Pau Gasol came from Spain to win NBA Rookie of the Year with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2002. Coming off two straight Italian League MVP awards, Manu Ginobili gave the San Antonio Spurs the extra push off the bench they needed to win the NBA title in 2003.
Luis Scola and Juan Carlos Navarro were immediate contributors as rookies after leaving Europe. In the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Spanish rookie point guard Ricky Rubio had the Minnesota Timberwolves fighting for a playoff spot before going down with a torn ACL.
And just last season, Nikola Mirotic played a significant bench role for the Chicago Bulls, remaining a rotation player through the playoffs.
There are a half-dozen rookies who will be making the jump from Europe to the NBA this season. Here is a look at the impact they are expected to make.
Mario Hezonja, G-F, Orlando Magic
After showing flashes with Barcelona last season, Hezonja looked NBA-ready in the Orlando Summer League and should be a great addition to the young core of the Magic. He may be just 20 years old, but his confidence and scoring ability will allow him to make an immediate impact. He should have quite a few impressive highlights throughout the course of the season, although watching him in an entire game will be tough for those outside central Florida. The Magic are on national TV only once, on the final night of the season, and are among the longest shots in the NBA to win the title, currently listed at 300-1 in betting odds at sportsbook.ag.
Hezonja’s role may be contingent on how competitive the Magic will be this season. But after playing on a loaded Barcelona team where his minutes were up and down all season, he should be able to cope with life as an NBA rookie. If given the proper role, he should be able to average double figures in scoring and could even be a dark horse for Rookie of the Year. If he pans out, Hezonja could end up being the dynamic wing Magic fans have been waiting for since the departure of Tracy McGrady.
Maybe the most improved player in Europe last season, Jokic could prove to be one of the biggest steals of the otherwise underwhelming 2014 NBA draft. It is no fluke when a 6-10 guy who averages nearly a double-double also gets three assists per game in the Adriatic League, and last time I checked, aggressive big men with skills usually do pretty well in the NBA.
The Nuggets are clearly rebuilding, with power forward Kenneth Faried’s name constantly in trade rumors, and Ty Lawson already shipped out to hand the keys to rookie Emmanuel Mudiay. Denver could use a breakout rookie season by Jokic as an excuse to pull the trigger on trading Faried and continue to retool its roster.
While the 7-3 Porzingis may physically be a few years away from being able to be the dominant player the Knicks are hoping he can become, he should be able to come in and make some sort of immediate impact with his combination of size and shooting ability. His lack of rebounding and physicality will be a big issue, but with the current makeup of the roster, Porzingis should get plenty of reps.
How Porzingis handles the pressure in New York as a rookie will be very crucial to his career success. New York fans can tell when a player is getting pushed around, and he surely will feel the heat if the Knicks are struggling this season and doing an Andrea Bargnani impersonation and pulling in two rebounds in 30 minutes. He has talked the talk so far, saying he is not the stereotypical European softy. But in Spain he was a soft player, so this season we will see if he can walk the walk.
Bjelica was a 2010 second-round pick of Washington whose draft rights were traded to Minnesota. He has played eight seasons in Europe and was a star in Turkey last season, winning the Euroleague MVP for Fenerbahce Ulker. With his contract expired, he is primed to come to the NBA and make an immediate impact with his unique skill set, length and basketball IQ.
Although Bjelica is technically a rookie, at 27, he is a lot more seasoned than the typical first-year player and is ready to play right away. There are a handful of power forwards on Minnesota’s roster – future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett and former top overall pick Anthony Bennett among them – so it is not a forgone conclusion that Bjelica will consistently get meaningful minutes. However, Garnett may start but will not play starter’s minutes and could be an excellent mentor to Bjelica, who should get the chance to show he can play and prove that he is a legit NBA player.
A 2014 second-round pick, Tavares won’t compete for the Rookie of the Year award; there are a handful of centers who will play more prominent roles for their teams. But he may end up being the rookie that has the most meaningful season, as he could play a valuable bench role for the Hawks by stepping in for the departed Pero Antic.
While the Hawks enjoyed going small last season, having a 7-3 guy who is extremely effective around the basket will be a nice added dimension to a team with championship aspirations. The presence of Tavares could allow All-Star Al Horford to play more minutes at power forward, his natural position. Fresh off a season as the best center in the Eurocup and playing in the Spanish ACB League for Gran Canaria, Tavares should mesh well with coach Mike Budenholzer’s philosophy. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Tavares make an impact in the playoffs.
San Antonio’s pursuit – and acquisition – of All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge saw the Spurs trade Tiago Splitter to Atlanta and allow fellow center Aron Baynes to leave free agency. Instead of scouring the free agency scrap heap for names such as JaVale McGee and Samuel Dalembert, the Spurs did what they often do and looked overseas, signing the undrafted Marjanovic.
A native of Serbia, the 7-3, 290-pound Marjanovic has excellent skills for someone his size. But after seeing him play against Maccabi several times last season, I did not think he was mobile enough for the NBA. There are a lot of question marks as to how Marjanovic will be able to defend in the NBA and if he can physically withstand the rigors of an 82-game season, even in a limited role off the bench.
There already are injury concerns, and the Spurs have prohibited Marjanovic from playing for Serbia in next month’s Eurobasket. But if there is an NBA organization that can maximize his talents, it is San Antonio.
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.