With the NBA Draft ahead on Thursday, a bunch of Europe’s top young talent will find out who will acquire their rights for the biggest show in the sport. Emmet Ryan writes about how distance makes the continent seem smaller
Tel Aviv is farther from Sevilla than Oakland is from Cleveland. This year’s en vogue Euro, Dragan Bender, plied his trade a continent’s width away from last year’s top pick from Europe, Kristaps Porzingis. Culturally, the role of hoops in their home countries of Latvia and Croatia differ wildly. Porzingis grew up in a land always way behind the more successful neighbours of Lithuania. Basketball matters in Latvia but it hadn’t exactly been a production line for talent. Bender by contrast is from Croatia, a nation that has never lifted the EuroBasket trophy but has been home to a steady production line of talent from Europe to the NBA since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In terms of game, there’s a whole lot different in Bender now and Porzingis at this age. Bender plays with the agility of a shorter man on the ball whereas length is present in near everything Porzingis does. Bender plays a more physical game than Porzingis with the latter stretching teams more. In simple terms this are immensely different players.
There are commonalities. Both are big, both come to the draft as non NCAA lottery picks, and, most importantly, both are European. Greg Oden and Kevin Durant had roughly as much in common physically as Porzingis and Bender yet there was never a risk of that duo being mistaken even before Oden’s infamous knee issues became apparent.
For the majority of NBA front offices, scouting networks, and draft analysts this isn’t a concern. They aren’t interested in a passport, they want to know about the person. Analysts however are prisoners to an expected narrative which is built upon the distance, both physical and mental, between the United States and the mix of systems across Europe.
When telling a story you want to be able to use reference points. Schools are great for that, being able to compare prospect X out of Kentucky vs a previous Wildcat who played his position illustrates how a prospect is viewed. The NCAA format also makes a bunch of sense to the casual viewer as everybody is playing out the season with one clear end goal and the potential for direct match-ups between prospects in season is promising.
There’s simply a whole lot less of that in Europe because it’s not just the more formal divisions between leagues to handle. The professional nature of the sport means the role a high value draft prospect might earn and the calibre of opposition they will face varies wildly. Bender was buried on the bench of a team that is European royalty this season, albeit one that wasn’t exactly impressive, while Porzingis got to play big minutes with a team fighting relegation in his last year in Europe.
By the time a player gets to the USA there’s still the small matter of viewers not being acquainted with him and that’s not just a problem for Americans. The first time I watched a Porzingis live, he was in a Knicks jersey. The ACB (Spanish league) isn’t accessible legally from Ireland or indeed a whole bunch of other countries.
Check out BiE’s 2016 NBA mock draft
All the way through the draft process none of this is an issue, or at least it isn’t if the team drafting is intelligent and has a good scouting network. The problems begin as soon the cap gets donned, the suit comes off, and the kid plays Summer League. That’s when the comparisons become a problem because Bender is going to be compared to Porzingis. Scribes are going to ask about Bender delivering Porzingis level production even though he is likely coming to the NBA in a wildly different position developmentally.
The upside for Bender is few people expected Porzingis level production from Porzingis last season. He looked, from the recorded games I had seen, as a kid who was going to develop into a real talent but one who wouldn’t be what he is yet. That was meant to be Mario Hezonja, he was the guy who was ready. Super Mario still did fine but he and Prozingis also showed us just how hard it is to judge what a player is going to do once he enters the league. Even from a positive focus, pundits made their calls wrong. For Bender, the best thing he can do is not worry about what’s said or is going to be said. Just go out there and remind folk why your name is so memorable.