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NBA Draft: Teams looking for bigs, not international players

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NBA Draft: Teams looking for bigs, not international players
Mike Stobe/Getty Images
The NBA draft didn't show teams' fascination with foreign players--just how badly they need size.

Maybe it's not about looking over. Maybe it's not about fragmented phone numbers. Maybe the scouting process isn't broken. Maybe the NCAA isn't as depleted as we think.

Maybe it's just our tendency to look up.

Teams don't want foreigners, per se. Just size.

Take this latest NBA draft. Pick apart the top 10 selections one way, and you'll find half are international players—Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson, Jonas Valanciunas, Jan Vesley and Bismack. Do it another, and you'll find half were centers or power forwards (Derrick Williams and all above but Vesley, a small forward).

One is coincidence, the other causation. I'd argue that it's size that yanks players off the board, not nationality.

Height comes at a premium in the NBA, even if it means rolling the dice on a guy who's spent more minutes on international flights than in the NCAA tournament. A quick look around the league shows you a dearth of legitimate bigs. Save for Dwight Howard and Kevin Love, there isn't a game-changing seven-footer out there (And Howard's only 6'11.) Imagine the power shift that would follow the third on that list for the team who he plays for.

That explains why the Lakers and Rockets would reach on guys who won't miss 200-plus games in their first six seasons. They didn't. But you wouldn't be surprised if it happened, just like after the Jazz went after what Andrei Kiralenko was supposed to be.

Do you think teams went for international players beacuse of size? Or other reasons?

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The evaluation system isn't broken. It's just intangible. NBA play makes players straddle countless skill sets, fill multiple roles and glide between situations unlike any sport out there. That's why so many bigs fly off the board: Height is so much easier to project.

That begets all the problems of why it seems NCAA veterancy works against you. The best player on an undefeated team in the Big East and NCAA playoffs, Kemba Walker, fell to No. 9. That's why the Big East Player of the Year, Ben Hansboro, didn't hear his name. There just weren't needs for yet another conventional collegian with a nice shot and a track record.

(Far as that goes, there's a reason Walker and Nolan Smith, like Scotty Reynolds and others before them, didn't declare like Kyrie Irving and Brandon Knight and John Wall and One-and-Done, INC. They would have if they could. Irving is more pro-ready than any of the vets, and he's still got more upside.)

That's why it seems that NCAA talent pools are shallower than two inches of Friday night intentions. It's not top-to-bottom availability. Half of the 12 first-round bigs were foreign, compared to just four of 18 first-round guards and swingmen being imports.

America isn't hurting for skill. It's just dry on height. Whether he played 11 or 11,000, Irving is going to be a star. And a frontcourt with Kevin Love and Derrick Williams turns you pale. Top-to-bottom quality may have dipped, but San Antonio built a dynasty on the backs of reliability and role playing, what Jimmer Fredette, Iman Shumpert and Marshon Brooks will be.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Dwight Howard (left) is a rare find in the NBA. Teams know that length means instant viability, and are willing to draft international playesrs to find it.

And in a year like this one, why not take a chance? That's what Gavin Maloof did last night in shuffling with Milwaukee and Charlotte for the No. 10 pick, Fredette. That got Sacramento more season ticket sales in a single day than the team's June aggregate, straight from the source during his appearance on The Herd. If that's what a single player can do for a franchise on the precipice of relocating, don't be surprised when a team takes a risk to put a few lean years behind them. 

Especially considering the stakes. This isn't the NFL Draft, where a Jamarcus Russell, Alex Smith, Tim Couch, Joey Harrington or other botched selection sets your franchise back a decade. It doesn't help, given players' importance in a sport with smaller roster sizes and fewer players on the floor. But whiffing doesn't bury you.

There is a curiosity in unfamiliarity. The Bucks see a few clips of Bismack backing down with the best of them on the FIBA World Championship stage and figure he's Hakeem Olajuwon. Toronto thumbs through write-ups on Valanciunas, and amnesia sets in about Edin Bavčić (2006), Uros Slokar and Roko Ukić (2005), Albert Miralles and Rafael Araújo (2004) and Remon Van de Hare (2003). 

 And we are suckers for optimism (And according to a Time cover story, we're evolutionarily pre-dispositioned.). No question that trickles into draft night, when teams let the little they know fill in all they don't (and should). GMs make franchise-altering projections off small sample sizes. The media does mock drafts with guys it's never seen sweat in person.

Mike Stobe/Getty Images
If there was ever a marriage of foreign fundamentals and American grit, 76ers No. 16 selection, Nikola Vucevic (above) from Lithuania and USC is it

Face it: No matter how much film they produce and how many pro days they run through, there isn't a substitute for domestic accessibility.

That's knowing neighborhoods and friends and habits that domestic players grow up in. That's familiarity with the grit that define Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, both city slickers as kids. That's everything you don't get with international players, most of whom often don't pan out.

Those are flaws—players for lacking it, war rooms for glossing over it.

If only there a way to fuse the two. Mesh conflicting schools of thought. If there was ever a trial run, Ed Stefanski's pick, Nikola Vucevic, who hailed from Lithuania but played at USC, is it. Vecevic is touted for his footwork and fundamentals, but hardened by a year of Pac-10 hoops.

Until then, there will be misses, international should-have-beens. But then again, how many American players fizzle? Remember Marcus Fizer (No. 4 overall in 2000)? Bet you don't, nor do you Stromile Swift, who went two spots earlier. But Kwame Brown, Ed O'Bannon and Sean Bradley ring a bell for how horrendous their careers went. And for every Darko Milicic, there's a Sam Bowie.

Our fascination shouldn't be about an obsession that isn't. Just realize what matters in pro basketball most and the lengths teams go to land it.

 

For more 2011 NBA draft coverage, stay tuned to Bleacher Report for NBA draft results and NBA draft grades.

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