Don Nelson and Jerry West are geniuses. The two of them had the foresight to make become trade partners with the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks to swap players (Robert Traylor and Shareef Abdur-Rahim) who either under-performed or plateaued for future Hall of Famers, Dirk Nowitski and Pau Gasol. The rapid development of these big men preceded the current trend of the stretch-4 as power forward and left general managers mining Europe, Asia, Africa and South America for the next Dirk or Pau. However, less than GM’s have struck gold; in fact, many more have found coal or worse, players who never make the transatlantic trip to the NBA.
Kristnaps Porzingis is the name that’s buzzing in this year’s draft. The 7’2, 19-year-old Lativian forward has shot up mock drafts and apparently has teams second-guessing their obvious needs for the “can’t miss” prospect. The clips we’ve seen look phenomenal and he’s been killing in workouts, but so did Darko Miličić. And Nikoloz Tskitishvili. Andrea Bargnani too.Those are just three of the 16 international players taken in the lottery who have failed to make an NBA All-Star Game. True, the draft is a crap shoot either way, but sports executives follow trends to a fault; each of them smarter than the next, went searching for the next hybrid big man to lead them into the post-Shaq era. Looking back, I’m sure the Nuggets would much rather have drafted Amar’e Stoudamire instead of Tskitishvili and Detroit somehow kept Joe Dumars a decade after he passed on Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade for Darko.
Porzingis is purported to be different. He plays in a much better league than many of the previous busts; has been playing in an NBA system and is more physically ready for the rigors of the NBA due in part to his NBA workout plan. All of that is supposed to spell out a player that may be ready to dominate the league in four or five years.
Each year there are NCAA standouts who fall on their faces and we highlight them greatly (Adam Morrison, Thomas Robinson), point out how their strengths didn’t translate to the NBA game and then jettison them to Europe of the NBDL. For the international players, the fanfare of their failures doesn’t find the same attention, until the next draft a player begins moving up the boards. At that point, we hear names like Jan Veselý and Jiří Welsch or wonder what happens if Danilo Gallinari remains healthy. Or, we end up with the larger questions like, when Dario Šarić will finally make his NBA debut and wonder how many teams are drafting players to stash them in Europe?
There’s not many GM’s willing to pass on Porzingis in case he’s the next big then, but the track record shows that players selected later in the draft (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Marc Gasol among others), are more likely to have an impact on their team. Look for Porzingis to be a top-5 pick, followed closely by Croatian Mario Hezonja, then we can all watch their development in the next couple of seasons as they vie to buck the trend.