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Monday, June 27, 2011

A Not-So Brief History of International Players Drafted into the NBA

It all starts way back in 1947 when the Basketball Association of America (BAA) was formed.  That year ten teams began an organized league which would become the precursor to our present day NBA.  Only 6 of the 10 teams would make the 1950 jump into the NBA and just 3 of those franchises are still around today, the Philadelphia Warriors (now Golden State), the New York Knickerbockers & the Boston Celtics.  It was the latter of those three that would draft the first player with international ties when they selected Hank Biasatti in the 1947 BAA draft.

Biasatti is best know for having played first base for Major League Baseball's Philadelphia Athletics but is also subsequently famous for being the first international player in NBA history.  He was born in Beano, Italy in 1922. Shortly thereafter, his family settled in Windsor, Canada and Biasatti begin to show his talents as both a baseball & basketball player.  Biasatti was invited to training camp in 1946 for the Toronto Huskies, a start-up franchise in the BAA's first season.  He went on to make the team and play in 6 games that year for the Huskies with best records indicating he scored a total of six points.  The following season the Boston Celtics would draft him but Biasatti decided he would rather pursue his baseball career and never played in the BAA again.  

Hank Biasatti
Now Basketball Reference lists Biasatti's pre-draft college as Long Island University.  While it is well known that he played basketball at Canada's Assumption College in 1945 & 1946, one who think that he played for LIU prior the 1947 BAA draft.  However, extensive research into the matter has not return a definitive answer so it is unknown if Biasatti is in fact the first international player drafted into the NBA without having prior U.S. college experience.

Regardless, and even though he didn't actually play after being drafted, Biasatti holds both the disctinction of being the first international player & the first international player drafted in NBA history.  Over the next 22 years we have 3 more instances of players with international ties being drafted.  First was Ernie Vandeweghe, a Canadian national, who was drafted in the 3rd round of the 1949 BAA draft.  Previously, Vandeweghe had attended Colgate University.  Bob Houbregs was the second overall pick of the 1953 NBA draft by the Milwaukee Hawks.  He was also from Canada but attended the University of Washington.  Lastly, Tom Meschery was drafted 7th overall in the 1961 NBA draft by the Philadelphia Warriors.  Tom was born in an area which is now part of China to Russian parents but was brought to the U.S. at the age of 8 where he went on to attend St. Mary's College.  

Tom Meschery
All three would go on to have pretty decent NBA careers with Meschery seemingly having the most success.  He would finish his career playing in 778 games over 10 seasons while averaging 15.2 & 10.3 rebounds.  While all three fit the NBA's criteria for 'international' players, all three attended U.S. colleges and thus in my eyes are in a different type of international player category.

My focus for this article was solely on the players without ties to the United States before being drafted, i.e. did not play for a U.S. college.  So while there are many, many great stories of drafted players like Ernie Grunfeld, Mychal Thompson & James Donaldson, I'll just reserve the right to save those for another day.  I will mention a certain undrafted international player later merely for historical purposes but outside of that I will focus mainly on overseas players drafted into the NBA.

Marty Blake
The next important name to know wasn't a player in the NBA but he was the man behind the international scouting movement.  Marty Blake was the NBA's Director of Scouting Services from 1976 until 2010 when his son Ryan took over the position.  Prior to that, Blake became general manager of the Milwaukee Hawks in 1954.  He held that position until 1970 following the Hawks through their tenure in St. Louis and on to Atlanta.  His final year as general manager, 1970, is the one that is important in this context.  It was in the 10th round of the 1970 draft that Blake selected Manuel Raga with the 167th pick.  Raga was playing professionally in Italy at the time for Pallacanestro Varese.  That marked the first time a player who was playing professionally in another country had been drafted into the NBA.

Manuel Raga
Raga, who was known as the 'Flying Mexican', would never play in an NBA game nor would his Italian teammate Dino Meneghin who was drafted in the very next round by Blake with the 182nd pick.  Even though it would be another 15 years before an international draftee would play in the NBA, Blake had opened up the doors to international prospects and changed the way scouting would be conducted forever.

Dino Meneghin
Raga had success in Italy winning 3 Euroleague titles in the span of 4 years with Varese but it was Meneghin who went on to have a monster career in the Italian league.  Dino played 28 years, won 7 Euroleague titles & 12 Italian league titles as well a slew of awards and other distinctions.  All of that culminated with his 2003 induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.  In 2010 he was also inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame.  It certainly would have been something to see Meneghin in an NBA uniform.

While Meneghin's success obviously didn't impact the NBA in a physical way, it did serve notice of that there were superstars around the world who could compete at the highest level.  Unfortunately, it would still be some time before teams began seriously pursuing international players.  Between 1971-1983 a total of six international players were selected in the NBA draft.  Among them were the first players drafted from the Soviet Union (Alexsander Belov, 1975-161), Japan (Yasutaka Okayama, 1981-171) & Greece (Panayoti Giannakis, 1982-205).  

Oscar Schmidt
In 1984, 4 players were drafted from other countries, 3 from Canada & one from Brazil.  With the 131st pick in the 1984 NBA draft the New Jersey Nets selected the legendary shooting guard Oscar Schmidt. Oscar's career is best described here but I'll give you a quick rundown.  The man known as Mao Santa or Holy Hand played 28 seasons in Italy, Spain & mostly in his native Brazil.  He is said to hold the world record for most points scored in a career with 49,703 which would be 11, 316 more than the NBA's all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  Many NBA teams made attempts to sign Schmidt but due to losing his eligibility to play for the Brazilian national team (this was before professionals were allowed to play in international competition) he never came over.  

Schmidt is truly one of the greatest to ever play the game, but unfortunately, like Meneghin, never played in the NBA and subsequently too few in the U.S. know their names and of their successes. 

Georgi Glouchkov
Finally, in 1985, it happens.  With the 148th pick in the 1985 NBA draft, the Phoenix Suns selected Bulgarian native Georgi Glouchkov.  The 6'8" bruiser was one of the premier European players of the time but struggled in his 49 games with the Suns.  After supposedly averaging 23 points & 19 rebounds the season before in Bulgaria, Glouchkov never scored more than 13 points in a game and reached double digit rebounds just 3 times in his career.  So while it wasn't necessarily a success story for Glouchkov, he will go down in history as the first player drafted in the NBA after playing professionally in another country without having played for a U.S. college that actually signed a contract and played in the NBA, whew.  

Arvydas Sabonis
Glouchkov's NBA debut came on November 6, 1985 just a mere 39 years and 5 days after Hank Biasatti stepped onto an NBA (BAA) court.  In 1985, Atlanta drafted Arvydas Sabonis who was subsequently ruled ineligible.  Atlanta's loss became Portland's gain as they scooped up Sabonis with their first round pick in 1986, 24th overall.  While the pick of the future Hall of Fame Lithuanian will go down as a draft steal, the Blazers would have to wait until 1995 before Sabonis would join the NBA.  Sabonis' holdout from coming to the NBA would foreshadow the future of international draftees and when combined with Glouchkov's poor showing threatened to set back international players a long way.  And then...Enter Vlade.

Vlade Divac
A couple of big time international players hit the scene for the 1989-1990 NBA season but none more important than Vlade Divac.  Divac came to the NBA a goofy 7'1" Serbian with terrible English but an amazing personality that showed almost immediately.  What was so important about Divac's debut was the fact that it was with the showtime Lakers.  Magic Johnson, the league MVP Vlade's rookie year, embraced Divac and thus it appeared that it was the first time an international player was welcomed into the NBA.  The Lakers went 63-19 and although they lost in the playoffs, Divac landed in the perfect spot and showed what an international player could do given the right situation.  

1989 also saw the debut of the Lithuanian player Sarunas Marciulionis who was drafted 127th overall in the 1987 draft and of course...

Drazen Petrovic
...Drazen!!!  Before I begin talking about Petrovic I urge you to watch Once Brothers ESPN's documentary about Drazen, Vlade, Dino Radja & Toni Kukoc.  It's absolutely brilliant.  Petrovic was selected by Portland with the 60th pick in the 1986 draft.  The Croatian superstar averaged 37.7 points per game between 1984-1988 in the Yugoslavian league for Cibona Zagreb.  His European accolades are well documented, he was a hero to his native Croatians & sadly was taken from us way too early.  

Petrovic's first season in Portland was a disaster.  He was stuck behind Clyde Drexler & Terry Porter and thus received very limited playing time.  Luckily, his misery didn't last too long as he was traded to New Jersey midway through the 1990-91 season.  In the 91-92 & 92-93 seasons, Drazen combined to score 21.4 points per game while shooting 45% from three point range.  He was well on his way to superstardom before his tragic accident had us all wondering why.  

Toni Kukoc
The 1993-94 season brought over Dino Radja (1989-40) & Toni Kukoc (1990-29).  Radja would play just 4 years in the NBA before continuing his career in Europe.  Meanwhile, Kukoc went on to win 3 NBA titles during his 13 year NBA career.  Kukoc, the subsequent arrival of Sabonis, as well as the arrivals of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Dirk Nowitzki & Peja Stojakovic help cement the international pipeline into the turn of the century.

Joao Vianna
One last player of note from the 90's is Brazilian Joao Vianna.  On November 1, 1991 Vianna played 9 minutes in a game for the Dallas Mavericks in which he scored 2 points, grabbed 2 rebounds, committed 3 fouls and 1 turnover.  This performance earns Vianna the distinction of being the first ever  undrafted international player to play in an NBA game without having played at a U.S. college, at least that's what I have surmised through my research.  If I happen to be proven wrong, my apologies to all and Joao Vianna can once again disappear into the depths of obscurity.

Fran Vazquez
Since 2000 there have been 147 international players selected who had no previous U.S. experience including 11 in this year's draft.  So, out of the those 136 players 49 have never played in the NBA (I excluded Rubio) and another 28 have played less than 100 games and are currently out of the league.  That leaves us with 59 players in the last 11 drafts or 9.1% of all possible picks (59/649 possible picks) and 43.4% of all international selections (59/136).  Add to that the fact there are a number of players yet to come over who are likely to such as Victor Claver, Tibor Pleiss, Nemanja Bjelica, Sergio Llull, Ante Tomic & maybe even Fran Vazquez and we're damn near 50%.

Tony Parker & Manu Ginobili
So while it usually takes a few years for a international draft pick to pan out, it seems definitely worth the risk when talking about a second round selection.  Look at what the Spurs have been able to do by taking a chance.  And yes I realize scouting has most to do with it but like Marty Blake did 41 years ago sometimes you have to take that chance.  Just check out some of the Spurs picks over the last 12 years : Manu Ginoblili (1999), Tony Parker (2001), Luis Scola (2002), Leandro Barbosa (2003), Beno Udrih (2004), Ian Mahinmi (2005), Tiago Splitter (2007), Goran Dragic (2008).  Every single year since 2001 the Spurs have drafted at least one international player and while they haven't all worked out, you'd be hard pressed to find another team that came out of the second round with such impressive players.

Jonas Valanciunas
So as we move into the future of international players like Valanciunas, Biyombo, Kanter & Vesely let us not forget the history of Raga, Meneghin, Glouchkov & Vianna.

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