Why you should care
Because foreign-born players put bums in seats.
The 2016 NBA draft took in a record-setting number of international players. But 2017 was a different story. While Lauri Markkanen (a Finland native who starred at Arizona, helping lead them to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament) and Frank Ntilikina (a talented guard from France and this year’s mystery international prospect) went back-to-back with the seventh and eighth picks in the 2017 NBA draft, there was no excess of international players picked up this time around. Foreign-born talent typically goes fast and furious through both rounds of the draft. But the last time fewer than 10 international prospects were drafted? Back in 1998.
2017 was the just the second time in 15 years that an NBA draft didn’t yield 15 or more foreign-born draft picks.
However, international quality was also lacking in 2017, according to Josh Riddell, an NBA scout for DraftExpress — a buck against the trend. Fourteen players born outside the United States were selected in the draft (five in the first round, nine in the second), which includes several players who grew up in or played college in the U.S. Not exactly an international class, which in recent years has typically yielded a collection of NBA stars and players who stay in the league for a long time.
The past 10 to 15 years brought a plethora of great foreign talent to the NBA, from Yao Ming and Dirk Nowitzki to future stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid — charismatic rising stars who suit up for the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, respectively. New hot spots for NBA talent have included Latvia, Serbia, Croatia and Turkey — 11 players were drafted from these nations between 2015–16. “I think teams are just looking all over the globe to get any edge possible,” Riddell says. “No one would have thought five years ago that Latvia would have Kristaps Porzingis and another possible first rounder in [Anzejs] Pasecniks.”
But things are looking up in 2018. “It’s already stronger next year … because you have Luka Doncic,” Riddell notes. He expects Doncic, a 6-foot-8 wing at Real Madrid Baloncesto — Riddell thinks he may be one of the best European prospects ever — to stay in the conversation for the No. 1 pick all year, and sees the potential for a very strong first round if everyone declares for the 2018 draft. There’s DeAndre Ayton, a 7-footer from the Bahamas, who will suit up for Arizona this fall. Germany and Denmark could also have lottery picks with wings Isaac Bonga and Dzanan Musa. Riddell’s site, DraftExpress, most recently identified nine foreign-born players going in both the first round and second rounds in 2018.
Attracting global players isn’t just a conversation about talent. It brings more fans to the game and expands each team’s marketing reach. In the video series Road to the Draft, Markkanen was told his success could bring a Finnish following to the NBA, similar to how Porzingis created a buzz in Latvia. “The NBA, more than any other league in the U.S., is a star-driven league. The stars give potential fans an immediate rooting interest, just as, say, Messi gives fans someone with immediacy and star power to root for with FC Barcelona,” notes Daniel Durbin, director of the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society. Messi’s success leads soccer fans to flock to Barcelona, and La Liga, Spain’s premier soccer league, fandom.