Mitnick: Coming to America — The NBA’s International Rookies

Basketball is an increasingly global game, and more worldwide flavor is on the way for the 2012-2013 NBA season.

One or more foreigners will soon be playing at an arena near you, and these international men of mystery shall remain enigmas no longer.

With a wide range of youngsters and seasoned veterans heading to the NBA for their rookie seasons, this year’s international rookie crop should provide some interesting additions to the league.

They come in all sizes and shapes, some are young and some are old … and all have the talent to make them worthy of competing in the best league on earth.

Here is a look at the 11 foreigners currently slated to make their debuts this year.

1. Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors via Lithuania

6’11” Center, 20 years old

After a year’s wait, the Raptors will finally get their top center prospect, pairing the heir to Zydrunas Ilgauskas next to Andrea Bargnani. Valanciunas, the 5th pick in 2011, has excellent footwork in the post for a big man his age and should be ready to contribute in a big way as a rookie (after he completes his hazing from the referees who keep an extra close eye on Euro big men taking their first dip in the big pond (See Mozgov, Timofey).

Big V is very efficient in the paint on both sides of the ball, finishing around the rim at a high rate and using his length to cause disruptions defensively.

His play in the Olympics caused some to doubt what he can do in the league, but the Lithuanian national team has a lot of veterans and it is very hard for a young player to break in and succeed right away in their system. He was a monster in the Lithuanian league and in European competition, and his game is possibly more suited to be effective in the NBA.

If Toronto decides to use him as the starting center and let him loose, he has a strong chance to make one of the All-Rookie teams, or at least turn some heads in the rookie All-Star game. He has already caught the attention of Miami rapper O’Grime.

More conventional highlights below.

2. Alexey Shved,  Minnesota Timberwolves via Russia

6’6″ Combo Guard, 23 years old

Shved was a big reason why Russia took the bronze medal in the Olympics, scoring 13 points in the fourth quarter against Argentina. This crafty guard from CSKA is going into what looks like the ideal situation for him to make the transition to American basketball. He will be playing for a Euro friendly coach, alongside a Euro playmaker in Ricky Rubio, and will get to learn from Brandon Roy, who despite his injuries is still among the craftiest guards in the modern era. Shved’s quickness and explosiveness should allow him to get to the rim frequently, and his free throw rate should be very high for a rookie. It may take him a month or two to adjust to the American game, but this guy is ready to play and could have a rookie season comparable to Manu Ginobili’s rookie campaign.

3. Joel Freeland, Portland Trail Blazers via Great Britain

6’10” Power Forward/Center, 25 years old

Eurostashed since 2005, this former first-round pick should be able to make a strong impact immediately for a Trail Blazers team that has retooled their roster.  His strong proficiency for offensive rebounds and putbacks should give him plenty of opportunities to see some minutes as a rookie. He was one of the few bright spots for Great Britain in the Olympics, and should be one of the pillars of that program for the duration of his career. The fact that he could be a good combination with LaMarcus Aldridge will ensure that he will see the floor often as a rookie.

4. Mirza Teletovic, Brooklyn Nets via Bosnia

6’9″ Power Forward, 26 years old

The Nets offseason pickup should be able to seamlessly make the transition from Euroleague star to NBA role player. Teletovic may have been a scoring machine last season for Caja Laboral in the Euroleague, but he is a player who gets most of his points through the flow of the game, relying primarily on spot up jump shots and transition baskets. It may take him a couple of months to adjust to defending power forwards in the NBA, but his combination of shooting and speed should make him a tough matchup for the Nets second unit. Expect Teletovic play a very similar role to the one Boki Nachbar played during his time with the Nets.

5. Pablo Prigioni, New York Knicks via Argentina

6’3″ Point Guard, 35 years old

Probably the only rookie in history whose main assets are veteran leadership and experience. At 35, Prigioni is well regarded as one of the best guards of his time in Euroleague and will be a nice fit as a third point guard behind Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd. He may not be in the starting role he has grown accustomed to, but his knack for sharing the ball is contagious and he should be a welcome addition and solid insurance policy for the Knicks. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he has already been teammates with veterans Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni and Luis Scola who knocked off a team that had LeBron James and Dwyane Wade when Argentina was on its way to a 2004 Olympic Gold Medal in Athens.

6. Donatas Motiejunas,  Houston Rockets via Lithuania

7’0″ Power Forward/Center, 21 years old

Motiejunas is a bit of a project, but with the Rockets clearly in rebuilding mode they can’t go wrong with someone with such astounding size and potential. He has a lot of natural ability, but will need to prove he is more focused and consistent defensively to be an impact player. Motiejunas set the Euroleague single game defensive rebounding record last year, grabbing 18 while playing for Asseco Prokom in Poland. He has the tools to be a star, with an exceptional feel for the game for a player his size, but it could take him a couple of years to put it all together.



7. Evan Fournier, Denver Nuggets via France

6’6″ Shooting Guard, 19 years old

Fournier has a natural feel for the game that should help him develop rapidly into a solid rotation player, with starter potential down the road. The first international player selected in this year’s draft, Fournier has great instincts in the pick and roll, has a strong pull-up jump shot and is able to make plays for others off the dribble. As a soon-to-be 20-year-old, it may be tough to get consistent minutes on a Denver team that should be very solid after acquiring Andre Iguodala, so expect to see Fournier plying his trade part-time in the D-League where he can get a chance to adapt to the American game. Fournier probably doesn’t project to be a future All-Star, but he very likely will be the top international player selected in 2012.

8. Victor Claver, Portland Trail Blazers via Spain

6’10” Combo Forward, 24 years old

The ceiling for Claver may never be as high as many thought when he was selected 22nd in 2009 after suffering a serious ankle injury a couple years ago, but he is ready to contribute immediately. He can shoot, rebound and is a solid defender but doesn’t excel enough in one particular area to make him a standout player. He may not be a player to create for himself, but he knows how to take advantage of the opportunities presented to him throughout a game. A veteran of the Spanish National team, Claver won’t be the type of player to change Portland’s luck, but he can be relied upon to play in high pressure situations if need be.

9. Nando De Colo,  San Antonio Spurs via France

6’5″ Combo Guard, 25 years old

After several summers as Tony Parker’s understudy on the French national team, De Colo is an NBA-ready talent who should fit right into the Spurs system. He has a good feel for both guard positions, is a great outside shooter, is very strong in transition and is a capable defender. While he probably won’t be the same type of steal that Ginobili was after being drafted at the bottom of the 2nd round, he will surely be another example of the Spurs eye for overseas talent. It may be difficult for him to get minutes as a rookie, since he will be competing with Patty Mills and is likely to get the rookie treatment, but if called upon he should be ready to rumble.

10. Tornike “Toko” Shengelia,  Brooklyn Nets via Georgia

6’9″ Power Forward, 20 years old

Shengelia was originally intended to be a Eurostash project, but surprised the team enough this summer to earn a guaranteed deal. Right now his skill set is best suited for the four spot, but if he improves his jump shot and ballhandling skills, he projects to be a nice combo forward down the road with his excellent mobility and athleticism. Since he is a high level pick-and-roll defender and is capable of switching against perimeter players due to his lateral quickness, he may sneak in some minutes in Avery Johnson’s rotation as a rookie, but look for Toko to spend a good chunk of time in the D-League while the Nets make their big splash in Brooklyn.

11. Viacheslav Kravtsov,  Detroit Pistons via Ukraine

7’0″Center, 25 years old

Kravtsov is about as big of a project as they come in the league. He has exceptional length and is a very capable shot-blocker, but will need to spend a lot of time working on his fundamentals to make a serious impact in the league. He could potentially bring some value down the road as a backup center for defensive purposes, but don’t expect to see him on the floor much this year.

AJ Mitnick is an American currently living in Israel and working as an assistant coach for Maccabi Rishon Lezion of the Israeli Basketball Super League. A recent graduate of IDC Herzliya, Mitnick also maintains a  basketball blog,, and is pursuing a professional basketball coaching license from the Wingate Institute in Israel. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. says

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  2. Ryan Richards duh says

    If we’re talking just the next year or 2, Teletovic will be the best of this bunch hands down. The guy is maybe the best offensive player in Europe right now and miles ahead of these guys in his game, he’s entering his prime. Besides that Donatas will be very good, but might need a couple years. Toko will also be way, way higher on this list when it’s all said and done. His attacking ways are fit in much better in Europe.

    At least this read sparks debate. Damn lists.

  3. Cakes says

    “The fact that he could be a good combination …” in reference to Joel Freeland. hard top be a fact when something merely “could” happen, no?

    • blahblahblah says

      The article doesn’t say that he did. It said he played with Ginobili, Nocioni, and Scola who won the Gold in ’04. Sorta confusing as to why they’d include that fact, but it just means he’s been teammates with those guys.

      At least that’s how I read it…


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