BOSTON – For years, NBA teams have cautiously dipped their toes into international waters when it comes to the first round of the NBA draft.
Well that international pool of talent is about as shallow as we’ve seen in recent years on the eve of next week’s NBA draft.
At this point, only Luka Doncic of Slovenia is projected as a first-round lock.
The 6-foot-8 wing player is considered a top-five lock in next week’s draft.
Beyond Doncic, the only other international players that appear to be possible first-round picks at this point, are French point guard Elie Okobo and 6-8 wing Dzanan Musa of Bosnia & Herzegovina with the latter considered a possible target for Boston which has the 27th overall pick.
If all three are taken in the first round, it would equal the number of international first-round picks selected in last year’s draft.
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Multiple international players taken in the first round has been the case in eight of the last 10 drafts, with the exceptions being Kevin Seraphin (French Guiana, 17th overall selection by Chicago in 2010) and Evan Fournier (France, 20th overall selection by Denver in 2012) as the lone international players in their respective draft classes.
While Boston doesn’t have an extensive history of selecting international players, it’s clear that in recent years it has become an option they are much more open to utilizing.
Armed with a pair of first-round picks in 2016, the Celtics used both picks – No. 16 and No. 23 – to select international players in French big man Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic of Croatia, respectively.
Both Yabusele and Zizic played internationally for one season before joining the Celtics.
Yabusele has been a seldom-used backup who split time between Boston’s Gatorade League affiliate the Maine Red Claws, and the Celtics.
Meanwhile, Zizic was part of the Kyrie Irving trade with Cleveland that included Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and draft picks. Zizic is the only player acquired by the Cavs that is still a member of the Cleveland roster.
There are several factors that may come into play as to why the amount of buzz surrounding international talent isn’t quite as high as we’ve seen in past years.
“This stuff goes in cycles,” one NBA scout told NBC Sports Boston. “Just a couple years ago, it seemed everybody was loading up on international players in the first round, and a couple years before that.”
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In 2016, there were eight international players taken in the first round which came on the heels of four being selected in 2015, and six in both 2013 and 2014.
Another factor that may be at play involves the building of rosters now where teams are trying to balance their rosters with high-end, big-salaried talent that’s complimented by young players on rookie deals to help strengthen the back end of the roster.
Teams are more open to selecting a player who can contribute right away but maybe doesn’t have quite as high a ceiling as an international prospect.
If a first-round pick is used on a player who might be another year or two from coming to the NBA, that doesn’t do a team any good in terms of bolstering their roster for the present.
That’s why the Boston Celtics, despite having a roster full of young and promising talent, are targeting players with the No. 27 pick that they believe can hit the ground running and compete for playing time soon.
“We have to find players that can play, and can help us,” said Austin Ainge, Boston’s director of player personnel. “Having guys on rookie contracts and lower contracts that can contribute, is invaluable. We have some high-money guys on our team now, and we’ve got free agents coming up every year; this year, next year and the year after. You never know how that’s going to go. We have to continue to have new talent in the pipeline.”