It seems that it is a rule that regardless of how weak an international class is, that at least two internationals must go in round 1. Even if there are no NBA caliber prospects overseas in a particular class, teams will look for and find a few guys to latch onto and treat them as if they are deserving.
Going back to 1998, 22 of 24 drafts have featured at least two internationals in round 1, and all drafts have had at least two picked in the top 32. Internationals tend to be higher variance picks since NBA teams tend to be bad at evaluating them, with colossal mistakes such as Darko Milicic 2nd over Anthony, Wade, and Bosh and Nikola Jokic sliding all the way to #41.
This year is decisively a bad year for internationals, but there are nevertheless four guys in round 1 consideration at the moment currently ranked in ESPN’s top 33. Let’s run through them one at a time and see if any have them have decent odds of justifying the hype.
Ousmane Dieng (#12 ESPN)
Dieng burst onto prospect radar in 2019, playing for France’s u16 team that won the silver medal. In 22 minutes he averaged 8.9 pts 2.7 rebounds 3.6 assists, showing an intriguing intersection of passing and shooting for a 6’9 wing but also shooting just 33% from the field.
Most recently he has played for the New Zealand Breakers, by far the worst team in the Australian NBL who went 5-23 with -8.7 point differential.
After a dreadful start to the season, he finished strong. He finished the year averaging 20.8 minutes, 8.9 points, 3.1 rebs, 1 ast, 1.4 tovs, 0.6 stls, and 0.3 blks with 47.9% TS and a paltry 10.7 PER. His biggest appeal is his shooting, or at least his belief that he can shoot as he attempted 4.2 3’s per game and made 27.1%.
Over the past 3 seasons from ages 16 thru 18 he has shot 138/462 (29.9%) from 3 and 88/112 (78.6%) FT. So he’s not exactly a good shooter at this point, but in time he could develop into one for his size.
And whoever drafts him better hope that he does, because there is not much to like outside of that. He does not have much shake or burst, and struggles to beat anybody off the dribble. And in spite of his size, he is not much of a defensive playmaker with mediocre rebound, steal, and block numbers.
He turns 19 in May before the draft and is basically a gamble on youth and tools, even though his tools outside of height are not all that special as like most French people he is a mediocre athlete.
Interestingly, he has a domestic twin who was recently taken in the lottery. Per 40 minute stats:
Granted, Australian NBL is not the same as the SEC, but it is certainly not more difficult. And when you factor in that Knox played for a good SEC team with a coach who routinely makes prospects underperform statistically, and Dieng played for a horrific NBL team who had nothing better to do with their season than pump up his stats, it is clear that Knox is the much stronger candidate to be underrated by statistics than Dieng.
And based on just the numbers, Knox has a clear edge as they are near identical in most categories, except Knox is much more efficient due to drawing significantly more FT’s and making 34% 3P compared to 27% for Dieng and was 3 months younger.
Knox was a reasonable lottery selection because of the possibility that he might be better than his box score indicated, as is common with prospects who play for John Calipari. This is not so common with European prospects, as outside of Giannis everybody who becomes great has a clear statistical signal of high potential. And Dieng is nowhere near Giannis physically.
Dieng is essentially Kevin Knox minus the upside that never came to fruition. Perhaps he improves better than Knox and maybe he develops into an excellent shooter over time, but there is no clear reason to actively believe in him.
And even if he does develop well, it is difficult to see him having any sort of compelling payoff. People may try to compare him to Brandon Ingram or Nicolas Batum, but both of those guys were much better at the same age and hit their NBA upside as shooters, so it is difficult to see what path Dieng would have to get there.
Perhaps he can be something like a Bojan Bogdanovic in his best outcomes. But it’s a relatively thin path that results on him developing well and becoming a great shooter, and his much more common outcome is similar to Kevin Knox where he is nowhere near NBA caliber.
And if you want to take a tall wing who shoots and does nothing else, there is a domestic in this current draft projected at #29 in Bryce McGowens:
Dieng is 6 months younger and approximately 2″ taller and 3″ longer, but McGowens gets to the free throw line much more frequently and made 83.1%. He also struggled from 3 making just 27%, but his free throws give him better hope of shooting and his FT drawing shows some capacity to play physical.
I would not rate McGowens as good value at #29, but would still lean toward gambling on him in spite of Dieng’s youth and dimensions edge if forced to pick between the two, although it is fairly close.
Ultimately there is probably enough there to justify a round 2 flier on Dieng, but it would be flat out insane to take him lottery and even in late round 1 he is a still a mediocre value proposition.
Nikola Jovic (#19 ESPN)
Jovic looked like a potential lottery pick in his 17 year old small sample, as he was efficient in 99 Adriatic League minutes and had a strong FIBA u19 performance where he averaged 31 mins, 18.1 pts, 8.3 rebs 2.9 asts, 1.9 tovs 56.6% TS over 7 games.
But unfortunately he has fallen completely flat as an 18 year old playing a larger sample in the Adriatic League. In 28.5 minutes he had posted 12 pts, 4.8 rebs, 3.6 assists, 3.1 turnovers, 0.7 steals, 0.5 blocks in 29 games across all competition, which includes two u18 games.
Collectively this amounts to a meager 11.9 PER which is not inspiring. He is unsurprisingly like an off brand version of Nikola Jokic who was only 4 months older when he posted 21.2 Adriatic PER. So it is rather amusing that the real thing went in round 2 while the cheap knockoff is slated to go in round 1.
But on the bright side, the most obvious part of that failure was underrating the Joker. And what makes Jovic interesting is that he had a higher assist rate (22.5% vs 18.1% if you include Joker’s Serbian sample) and a slightly better shooting signal, making 31.5% 3P, 5 3PA/G, 71.8% FT vs 31.5% 3P, 2.9 3PA/G, 65.6% FT.
Granted, he is unlikely to have the outlier shooting development of the real Joker, but height, passing, and shooting can go far in tandem so it is reasonable to consider him a serious prospect.
But he still is not as big as Joker, as he is 1″ shorter with 2″ less length, and plays drastically smaller on the court as he gets crushed in all of rebounds (10% vs 15.5%) steals (1.3% vs 1.9%) and blocks (1.6% vs 3.4%). He is not a true center, and likely lacks the footspeed to guard anybody on the perimeter, which is enigmatic for his defensive projection.
Offensively his main concern is that he is a disaster in terms of efficiency, as he is highly turnover prone and struggles to score inside the arc. He posted 96 ORtg on 23.8 usage compared to Jokic 119 ORtg on 20.2 usg– he completely gets destroyed in terms of efficiency.
Jovic has some shades of Jokic with his passing, shooting, and height, except he is smaller with no clear defensive role in the NBA and overall bad on offense instead of good.
It’s tough to come up with a real comparison for Jovic. We could try to comp him to a different Nikola with Mirotic, but Mirotic is much better everywhere outside of passing never being a strength.
Boris Diaw has some similarities, but was more agile and always had higher steal rates. Danilo Gallinari was a much better shooter with a much better steal rate pre-draft.
There really isn’t a clear comparison to make for Jovic. You are basically just hoping that his true talent is closer to his smaller sample last year plus his FIBA performance this past summer than this year, and that he learns to shoot and his passing gravity helps overcome his myriad flaws.
Ultimately he is in a similar boat to Dieng where he has outs to hit, but overall is a bland and boring prospect and is more of a round 2 flier than somebody worth a late 1st.
Hugo Besson (ESPN #32)
It’s surprising enough that there is one prospect on by far the worst Australian league team. But at least Dieng is 18 years old and toolsy. Besson has no excuse, since he is 21 years old and a horrible mold of 6’3 SG who is near guaranteed to be a disaster on defense.
You would have to figure well this guy must have elite skill level to make him worth consideration, but he had a pedestrian 35.7% 3P 79.1% FT and barely more assists (3) than turnovers (2.5).
In summary he is old playing for a bad team in a bad league in a bad NBA mold with bad dimensions and athleticism and has no clear strengths whatsoever.
Perhaps I am missing somebody, but I cannot recall a past prospect who seemed this hopeless to be an NBA caliber player. There is not even a clear selling point in his favor. If the draft was 10 rounds long, it is still difficult to see how he would deserve to be picked.
How he is flirting with round 1 radar is difficult to comprehend. Perhaps when NBA teams all actually see him they will universally agree that he is terrible and nobody will pick him. Nothing about him being on the radar makes sense.
Ismael Kamagate (#33 ESPN)
It is difficult to reconcile how we live in a world where bigs are rapidly dying and quality big prospects often slide through the cracks in the draft, yet this nondescript 21 year old is knocking on the door of round 1.
Physically his tools are OK for a big. He is 6’11 with 7’3 wingspan, and OK-ish athleticism, although he is slightly on the skinny side weighing 220.
In terms of basketball playing ability, he can dunk and occasionally block shots and his FT% is not completely busted at 68.3% over the past 3 years combined. But he is a mediocre rebounder, does not create steals, and had a meager 0.38 assist:TOV ratio this past season playing in France.
Further, there is a clear superior player currently mocked a few slots later at #36 overall. Per 40 minutes:
Jeep Elite and Pac-12 are not the same, but Jeep Elite is not a good international league and is not a bigger challenge.
Christian Koloko has 1″ more length and is a better athlete, and outclasses Kamagate in every category of basketball playing ability.
I would rate Koloko as decent value in the early 2nd, as he has an easy path to serviceable NBA big, but it is difficult to get into him as a 1st rounder as it seems like he should be a replacement level big fairly commonly.
In Kamagate’s case, it seems like replacement big is approximately his upside as he has no clear strengths in terms of physical tools, skill level, and especially basketball IQ.
He is not quite as hopeless as Hugo Besson, but he nevertheless has no business being drafted.
If you are going to try to draft a player without an impressive statistical profile, it is typically an error to pick an international as opposed to a domestic player. America is the most proven source of NBA talent and has the best athletes. Its prospects typically have better odds of outperforming their pre-draft statistical profiles than random internationals do.
Really the only international who has hit with bad stats has been Giannis, and we could possibly go another 1000 drafts without seeing another prospect like him. He had a small sample of Greek stats that made him look like not a serious prospect, but he is a rare international who has elite physical tools. It is difficult to think of any past international prospect who is even close to him physically.
Because of this, you are playing with fire trying to project uniquely good NBA translation and/or development from internationals. Even if they seem athletic, they may not be by NBA standards (see: Mario Hezonja).
But there are have been so many draft steals from international players, scouts and teams are always going to look at a few of them every year. If there is not anybody who is clearly NBA talent, they will squint and squint and squint until they have a cute read that some bland talent has upside, and that guy will almost always flop.
This exemplifies this year. Dieng and Jovic have limited strengths for non-athletes, and should not be going in round 1. And they are the only guys who should be getting drafted at all, as everybody else seems more or less doomed to either fail or be a bland bench player.
If you want to draft an international prospect, there should be clear evidence that he is good at basketball. Since none of the prospects this year fit that qualification, each international drafted is likely to look like a mistake in the long term.