Now that college basketball is long behind us and the Euroleague season over with Real Madrid the new champion, European basketball has thrust itself into domestic playoff mode, with NBA executives getting a chance to see some of the top overseas prospects compete at the highest level outside the NBA.
While most teams’ draft boards in April and May are heavy with American prospects, European players begin creeping up the list as top decision-makers switch their focus abroad when the most meaningful games are going on. European players are more likely to consent to stay overseas for a few years before going to the NBA. This path allows them to improve on someone else’s dime, then come over to the NBA while still on a rookie contract.
In an era where many teams employ a salary cap guru, the chance to have an impact player for four years on a rookie contract instead of wasting a year or two sitting on the bench or visiting the D-League is a strategy that more and more decision-makers are putting to use.
Couple that the NBA’s top teams at the bottom of the first round who would prefer not to use their cap space on developing a rookie and rather stash someone abroad, and there undoubtedly will be some European players who will rise up the draft boards at the 11th hour.
Here is a look at the top five European prospects in the 2015 NBA draft.
Team: Regal Barcelona (Spain); Nationality: Croatian
Draft Range: 4-8
Despite faltering a bit toward the end of the season, “Super Mario” is still far and away the best European prospect in this draft class. Playing for Barcelona – which as a club could care less about improving Hezonja’s draft stock – he has hit a wall since March. With the competition level rising, and the negative perception that comes with NBA scouts obsessing over his potential, Barca has opted to go less with Hezonja, and that has hurt both his confidence and his stock.
To me, this raises his level as a prospect, since he is already going through the fire that most NBA rookies will need to go through if drafted by a contending team. The hits he has taken on his attitude can be viewed as a positive, since he is a hypercompetitive player whose will to win is one of the main factors that drives him. If Hezonja was content with a reduced role during playoff time, he wouldn’t have the type of mentality required to be a top-shelf NBA player. Every player goes through adversity, and if Hezonja can find a way to make an impact for Barcelona in the Spanish League playoffs after seeing his minutes fade, NBA teams will certainly take notice.
The things that Hezonja brings to the table are quite rare to find in a European prospect. At 6-8, he moves extremely well, possessing an explosive first step that coupled with his good ballhandling allows him to be a dangerous threat driving to the rim. He is accurate from outside, and combining that with his driving ability and activeness off the ball, he can be a very tough cover.
His decision-making can be frustrating at times, but a lot of that comes from his youth and the comparative high basketball IQ of veteran players in Spain and the Euroleague. Had Hezonja played this season for a top college program, he undoubtedly would have been one of the top players in the nation.
While Hezonja may not project as a franchise-altering talent such as Karl-Anthony Towns, he is a unique player with a high upside who could go as high as fourth, although our Joe Kotoch currently has him going sixth to the Sacramento Kings. He likely will be a top-50 player for the majority of his career.
Team: Cajasol Sevilla (Spain); Nationality: Latvian
Draft Range: 8-14
The most intriguing aspect about Porzingis is his combination of size and skill. It simply is very hard to find 7-footers who move fluidly and can shoot the ball. His overall skill level has improved dramatically throughout the season with Sevilla, and he even has become more physical this season despite still having a thin frame.
The issue with Porzingis is that he is very much a hit-or-miss prospect. The difficult thing about the draft is that generally, teams select a player based on his future potential rather than NBA-readiness. Porzingis could be an absolute stud, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he became the most prominent player in this draft. It also wouldn’t be surprising if he ends up being too soft to make an impact and finds himself spending most of his career in Europe.
There simply aren’t many players with his size and skill that also have great legs. He is a lock for the lottery and probably deserves to be picked somewhere between eighth and 14th, although it wouldn’t be surprising for a team to get hot on his potential and select him earlier. Kotoch has him going eighth to Detroit.
Team: Aris (Greece); Nationality: Bulgarian
Draft Range: 25-35
Very few young European prospects enter the draft as the top player in one of the most competitive leagues in Europe. Other than Philadelphia 76ers property Dario Saric – who was a superstar in the Adriatic League and the Eurocup last season – most prospects are either bench players on top teams or strong contributors on mid-level clubs. Vezenkov, however, is a flat-out star for Aris Thessaloniki, one of Greece’s legendary clubs.
Vezenkov has an outstanding outside shot with an underrated face-up and transition game. While he may never have the foot speed to guard on the perimeter in the NBA, guys with length and 3-point shooting typically find a way to keep themselves on the floor, especially if they are the type of players who make big shots down the stretch.
If you are the best player in a league as physical as Greece, playing for a club with the type of pressure you have in Aris and also being the leader of your national team – all before your 20th birthday – then it’s pretty obvious you have mental toughness. Vezenkov’s father was one of the top Bulgarian players of all time and now GM of a top team in Bulgaria who raised his son to succeed at the top level.
After being unable to reach a deal with agent Arn Tellem and some confusion over whether he will continue with former agent Nick Lotsos, there has been some murmur that maybe his draft stock will be down and he should withdraw his name. This is just a result of reporters buying into misinformation fed to them by agents.
In reality, Vezenkov has a shot to be a first-rounder and – after leading Aris past AEK Athens in the opening round of the postseason – he could cement his spot in the top 30 with a good showing in the semifinals against Euroleague runner-up Olympiacos. Kotoch has him outside the first round, however.
Team: Anadolu Efes (Turkey); Nationality: Turkish
Draft Range: 25-35
The MVP of the 2014 U20 European Championship has been a vital contributor this season for Euroleague powerhouse Anadolu Efes (Saric’s club) after debuting for the Turkish National Team last summer. While struggling a bit this season with his consistency – especially with his outside shot – being a 6-7 shooting guard gives him great upside.
Playing more as a secondary option with Efes, Osman mostly thrives through game flow. He likes to get out and run, does a good job pushing in transition and currently is much better suited in the open floor than in halfcourt sets. While he didn’t have any dominant games this season, Efes played solid basketball with him on the floor, and he always found ways to contribute by playing with focus and high energy. His length on defense – where he does a good job guarding on the ball and a great job containing penetration in transition – is a big reason he has been on the floor in crunch time for Efes.
Osman probably won’t be a star in the NBA. He does not have the mentality to be a go-to scorer or primary ballhandler but projects as a steady two-way guard. With length and versatility a premium in the NBA, Osman could be a draft-and-stash candidate at the end of the first round or a potential second-round steal, which is how Kotoch sees it.
Team: Maccabi Rishon (Israel); Nationality: Israeli
Draft Range: 31-undrafted
After going off in Game 1 of Maccabi Rishon’s first-round playoff series for 28 points and 16 rebounds, Dawson has called some attention to his vast improvement this season. A superb athlete with a quickly improving skill set, he could find himself to be a late riser on this year’s draft boards.
Originally a big man in the Juniors brought to the pros at age 18 to be a third-string power forward, Dawson has dramatically improved his shooting, ballhandling (especially with his right hand) and decision-making over the last two seasons. Two years ago, he relied solely on athleticism for his production. Now Dawson can get to the rim with both hands using a lightning-quick first step and finish well above the rim. Over the second half of the season, his 3-point shot has opened the floor for him, and he has even found himself handling the ball in the pick-and-roll.
A year ago, Dawson looked lost at times in his first season playing as a wing but now looks infinitely more comfortable. After recently signing a two-year extension with Maccabi Rishon (with a reasonable NBA buyout), Dawson could be a great candidate as a draft-and-stash for a team who will let him stay overseas and further develop his growing guard skills.
What makes Dawson intriguing is that unlike the vast majority of draft candidates, very few would have considered him an NBA prospect until recently. When Rishon brought him up from the Juniors, he was not a highly touted prospect by any means, despite being the son of former Israeli League MVP Joe Dawson. When I was an assistant with Maccabi Rishon from 2011-2014, I saw Shawn go from being the 13th man who barely played in practice to becoming the star local player the past two seasons.
Despite riding the pine and barely getting a look in practice, Dawson frequently would stay with me for many hours after practices to work on shooting and ballhandling. As Shawn’s skills started to improve, his opportunities slowly started to come, beginning with an invitation to the U20 national team (where he ended up starting) to getting more minutes and shots. His success has not changed his attitude and mentality, and he is still the same humble kid who knows he will need to keep pushing his limits to achieve his goals.
Being that he already has a deal with his hometown club – where he has rapidly improved over the last three years – Dawson could end up being a huge steal down the road. Players who change positions at the age of 18 sometimes become late bloomers. If Dawson continues to lead Rishon throughout these playoffs, it would not be surprising to see his name called in June.
JUST MISSED THE CUT: Nikola Milutinov, Serbia; Luka Mitrovic, Serbia; Timothe Luwawu, France; Nenad Miljenovic, Serbia; Mouhammadou Jaiteh, France.
AJ Mitnick is an American living in Israel and working as an assistant coach in the Israeli Basketball Winner League. Mitnick is the assistant coach of Bnei Herzliya, following three seasons with Maccabi Rishon-Lezion. Follow him on Twitter.