Opinion: Why are international players better prepared for the NBA?

Dallas Mavericks v Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks v Washington Wizards

A few months back I attended a coaching clinic and was listening to Larry Krystkowiak the head men's basketball coach at the University of Utah lecture. During his lecture he asked the question to the audience why are international players better prepared for the NBA?

One gentlemen answered that they spend more time practicing the fundamentals, another piped in with a comment they can practice year round with the club system and another said that they have better youth systems and coaching.

Coach Krystkowiak didn't disagree with any of those answers and added in his opinion, which was similar to the audience member's opinions with the added note that the club system builds more of a reliance on team play over individual talent which adds to international players being more versatile.

Having spent a fair amount of time overseas coaching, evaluating and attending professional team practices, I agree with all the opinions offered by Coach Krystkowiak and his clinic audience. There is a lot of truth to those opinions. For me, with my experience, the answer to this question has more to do with three main factors: 1.) 24-second shot clock, 2.) Becoming a pro in your early teens and 3.) the FIBA regulation floor.

International players get acclimated to a 24-second shot clock style of play at a lot younger age than their American counterparts. By the time they are age 14, they have already been playing with a 24 second shot clock for a few years. They are also playing on a FIBA regulation size floor which is very similar to an NBA regulation size floor and a majority of these players have been practicing and playing on a FIBA floor since they started playing.

In Europe they don't add a closer 3pt line, they keep it at the FIBA professional distance which is just a touch two feet shorter than NBA line. And the big game changer in my opinion is, the most talented youth players can and do turn pro as young as age 15 or in a few rare occasions even younger.

A prime example is how easy Luka Doncic is adjusting to playing in the NBA. At age 13 he signed a 5 year contract with Real Madrid and played for their Under-16 and Under-18 teams until he suited up and played for Real's Professional/Euroleague Team at age 16.

Luka Doncic
Luka Doncic

Yes, practicing fundamentals, good coaching, the international youth club system vs. the U.S. youth club system along with placing an emphasis on developing versatility in players to enhance team play all contribute to Doncic's and other international player's adjustment to the NBA.

We have all these things in the U.S. as well or we can provide these things to help our players adjust. However, until we start to adopt the three factors I hit on above, international players are going to continue to have the advantage of being able to adjust quicker and easier to playing in the NBA. They will also continue to be a sought after commodity to NBA teams.

Another great example is Nikola Jokic who was a second-round draft pick (Pk 41) in the 2014 draft who in just four seasons for the Denver Nuggets has become one the current NBA's top offensive players and helped propel the Nuggets to a Western Conference semi-final appearance. He is currently 24 years old and started his professional career at age 17 for Mega Basket.

Jokic was first seen playing in Prague, Czech Republic, for the Serbian U-19 National Team at the U-19 World Championships in 2013. Serbia lost to the U.S.A. who was lead by Aaron Gordon in the Gold Metal Game. Many scouts may have been discouraged by his tourney average of 7.1 ppg, 5 rpg and 1.5 apg, but his versatility and advanced basketball IQ for a player his size showed that potential was there for him to play in the NBA.

I'm sure there there were plenty of U.S. college programs that probably did offer Jokic a scholarship before he turned pro, but why should he go play college ball in the U.S when he can turn pro like he did in 2012 and play in a system very similar to the NBA style of play, practice plus play against actual veteran professional players and give himself a better chance to prepare to have a career in the NBA?

Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets - Game One
Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets - Game One

I've read and heard the criticism that players from overseas are often over-hyped due to the lack of knowledge surrounding them and the inferior talent they play with and against. And there is some truth to that. However, it seems that people don't account for the for the 3 factors talked about in this article.

If international players are such a high risk and less prepared for the NBA than American college players, then why has 10 percent of the NBA's draft picks gone to foreign players in the past 22 years?

Since 1996, at least one foreign-born player has been selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. The high-water mark draft was 2003, when eight international players were taken in the first 28 picks.

Also it is important to remember that the first international player drafted is not always the best international player in the draft. I refer you again to Jokic and lets not forget that Manu Ginobli and Marc Gasol went in the 2nd-round too.

San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Clippers
San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Clippers

A final stat for you is that since 1972 there have been more than 400 international players to play in the NBA and that number will probably rise to above 500 in the next 10 to 12 years. I think these numbers clearly point out that NBA general managers and scouts are not operating under the assumption that top international players are a high-risk and won't be able to adjust as quickly as American players to playing in the NBA.

There are a lot of factors that go into why a player gets drafted to why he has a good career over not having much of a career in the NBA. I think a fair argument can be made right now that the top young international players have a slight advantage over their American counter-parts in terms of being better prepared for the NBA.

I'm an advocate for having college basketball change to a 24 second-shot clock and a FIBA regulation size floor. I feel making these two changes alone would greatly help American players and overall improve the quality of play in college basketball and the NBA.

In terms of highly talented American youth players being able to turn pro younger than they currently can, that may happen eventually, but swaying public opinion will be a tough task for the NBA to take on with how popular college basketball is. However, that doesn't mean we should not look to try and improve college basketball with the suggestions listed above.

The NBA will always have more American born players than international players, but for every international player drafted or signed to a contract, that is one less American born player to be. Professional sports is all about finding players that bring the best capital to the table, because professional sports are a free-market business. Right now the international markets in basketball are showing they have a pretty good system in place.

Edited by Zaid Khan


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