year-old set draft combine records for both wingspan (7 feet, 8.5 inches) and standing reach (9 feet, 7 inches). Gobert has been on the NBA's radar for a few years, but he's still a major project offensively. He'll need to add weight and grow into his body, but he already has a smooth shooting motion for a 7-footer. Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors will finally get their chances to shine this season with Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson playing in other cities. but Gobert, Jeremy Evans and Andris Biedrins are the only other big men on the roster, so it appears the Frenchman could be in line to see some minutes off the bench.
Nemanja Nedovic – G - Warriors
Golden State landed Nedovic with the final pick of the first round. Some scouts call him the "European Derrick Rose". Right now, the 22-year-old is nowhere near the overall player Rose is, but there are similarities in their abilities. Nedovic is 6-4 with a 41-inch vertical and deadly first step. However, he struggles shooting the ball, and his passing needs to improve. He should slot in as the Warriors' third point guard and could see time at shooting guard as well.
Gal Mekel – G – Mavericks
The Mavs' point guard situation was a train wreck last season, to the point that a 37-year-old Mike James started 23 games. Improving the position was a priority for the Mavs this offseason, so they added Jose Calderon and Devin Harris via free agency and selected Shane Larkin in the first round. They also inked Mekel, a native of Israel, to a three-year deal in July. He had an impressive showing at the Las Vegas Summer League after Larkin went down with an ankle injury, averaging 9.7 points and 5.0 assists on 45 percent shooting. The 25-year-old has experience playing in the United States, having spent two seasons at Wichita State (2006-08), but adjusting to the speed of the NBA, particularly for point guards, can be a cumbersome task. Calderon will be the starter, but with both Harris (toe) and Larkin expected to miss time, Mekel could get a chance to work into the rotation early in the season.
Jonas Valanciunas – Raptors – C
The fifth overall pick in 2011, Valanciunas spent 2011-12 overseas before making his debut with the Raptors last season. His numbers were impressive (8.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, 56% FG), but he played just 24 minutes per game. After adding noticeable strength in the offseason, he dominated the Las Vegas Summer League, capturing the MVP award along the way. While it's unrealistic to expect that dominance to carry over to NBA competition, it wouldn't be a surprise if Valanciunas made the leap into the upper-tier of NBA centers this season. He's just 21, and with continued improvement, could develop into a cross between Brook Lopez and Nikola Pekovic.
Donatas Motiejunas – Rockets – C
The other mystery 7-footer of the 2011 class, Motiejunas – like Valanciunas – opted to remain in Europe for a year before coming to the NBA. He appeared in just 44 games with the Rockets last season, averaging a modest 5.7 points and 2.1 rebounds. The Lithuanian got a chance to play extensively in the D-League, where he posted three double-doubles and averaged just less than 22 points through six games. Despite his potential, minutes could again be few and far between for Motiejunas. Houston added Dwight Howard this offseason, and the team's refusal to deal a disgruntled Omer Asik could be an indication that Motiejunas is not yet ready to play a major role.
Mirza Teletovic – F – Nets
The 27-year-old has played professionally for over a decade and finally made his NBA debut last season. As a perimeter-oriented small forward with limited defensive skills, he rarely saw the floor for Brooklyn. His role won't increase much this season, but with Brooklyn prepared to rest veterans – particularly Kevin Garnett – on a semi-regular basis, Teletovic could carve out some minutes as a floor-stretching shooter.
Tornike Shengelia – F – Nets
Another second-year mystery man on the Nets, Shengelia finds himself in virtually the same situation as Teletovic. He'll compete for reserve minutes at the small forward and power forward spots, but there's a good chance he'll spend significant time in the D-League, where he put up an impressive 24.3 points and 8.2 rebounds on 52.7 percent shooting through 10 games last season.
Fab Melo – C – Mavericks
Melo left Syracuse as a far-from-finished product with a very limited offensive skill set. The Celtics took a chance on the native of Brazil with the 22nd overall pick in the 2012 draft. He spent much of his rookie season in the D-League, where he led all players in blocks per game. Melo was expected to compete for minutes in a depleted Celtics' frontcourt this season, but a disappointing summer league showing – as well as some luxury tax motivations – prompted the team to pull the plug on the project. He was traded to the Grizzlies on August 15 for fellow-Orangeman Donte Greene, who did not play in an NBA game last season. Melo was subsequently waived by the Grizzlies and signed by the Mavs. It would likely take some significant injuries to the Mavs' frontcourt for Melo to carve out a regular role.
Evan Fournier – G – Nuggets
For most of his rookie season, Fournier rode the bench while learning to adjust to the NBA game. That all changed when Danilo Gallinari went down with a knee injury on April 4 versus the Mavericks. Fournier was thrust into a much bigger role, taking over as the starting shooting guard for the final two weeks of the season, as well as four of the Nuggets' first-round games against the Warriors. He flashed the potential that made him a 2012 first-round pick, but floundered in the playoffs, where he scored just a combined 19 points in four games. At this point, it's unclear exactly where he fits in the Nuggets' backcourt that lost Andre Iguodala but added Randy Foye and Nate Robinson. Gallinari isn't expected back until December, so minutes will be available. It's just a matter of whether Fournier will emerge as a rotational player ahead of players like Robinson and Jordan Hamilton, who impressed in Las Vegas. Foye and Robinson are not long-term solutions at shooting guard, but with a crowded backcourt, 2013-14 could be another grooming year for Fournier, who will be 21 at the start of the regular season.
Nikola Mirotic – F – Bulls
A first-round selection in 2011, Mirotic, 22, is expected to spend one more year in Spain before joining the Bulls in 2014-15. He was named the MVP of the Spanish ACB League – one of the top leagues in Europe – last season after averaging 11.4 points and 5.3 rebounds. Right now, the Bulls project Mirotic as a power forward, but his Andrea Bargnani-esque build and inside-outside game (44% 3Pt in 2011-12) could land him on the perimeter more often than the paint. Not known for his defense, he'll be a bit of an odd fit for Tom Thibodeau's scheme, but playing alongside Joakim Noah should help in that department. If Carlos Boozer is no longer with the team, there's a chance Mirotic could be asked to play a significant role whenever the team brings him to Chicago.
Lucas Nogueira – C – Hawks (2013)
Atlanta selected Nogueira with the 16th overall pick and, despite a strong summer league showing, ultimately decided he could benefit from another year overseas. The 21-year-old Brazilian (and his hair) will return to the Spanish team Estudiantes for the 2013-14 season. The Hawks retain his draft rights, and all signs point to him joining the team in 2014-15. Nogueira averaged 6.4 points and 6.0 rebounds in Las Vegas, but what stood out most was his defense. In his summer league debut, the 7-footer recorded five blocks in 12 minutes and finished with a total of 12 blocks through five games. He's very limited on offense at this point, but with a 7-6 wingspan and solid athleticism, he makes for an intriguing project.
Livio Jean-Charles – F – Spurs
San Antonio mines and develops foreign players better than any franchise in the league, and Jean-Charles is yet another late-first round pick who will be stashed overseas until he's ready. The 19-year-old shined for France's U-20 team before tearing his ACL in mid-July. He underwent surgery in August and will be sidelined for at least six months. Jean-Charles wasn't going to join the Spurs next season anyway, but the injury could very well delay his development and future arrival to the NBA.