PHOENIX — Assuming the Phoenix Suns don’t trade the No. 1 overall pick between now and the June 21 NBA draft, the franchise will have its choice between University of Arizona standout big man Deandre Ayton and Euroleague MVP combo-guard Luka Doncic — widely regarded as the top two prospects in this year’s draft.
Debate among fans as to who the choice should ultimately be seems to lean toward Ayton, due at least in part in some cases to stereotypes associated with international prospects or fear of the relative unknown.
Daniel Peterson, coach of Scottsdale Chaparral High School’s varsity boys basketball team, played professionally overseas in France. He said the biggest difference between American competition and international competition is athleticism.
“They didn’t quite have the athletes that we had, consistently, but they had a lot of guys that just played smart,” Peterson said of playing in France.
He added that while the athleticism wasn’t on the same level, players overseas compensated by possessing high basketball IQs.
“They knew the game, they knew where to be at, they knew how to space out, they were good shooters,” Peterson said.
A recent Suns pre-draft workout featured, among others, international prospect combo guard Élie Okobo, 20. He played professionally in France before declaring for the NBA draft and said that league executives like him because “They think I’m very mature, because I play against pros.”
When asked why he thinks fans still hold a certain stigma against international prospects, Okobo said he didn’t know any precise reason.
“I think European players don’t play the same way that American players who were in college before the NBA,” he said. “I think it’s different, but there’s a lot of European players now in the NBA and they’re really good.”
Heath Vescovi-Chiordi, a 30-year-old Arizonan who’s been a Suns fan since childhood, wants his favorite team to take Ayton in the draft. He believes some NBA fans lean away from international prospects because “they don’t understand what those European leagues are actually like. And to their point, how could they?”
A lack of exposure to overseas athletes is part of the problem. Fans in America can sometimes only evaluate players based on hype generated by pundits and YouTube highlight reels. By contrast, Peterson noted that athletes who are hyped here are often viewed as phenoms coming up through high school.
Former NBA player and current Suns color analyst Tim Kempton said he thinks Ayton should be the choice for Phoenix due to the team’s evident need at center. Alex Len will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and 35-year-old veteran Tyson Chandler has only one year remaining on his current contract.
But Kempton acknowledged the stereotype that tends to hinder prospects like Doncic who enter the NBA draft pool from overseas.
“I think for a while there, there was definitely a stigma (against international prospects),” Kempton said.
The stigma has permeated NBA circles for years. International draft prospects are labeled “soft” or tend to be viewed as more likely to bust when they reach the professional level when compared to prospects who attended American colleges or high schools.
Kempton, however, said he believes that stigma has abated in recent years now that fans have seen players like Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili produce at such a high level throughout their NBA careers.
“I think it’s changed enough, if you do your homework enough, you can find Europeans that are going to be successful in the NBA,” he said. “It’s just, you know, there’s such a stigma on where they’re picked.”
Since NBA front offices often aren’t able to focus on as many scouting resources overseas as they can in the United States, league executives may shy away from lesser-known international prospects by mere happenstance.
Peterson said he is aware of the stereotype that hinders the perception of international prospects, but doesn’t believe there’s much truth to it.
“I know there is that stigma. And so they think, ‘Oh, don’t take an international player, don’t draft them, they’re soft,’ or they don’t like contact, or they’re not physical, or they can’t take the grind of the game,” Peterson said. “But over there, they start playing against men, you know, at age 16, 17. They’re playing in the pro leagues. So they’re getting the physicality.”
When asked why he believes some Americans still have this stereotype associated with international prospects, Slovenian National Team coach Radovan Trifunovic, who’s coached Doncic, said, “I don’t know.”
“I think it is kind of the character of the guy. Everyone is different,” Trifunovic said, alluding to the fact that some players can handle NBA pressures and others can’t. He believes Doncic’s character will be a great fit for the NBA.
So, is there any truth to the stereotype?
In a word, no.
Cronkite News conducted a data-driven analysis of every NBA prospect drafted between 1998 and 2015, allowing the most recent draftees included to log at least three seasons to get their feet wet.
It found that the average career win shares — an estimate of the number of wins a player contributes to his team based on various statistical categories — accumulated by international pros and their counterparts who went to American colleges and/or high schools shows very little separation between the two groups.
Out of every prospect selected during that span — note that there are, of course, far more players who went to college or high school in the United States — the career production from one group nearly mirrors the other.
International players who were drafted in that span averaged 18.4 career win shares. Players drafted out of American colleges or high schools, meanwhile, notched 17.6 career win shares on average.
The same narrative plays out if the scope is limited to the athletes selected in the top 10 picks of the draft. International top-10 picks average 38.9 career win shares. Their peers in America average 39.4.
In other words, data suggests league general managers are not at any greater risk of drafting a bust if they choose an international prospect over one who competed against college competition — despite some viewpoints to the contrary.
“I think it’s just a stigma and that’s what it is,” Peterson said. “There’s not a whole lot to back up that, because it’s still a gamble on who you’re going to take.”As with any prospect, a certain degree of risk is involved. Those who take a chance on an international prospect within the top 10 picks could be burned by a bust like Darko Milicic (selected No. 2 overall by the Detroit Pistons in 2003) or rewarded with a future Hall of Famer like Pau Gasol (taken No. 3 overall in 2001).
It’s no different for players who faced American competition. The No. 1 overall pick has yielded studs like Anthony Davis as well as notorious duds like Anthony Bennett.
Team fit aside, the Suns shouldn’t feel as though Doncic presents greater risk when compared to Ayton as a result of the historical precedents.
If Doncic doesn’t ultimately pan out in the NBA, however, it’s logical to assume the anti-international prospect stigma will rear its ugly head for years to come.
But even if that happens, the numbers still don’t support the stereotype.
Cronkite News reporter Jordan Kaye contributed reporting to this story.