NBA Drafts Record Number Of Foreigners

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Players from other countries bring a tempting amount of uncertainty and risk for U.S. teams. Weekend Edition Sunday host Linda Wertheimer talks with NPR's Mike Pesca for his take on the past week's sports news.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


WERTHEIMER: A few days ago, inside an enormous Brooklyn arena, there was a scene of great spectacle: the NBA draft, during which each team in the NBA publicly declared who they want to draft for next season. NPR's Mike Pesca was there. He noticed some peculiar trends, and he's here to talk about them. Hello, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hello. How are you?

WERTHEIMER: I'm good. So what stood out for you?

PESCA: Well, one thing that stood out was what stood up all the way to 7 feet. There were a number of 7-footers taken, although only one of them actually measures 7 feet in his stocking feet - Cody Zeller, Kelly Olynyk, Mason Plumlee, Steven Adams, Rudy Gobert were a couple of them. Gobert, a Frenchman, was one of those legit 7-footers - the only one - but, you know, Olynyk, who I just mentioned, he's Canadian; and Adams is from New Zealand. And the first pick is from Canada. And that's what really stood out for me. All of these foreign players, international players, as they were taken, a number - they set a record in the first round.

WERTHEIMER: Why would this happen?

PESCA: Well, some of it is about the particulars of this draft. It was considered a weak draft. So, I think a lot of teams said, hey, let's take a flyer on someone who is maybe a little raw. So, when you look at the players who've played in college, teams have gotten to know them, fans have gotten to know them and the flaws of their game, for instance, stick out. But if you see someone who's only played overseas, perhaps in the second division of Greek basketball and perhaps only one or two scouts in your organization have seen him, but, you know, he's 7 feet tall and you know he could jump, well, then that player becomes sort of an empty vessel where you could pour your hope, dreams and aspirations into him. Now, if it's a 7-foot-tall vessel, it's going to take a lot of hope, dreams and aspirations. So, in general, players who played in America, I think, they acquire knocks on them, whereas the overseas players come in a little bit, you know, more pure, or that at least the perception.

WERTHEIMER: I suspect this must have something to do with money.

PESCA: Well, I would say this. It's pretty much dictated how much you give players. So, the Oklahoma City Thunder took this kid from New Zealand, Steven Adams - the youngest of 18, by the way - and they have no intention of starting him anytime soon. They're going to send him down to the NBA equivalent of the minor leagues. This is a bit unprecedented. You know, why are you spending top draft picks for a guy who might not even play on your professional major league roster, if you will. And the reason is that he is 7 feet tall. And even though he played a year in Pitt, not much is known about him. You could just project everything that you want onto him. And when it is a weak draft, you can say, well, you can take a guy who is six-five who might be good, but this guy who's 7 feet tall, he might be terrible, but we know that there's one thing that he is, and that's 7 feet. And this guy who's six-five, he's never going to be 7 feet. So, it's a little like taking a picture with a 97-mile-an-hour fastball. It's just very tantalizing. And what these teams do is they say in a draft when it's not like we're going to take a player who's going to help right away, let's just take a lottery ticket. So, this was a little bit like a foreign lottery ticket-type of draft.

WERTHEIMER: So, Mike, what's your curveball this week?

PESCA: Well, this has a little bit of a NBA theme, in that Popeye Jones was a longtime player in the NBA, had a very high shooting percentage, has a son. His son's name is Seth Jones, and Seth Jones is excellent at sports. But his sports is hockey. And today is the NHL draft, and we don't think Seth Jones will go first in the draft but he is rated as the number one North American skater. He probably will go in the top five. That'll be the first time the son of an NBA player is going to the NHL. And there are a lot of great African-American players. That's not that unique. But it's that this six-five guy who grew up in the world of the NBA might be playing hockey.

WERTHEIMER: Mike Pesca. Thank you.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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