International Men of Mystery

Scouting the top international prospects in the 2021 NBA Draft

International players who don’t immigrate to the U.S. before they’re drafted have increasingly become a dominant force in the NBA. Finding and evaluating the most talented prospects of this type can be tricky, however.

Three of this season’s top four NBA players in Win Shares (a statistic that measures how many wins a player produces) -- Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo -- are international players who did not play college ball. Jokic was drafted in the second round. Gobert was drafted in the late first round. Antetokounmpo was drafted just outside the lottery.

Even Luka Doncic, who dominated European competition before declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft, saw three teams pass on him, including the Atlanta Hawks, who traded Doncic to Dallas, where he’s already a two-time NBA All-Star.

On the other end of the performance spectrum, several highly drafted international players in the last decade have either been busts or struggled to play up to their draft status in the lottery: 

This includes Dragan Bender, Dante Exum, Frank Ntilikina, Jan Veselý, Mario Hezonja and Georgios Papagiannis.

Why is scouting international players so difficult?

“There are a lot more unknowns when it comes to international prospects,” a long-time NBA international scout told NBA Big Board. “There are so many factors at play. Many young players get limited playing time or play in leagues where the competition is low. Some teams hide players because they don’t want to just develop them for the NBA. Sometimes the player just struggles to make the transition to NBA basketball or an American way of life. In many cases, they prefer life in Europe.”

Those are just some of the reasons that players like Bender, Exum, Veselý and Ntilikina have failed to live up to their pre-draft hype.

There’s a different reason why teams often wait until later in the draft to select international prospects.

“Every time you draft an international player, you stick your neck out with a team owner in a way you just don’t with college guys,” a Western Conference GM told NBA Big Board. “I’ve never once had an owner ask me to stake my job on a college player. But it’s a common occurrence for international prospects. It’s frustrating. That makes GMs more gun-shy in taking the risk.”

That has been no more true than in the case of Antetokounmpo. Multiple GMs I’ve spoken with over the past eight years have told me they tried to convince their owner to take him, or trade up for him, only to get overruled in the draft room. Most of them, when push came to shove, weren’t willing to use up all of their capital on an unproven, skinny 18-year-old from Greece. 

“We could’ve had him and it would’ve changed our franchise,” one GM told NBA Big Board. “But no one in the room was willing to stake their career on him, including me.”

This year there appears to be only five international prospects who might hear their names called in the first round of the 2021 NBA Draft. Only one of those, Australia’s Josh Giddey, looks like a lock for the lottery. Everyone else looks like a late-first-to-second-round prospect.

Workouts can change that. So can in-person scouting trips, something that NBA execs recently were allowed to resume after being barred from them most of the season because of COVID restrictions. 

I spoke with several NBA scouts who have been keeping close tabs on this year’s international prospects, despite the travel restrictions.

Here’s a look at the top international prospects in the 2021 NBA Draft.


1. JOSH GIDDEY

PG, AUSTRALIA
Age 18.5 | 6'8" | 205 | Wingspan: 6’8”
Birthdate: Oct 10, 2002

Primary Values: Size, passing, toughness

Ranking: 11
Pos Ranking: 2
Draft range: 8-15

Giddey has become the de facto top international prospect in a draft that doesn't have a lot of great options from overseas. Though he’s been on the radar screen for a while, scouts have generally been surprised with how good he’s become, and how quickly, playing for the Adelaide 36ers. Typically 18-year-olds don’t have this sort of impact in Australia, and every month Giddey has shown improvement. He’s a triple-double threat every night with his positional size, court vision and motor. He needs to get stronger and keep working on his jump shot to maximize his potential. But in the mid-to-late lottery, Giddey’s raw talent will likely be too much to pass up.

See Full Giddey Scouting Report Here


2. ALPEREN ŞENGÜN

C, TURKEY
Age 18.7 | 6'10" | 240 |
Birthdate: Jul 25, 2002

Primary Values: Scoring, feel for the game

Ranking: 26
Pos Ranking: 4
Draft range: 20-35

Şengün might be the most polarizing prospect in the draft. He is an incredibly gifted scorer who has put up huge numbers for Beşiktaş in the Turkish league. He has an excellent feel for the game and is an elite finisher at the rim. The concerns come from his lack of athleticism, perimeter game and elite size or length for his position. The NBA has largely moved away from old-school centers like Şengün. Will a team make an exception for him because of his high level of production in Europe? 

See Full Şengün Scouting Report Here


3. USMAN GARUBA

C, SPAIN
Age 19.1 | 6'8" | 229 | Wingspan: 7’2”
Birthdate: Mar 9, 2002

Primary Values: Defense, athleticism, motor

Ranking: 29
Pos Ranking: 5
Draft range: 20-35

Garuba has gained a lot of valuable experience playing roughly 15-20 minutes a night on one of the best teams in Europe, Real Madrid. His athleticism, length and quick feet, combined with a strong motor, are intriguing. He seems to have a solid feel for the game. But he’s still very, very raw on the offensive end. Will his defensive abilities alone allow him to get significant minutes in the NBA?

See Full Garuba Scouting Report Here


4. ROKO PRKAČIN

F, LITHUANIA
Age 18.4 | 6'9" | 210 | Wing span 7'0"
Birthdate: Nov 26, 2002

Primary Values: Feel for the game, versatility

Ranking: 48
Pos Ranking: 8
Draft range: 40-60

Prkačin is coming off his best game of the year, with 38 points, 10 rebounds and 6-for-8 shooting from 3 versus KK Zadar. That’s incredible for an 18-year-old in the Adriatic League. Alas, that game appears to be an outlier. Prkačin’s size, feel for the game and potential as a stretch forward are intriguing, especially given his production at such a young age. However, scouts want to see him consistently knocking down shots at a high rate before committing to him as a first-round prospect.

See Full Prkačin Scouting Report Here


5. ROKAS JOKUBAITUS

PG, LITHUANIA
Age 20.4 | 6'4" | 185 |
Birthdate: Nov 19, 2000

Primary Values: Court vision, floor leader

Ranking: 51
Pos Ranking: 8
Draft range: 40-60

Jokubaitis isn’t a sexy prospect, but for some that’s part of the appeal. He’s a heady, steady playmaker whose feel for the game and court awareness make him an intriguing rotation guard who can play both backcourt positions. His lack of elite athleticism, his streaky shooting and questions about his defensive position in the NBA may keep him out of the first round.

See Full Jokubaitis Scouting Report Here


OTHERS TO WATCH

FILIP PETRUŠEV, F/C, SERBIA

Draft range: 40-undrafted

JUHANN BÉGARIN, SG, FRANCE

Draft range: 40-undrafted

ARIEL HUKPORTI, C, GERMANY

Draft range: 40-undrafted

VRENZ BLEIJENBERGH, SF, BELGIUM

Draft range: 40-undrafted

NIKITA MIKHAILOVSKII, G/F, RUSSIA

Draft range: 40-undrafted

GABRIELE PROCIDA, SG, ITALY

Draft range: 40-undrafted

MARIO NAKIĆ, F, SERBIA

Draft range: 40-undrafted

GUI SANTOS, F, BRAZIL

Draft range: 40-undrafted