Despite the continued success of international talent in the NBA, the next draft cycle always brings up the same questions and concerns about top international prospects. Their numbers aren't impressive. Can they compete at the NBA level? What if they don't come over? You know Fran Vasquez didn't come over?
And I get it. I can turn on the TV almost any night of the week and see a potential NBA draft pick playing in a big prime-time game on ESPN. I can't turn on the TV any night and get the latest highlights from Liga ACB. You've got to work to find the resources you need to make an informed decision on international talent, whereas it's not that hard to marvel at Justise Winslow's hops since Duke's on national television every Saturday.
For fans, that's acceptable. I get that. I don't expect to have many casual conversations with people about Kristaps Porzingis's jump shot. I'd like to, but I'm a realist.
That's not a reason not to draft international talent. I realize that most of the international phobia is strawman arguments (they're soft, they're never going to come over, etc), but one that always seems to pop up, even in intelligent circles is the "we don't know what we're getting" argument. It was a huge stumbling block for people in the Dante Exum discussion last year, and it popped up a little in the Dario Saric discussion as well.
That argument doesn't hold water because NBA teams do their homework. You may not have seen these guys play, but the people who are actually doing the drafting have. It's 2015. These guys aren't being drafted sight unseen anymore based on that one old scout rocking in the corner saying that Darko reminds him of Wilt Chamberlain with a three-point shot. Drafting a European player isn't drafting a unicorn. These are real players playing against other real players who have been scouted extensively.
So let's talk about the top of this year's international class. There's really three international names that everybody is going to want to have an opinion on, all three of which are close to lottery locks, and all three of which are names that will be in play wherever the Sixers fall in the lottery.
I've written a decent amount about Mudiay, both before the season, and during it, and the truth is that very little has changed in my opinion on Mudiay. His ten-game sample size in China didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know, which is that he can score by getting to the bucket (averaging 17.7 points per game), his shooting isn't great (30% shooting from 3-point range), and that he's not just a scorer (averaging 6 assists and 6 rebounds).
The problem is that sample size isn't a large one, and I don't get the sense we're going to get much more than that. The Chinese regular season ends in early February, Mudiay hasn't played due to an ankle injury (that we discussed here) since November 23rd, and former NBA guard Will Bynum, signed by Guangdong when Mudiay was injured, has played well in Mudiay's absence (the Tigers are 13-0 since Bynum arrived). There hasn't been any buzz about a Mudiay return, and if I were a betting man, I would bet we've seen the last of Mudiay in one of those swank Southern Tigers jerseys.
From a scouting perspective, that's fine. Mudiay was a highly touted American prospect, so there's no shortage of footage of him playing basketball. Obviously, in an ideal world, everybody would want more footage, but in a world with a 19-year old age limit, this is one of the consequences.
As far as draft stock goes, Mudiay is still the top guard prospect in the draft, and it's really not even close. His combination of size, athleticism, and talent are that of a potential franchise player. His game has a few more warts than some of the other top prospects (the shooting is a major concern for me), but he's not somebody I would shy away from on draft night. He is one of four prospects in the top tier for me, including Jahlil Okafor, Karl Towns, and...
Hello, old friend. Porzingis is one of two major international prospects who was entered in last year's draft, before pulling his name out at the last minute. And by all indications, Porzingis made a really good decision, because he could very easily be a top 5 pick in this year's draft. He was shooting up draft boards, and had he stayed in, probably would have been picked in the mid to late lottery last June.
I'll admit that I wasn't as high on Porzingis last year. What I saw when I looked at him was a weak stretch four who wasn't a particularly good shooter. The upside was there, clearly, since he was an 18-year old playing in a strong Liga ACB, but the poor shooting and lack of a post game scared me. I didn't have anything against him, and I still had him touted as a late lottery prospect, but I wasn't exactly hopping on board the Porzingbus.
I once was lost, but now, however, I'm found. I'm all in on him. It's hard for me to say anything has improved dramatically given a 20-game sample size, but I'm prepared to make that declaration about his outside shot. He's shooting 42% from three point range between the ACB and Eurocup play, but, echoing something Derek Bodner said a few weeks ago, everything about his shot just looks better, more consistent, and repeatable. He has the look of a young player who's starting to figure it out, and with a 19-year-old who's a legitimate 7-footer, his skill set is mouth-watering.
For more on Porzingis, check out Mike Schmitz's excellent breakdown from DraftExpress of Porzingis's game last month against Spanish power Barcelona, a game at which Sixers General Manager Sam Hinkie was in attendance. His game has taken a big leap this season, and his draft stock has risen accordingly. If the draft were tomorrow, he's a top five pick in my book, and he's a tremendous fit with the Sixers.
The last of the International Big Three has become a popular choice among draft-focused Sixers fans because of the most popular three words in Sixer fandom at this point: "He can shoot." (Replacing the previous favorite, "Free Big Macs")
And early in the season, the punctuation on that statement was more of a question mark. He was struggling to get playing time, and when he was getting playing time, he wasn't overly impressive. In the last month or so, he's finally started to showcase some of the skills that made him such a popular choice coming into the season, putting together several impressive shooting games in Euroleague, where he's shooting 40% from distance.
One of the biggest knocks about Hezonja for several years is that he has a tendency to be a freelancer, which is part of what led to his playing time being limited. That's something I have trouble with from a scouting perspective with international guys, just due to the limited chances I get to watch these guys. That's a little easier to diagnose when it's an American college player, because you can see them progress, but with guys like Hezonja, you're really just getting morsels here and there.
Hezonja has all the physical abilities to be a difference maker at the NBA level. For that reason, he excites me as a prospect. It's up to the Sixers to decide whether they can improve upon Hezonja's discipline.
As of today, Mudiay, Porzingis, and Hezonja are the only three prospects who are consensus first round picks. Obviously, a lot can change between now and June, but those are the names to keep an eye on.
Big Board and Mock The Sixers
My big board will go up later this week as part of a greater, more comprehensive monolith known as the LB Big Board, so we'll check back in with my personal board next time. As for Mock the Sixers:
1. Jahlil Okafor, C, Duke - We're still havin' fun, and you're still the one.
15. Sam Dekker, SF, Wisconsin - A projectable athlete who I can see having a long career in the NBA.