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The Greatest International Players You Never Saw, Part 1

I recently put together a model for projecting international players into the NBA. I now have three articles discussing my approach (1, 2, 3), and a regularly updated worksheet that tracks international player projections (2015, past, future). The motivation for this project was to inform draft evaluations, but that is not its only possible application.

One common topic among fans of international basketball is whether different European stars would have succeeded in the NBA. This is a difficult question to answer. Fans are often overly harsh in ignoring production overseas, but it is undeniable that simply being a star abroad does not guarantee even moderate success in the NBA. There is now an impressive list of European NBA stars, but we have seen the other end of the spectrum as well. European superstars like Vassilis “Euro Kobe” Spanoulis or “La Bomba” Juan Carlos Navarro who were clearly overmatched during their brief NBA careers.

My projection model is far from perfect, but it can add a novel and objective perspective to these debates. There are patterns in what type of European player successfully makes the transition to the NBA, and by training the model on past attempts to make that transition, it does a good job of identifying these patterns. My goal here is to apply these projections to historical “what if?” cases, in order to see which players were most likely to have had successful NBA careers.


Retrodicting European stars:

I limited my data to players who have never played a minute in the NBA and are now retired or older than 27 (and thus unlikely to come over in the future). Within this massive set of players, I need to target likely candidates. I focused on all players who were selected in the NBA draft, won an MVP award in a top-tier European league, or were nominated as one of the 50 greatest European Contributors. I also included a number of other potentially intriguing players, but in a haphazard manner. One other important limitation is that I restricted the sample to players for whom I have at least 2,000 minutes of data. My dataset is best across the past decade, but I was able to include many players from the late 80s and 90s as well, especially those in the ACB and Italian Liga Serie A. Any players before that time are not included. I am working with incomplete data, some omissions I am aware of like Nikos Galis, while there are surely others I am not. That said, I am confident I have included most of the players anyone thinks would have had a shot at the NBA from the past twenty years of international basketball.

One quick disclaimer before moving on. I am not an expert on the history of European basketball. This has been a scholarly project for me, and I have never written so much about something I know so little. I am relatively confident in the projections themselves, or at least the process that generated them, but much less so in my attempts to compose a narrative and give context to the projections. Those who grew up watching these players are encouraged to comment below or on my Twitter to add details, or tell me why I am an idiot.


Projections:

I set the threshold for “sticking in the NBA” at an estimated wins peak of 2.5.  To be clear, 2.5 wins is not a very impressive NBA player, however, out of all of the historical players entered into the model only 22 pass this threshold. I understand that just throwing numbers at people does not help much, so I have included a simple scale to help readers evaluate what different level of “EWP” actually mean.  Below is a scale of observed NBA performance ranging from Vassilis at 0.3 “Wins Peak” to Dirk at 16.4 “Wins Peak.”

euroscale

Today I am going to be focusing on the many players falling into the Vujacic to Jaric region of the scale.  These are mostly players who made the correct decision to be stars in Europe rather than unheralded role-players in the NBA. Their NBA projections are not exciting, but it is worth noting that they beat out a lot of great European players simply by making the list of guys who could have hung around in the NBA.


The List: 

On the border: 

Nacho Solozabal, Petar Naumoski, Arturas Karnisovas

These three players fall just short of my relatively arbitrary cutoff.  They did not quite make the list, but they are close enough that they deserve a quick mention.  Each looks like he had a shot to be at least a minor NBA contributor.

Rotation players:

Jurij Zdovc, Slovenian, EWP: 2.7

Jure holds championships in the Slovenian League, Adriatic League, French League, Euroleague, and Croatian League. He was also a part of the successful Yugoslavian teams circa 1990. His production grades out at an “estimated win peak” of 2.7, which is just above my cutoff for a player who would have stuck around an NBA team. Comparing him to teammates who did cross the Atlantic, this projection seems appropriate. His EWP is clearly behind those of Divac, Petrovic, Kukoc, and Radja, somewhere near Sasha Danilovic and ahead of Zarko Paspalj.

Sani Bečirović, Serbian, EWP: 2.7

Denver selected Bečirović in the 2nd round back in 2003 and currently holds his rights. However, at 33 years old, Sani is unlikely to ever play in the NBA.

Sani Bečirović started playing in the top-tier Serbian League at 16 years old, and has since played for seemingly every professional team in Europe. He is a high-usage combo-guard, who would be flagged for questionable efficiency if not for his ability to get to the line. He averaged one free-throw for every two-point attempt across his European career. Sani’s EWP of 2.7 ties him for the bottom spot on this list. His European production definitely does not label him as an NBA star, but he could have stuck around the league as a deep rotation player.

Jordi Villacampa, Spanish, EWP: 2.9; and Juan Antonio San Epifanio Epidélson Ruiz, Spanish, EWP: 3.2

Señor Joventut and Señor Barcelona.  Two of the brightest Spanish stars in the late 80s and early 90s.  Primarily scorers for their respective teams, Villacampa and “Epi” put up similar numbers across their careers:

PTS eFG TRB AST TOV
Epi 23.8 59% 3.7 1.6 1.9 2.0
Villacampa 23.3 55% 3.1 1.9 2.1 2.1

My model projects both as rotation-level players at their peak in the NBA. Villacampa scores a 2.9 EWP and Epi scores a 3.2 EWP. I would expect both players to have found a role in the NBA, but it likely would not have been nearly as rewarding of a career as they experienced at home.

Lior Eliyahu, Israeli, EWP: 2.9; Erazem Lorbek, Slovenian, EWP: 3.2; and Fran Vazquez, Spanish, EWP: 3.2

I lump these three together, because they are the players near enough their peak age that they could still realistically contribute in the NBA.

Lior is the one guy on this list that the model would recommend a current team consider giving a shot for the right price. Eliyahu is technically past his prime age of 27 which is why I include him in the sample, but any decline is expected to be minor for the next few years. That means he should be generating something close to his 2.9 EWP in wins right now in the NBA. Initially drafted by Orlando in the 2nd round, Lior’s rights were passed around until Minnesota renounced them in 2013.

Lorbek and Vazquez are actually projected to have been better players than Eliyahu, but at ages 30 and 31 I assume neither would be worth bringing over at this point. The Orlando Magic drafted Fran Vazquez 11th overall in 2005. Vazquez subsequently made Orlandians unhappy by deciding to stay in Spain. I am not sure if this is soothing to Magic fan’s or not, but the model argues Vazquez never really looked like a difference-maker, and thus his refusal to join the NBA may not have impacted Orlando’s fate. Vazquez looks like he would have been a rotation player at his peak, but nothing more.

Lorbek was also drafted in 2005 by the Pacers, but not until the 2nd round. According to EWP, Lorbek actually looked like the better prospect of the two on draft day, but he slumped a bit in the following years. Lorbek later reclaimed some of his early promise and in the end he and Vazquez look like they would have been similarly decent NBA talents.

Gregor Fucka, Slovenian, EWP: 2.9

If I owned an NBA team, I would have filled out my bench with European players: Gregor Fucka, Walter Magnifico, and Steeve Ho You Fat just for the Jersey sales. Fucka adds the benefit of also looking like a rotation quality NBA big in his prime. The skilled, rail-thin, 7-footer had a long career in the Italian and Spanish Leagues. His stable 2.9 EWP across that career pegs him as another possible NBA rotation player among the European stars.

Dino Meneghin, Italian, EWP: 2.9

In addition to being a seven-time Euroleague champion and three-time European “Player of the Year”, Dino boasts the first basketball highlight video I have found set to opera music. At an EWP of 2.9, he is projected to have been a useful NBA player. That would have been nice, but personally, I would rather be remembered as “the greatest Italian basketball player in history” than, “that Italian dude who saw a few minutes with the Bucks.”

Dimitris Diamantidis, Greek, EWP: 3.3

Diamantidis is nearing the end of an extremely successful European career. He is one of the most decorated players on this list, with numerous championships and individual accolades on his resume. While Diamantidis himself is skeptical about his ability to compete in the NBA, the model thinks he would have made a nice backup point-guard. Unfortunately, he is now past his prime and we will never get a chance to test this projection.

Defense is often the first issue people point to when arguing that a successful European player would struggle in the NBA. This is not an argument you can make with respect to six-time Euroleague “Defender of the Year” with a straight face. On offense, Diamantidis would have been a big guard who knows how to use this advantage offensively in the post. He also has a solid shot, taking 4.8 three-point attempts per-40 and converting at a 39% clip in Europe, and can take teams apart with his pick-n-roll skills.


More to come…

That accounts for players 22-to-13 on my list of European players who could have stuck with an NBA roster but never gave it a try:

22to13

Stay tuned for a future installment that gives the top-12 players on the list, including several guys projected to have been legitimate starters and at least one star NBA fans missed out on.

Layne Vashro