Believe it or not, we're only a few weeks away from international competition getting started in European leagues. What will that mean for NBA scouting heads? The chance for some prospects to jumpstart their candidacy for the 2022 NBA Draft and get off on the right foot.
There are five names who stand out most heading into this season based on their prior bodies of work. A few are veterans, guys who tested the waters last year and are familiar to many within the scouting community. Others are finally eligible for the draft and put impressive careers together prior to turning 19. We'll sort through them all to figure out who will be the international prospects with lottery or first round upside.
5. Roko Prkacin, Cibona
Prkacin flirted with the 2021 NBA Draft and got a ton of internet support (including from yours truly) before withdrawing and returning to Europe. The Croatian 6'8" wing is a natural scorer who is coming off a year where he shot 39% from 3 and was a great combination of efficient and bulk. He scores in a ton of different ways: back to the basket on smaller guys, off the dribble against bigger ones, and is an underrated passer to go with it.
Prkacin's overall scoring package could vault him into a higher draft position next year if he repeats the same effectiveness he brought last year at Cibona.
In 54 games for Cibona during their 2020-21 season, Prkacin averaged 12.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.0 steals on 50% shooting and 35% shooting from 3 (40.3% in ABA Liga competition). Roko finished the season on a cold note, but did put up 38 and 10 vs Zadar and 29, 15 and 9 against Hermes Znalitica back in April. A return to Cibona is a gamble that he'll be more consistently like the player we saw in those games than the one who averaged 4.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and shot 25% from the floor over his final four games of the year.
Roko will turn 19 in November; he'll still be plenty young enough to earn first round consideration -- even if he doesn't come over to the NBA in 2022. My biggest question around Prkacin isn't the consistency, but what his go-to skill is as a role player. He's got a diverse bag of tricks, though isn't elite in one particular offensive category. If he winds up becoming a really good shooter, or frontcourt facilitator, then he'll have a distinct role to fill next to the greatest players in the world.
Right now, Prkacin doesn't have that. He's more of a well-rounded scorer who might not be good enough at getting to his spots to carry that over to the NBA. Either the definition of one go-to trait or the strengthening of all his scoring abilities is required to make him NBA-projectable.
4. Ibou Badji, Barcelona
Ibou Badji has all the raw tools you'd want from a young big man: he's naturally athletic, super fluid, covers a ton of ground and is both vertically and laterally quick. NBA teams typically look to draft these athletic bigs as early as possible, believing they can develop the requisite skills needed to survive in a pick-and-roll driven league. Earlier is better for franchises to get a hold of skilled bigs: almost every new NBA player, regardless of age or level of experience, will need to add a great deal of defensive seasoning before making a positive impact, so they might as well be drafted young so a team can reap the benefits of their labor for longer.
In that vein, Badji's withdrawal from the 2021 NBA Draft was a late surprise. Without a first round likelihood, the decision to return to Europe was essentially Badji betting on himself. And with franchises wanting to protect themselves from failure, there's actually a lot Badji can gain from going back to Europe.
Last year, the vast majority of Badji's minutes came for Barcelona's second squad in a lower league of competition. He fared well there: 7.1 points and 5.7 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 0.5 steals in 19 minutes per game, all hefty numbers. The raw Badji shot less than 50% from the field, though, giving him a clear metric to raise through returning. Taking a risk on a big who shot under 50% from the field in a lower league wasn't in the cards last year.
Badji did wind up being called up to Barcelona's main team, but didn't dent the rotation. That said, there were flashes in the three-game sample he played for Senegal in the U-19 World Cup that proved he's ready for the increased level of play. In a prime role for the Senegalese team, Badji scored 14 points, 10.3 rebounds and an amazing 4.3 blocks per game -- shooting 58.1% from the field on more than 10 shots a night.
Badji certainly has his flaws: namely a struggle with shooting touch, especially from the free throw line. Slight improvements are taking place, and he'll likely never be more than a Clint Capela type of energy rebounder/ athlete in the NBA. But a productive season against Euroleague competition could vault him firmly into the first round discussion.
3. Ousmane Dieng, NZ Breakers
There might be no player I'm more excited to see this year than Ousmane Dieng. The last three months have been incredibly kind to Dieng. He worked out really well this summer when he came to Los Angeles to train and got a great deal of buzz. At 6'8" with guard skills, he fits the modern mold of NBA scoring wings that is appealing and typically brings guys lottery status: it got Ziaire Williams up to 10th despite a poor year at Stanford.
Dieng will now head to the NBL in New Zealand to play in a professional league known for its physicality. Luckily for NBA scouts, they've become mighty familiar with the NBL over the last 24 months, as prospects LaMelo Ball, RJ Hampton and Josh Giddey have all been first-round selections to come from that pathway. Now commonly accepted as a great level of competition, Dieng will be able to show out in ways he hasn't been able to in France.
Dieng still needs to add some speed and strength to his game, although other skilled youngsters in the NBL like Giddey and Ball didn't have their draft stock compromised by the absence of physicality in a grown man's league. There are flashes of really high-level play and confident scoring from Dieng. His ceiling, if he does it consistently, could be as a top-seven pick. His floor could be at the tail end of the first round though, if there are significant concerns about his physicality.
2. Yannick Nzosa, Unicaja
Depending on who you're listening to and reading, Nzosa could either appear as the next defensive juggernaut in the NBA or a role player who is severely limited by his lack of offense. The likelihood he winds up somewhere in between both outcomes is high, although it's fair to say there are legitimate issues with his offensive arsenal that limit his opening position on my draft board. In essence, I'd rather take a wait-and-see approach with Nzosa.
The left-handed Nzosa is much more of a catch-and-finish guy than other big man prospects. He's still very skinny and doesn't handle contact well, and I don't buy into him as a major vertical threat... he's just a tad stunted and not the biggest leaper. Below are his offensive highlights, showing a real lack of diversity in his scoring arsenal as well as a ton of screens that aren't actually set.
At the tail end of the video above are some defensive tidbits that highlight the IQ and discipline that makes guys like Chad Ford ogle over his potential. As someone who plays in a professional league as a 16 and 17 year old, it's worth noting how rare and special that is. His 2.4 blocks per 36 minutes as a teenager are proof that he's an impactful defender with a sky-high upside on that end.
Long, lanky and high-waisted, there are a few things we want to see from Nzosa before proclaiming him a lottery guy. On defense, it's getting in a stance and guarding elite, athletic guards/ wings in isolation frequently. Nzosa is a fantastic defender, really smart with his positioning and can be a strong rim protector. But he's a defense-first guy and more of a true 5 than prior defensive whiz kids like Usman Garuba or Devin Vassell (both of whom received top-7 grades on our big board).
The issue with being a true 5 comes in two forms. First is the lack of flexibility to his play style: if Nzosa isn't truly switchable against the best NBA athletes, I do worry about spending a high pick on a big who is defensive-minded but not defensively versatile. That leads us to the second point: drafting a big that high. I struggle to take a big man in the top-10 if he isn't a unicorn that checks multiple boxes on offense and defense. Nzosa doesn't have that on offense, putting far more pressure on him to be transcendent on defense to be deserving of that pick.
He's very, very good on that end. But from a philosophical standpoint, I'm cautious about placing him too high from the outset and believe that his offensive development and/or switchability on defense will determine his draft ceiling.
1. Nikola Jovic, Mega Bemax
Draft Twitter has fallen for Nikola Jovic, and they've fallen hard. While Draft Twitter is known for championing guys who have amazing skill and feel, Jovic has won me over for how complete his game can be.
High-skill guys are typically really high-IQ passers and playmakers, as well as those who are aesthetically-pleasing shooters. Jovic had a really successful showing for Serbia in the U-19 World Cup where he demonstrated flashes of athleticism, consistent fluidity and functional defense. Combine those with the shooting and playmaking skills and Jovic is as toolsy as they come for a frontcourt player.
There's an element of Deni Avdija here for Jovic. He's a good facilitator and competent in many different ways, though he doesn't seem to have one major way in which he can dominate or claim as his sweet spot. Shooting only 26.6% from 3 last season was harmful to his stock, and he'll certainly need to be much more consistent to earn a lottery pick. Going 12-33 (36.4%) in the World Cup was a great start to showing his touch and form easily translate to success.
Ultimately, that shooting is what will win me over. The hybrid forward role works if Jovic can play on-ball and off-ball. He'll be a solid rebound-and-run threat, a crafty facilitator in the open floor or within actions in the half-court. He attacks closeouts well and is a solid finisher with unreal touch. There's a lot to like.
Another year of solid shooting (above 35% from deep on volume) and gradual improvements to his athletic profile should not only solidify Jovic as a lottery pick but a guy who sneaks into the top-half of it.
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Adam Spinella - Head Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD)