Straight Outta Europe and Destined To Fail

Even as the  NBA promotes diversity with pride (listing their players from all over the world), All-Star rosters are American heavy.  The last sixteen European lottery picks have been a no-show on All-Star weekend. If they watch, it is at home on a league imposed mini-vacation.

NBA equality has its limitations, I suppose.

But it wasn’t supposed to be this way.¬†If you could play, it didn’t matter where in the world you were born. The NBA welcomed you with open arms to become part of their fraternity. The reciprocity was always capitalistic. Talent in exchange for financial gain on both sides; the bargain was more than fair.

So what is wrong with this system?

Nothing on the surface. It is a meritocracy. If you are good enough, the NBA will write you checks. Once everyone’s pocket has been lined with cash, the question then becomes why do lottery picks straight from Europe, no American college, fail? Why have there been no All-Stars at the same rate as their American peers? Why is a system built on merit so slanted for Americans and not Europeans when it comes to a draft lottery’s predictive success?

The point of the lottery is to mine talent. The NBA is a league where being talented and being under 30 creates opportunity for the player and the league. As talent ages, it must be replaced.

The lottery is a fallible system of trial and error, one in which there are mistakes. There are misses, and there are finds. Why then no European finds, no one who has made the All-Star team, particularly when we are in a current anti-AAU culture.

For starters, we sentimentalize European basketball training. We say they are taught the game better. We say their big guys have a versatile skill set with a fundamental approach therefore their team system is exponentially better than AAU one-on-one, beat you off the dribble, explosion. When Europeans are not All-Stars, we then say, smugly, I told you so. Too soft. Not tough. Weak.

How many times has Pau Gasol been called soft?

Pau Gasol was drafted in 2001 and the team that drafted him, the Atlanta Hawks, thought so highly of him, they traded him on draft night. The Hawks traded a seven footer they had chosen third in the draft for Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Jamaal Tinsley. Gasol went on to become Rookie of the Year and a three time All-Star.

Since the 2001 draft, no European lottery pick without an American college education has made the All-Star team and it doesn’t matter where they were selected.

#1 pick: Andrea Bargnani (Italy)

#2 pick: Darko Milicic (Serbia)

#3 pick: Enes Kanter (Turkey)

#4 pick: Kristaps Porzingis (Latvia)

#5 pick: Nikoloz Tskitishivili (Georgia, Russia), Ricky Rubio (Spain), Jonas Valunciunas (Lithuania), Mario Hezonja (Croatia)

#6 pick: Danilo Gallinari (Italy), Jan Vesely (Czechoslovakia)

#11 pick: Mikael Pietrus (France), Fran Vasquez (Spain), Andris Biedrins (Latvia)

#12 pick: Yaroslav Koralev (Russia), Dario Saric (Croatia),

#13 pick: Thabo Sefolosha (Switzerland)

There are American lottery picks that have underachieved as well: Thomas Robinson, Derrick Williams, Jimmer Fredette, Cole Aldrich, Johnny Flynn, Michael Beasely, Adam Morrison.

But in the same draft in which Tskitishivili was selected fifth, Caron Butler was selected 10th and became an All-Star. Dwyane Wade was an All-Star and Darko Milicic was not. Paul Millsap was an All-Star and Andrea Bargnani was not. The list goes on and on and on.

Of interesting note, most of the Europeans are big men. Thus this natural disadvantge assimilating their skill set of fundamental play into a league of explosiveness and athleticism. The Europeans have to re-learn everything in a foreign culture with a language that is not their primary one. Good in Europe doesn’t mean good in the NBA.

Often, American big men are more accomplished at scoring, finishing in traffic, blocking shots. You can’t teach quickness. And there is something else too. As much as AAU is maligned, AAU institutionalizes a system of mental arrogance and self-absorption that has its advantages when you enter the NBA as an outsider. In the beginning there is failure. Rookies don’t know what they don’t know. Often, mental toughness is the difference among the talented.

The European All-Star drought may have ended with Kristaps Porzingis but consistency and development and the future for Porzingis is the unknown.

So far, it’s been a pretty dismal haul for Euro lottery picks selected after 2001, particularly when none of the lottery picks have played on a championship team. Thabo Sefolosha was the closest. He got to the NBA Finals in 2012 with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and lost.

So why do teams continue to gamble when the odds say down the line they will have nothing to show for it but a wasted three years?

Because there is a talent drain in the NBA. A small amount of players each year have the potential of being All-Stars. You have to expand your thinking. You have to outpace the competition in the hopes of finding the next Pau Gasol.

And then you have to be smart enough to know what you have, and not trade a future two-time champion away.

photo via llananba