Giannis Adetokunbo, an 18-year-old playing on a second-division team in Greece, will likely be a first-round pick in two days. Most of his game tape is grainier than the Zapruder film. His statistics are hard to come by. People don't even know how to spell his name (is it Adetokunbo or Antetokoumpo?). In many ways, he has more in common with the international prospects of 1993 than 2013.
Adetokunbo isn't the only young and relatively anonymous international prospect in this year's draft. Dennis Schroeder, a 19-year-old point guard from Germany, was considered a fringe first-round pick before his standout performance at the Hoop Summit. Sergey Karasev, another 19-year-old who excelled there, may have received a first-round promise. He shut down his workouts before most NBA teams could see them.
The common theme? A desire to be drafted on their timetable, not the NBA's.
The Hoop Summit, where the top U-19 international players face off against the best U.S. high school players, has become one of the most important events on the pre-draft calendar. The Americans are forced into at least one year of college after, but the international players can go directly into the draft. As a result, there's just a lot less information to judge them on. Where would Shabazz Muhammad had gone after 35 points and nine rebounds in the 2012 Hoop Summit?
Even in the best of circumstances, projecting 18- and 19-year-olds into the best basketball league in the world is difficult. While they can dominate their age group on raw ability, the majority aren't developed enough physically to compete in the NBA. At that age, everyone matures at a different rate and much of that development depends on intangibles. How will millions of dollars change them off the court? Do they have the work ethic to keep improving? Who's in their ear?
That's one of the main reasons why the NBA instituted the one-and-done rule. The idea, as David Stern put it, was to keep NBA scouts out of high school gyms. Of course, that hasn't exactly happened, but it has given teams a much longer timetable on which to evaluate American players. High school stats are virtually meaningless, but a year of collegiate stats at least gives a baseline of comparison. In contrast, teams are flying blind when it comes to players like Adetokunbo and Schroeder.
In terms of physical tools, you can put those two up against anyone in the draft. Adetokunbo, at 6'9 and 200 pounds with a 7'3 wingspan, is longer and more athletic than Otto Porter (Scouting Report), the top-rated small forward. Schroeder, at 6'2 and 170 pounds with a 6'7 wingspan, is faster and bigger than Trey Burke (Scouting Report), widely seen as the top point guard. If they were American kids, they would be Top 10 players in their high school class. But while they have high ceilings, there are plenty of Top 10 high school seniors who don't do anything in the NBA.
Given their age and current level of competition, Schroeder and Adetokunbo are a long way from finished products. Schroeder averaged three assists a game in Germany's top league this season; it's hard to imagine an NBA coach being willing to give him the keys to the offense right away. Adetokunbo, for his part, won't be coming over anytime soon. He's scheduled to move to the Spanish League next season, where he will probably spend at least two years. Both could have been drafted much higher if they had declared at 21.
But here's the interesting part: slipping in the draft may be a feature, not a bug, of their decision. With the NBA capping the amount of money first-round picks can make, there's less of a financial incentive to be drafted as high as possible. The difference between being a lottery pick and a late first-round pick is still significant, but the real money in the NBA comes in the second contract. That, in turn, depends in large part on the situation a young player walks into when he enters the league.
Jan Vesely is the ultimate cautionary tale for international players and their handlers. Vesely didn't declare until he was 21, going No. 6 overall to the Wizards in 2011. Nothing has gone right for him since. After two years amidst the chaos and upheaval in Washington, a player once dubbed the "European Blake Griffin" looks like a shell of himself. He isn't the first young player to struggle with the Wizards, but at this rate, he might not even get a second contract in the NBA.
That said, you certainly can't pin all of his struggles in the NBA on his situation. Even before the draft, his inability to do much offensively beyond dunking was apparent. What his career has shown is the folly of chasing draft position over fit. In hindsight, Vesely would have been better off being drafted to a playoff contender in the latter half of the first round. He needed to be on a team that could afford to bring him along slowly and groom him as a backup center for a few years.
The lesson for players like Adetokunbo, Schroeder and Karasev is clear. Schroeder is the only one of the three who came to the combine and he withdrew because of a toothache. Why put your fate in the hands of a lottery team when you could play with a perennial contender like Oklahoma City and San Antonio instead? For a young player, it's better to have a small role on a good team than a big role on a bad one. Coming off the bench didn't prevent James Harden from getting a max contract.
An 18-year-old international player who enters the draft has little to lose. If his handlers have a relationship with an NBA team, he can be snuck through until the end of the first round. The logic is simple -- take less money upfront for a bigger score down the road. For a contending team, the potential upside is worth the risk of missing on the pick.
Twelve years after the Spurs stole Tony Parker at No. 28 overall, the future of international scouting is starting to look like the past.