clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the NBA changed their minds about European player development

A look at how the league transformed to value the skills-based development Europeans have practiced for decades.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

For decades, NBA teams have evaluated European draft prospects on a different level than American prospects. Front offices who missed on a European prospect received significantly more criticism than a team who missed on an American prospect.

Knicks fans unanimously booed in 2015 when their team drafted Kristaps Porzingis. Bucks fans also booed in 2013 when their team drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Mavericks fans, however, collectively wept tears of joy when their team drafted Luka Doncic in 2018. National media outlets universally proclaimed Dallas the “winners” of the draft, and it wasn’t particularly close.

Internationally, the game is traveling fast -- faster than maybe some players expected. Harrison Barnes was almost 10,000 miles from his home in Dallas last year for the NBA Africa Game in Petoria, South Africa, and he still felt like a notable NBA player.

”When I was in South Africa this summer for NBA Africa it was funny to hear the guys go ‘oh I’m a Minnesota Timberwolves fan’ and I go ok why is that? Are you a fan of (Karl Anthony) Towns? And they say “nah I’m a huge fan of Gorgui Dieng he’s from where I’m from,” Barnes said about his experience playing in the NBA Africa Game last year. “So it’s cool to see him go out and make it to the NBA. I think that the more that we have people coming internationally to the NBA it just spreads the game and this is the league of the best competition so the more players that we can have for different diverse backgrounds the better.”

In fact, international players are dominating the headlines of the NBA this season. Giannis Antetokounmpo lead the Eastern Conference in All-Star voting. Nikola Jokic’s MVP candidacy is taking off on the Western Conference’s second best team. Luka Doncic is running away with the rookie of the year award. Opinions on international talent evaluation appear to be rapidly changing.

This European player development style which was universally seen as a negative might now be seen as a positive for NBA prospects. The evolution of the NBA has caused a shift in the league allowing European players to translate their talents more easily to the American game.

When the Dallas Mavericks drafted Dirk Nowitzki in 1998, Europeans had a reputation for being too soft and too skills-focused to thrive in a league that, at the time, valued traditional big men with more power than skill. Dirk, along with players like the Gasol Brothers, Tony Parker, and Peja Stojakovic changed that reputation, and transformed the NBA in the process.

Even after players like Antetokounmpo, Porzingis, Jokic and Rudy Gobert continued to change the game, NBA GMs seemed hesitant to go all-in on Luka Doncic.

Despite employing Doncic’s Slovenian National team coach, the Phoenix Suns elected to pass on Doncic. Sacramento’s GM Vlade Divac visited Doncic in Madrid and has deep ties to the European game. Despite this, the Kings also decided to pass on Luka.

Doncic fell into Atlanta’s lap and all it took to convince them not to draft him was a protected first round pick from the Mavericks and Trae Young.

This stigma against European players, despite their accomplishments, is something Luka Doncic said he’s felt early in his NBA career.

“I think European players are getting recognized more like Kristaps (Porzingis), Dirk of course, Antetokounmpo, and Jokic,” Doncic said. “There’s a lot of players and I think we’re proving that we can play in this league.”

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Dallas Mavericks
Here’s Luka Doncic handling NBA athleticism.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Early in his rookie season, Luka Doncic’s stellar play has certainly backed up his claim. His ability to come into the NBA and succeed so early is mostly because Doncic is an exceptional player. However, partial credit belongs to his early coaches and the system by which young players are instructed in Slovenia and around the continent.

What benefits come from this development style?

Mario Hezonja, the New York Knicks wing from Croatia, brought up this point when talking about why Luka Doncic has been so successful early in his career.

“It’s just all that ex-Yugoslavian, Serbian, Croatian way of coaching the young kids is outstanding,” Hezonja said. “Out there there’s no ‘hey you’re going to be a center, you’re going to be a point guard and all that stuff, you’re going to be a basketball player,’ so I was taught like that, I’m pretty sure Luka was the same way, Dario (Saric) is the same way.”

Yugoslavia is the former country located north of Greece and south of Austria. It is now split up into six countries: Bosnia and Herzegovia, Croatia, Macedonia (FYROM), Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia.

There are 17 active NBA players born in one of those six countries, with at least one from each nation. This region lives for basketball and most coaches teach their players in similar fashion: drilling skills and fundamentals for every single player.

In this type of player development, less importance is put on athleticism and developing the body. Instead, it favors training all players how to dribble, pass, shoot, and create their own shot, no matter their height or position.

NBA: New York Knicks at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

For decades, European players have been taught to play basketball this way. Over the last decade or so, the NBA’s rule changes have made the current game more and more similar to the way Europe has played for years.

This is one of the reasons Dallas Mavericks GM Donnie Nelson pushed hard for Dallas to go all in on Luka Doncic. Player development of this kind is something Nelson believes is important: “Certainly when you’re teaching young players you want to give them the diversity of (skills). You’ve got to be able to shoot, pass, put the ball on the ground, and make decisions. I think that’s just kind of the four basic food groups.”

This diversity of skills is a must in the modern NBA and offensive versatility is the major benefit of this development style, but it’s not the only benefit. Donnie Nelson went on to say this style of development helped players with their defensive versatility.

Maxi Kleber agreed with Nelson’s assertion and clarified how his development shaped him into a solid interior defender with the ability to guard multiple positions.

“I think one big thing for me is being athletic and being able to move with my height,” Kleber said. “We did a lot of footwork stuff back then and I remember that preseason every day I hated it but you had to do it.

“Now I see the benefits of it, because if you’re able to move your feet quick you can switch out and you’re able to play defense on different positions, which is a big key especially when you want to switch, you’ve got to have that skill.”

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

What has changed?

If this European style of development is so helpful, why has it taken until now for the league to value multi-skilled and multi-positional players?

To answer that question let’s look at where the NBA is now compared to where it was when Dirk Nowitzki came into the league.

One of the biggest changes came when the NBA eliminated hand checking before the 2004-05 season. This allowed quicker offensive players to dominate and took away a huge safety net for defenders not quick enough to keep up with their matchups.

With this rule change, NBA offenses became much more effective and the pace of play started to increase. This change spurred the first big step in moving away from the iso-dominated slugfests that proliferated the league in the 90s and closer to how the game is played today. The NBA also instructed their officials to put a much bigger emphasis on the freedom of movement rules which weren’t as heavily enforced in years past.

Several additional subtle rule changes, along with an influx of highly-skilled players, have given the NBA an extremely different look than it had in 1998 when Nowitzki first came to the United States. It’s something Dirk himself can’t help but notice.

“There was a lot more big guys in the league and under the basket was more physical and so the rules have changed over the years and now it’s a lot more of what we do in Europe with screen and rolls, a lot more movement, five guys getting moving,” Nowitzki said.

“The pace is a little faster now than it was so I think it plays right into the hands of a skilled big or a skilled guy that comes over and can make plays off the dribble.”

Dirk Nowitzki was one of the biggest changes to what the NBA thought of as a power forward. In the modern NBA, having a skilled power forward isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. Rick Carlisle believes the change in the role of power forwards has been one of the primary factors that revolutionized the NBA.

“The major change in the last several years is that the four men have become like wing players in terms of skill,” Carlisle said.

“The desire to have multiple skilled wing players has always been there in the NBA but now you’ve got wing players essentially playing the four position so you get a different level of speed, drive force, long range shooting ability, and lot of those guys can really rebound the ball.”

Some of the changes in the league have been gradual, yet others have vastly reshaped the league from where it was even less than a decade ago.

In the 2012-13 season Harrison Barnes was a rookie. He said it’s impossible to not notice how much the NBA has changed even since he was a rookie. One change Barnes brought up was how small-ball wasn’t considered as an option then, yet two years later his team won the championship because of their deadly small-ball lineups.

“Now you look at how the league is transitioning seven years later you’ve got guys who are 6’8 playing the five.”

While Clint Capela isn’t 6’8, he said learning to play in Europe helped his defensive development and his ability to switch. His head coach also has an EU passport. Mike D’Antoni spent 13 years playing for the Italian team Olimpia Milano in Milan and still holds dual citizenship in Italy and the United States. Coach D’Antoni had this to say when asked why believes the NBA has become more suited to European prospects.

“It’s also less physical which leads to people that have skills and that’s kind of always led to the mold of European players: skilled and maybe not great in a fist fight, and we don’t fist fight anymore we just play basketball,” D’Antoni said.

“It’s good for everybody not just good for them; it’s good for the game.”

Doncic isn’t the only player to benefit from these changes in the NBA. Nemanja Bjelica is the starting power forward for the Kings. Before signing a deal with Sacramento this summer Bjelica contemplated returning to Europe and leaving the NBA behind.

In 2010 the Wizards drafted Bjelica in the second round then traded him to the Timberwolves as part of a deal for Trevor Booker. Minnesota signed him five years later and he spent his first three NBA seasons with the Timberwolves.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Even after a big improvement last season, Bjelica still considered returning to Europe until the Kings offered him a 3 year $20.5 million deal. For the Kings this season Bjelicia is shooting a career-high 43.6 percent from three and has started 42 of the first 43 games in which he’s played for Sacramento.

Though he’s succeeding now, transitioning to the NBA at the age of 27 was difficult for him. If he could do it again he might just do things differently.

“I had a hard time my first year here. Everything was a lot of opportunity to figure out how you were going to fit on the team,” Bjelica said. “My suggestion is for everybody to come here when they are young.”

How have opinions on European player development changed?

While some still view American basketball as the best way to develop NBA talent, others push hard in the opposite direction. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban voiced his opinion on the subject in mid-December by bashing American player development

These inflammatory comments were taken personally by the player who has been a very public leader of the Mavericks the last few years: Harrison Barnes.

Embracing the uniqueness of different perspectives from players around the world has allowed the NBA grow and evolve. This idea isn’t just coming from Harrison Barnes, it was echoed by several European players as well as the Mavericks Development Coach God Shammgod.

“I think it goes both ways; they’re learning from us and we’re learning from them,” Shammgod said when asked about the difference between American and European player development. “We’re just combining the two and then we get the best athletes and things like that so I think it’s good.”

Lifting weights is another important part of NBA development. European clubs don’t focus nearly as much on training players to be physically dominant. These observations were echoed by Jusuf Nurkic, Nemanja Bjelica, and Mike D’Antoni.

Combine NBA physical training with a player who’s highly skilled and talented but has never focused on being a physical beast, and you’ve got one impressive player. That’s a small explanation for the showing Doncic is putting on so early in his career.

The benefits of combining different international basketball cultures extend beyond the impact on talent. It also brings the NBA to different countries in ways more tangible than countries hosting exhibition games. The NBA transforms into a more international league every year. In the last five seasons there have been over 100 international players on NBA rosters opening night. Last season the NBA set a record for most European players active on opening day with 64.

Stigmas against European draft prospects likely won’t be eliminated soon, but this young wave of Euro stars Porzingis, Antetokounmpo, Jokic, and Doncic will make GMs think twice before passing on the next touted Euro prospect.

Doncic knows this group can ball with the best of them; as Luka said, “I think we’re proving that we can play in this league.” At this point it’s becoming impossible to prove him wrong.