Thursday night was a great night for Fran Fraschilla, the former college coach and current ESPN analyst who is the guru of international hoops prospects. One after another, some unknown player with a hard-to-pronounce name from a foreign land would be chosen in the NBA Draft and there would be Fraschilla to unlock the mystery.
Thursday was not a great night for John Calipari, the Kentucky coach who spent the morning and afternoon on various shows on the World Wide Leader’s family of networks, only to spend most of the night watching his three players slip down the draft board.
It was a worse night, however, for American basketball, what with just over half of the first-round choices and 36 of the 60 total players drafted having been born in the good ol’ U.S.A., the land that globally dominates the sport, or at least used to.
Yes, yes, we know, U.S.A. Basketball still wins most of the world titles, whether it be the National Team in the Olympics or the various age groups and university teams that compete in tournaments all over the map.
You’d have to be blind, however, not to notice the growing global contingent placing its stamp on the game, whether it be in the NBA, starting with the San Antonio Spurs, or the college game, that dips more and more into the global pool.
After all, LSU’s Ben Simmons, Thursday’s No. 1 overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers, may have played college hoops in Cajun country but he was born in Australia. Dragan Bender, picked No. 4 overall by Phoenix, is from Croatia and plays in Israel. Buddy Hield, taken by New Orleans at No. 6, was a four-year star at Oklahoma via the Bahamas. Kentucky’s Jamal Murray, picked seventh by Denver, is from Canada, as we know. The list goes on.
Are American-born basketball players really that bad?
Thursday’s numbers are hard to ignore, especially on the backs of well-deserved criticism of AAU basketball and the current dreadful state of the college game, its skill and interest levels eroded by the one-and-done culture and money-grabbing administrators.
Start with AAU, which none other than Charles Barkley called “the worst thing that ever happened to basketball.” A couple of years ago, Kobe Bryant joined the chorus of critics, calling AAU ball “horrible, terrible … It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game at all … .” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who coached his sons in AAU, described the scene as “counterproductive” with too little emphasis on team play.
AAU is all about travel, exposure and lots and lots of games. Practices are squeezed in between trips, which leaves little time for work on fundamentals. It’s all about dunks, athleticism and climbing up the recruiting service rankings.
You could make the same argument about college basketball — too many games, not enough practice time. Schools can’t pass up made-for-television events that add to the schedule. Kentucky’s 1978 national title team played 32 games. Villanova’s 2016 national title team played 39. More games, more money.
Newer to the sport, with fewer monetary distractions, international basketball has focused on the basics of learning the game. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who knows a thing or two about international ball, told Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post last year, “The international players are more skilled. They work a lot more hours. They’ll go two practices a day for the whole summer. Then they might have a two-hour scrimmage.”
Actually, the international insurgence has helped the NBA fundamentally. San Antonio won five NBA titles with rosters leaning heavily on foreign-born players. (Its 2014 title team featured nine.) The Spurs played exemplary team basketball, something that obviously rubbed off on Kerr’s Warriors, who won a title in 2015 and a record 73 regular-season games this year by, in the coach’s words, “moving the basketball.”
No wonder then NBA general managers appear more likely to take chances on foreign-born players than Americans — especially in a weak draft year such as this one. A recent study by Harvard Sports Analysis showed that over the last 20 years “for Europeans that actually make the league, they are just as good as non-Europeans who make the league.”
Fran Fraschilla probably already knew that.
2016 NBA Draft
First-round picks born outside of U.S.: