International Men of Mystery Part II
Scouting the top international prospects in the 2023 NBA Draft
Last October, 120 international players representing 40 countries and six continents were on opening-night rosters to start the 2022-23 NBA season.
Canada led the way with 22 players, followed by Australia (10), France (9), and Germany (6).
Over the last few seasons, international players have dominated the NBA’s most prestigious individual awards, with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokić winning the previous four Most Valuable Player Awards and Joel Embiid expected to bring home the crown this season.
Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert won four consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards before Marcus Smart and Jaren Jackson, Jr. ended their international reign the last two seasons.
Despite the recent success of NBA stars born outside of North America, Victor Wembanyama will likely be the first international No. 1 pick since Andrea Bargnani in the 2006 NBA Draft.
“There are a lot more unknowns when it comes to international prospects,” a long-time NBA international scout told NBA Big Board in 2021. “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.”
The factors listed are what first intrigued me about scouting international players. I love attempting to project how a young phenom from Spain, France, or Serbia would perform at the highest prep basketball level in the States. Could he star at Power 5 school in college basketball? And more importantly, does his game translate to success in the NBA?
I’ve spent the last five years globetrotting and tracking the top international stars for the next three NBA draft classes.
The basketball world knows Wembanyama, but the other international prospects remain a mystery heading into the last few weeks before the draft.
Here’s a look at the top prospects outside the U.S. in the 2023 international class. This international group could have six total first-round picks, counting France’s Sidy Cissoko and Canada’s Leonard Miller, who played in the G League this season.
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7’5” | 220
Draft range: 1
Wembanyama has been labeled a can’t-miss prospect, and the projected top pick in the 2023 draft has exceeded the lofty expectations placed upon him this season. Although immense pressure comes with being “The best prospect since LeBron James”, Wembanyama has lived up to the hype and continues to expand his game beyond conventional wisdom. He’s leading France’s top league in points, rebounds, and blocks while quieting the concerns about his durability after an injury-plagued 2021-22 season.
He has a chance to be one of the best ever. I know it sounds nuts, but from everything I’ve heard, his maturity, focus and commitment to getting better is equal to his physical gifts. He’s not one of these guys that was born super talented and gets by because everything comes easy to him. He actually works and wants to get better and really wants to be great.
6’6” | 195
New Zealand Breakers
Draft range: 15-25
France's Rayan Rupert fits the archetype of a 3&D defender due to his massive 7-foot-3 wingspan, versatility, and natural feel as a point-of-attack disruptor. He gained valuable experience playing 17 minutes a night for a New Zealand Breakers team that advanced to the NBL finals last month.
Rupert's season was cut short by a wrist injury that sidelined him for nearly two months and slowed his development on the offensive end of the floor.
Rupert's shooting remains a work in progress, as he only shot 31% from deep which often led to teams leaving him open in the corner in his first professional season.
I've been following Rupert around Dallas, where he's been training the last few weeks, and improving as a shooter has been a significant point of emphasis this spring.
He's also been participating in one-on-one and two-on-two drills with other NBA prospects like GG Jackson, Mike Miles, Jr., and Landers Nolley, where he's been raising eyebrows as a passer and shot creator for himself.
Rupert on his offense:
"I want to show (NBA personnel) my mid-range game, and I can be more consistent with my shot. This year I just showed 10 percent of my potential. I played more like a 3&D (wing) because it was my first professional season, but I can do a lot more on the court. I grew up playing point guard because I was not very tall, but I have a lot of skills, and I can't wait to show the world all the skill I have."
Rupert on his defense:
"Every time I'm on the floor, I want to show my defense and my size (extending his arms to show off his enormous wingspan). I think every team needs a guy like me who will give everything he has on the court. You can't win a game without defense."
Rupert comes from a basketball family where his father, Thierry played in the EuroLeague and was the captain of the French national team. Rayan's sister Iliana was the 12th pick in the 2021 WNBA draft and won a title with the Las Vegas Aces last season.
6’8” | 195
Draft range: 20-35
Coulibaly is the drafts' biggest mystery as he’s unexpectedly joined fellow 2004-born French prospects, Wembanyama, Rupert, and Sidy Cissoko as potential first-round picks in 2023.
I first saw Coulibaly in January 2022 while attending an Under 21 Espoirs league game in Paris while on a scouting trip to evaluate Ismaël Kamagate, the 46th pick in the 2022 draft by the Detroit Pistons, who’s draft rights are owned by the Denver Nuggets.
A year ago at this time, Coulibaly was relatively unknown and even the top talent evaluators in his home country had him ranked outside of their top ten NBA prospects from France.
Coulibaly impressed me with his physical tools, length, and athleticism but seemed to be two or three years away from becoming a legit NBA prospect. He started to generate a buzz among scouts after strong summer with the French national team at the FIBA U18 European championships, where he flashed tremendous upside as a defender and athletic finisher around the rim.
In September, I returned to Paris to watch Wembanyama and arrived four hours before tipoff to catch Coulibaly play in the Espoirs game to track his development since I last saw him in person.
I brought my camera and followed his every move for an entire game to get a better feel for him as a long-term prospect.
Coulibaly's development over the past few months has been nothing short of sensational, as he averaged 22 points, six rebounds, 2.6 steals, and 2.5 assists per game in the U21 league and began to gain traction as one of the top international prospects in the 2024 draft.
That was until injuries opened the door for him to crack the rotation for the Metropolitans 92 senior team and share the floor with Wembanyama in front of a large contingent of NBA scouts and high-level executives. His multiple double-figure scoring nights and meteoric trajectory have Coulibaly as projected first-round pick years ahead of schedule.
Coulibaly's defensive upside is off the charts with his 7-foot-2 wingspan, quick feet, and timing as a wing shot blocker. He's still raw and developing offensively but projects as a slasher/off-the-ball finisher, showing glimpses of his potential as a shooter and ball mover.
6’11” | 225
Draft range: 20-35
Last season I spent a few months in Barcelona, hoping to scout all the talent in Spain, which has become a hotbed for international prospects. Over the next few drafts, I expect to see a heavy Spanish influence as Real Madrid, FC Barcelona have several prospects on NBA radars. One prospect I scouted live was James Nnaji, a 6'11" man-child with a reported 7-foot-5 inch wingspan and excellent vertical pop. Nnaji arrived in Spain via Nigeria and is playing for FC Barcelona and, in my opinion, is the international version of Detroit Pistons rookie Jalen Duren.
Nnaji failed to impress me when I watched him play against his peers, as he looked raw and unpolished as a low post scorer despite his immense physical and athletic advantages. However, he looked like a legit first-round candidate when he saw action with Barcelona’s senior team after a rash of injuries and Covid-related absences opened up an opportunity for playing time.
In a reduced role, Nnaji was a force as a rim roller and lob threat and displayed promise as an intimidating interior defender. In 4 games as a starter Nnaji combined for 20 points on 8-11 shooting and contributed 12 rebounds and seven blocks. These are not eye-popping numbers, but when you consider 17 years olds rarely see minutes in Spain's domestic league and even rarer in the EuroLeague, you have to be intrigued.
His role is still limited this season as he's only playing 9 minutes per game, averaging 3.8 points and 2.1 rebounds while shooting 68% from the floor.
This is an example of the difficulty in scouting international prospects. There's often a minimal sample size when teenagers play in the top leagues where every game is a must-win situation and developmental minutes are not the focus.
Nnaji most likely will not have the opportunity to work out in front of NBA teams this spring since Barcelona is a favorite to reach Spain's ACB finals which extends into late June.
6’8” | 215
KK Mega Basket
Draft range: 40-60
Over the years, Serbia has produced a number of versatile and skilled prospects - most notably Nikola Jokić, Bogdan Bogdanović, Nikola Jović and Alexej Pokuševeski - that do a little bit of everything on the floor and has made the country one of the go-to stops on the scouting circuit. This year Serbia has a potential draft pick in Nikola Djurišić, who made a name for himself last fall with his 24 points and six assists performance against Amen and Ausar Thompson in a friendly matchup during Overtime Elite's European tour.
Djurišić has good size for a wing ball handler at 6'8" and uses his strong frame and crafty scoring instincts to make up for his lack of NBA-level athleticism.
His greatest asset may be his court vision and promise as a big-wing facilitator, although he's prone to turnovers and inconsistent decision-making.
His combination of play-making, shooting, and offensive creativity makes him one of this draft class's more intriguing long-term prospects.