Euros: A Risky Investment
Should teams should steer clear of Europeans in the First Round?
by Leo Sepkowitz
This season, Dirk Nowitzki, the League’s only German-born 7-foot jump shooter, led the Dallas Mavericks to their first NBA title. His career numbers and now his ring (or whatever Mark Cuban decides to give his players) will no doubt influence general managers across the League to look even deeper into European talent.
We already saw the impact Dirk had in this year’s Draft, as four of the top seven picks are European players. Further down, Lithuania’s Donatas Motiejunas went 20th, Spain’s Nikola Mirotic went 23rd, Croatia’s Bojan Bogdanovic went 31st, Latvia’s Davis Bertans went 41st, and five of the last seven players taken in the Draft were born outside the US. It’s clear that Dirk’s success has rubbed off on teams everywhere, but before everybody goes Euro-crazy, I have a message for you: Don’t.
Over the years there have been countless European players brought in to be the next big thing. In 2003 we saw the Pistons take Darko Milicic with the second overall pick, passing on Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Everyone remembers the Darko misstep, but what about the other guys? In 2002, the Nuggets took Mikoloz Tskitishvili with the fifth overall pick. In ’05, we saw Spain’s Fran Vazquez and Russia’s Yaroslav Korlev go consecutively at Nos. 11 and 12, respectively.
I’m not saying there haven’t been foreign successes in this league. Dirk was taken ninth back in 1998, and the Spurs nabbed Tony Parker at the end of the first round in 2001. Still, though, as far as top-20 picks go, it’s clear that the safe move is for teams to stay away from European unknowns. To prove my point, I’ll break down Europeans selected in the top-20 over the last 10 years. In order to do so, the players have broken down into tiers.
I’ve placed all 17 players in seven tiers from best to don’t bother.
TIER 1: The Exception
Pau Gasol – Lakers – Spain – Drafted Third Overall in 2001 by the Grizzlies
OK, so maybe there is one superstar European who’s gone in the top-20 since 2001. Pau is what everybody prays a European import will be like: a great scorer, rebounder and, perhaps most importantly, passer. Gasol has brought along a game that is rarely seen in 7-footers in America, and has used it brilliantly. His career-high of 376 assists in one season (4.6 per game) is 25 more than Dwyane Wade totaled this season playing alongside LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
TIER 2: Seen Better, Seen Worse
Andrea Bargnani – Raptors – Italy – Drafted First Overall in 2006 by the Raptors
Bargnani is starting to look like a pretty nice offensive player, as he averaged upwards of 21 points per game this year, but that doesn’t make him a great pick. He is a horrible shot-blocker, especially by 7-footer standards, and his rebounding is very mediocre, as he averaged just 5.4 per game this season. The selection looks all the worse considering the Bulls took LaMarcus Aldridge and moved him to Portland with the very next pick.
Danilo Gallinari – Nuggets – Italy – Drafted Sixth Overall in 2008 by the Knicks
Gallinari is a lot like Bargnani. Not only are they both Italian, but like Bargnani, Gallo is developing into a serious offensive player who is simply subpar on the defensive end. Granted he was taken sixth, not first like Bargnani, but still, he has to improve his defensive game.
TIER 3: At Least He’s No Frederic Weis
Thabo Sefelosha – Thunder – Switzerland – Drafted 13th Overall in 2006 by the Thunder
Thabo has turned himself into an incredibly useful player on a Thunder team poised to make many title runs in the future, but he wasn’t worth a 13th overall pick. He’s really a terrible offensive player; he’s yet to average more than 9 points, 2 assists or a three in any given season. I almost feel bad having him on this list since I love him as a defensive player, but that’s just the way it goes. Think of him as a Swiss Bruce Bowen.
Mickael Pietrus – Suns – France – Drafted 11th Overall in 2003 by the Warriors
Pietrus is in the same boat as Sefelosha. He’s turned himself into a very nice defensive player, but with a career points/boards/assists slash of 8.6/3.1/0.8, the Warriors unquestionably reached for him in ’03. I like him a lot as a role player, but his inability to find a consistent offensive game will always limit his minutes and impact.
Andris Biedrins – Warriors – Latvia – Drafted 11th Overall in 2004 by the Warriors
Biedrins took a while to warm to the NBA, but he’s had some really productive seasons. Unfortunately for Mark Jackson and the Warriors, it looks like his best years are already behind him. In his first two seasons, Biedrins averaged no better than four points or 4.5 boards in either year, but began to break through in 2006. He suddenly became something of a stats machine, and averaged around a double-double in each season from 2006-2009. But injuries ruined his ’09-10 campaign and he was pretty bad this year. The center is still only 25 years old, but I’m not sure he’ll regain the abilities he had a few years ago. I’m afraid he might just be a Latvian Joel Przybilla who shoots under 33 percent from the line.