The draft-niks' worst predictions for this year just about came true: a lot of top talent opted to stay in school. There's a lot of reasons for those decisions, but the over-arching impetus is most certainly the impending lockout, which leaves contract situations uncertain and could cost players a full year of actual basketball.
Among the probable lottery picks who opted to remain in college are Jared Sullinger, Perry Jones, Terrence Jones, Tyler Zeller, John Hensen, and Harrison Barnes.
This does two things: first, it adds that much more drama to next year's draft. If the new CBA includes an age limit more in line with the NFL's, Sullinger, Jones and Barnes likely won't be eligible for next year's draft either.
And second, it opens the door this year for a lot of top international talent.
ESPN and DraftNet project 4 international players to go in the lottery. DraftExpress projects 5, all of them not just in the lottery, but the top 10. The names are all the same among the projections, with some of them being familiar from drafts past: Jonas Valanciunas, Enes Kanter, Bismack Biyombo, Donatas Motiejunas, and Jan Vesely. Considering these 5 guys will likely make up literally 1/3 of the lottery, it's probably a good idea to get to know them a bit.
To help project European draft prospects, John Hollinger put together a general stat translation meter:
•Scoring rate decreases 25 percent
•Rebound rate increases by 18 percent
•Assist rate increases by 31 percent
•Shooting percentage drops by 12 percent
•Overall, player efficiency rating drops by 30 percent
Now, although Hollinger gets very precise with his calculations, these figures obviously aren't to be taken as 100% exact. The projection gets close with some players...Omri Casspi's translation was almost exactly 1-to-1....but for the purposes of a draft projection, it's more helpful to look at these as guidelines: scoring generally goes down, rebounding and assists generally go up, Etc etc.
To spare us arguments over projection methods, I'll list each player's actual statistics for the respective league each plays in (not all of them play in the Euroleague) and let you translate the numbers as you will.
Jonas Valanciunas (Center, Lietuvos Rytas)
3p%: 0% (no attempts)
This guy is probably the hardest international player to get a handle on. He's extremely young, and his body physically isn't developed, so it's very difficult to tell what kind of player he could become. DraftExpress has him 4th overall, while ESPN has him as the 4th Euro...11th overall.
Physically, in Jonas' favor, he has a more-than-ideal frame for an NBA center. He stands 6'11" (since he's 18, I think we can safely assume he'll be 7' for his NBA career) with a huge wingspan (he claims it's 7'6", which I have doubts about, but anything more than 7'4" would put him near the top of that measurement historically) He also has the potential to add significant muscle...which he'll need to, because he's an absolute stick figure right now.
He's also very productive, averaging 7.6 points and 5.4 rebounds in just 15 minutes a game on 70% shooting. He dominated Europe's 16-Under league, then the 18-Under league. He's not terribly skilled....a lot of what he does is pick and roll (something he's very good at) and crashing the offensive glass. But again, he's 18, so his level of refinement has a great deal of room to improve. His 90% FT shooting is a good indication that his skill level can develop quite a bit.
Working against him is a lack of even solid athleticism. It's not everything, but it is something. The more video I see of Valanciunas, the more difficult it becomes to think he'll truly be an elite NBA center. He's laterally a step slow, and vertically very gravity bound. Almost no lift, explosively or in terms of hangtime. Some players are able to get around that with superior skillsets...Arvydas Sabonis, Vlade Divac, Yao Ming...but Valanciunas isn't that type of player, at least not right now. He lacks any sort of back-to-the-basket game, and...as evidenced by his fractional assists average....doesn't move the ball particularly well.
I do think there's a great deal of potential in Valenciunas. In terms of the international prospects, he takes the field on that account this year. But I also believe he's very much the wrong pick for the Timberwolves. First, I very much doubt he'll actually step on an NBA court before the 2012-2013 season...maybe even longer....regardless of the lockout or who takes him. He's just very very not ready....to young, too thin. He's been having trouble with Rytas over his buyout as well. And I also think that you absolutely have to pair Kevin Love with an athlete in the post. The nature of the NBA just demands it. Valenciunas could be a pretty good player 5-6 years down the road, but the combination of not-athletic, not-ready and not a good fit makes drafting him a hard sell in my eyes.
Enes Kanter (Center, uuhhhhh....)
First thing you surely noticed: there is no team or any stats listed for Kanter here. That's because he didn't actually play basketball this season. He enrolled at Kentucky to play for coach Cal, but was ruled ineligible because of benefits he received prior to enrollment as a pro in Europe.
So that alone is a big red flag. Do you draft a guy who hasn't played competitive basketball for over a year?
Much like Valanciunas, the outlook on Kanter is drastically varied in the mocks. In an inverse of Jonas, ESPN has Kanter listed 3rd overall, while DX has him 8th.
If there's one thing Kanter can most definitely do on a basketball court, it's score in the low post. He has very strong hands and can instinctively read and react to the defense with a vast array of steps, spins, and shoulder-counters. It's very impressive...strong, efficient, and effective.
He also has a fairly good midrange jumper. Watching video of him, you can tell he's comfortable in the 12-18 foot area, although he doesn't utilize it much. But in the NBA, where the trees are taller and move faster, the ability to step out from the defense will help him a great deal.
Athletically, Kanter is solid, although certainly nothing special. His body is already fairly filled out, and he moves well (albeit not fluidly) for his size. He is a bit undersized for a center. It'll be interesting to see what his wingspan measures out as, because that'll be a big determining factor to whether he can be a big-minutes starter in the pivot without getting overwhelmed.
The issue I have with Kanter is that, when I watch him play, I see Nikola Pekovic. Which isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but from a team perspective, how many Pekovic's does one team need? We have a hard enough time figuring out what to do with the one we already have. Although there are differences in Kanter's ability to play basketball, I don't see enough there to say he is or could be a fundamentally different type of player, or that he offers something diverse enough to compliment the current team, rather than just duplicate parts of it. This team has so many problems that spending a high draft pick to reinforce something it already has rather than add something it does seems like it'd just be a waste.
Donatas Motiejunas (Forward/Center, Benetton Treviso)
If one were ever to clone Pau Gasol and name him something different for the purposes of differentiation, Donatas Motiejunas would be the result.
The parallels between the two are almost eerie. Both are tall, thin, highly skilled big men, who excel at cerebral basketball but can be intimidated by highly physical play and lack toughness. The only real difference is that Gasol...mostly due to age and experience....is more able to establish and maintain position in the post, while Motiejunas has a pretty good three point shot. But telling you to just watch tape of Gasol in his early years with the Grizzlies is a much more effective way of describing Motiejunas than writing an essay. He's tested the draft waters before, so he's no surprise to NBA executives and hardcore fans.
The main weaknesses in Motiejunas' game are defense and rebounding. Although he played tougher and more physical last season, he is a pretty soft player, and that's not likely to change a whole lot. Granted, rebounding isn't exactly a concern for the Timberwolves, but you'd still ideally want a big man to be salient in that area.
Overall, Motiejunas would be very complimentary to this team on offense, and particularly to Kevin Love. But what you'd gain on offense, you'll lose on defense (assuming it's even possible for this team to be any worse defensively...), and again, pairing two subpar athletes together in the paint isn't ideal. So there's a give-and-take aspect to Motiejunas as a prospect.
Best Case: Pau Gasol/Andrea Bargnani
Bismack Biyombo (Forward/Center, Baloncesto Fuenlabrada)
3p%: 0% (no attempts)
The gist here is Biyombo's an athletic, relentless player with the wingspan of a 747, the potential to be a game-changer on defense, but who offers very little on offense and is arguably more hype than substance at this point.
What I will say here is that the rumors the Wolves are extremely high on Biyombo are not unfounded. That's legit, and the idea that the team would...for various reasons, most prominently Ricky Rubio...take Biyombo as high as #1 overall is a very real possibility.
Still, how much is really here? For all that Biyombo can do, there's also a lot of question marks. He has very limited scoring ability, can be very foul and turnover prone. And I think it's always a major red flag when a guy goes rocketing up the draft board in a matter of weeks. Is he the next Kevin Garnett...a do-it-all defensive anchor and emotional and vocal leader? Or the next Jason Maxiell...a somewhat undersized, high energy bit player who is highly likeable, but ultimately doesn't make much of a difference in the long run?
Having Biyombo suit up for the Wolves wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. He is athletic, fairly productive, and potentially adds a major defensive force the team otherwise doesn't have. And he's one of the better international prospects in this draft. ESPN and DX have him 7th overall. I'd certainly prefer him to Valanciunas or Kanter. Whereas Motiejunas would make a great offensive compliment for the frontcourt, Biyombo would make a great defensive complement. I think he'll probably be a good player in the end. I'm just not sure he'll be as good as people hope or think.
Jan Vesely (Forward, KK Partizan Belgrade)
For my money, Jan Vesely is the best international prospect in this draft. He's got the best combination of production, skill, toughness, versatility, defense, and NBA readiness. Like Motiejunas, Vesely has put his name in the draft before, and has drawn strong interest in the past couple years from some top organizations like the Rockets, Lakers and Spurs.
Maybe most surprising about Vesely is how a-typical his demeanor is for a Euroleague player. He's extremely tough and aggressive, sometimes to the point of irrationality. He's also very athletic, and that combination has led him to be something of a highlight reel in Europe this season. He dunks. A lot. With emphasis.
More substantially, Vesely is a very skilled player. He's got a good jump shot, he rebounds, and has terrific handles for his size. Although he stands at 6'11", he's nominally a small forward, but given a couple years and an extra 15 lbs of muscle, he could easily play power forward full time as well. His three point shot is inconsistent, but it's there and is likely to get better. Also a-typical of Euroleague play, Vesely is a very aggressive and physical defender. Because of his height, he sometimes struggles to get his defensive stance down far enough to laterally stick with smaller, quicker players, but overall he makes a sizeable impact and has had some standout defensive showings against top Euroleague players like Linus Kleiza and Ramunas Siskauskas.
The downside to Vesely is that he's inconsistent, particularly with his scoring. Sometimes he makes his shots, sometimes he doesn't. There isn't any particular reason for it...no visible changes in his shot selection or aggressiveness....it just kind of happens. The good news is it's never for a lack of effort. Vesely has a non-stop motor.
I think in a draft sense, Vesely is going to be brought down by concerns over his consistency and what position he should play. But as a player, I'd rank him #1 among all international prospects this year. He's the least likely to be not good, and has as much potential to be great as any of them.
Best Case: Some combination of Josh Smith and Detlef Schremph. Dirk Nowitzki if you want to aim really really high
And yes, I'm posting a video. DX's Jonothan Givoney likened Vesely's dunking aggressiveness to Blake Griffin, which I think a lot of people dismissed because of the Euro stereotype. So here's proof:
The final thing to say in all this is that none of these guys should be taken above Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, or Alec Burks. Guard play, guard play, guard play. But should the Wolves find themselves in a position to take a look at one of these guys, whether it be through extreme unfortune, a second top pick, or what have you, at least now we all know who they are.