Recently at the end of every NBA draft there are foreign names, who even for hardcore fans, seem like they could be just randomly generated. But they are in fact long shot prospects who are drafted and stashed for later just for an outside chance they could be good someday [*]…
How did NBA arrive to this point?
Which team did start this trend? What did happen to those pioneers?
To find out, I used my list of all Draft-and-Stash players in history to identify such cases based on two criteria:
1) according to basketball-reference.com player didn’t play in US college,
2) player had a contract outside of US during his draft year.
There were over 100 players in history who fit (I’m assuming here that all of them were drafted with an understanding NBA team had to wait for them… even though it’s hard to prove this for everybody).
I think it’s the best to start this topic with a graph…
A couple of facts which may help explain this graph or could be just a coincidence:
– Oscar Schmidt and Greg Wiltjer participated in the 1984 Summer Olympics which I’m assuming was announced before the 1984 NBA draft.
– Peja Stojakovic debuted in the NBA in February of 1999 and made his first all-star team in 2002.
– in October of 2001 Andrei Kirilenko, Primoz Brezec, Predrag Drobnjak and Zeljko Rebraca joined the league from previous draft classes.
– in October of 2002 list expanded with Manu Ginobili, Mehmet Okur, Marko Jaric and Gordan Giricek.
So I would summarize history of Drafting and Stashing Foreigners like this…
According to various sources, including an interview with him, Greg Wiltjer did play in US college so he made the list only because of a rare bug on basketball-reference.com which means…
the grandfather move of drafting foreigner with a contract happened thanks to the Nets with their shot at Oscar Schmidt in 1984.
That makes sense, he was a truly dominant scorer not only on his clubs but also in the Summer Olympics.
Oscar Schmidt didn’t play in the NBA in the following years but it didn’t discourage Hawks and Blazers to take a chance at other foreign stars: Drazen Petrovic and Arvydas Sabonis (if you want to learn a lot more about the background of these transactions, and Drazen Petrovic’s life in general, I strongly recommend Drazen Petrovic retrospective podcast from inallairness.com). For the next couple of years one or two teams bought such a foreign lottery ticket but nothing materialised out of them until 1989 when Drazen Petrovic, Sarunas Marciulionis and Alexander Volkov joined the league.
All of them were reserves initially and only Petrovic reached a starter status but unfortunately he died in a car crash in 1993. It doesn’t change the fact that Nets, who acquired Petrovic’s rights from Blazers, were the first team not only to try this move but also to gain something out it. Maybe two solid seasons from Petrovic don’t seem like much but he was poised for more.
In 1994 and 1995 arrival of Sabonis, improvements from Kukoc and brief success of Dino Radja created a slight bump in foreign players being drafted. One of them in my opinion became the second milestone in the history of this strategy: Peja Stojakovic was drafted 14th by Kings in 1996.
Even though his first couple of seasons were underwhelming he was the first drafted and stashed player to join the NBA at the age similar to his American counterparts.
He debuted at the age of 21, not only 3 or 4 years earlier than all previous draft-and-stash players, but also at a point in his career where he wasn’t fully formed as basketball player and had some upside.
I’m guessing such a proof that talented young foreigners were willing to come over early led to the draft class of 1999 which featured, record at that time, 5 draft-and-stash players.
It created another wave of players who finally arrived in 2001 and 2002 which along the growing success of Peja Stojakovic created followers and another spike in interest of drafting such players later in the draft. It remains at the high level a decade later even though success rates has since plummeted… but that’s for another post.
Does it make sense? Have I missed anything important? Let me know.
[*] more probably those players are drafted for the certainty of not paying them anything right now.