For a long time, international players were a huge mystery to many people at NBA draft time. Even players like Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol were relative unknowns until they were selected in the first round. Today, that has all changed.
NBA teams are devoting more resources to international scouting, and while mistakes are still made, there are few surprises, even for fans.
However, 18-year-old Greek League prospect Giannis Antetokounmpo could be considered one of those players few truly know well. He is expected to be selected somewhere in the mid- to late first round, and Chad Ford's latest mock draft has him going No. 29. But it's fair to say he could be the biggest mystery of the first round.
The 6-foot-9 Antetokounmpo had been playing in Greece's A2 League, its second division, when NBA teams started to study him closely midway through last season. What has intrigued many of them is that he plays point guard much of the time and shows flashes of great passing skills and court vision.
I watched Antetokounmpo play in Jesolo, Italy, with the Greek under-20 team last weekend. It was the first time since acquiring his Greek passport three weeks ago that he not only represented his country but also had traveled outside of it.
Antetokounmpo's parents immigrated to Greece from Nigeria in 1992. Although he was born in Greece, his parents were never recognized as Greek citizens.
Virtually every NBA team had representatives in Jesolo, and Antetokounmpo's performances were impressive, particularly against Italy and Turkey's national "B" teams, which were made up of proven European veteran players. Antetokounmpo showed outstanding poise and feel for the game, displayed unselfishness (not always easy when you know scouts are watching) and played with good energy.
On the downside, he needs to get stronger, is an average NBA athlete and needs to develop more consistency with his jump shot. But those are areas that can be improved with physical maturity, work ethic and time.
Based on what I saw, Antetokounmpo would have been one of the five best players in high school basketball last season. He stands out because of his playmaking abilities and 6-9 frame. I believe he is three years away from helping an NBA team, but his ceiling is high.
An NBA team that can be patient and even leave him in Europe for a season or two could be rewarded handsomely down the road. Antetokounmpo recently signed a four-year deal with Zaragoza in the Spanish ACB League and has a feasible buyout, I have been told.
After Antetokounmpo's final game in Jesolo, I conducted a question-and-answer session with him:
Fran Fraschilla: Tell NBA fans about yourself.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: I am the type of player who will do whatever I need to do for my team to get a win. Whether I score 40 points or no points, as long as we get the win I will be happy. I always want my team to be successful, and I will do whatever I need to do on the court to make sure of that.
Fraschilla: How do you feel knowing you likely will be an NBA first-round pick?
Antetokounmpo: It is an amazing feeling that I may soon achieve a lifelong dream to be drafted in the NBA. I know that I have a long way to go and a lot to work on before I can finally get the chance to help a team in the NBA, but I am going to do everything I can every single day to be in a position to help an NBA team.
Day by day, I am feeling more excited as we approach the draft day. One month ago, I was playing in the second division of Greece, and now, even the thought that I am considered for the draft is a great feeling. I know I still have a long way ahead of me, but I am ready to do everything to succeed.
Fraschilla: When did you start to get serious about basketball?
Antetokounmpo: Five years ago. I was playing football [soccer] until then, but my biggest brother [Thanasis] start playing basketball so he dragged me with him.
Fraschilla: How did you learn to handle the ball so well?
Antetokounmpo: I grew up working as a point guard and thinking as a point guard. I get to the gym almost an hour before practice every day just to work on my ballhandling skills. The size of my palms also really helps me control the ball. Also, I wasn't so tall from a young age, so I was always playing the point guard position.
Fraschilla: Describe your strengths as a player -- and your weaknesses.
Antetokounmpo: I believe some of my biggest strengths are my court vision, my ability to run the break from five different positions on the court and also that I'm able to get to the basket. Because of my size and ability to see the floor, I can find my teammates for easy baskets but can also use mismatches on the court to my favor.
I think my biggest weakness is my [physical] strength, but I think that is something that will improve with a lot of hard work and a good program.
Fraschilla: How much NBA basketball do you get to watch in Greece?
Antetokounmpo: The last two years I started watching much more often than I used to.
Fraschilla: Who is your favorite NBA player?
A mix of Kevin Durant and LeBron James, because they can help their team in multiple ways, not just by scoring. I like players who are able to do a lot of things on the court. I have also watched many clips of Magic Johnson as well, an amazing player who did great things as a big-size point guard.
Fraschilla: Who is your favorite NBA team?
Antetokounmpo: I don't have any specific preference, but I really love the style of play that San Antonio plays. They are a team, and everyone plays for the team.
Fraschilla: How have you improved so much?
Antetokounmpo: It's simple: 365 days per year in the gym for five to seven hours. Nothing comes easy.
Fraschilla: How do feel about representing Greece as a basketball player?
Antetokounmpo: One more reason to feel proud. I was born in Greece and learned basketball in Greece, so I hope to be able [to] give something back to my country. I am really excited to be able to play in the [European] Under-20 this summer, and I hope there will be many more competitions in the future.
Fraschilla: Why should an NBA team draft you?
Antetokounmpo: Because I will never stop working to reach the maximum of my potential, and I will do everything to prove to that team that they made the right choice in picking me.
Adidas Eurocamp Tidbits
The main reason I was in Northern Italy was to attend the adidas Eurocamp, the international version of last month's NBA draft combine in Chicago. All 30 teams are represented at the camp, and the staff consists of NBA assistant coaches. They get hands-on work with this year's draft prospects as well as future prospects who attend the camp.
Here a few of my observations from this year's camp:
Dante Exum injured
Dante Exum, the 6-5 Australian sensation and son of former North Carolina Tar Heel Cecil Exum, did not participate in the Eurocamp because of a stress fracture in his leg. While he was in Treviso, he did some light shooting with the Australian Institute of Sport staff, and the hope is that he can participate in the FIBA Under-19 World Championship, which begins June 27.
Exum played well at the Nike Hoop Summit in April. After he graduates from high school in November, NBA teams have pegged him as a near certain first-round pick. In addition to being recruited by a number of high-level NCAA programs, Exum is considering working out and entering the 2014 NBA draft.
Because he is considered an international player, Exum will be eligible for the 2014 draft because he will turn 19 years old in the year of that draft.
The Brazilian connection
While the adidas Eurocamp has consistently churned out first-round picks in the past, including Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, Andrea Bargnani and Danilo Gallinari, the only likely first-round selection in this year's draft is 7-0 Brazilian Lucas Nogueira.
Nogueira participated in only one camp game but displayed a 7-6 wingspan and the running and the shot-blocking ability to make him an intriguing center prospect. While he is not likely to help an NBA team until he gets stronger, he is a good prospect to own the rights to until he physically matures.
• Raul Neto, a 6-2 point guard, was the camp's outstanding guard prospect, in my opinion. To be a starting point guard at 21 years old in the ACB is a great beginning to his professional career. He is extremely quick and crafty with his passing and displays the ability to make Steve Nash-like floaters in the lane.
If Neto doesn't pull his name out by the June 17 NBA early entry deadline, it is a sure sign that he has a "promise" from a team somewhere in the second round. I heard rumblings at the end of camp that he does.
• Augusto Lima, a Eurocamp veteran, made the most of his final appearance by dominating around the basket. Although he has had an inconsistent professional career, at 6-9 and 234 pounds he is a live power forward body that a team might be willing to take a chance on in the second round.
A major sleeper?
Remember the name Boris Dallo, a 6-5 point guard who played for the French U20 team that was using the camp in preparation for the European Championships this summer.
Dallo, who played for Poitiers in the French Pro A League last season, displayed outstanding point guard instincts to go along with explosive athletic ability and outstanding size. At 19, he is just scratching the surface.
Serbian Jason Kidd?
Vasilije Micic, a 6-3 point guard who has been one of the most prominent names in European junior basketball, returned last season from a major knee injury and played well for Mega Vizura Belgrade.
At Eurocamp, Micic displayed his trademark passing ability in all three games he played. He has uncanny court vision and good size for his position. While not an elite athlete yet, he won't turn 20 until January. He's not likely to be in the NBA anytime soon, but file his name away. He can play.