The NBA’s history with European prospects is an imperfect one, as most teams always seem to be behind the curve. In the 1980s and 1990s, the European market was completely underutilized. Teams would occasionally go out on a limb and select a top prospect, like Arvydas Sabonis or Toni Kukoc, but then let those players to spend their formative years of development overseas instead of learning from the best players and coaches in the world. By the time most of them got to the NBA, they were finished products.
Then in 1998, the Milwaukee Bucks drafted a little-known, 20-year-old, 7-foot big man from Germany named Dirk Nowitzki and traded him to the Dallas Mavericks for Robert “Tractor” Traylor. Within a couple of years, Nowitzki started to revolutionize the power forward position, and the pendulum swung from underutilization to overcompensation.
All of a sudden, every NBA team was obsessed with trying to find the “next Dirk Nowitzki” from Europe. While this era saw its fair share of great European players, like Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, the obsession with unproven potential gave way to a number of monumental lottery busts like Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Darko Milicic and Andrea Bargnani.
Just as teams started to recalibrate their expectations and increase their overseas scouting budgets, we began to hear about this 14-year-old point guard phenom from Spain named Ricky Rubio. Americans are fascinated with prodigies, and Rubio was the first-ever European one. However, because of contractual situations (and the fact that he had to go to the T-Wolves organization), Rubio stayed in Europe too long and never really developed as a scorer like he may have had he jumped to the NBA as a teenager.
Rubio’s underwhelming production in the NBA, topping out as an average starting point guard, affected the way many people viewed the next European prodigy years later. There was definitely a shift in the way teams looked at European prospects, as they shied away from the high-risk, high-reward players in the early lottery and instead took their big swings in the latter half of the first round and second round of the draft.
This caused a number of future star players to fall through the draft cracks, like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela and Nikola Jokic. Even Kristaps Porzingis was dismissed by a number of teams in 2015. This European skepticism came to a tipping point this past draft when three teams passed on Europe’s second basketball prodigy, Luka Doncic, despite his immense success as a teenager in the world’s second-best league. With Doncic taking the NBA by storm during his rookie season, it’s safe to assume that every team will start taking more risks in search of the “next Luka Doncic."
Unfortunately, teams are going to have to wait a year on European prospects, as the 2019 draft has only two — Sekou Doumbouya and Luka Samanic — who are in ESPN’s top 30. The 2020 draft, on the other hand, should more than make up for this year's shortcomings.
ESPN currently has five Europeans — Theo Maledon, Deni Avdija, Amar Sylla, Malcom Cazalon and Killian Hayes — among its top-15 prospects. Although Sylla (a 6-foot-9 big man with a Pascal Siakam-type game) and Cazalon (a polished 6-foot-4 two-guard from France with a good-looking jumper) are projected lottery picks, their respective ceilings are a little lower than the other three prospects. Thus, we’re going to table analysis for now and focus on the three who have the best shot at taking the NBA by storm the way Doncic has this season:
Deni Avdija, Israel
The skinny: The 6-foot-9 point forward from Israel solidified his 2020 lottery status by winning the MVP award at the NBA’s 2019 Basketball Without Borders global camp held over All-Star weekend. Avdija shares some of the same swagger and advanced playmaking skills as Luka Doncic but isn’t quite the savant Doncic was, as he only appeared in two EuroLeague games for Maccabi Tel Aviv this past season. Doncic was a major contributor at 16 and 17 and won the EuroLeague MVP at age 18.
ESPN currently has Avdija going No. 7 overall in its 2020 NBA mock draft, but with the NBA’s shift toward positionless basketball, he could easily play his way into the top five with a strong season in Europe. If he is taken in the first nine picks, Avdija will be the highest-drafted Israeli player in NBA history (Omri Casspi was drafted No. 23 in 2009) as well as the highest-drafted Jewish player since Art Heyman was taken first in the 1963 NBA Draft.
NBA skills: Although he’s built like a stretch-four, Avdija has the game of a guard. His most NBA-ready skills are his shooting and passing. His shot form is beautiful, comparable to a three-point specialist’s. You watch his highlights, and you rarely see his rainbow-arching shot even touch the rim. His catch-and-shoot form and high-release point are reminiscent of Klay Thompson’s mechanics. He’ll also flash some Doncic-like, step-back three-pointers off the dribble. He has good enough vision and playmaking skills to play either guard position, and his height only enhances his passing abilities. With the ball in his hands, Avdija has the handles to create enough separation to get his shot off or zip a pass to a rolling big man or corner three-point shooter. He gets to the rim fairly well despite being pretty right-hand dominant, and he can draw fouls and finish through contact well against his current level of competition. Finally, he looks comfortable playing with his back to the basket and using spin moves and pivots to score.
Questions marks: The concerns about Avdija’s athleticism are legitimate, especially on defense — what position does he guard? If he can’t stay with perimeter players, can he rebound at a high enough clip to stay on the court? Offensively, you’d like to see him play above the rim a little more often. While there are some players who thrive playing through contact (Danilo Gallinari), it’s tough to be effective around the basket in the NBA if you aren’t a threat to dunk every so often.
His game reminds me a little of: Hedo Turkoglu, Kevin Huerter and what Dario Saric was supposed to be. If everything goes to plan, Avdija’s ceiling probably looks something like a more better-conditioned, peak version of Turkoglu in Orlando (where he thrived as a point forward and averaged 20-6-5 at his peak).
Theo Maledon, France
The skinny: This 6-foot-5 point guard hailing from the same hometown as Tony Parker is rapidly rising up the 2020 NBA draft boards after making a leap as a prospect this past year. The 17-year-old Theo Maledon is in line to become only the second-ever 18-year-old starter in the EuroLeague when his club moves up next season. Maledon also made his French national team debut at an earlier age than Parker. Although he’s built more like D’Angelo Russell and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander than Parker, Maledon has a lot of similarities to his game as his idol (and president of his current team, ASVEL) like his ability to keep defenders off balance with hesitations, low-dribbling drives and series of leaners and floaters around the paint. He’s developed into the top draft prospect among a loaded class of French prospects and is a high-lottery prospect in the 2020 draft. ESPN currently has him going No. 5 overall in its most recent mock draft.
NBA skills: While his game isn’t predicated on athleticism like many of the NBA’s point guards, Maledon’s feel for the game and ability to manipulate defenses by keeping his dribble alive should help him thrive at the highest level. Scouting reports and articles always seem to reference his maturity and mistake-adverse approach to the point guard position. His jump shot is relatively sound, as he is a career 36-percent three-point shooter. With a 6-foot-8 wingspan, he has the ability to be a good defender of both guard positions in the NBA.
Question marks: Maledon is clearly still growing both physically and athletically, so you hope to see him start to finish above-the-rim a little more frequently. His jump shot mechanics aren’t perfect either, as his shot can be a little too deliberate and his body twists to the left on the follow-through. Finally, draft gurus note that he is a little too passive at times as a point guard and leader.
His game reminds me a little of: George Hill, but with an offensive ceiling closer to that of Tony Parker. His floor is the lowest out of all of the 2020 European draft prospects.
Killian Hayes, France
The skinny: Killian Hayes is another 6-foot-5 French guard but with a game that pops a lot more than Theo Maledon’s — for both good and bad reasons. Where Maledon is the steady, savvy point guard, Hayes is the confident, explosive athlete who plays like a kid who was brought up through the AAU circuit in America. And although ESPN currently has him falling to the No. 15 overall pick in its 2020 NBA mock draft, Hayes may be getting overscouted at this point due to his early success as a prospect. Hayes’ creative dribble moves and highlight-reel dunks, steals and blocks are bound to tempt teams to select him in the top 10. If you’re wondering how he developed such an American-looking game, his father, Deron Hayes, played at Penn State in the early '90s before playing professionally overseas.
NBA skills: From an athletic standpoint, Hayes is more than ready to play in the NBA. He has blazing speed in the open court with the basketball and can finish above the rim with ease. His handles are tight, and he projects to be a good pick-and-roll player as both a scorer and passer. On defense, he has the look of a bulldog defender on the ball and a menace in the passing lanes. Any highlight mix of Hayes is sure to include a couple of Dwyane Wade-style blocks as well.
Question marks: Hayes’ most obvious shortcoming is his shooting, as he’s making only 15 percent from three this season. At the same time, he shoots over 80 percent from the free-throw line (often a good indication of a player’s potential as a shooter). He is left-hand dominant as a driver and finisher, so that part of his game will need to grow as well. Finally if you watch his highlights, you’ll probably notice that he almost always has the ball in his hands and is almost always on the move — can he play off the ball and in a half-court offense?
His game reminds me a little of: a left-handed cross between Dante Exum and Dennis Smith Jr. He’s got the height and speed of Exum but the body and some of the athletic prowess of Smith. Like Exum, he’ll be ready to contribute on defense immediately, but the team that drafts him will need to give him ample opportunities to learn from his mistakes on offense, similar to what the Mavericks did with Smith as a rookie.