Whether you like it or not (and a lot of people really don’t), foreign-born players play an increasingly large role in the NBA. You only have to look as far as this year’s finals to confirm that. Each team has two non-Americans starting – Tony Parker and Fabricio Oberto for the Spurs, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Sasha Pavlovic for the Cavs. Both teams also have an import that they rely on heavily off the bench – Manu Ginobli and Anderson Varejao – and Beno Udrih plays a small, but important role for the Spurs. It’s far from a stretch to say that neither team would be where they are based solely on their domestic talent.
Foreign-born players are also playing an increasing role in the NBA Draft, with three of the last five top picks being non-Americans. Drafting foreign players has one particularly compelling advantage for teams – as long as they offer the player a qualifying contract offer, the player remains their property as long as he keeps playing in his home league. That means that a team can stash talent they don’t need now, instead of having to sign them or cut them like they do with American players.
That being said, this year’s draft does not offer the best crop of foreign talent that we have seen. There is definitely no Yao Ming or Andrea Bargnani, and fewer than normal players that are potential long-term difference makers. There are a few interesting possibilities, though. Here’s a look at six foreign names that you will probably hear on draft day:
Yi Jianlian, China – The appeal of this player is obvious – he’s seven feet tall and athletic. The forward is willing to go to the boards as you would expect with his size, but he can also pull up and shoot effectively. He has a couple of knocks against him – he needs to polish his defensive play, and he is so scrawny that he’ll taking a beating if he doesn’t add muscle – but he is intriguing enough that a team will happily take him on. He’ll very likely be the first foreign-born player chosen, and the lottery seems probable.
Tiago Splitter, Brazil – If this name seems familiar, it’s because he has flirted with the draft for several years. He always gets talked about but then withdraws before he can be picked. He is 22 now, though, so his inclusion this year is automatic. Though he was born in Brazil, Splitter has been a star if Spain for a while now. He’s a 6’11” player that can bring solid defense to any forward position. He seems to have offensive skills, but he’s rarely relied on to use them for his team, so the scope of his scoring talent is unclear. What is clear is that he will be a valuable defender and rebounder whenever he comes over here to play. His draft position will be hurt by the likely difficulty of getting him away from his Spanish club. That means that the team that picks him will have to be patient.
Ante Tomic, Croatia – 7’1″ centers are always in demand. His size and his apparent but raw ability will ensure that he gets picked, and likely later in the first round. Again, though, Tomic will appeal to a team without a burning need. He’s only 20 and he needs to be significantly bigger and stronger if he wants to survive in the NBA. Right now his body reminds you of Shawn Bradley, and that’s not a compliment.
Marco Bellinelli, Italy – He’s a 21-year-old shooting guard that is a star for both his club team and the Italian national squad. He struggled with his shooting early in the season, but showed both skill and maturity by rebounding nicely from those problems. When he plays for Italy internationally he is asked to shoot too much, and his percentage suffers. On a team where he has some support he could be a dangerous scoring threat that could ease the pressure on the team’s inside game. Like seemingly every European player, Bellinelli needs to get stronger and bigger, but he has the athleticism and shooting touch to hear his name called late in the first round or early in the second.
Marc Gasol, Spain – This player’s family tree makes him an intriguing prospect. Yes, he is one of those Gasols. Pau’s younger brother was unspectacular in high school in Memphis, and underwhelming early on in his career in Spain, but he got a chance to play on the Spanish national team thanks to injuries, and he made the most of it. He’s a 7-foot center that has shown increasing ability despite playing limited minutes. He’s the definition of a project, but a patient team may take a flier on him given his pedigree.
Ali Traore, Ivory Coast – Traore, who plays in France, improved his prospects dramatically with his play at the pre-draft camp in Florida. He was the second leading scorer there, and he shot the lights out (70 percent for the week). He’s a power forward that can dribble and score, and that’s likely more than enough to earn him a late first round or early second round selection. He could potentially come over this year, but will more likely stay in France for a year or two of further conditioning.