"You'd be crazy not to uncover every possibility to draft a good player." -Danny Ferry, Hawks GM
One of the greatest misunderstandings of basketball history is the commonly held perception that the United States began to use NBA players in the Olympics because our college players were being beaten by older players. It is a nice comforting story that secures our American hubris in believing that the sport created by James Naismith will always be in our superior American grip. While the United States continues to be the standard for basketball worldwide, the gap has closed dramatically over the last 30 years.
While much of international expansion to the NBA is appropriately attributed to the 1992 Dream Team, the international game was expanding and getting better in the decade before the Dream Team. The United States was beginning to lose internationally at age levels they had never lost before including losing the under-19 championship to Yugoslavia in 1987. In 1988, the American college kids did not lose to players who were vastly older than them. They lost mostly to professionals age 19 to 23 who had learned to play the game of basketball with a new level of proficiency that would infiltrate the NBA over the next 25 years.
Players like the Soviet Union's Arvydas Sabonis and Yugoslavia's Drazen Petrovic were not beating the United States simply due to age. They were only 23 at the 1988 Olympics, but their games were vastly more advanced than their American college competition. While Americans would flex their muscles in 1992 in reclaiming gold, only a decade later our professionals would begin to get embarrassed by international programs whose substance could defeat NBA style. Age was not getting us beat. Teams and players around the world were beginning to do things on the basketball court better than Americans.
No country had a greater influence on the need for the United States to use professional players and the subsequent internationalization of the NBA than Yugoslavia. Divided into multiple nations as a result of war in 1991, the region of nations occupying former Yugoslavia continue to impact the NBA today. However, there may be no team that has affected the game of basketball worldwide as much as the Yugoslav national team that won the under-19 title in 1987 before going on to win silver in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and the World Championship in 1990.
The First Dream Team
Before there was an American Dream Team, Yugoslavia had Drazen Petrovic, Predrag (Sasha) Danilovic, Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, and Vlade Divac. All five would later player in the NBA and average more than 12 points a game in their careers. While the Soviet Union beat the United States in 1988 with older professionals, Yugoslavia became a dominant team on the world stage with players the same age or younger than the Americans. If there is no Yugo Dream Team, it may have been longer before an American Dream Team would have emerged. It would be difficult at any time since 1990 to find 5 better players from a single nation whose international success translates to the NBA as well as these 5 players from Yugoslavia. They were great individual players with a phenomenal fit together before the Dream Team was even a concept.
They would not have been able to defeat the American Dream Team in 1992, but the game would have been far more interesting than any others in the tournament. The collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991 would end any chance of the dream teams meeting. Divac and Petrovic who were best of friends entering the NBA would be torn apart by the war as captured in the heart-wrenching 30 For 30 film Once Brothers. Lost amid the horrors of the violence in Kosovo and the breaking of the nation was the destruction of a basketball superpower. One that may have challenged the United States for years to come.
Yugoslavia and its newly birthed nations have put more players in the NBA than any other foreign entity. While basketball in countries like Spain, France, and Germany was clearly advanced by the performance of the Dream Team, Yugoslavia needed no such shot in the arm. While their European neighbors would begin to learn more about the game and emerge as stronger threats, Yugoslavia was already working to improve the American game even as bombs were going off through the region. A part of the team competing as Croatia in 1992 would go on to win silver in the Olympics, but war kept the world from seeing what might have been if the team had remained together entering their prime.
While no collection of talent could match the 1990 World Championss, the nations that once made up Yugoslavia have produced generation after generation of NBA talent. Just some of the names that emerged in the years after the Yugo Dream Team was torn apart include: Gordon Giricek, Marko Jaric, Nenad Krstic, Darko Milicic, Peja Stojakovic, Vladimir Radmanovic, Sasha Pavlovic, Radoslav Nesterovic, and Sasha Vujacic. While Darko is remembered for being a bust, the others are players who mostly outperformed their draft position.
If you went through today's NBA rosters to create a team of players from the same nations as that original Yugoslav Dream Team, you would find Beno Udrih, Goran Dragic, Mirza Teletovic, Nikola Pekovic, and Nikola Vucevic to be a formidable NBA starting lineup and the Hawks' Pero Antic able to come off the bench. When someone says that the Dream Team ushered in international basketball, they are not necessarily wrong. They are just likely referring to the wrong Dream Team. Twenty five years later, NBA teams play more like the Yugoslavia Dream Team than the NBA teams that began to bog down basketball in the late 1980s. It may be another 25 years before we see an international team with the NBA talent developed in Yugoslavia in the late 1980s--long before the whole world seemed capable of producing players able to make the NBA.
The Adriatic League
The collapse of Yugoslavia created a vacuum for professional basketball in the region. With nations being formed and divided, professional leagues also had to be reformed and created. No longer did the region have one professional league. For a decade, violence and cultural challenges made travel and scheduling hard for the emerging new countries and their professional basketball leagues. In 2001, under great speculation of whether it had any chance to succeed, the Adriatic Basketball Association was formed to bring the professional teams of the region together.
Today, the Adriatic League is made up of the best teams from the six nations that once made up Yugoslavia. The league also includes Hungary and has had other regional teams at times including Maccabi Tel Aviv of Israel. If Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic were rising young stars today, they would likely be starting their professional careers in the Adriatic League which continues to be one of the best leagues in the world at developing players.
The Adriatic League is not one of the premier professional leagues in Europe, but it is a place where some of the most talented young players get their start. The NBA takes 2-3 players a year on average from the Adriatic league and at least 5 are expected to be taken in the 2014 NBA Draft. When you look at these prospects, it is hard not to look through the lens of history and remember the impact made by the Yugoslav Dream Team. When these players are drafted, teams are not just taking a player on the whim of them reaching some mysterious potential. They are taking players from a league that has now produced All-Star players and World Champions for nearly 25 years.
The current group of prospects likely to be drafted have displayed unusual production at a young age. While there is no hope of them being a "new" dream team due to the separation of their individual countries, the current rising group of young players in the region could approach the success found years ago. It is likely that these 5 players along with Australia's Dante Exum and Switzerland's Clint Capela are going to go in the first 45 picks of this draft. With Danny Ferry bringing a greater emphasis to scouting international players than the Hawks have known, it would be no surprise to see Atlanta choose one of the five players poised to extend the legacy of the Yugoslav team that helped change the NBA forever.
The Adriatic Five
Dario Saric, SF/PF (6'10, 223), 20
Saric was considered to be a lottery pick last season before withdrawing his name from the draft. The Croatian did nothing to hurt his stock this season in producing 16.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.4 steals while being named MVP of the Adriatic League. He will be only 20 years of age on draft day and he has been labeled as a "point 4" by scouts due to remarkable ball-handling skills and court vision for his size. Dario is a good shooter but has been unable to extend his shooting out to the 3-point line at a rate many would hope. Shooting 31% from the three-point line and 68% from the free-throw line in this MVP season, it would seem reasonable to question whether or not he is capable of developing such a shot. On the other hand, he is constantly shooting under the pressure of defenses surrounding him so the freedom of not being the best player on a team may improve his numbers. Critics will compare him to Jan Vesely and the casual fan will raise him as an example of an Adriatic bust. At age 21, Vesely produced 10 points and 4 rebounds per game while shooting 54% from the free throw line in the season before he was selected 6th in the 2011 NBA Draft. He was drafted on his potential with clear markings that he had skill deficiencies. Saric's potential is supported by his production and his skills are far more evident than players such as Vesely and Bismack Biyombo who were lottery busts.
Despite his shortcomings, his production in a good professional league at a young age indicates that he will be able to translate his skills to the NBA. There is no easy comparison to make with Saric, but he reminds me a lot of Toni Kukoc. Time will tell if he has the instincts Kukoc possessed on the basketball court, but his physical gifts may actually be even better. If Saric fully develops his perimeter shot and is able to convert his athleticism to be an average or better defender, he could be a very unique NBA player. What set Dirk Nowitzki apart early in his career was bringing Euro finesse and skill while being able to rebound. Saric possesses similar gifts as he led the Adriatic League in rebounding. He brings elite passing and ball-handling gifts rather than Dirk's perimeter shooting. How will those skills translate as an NBA power forward? Some team will likely take Saric late in the lottery to find that out.
Jusuf Nurkic, C (6'11, 280), 19
Nurkic has been one of the fastest rising players on draft boards this season. Players simply do not produce what Nurkic has been able to produce in the Adriatic League at age 19. Averaging 11.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game in only 16 minutes, Nurkic's numbers are closer to what NBA players like Nikola Pekovic put up 3 or 4 years later in their Adriatic careers (see comparison on table below). The Bosnian player plays with a little bit of flare despite a limited vertical and compares favorably to Dino Radja. He does move his feet well given his size and will not be a liability on defense.
Compared to current NBA players, his game reflects the physical abilities of Omer Asik but with skills flipped more to the offensive end. Both players are long-torsoed bigs who play mostly close to the floor while sliding their feet well for their size. I do not see Nurkic as a player who will protect the rim as well as Asik, but his game could grow to become at least a capable rim protector. As of now, he leans toward players too much and has little sense of timing in blocking shots. His limited minutes are not just a result of development, but also due to foul troubles. Nurkic is a pretty unique player who could be appropriately developed into the type of two-way center that NBA teams are desperately seeking. In a lot of ways his game reflects more of being a traditional American center than the classic Euro big who spreads the floor. He is a likely first-round pick that may even sneak into the late lottery.
Nikola Jokic, PF/C (6'11, 253), 19
Jokic replaced Nurkic as the high-riser about mid-way through the Euro season. His numbers are similar to Nurkic but with a lot more playing time (see table above). He is a much better passer than Nurkic in a longer body. In the recent Nike Hoop Summit, he performed well in scrimmages against other players of his age. He has shown development of a perimeter shot in recent performances as well. I am not sure about his athleticism as it has been difficult to assess in the film I have watched. His body seems to react slowly compared to his competition, but it is hard to know if that is a lack of athletic ability or simply learning to do new things in a long, awkward body. He can play more vertically than Nurkic, but does not possess the bulk or traditional post game that Nurkic possesses.
It looks like he can be expected to be drafted in the 40s and could be an option for the Hawks in the second round. If the Hawks are able to secure a wing in the first round, Jokic will definitely be a player to watch as the Hawks prepared to use the 43rd pick. He is also a player that could dramatically rise or drop according to his workouts between now and the draft.
Bogdan Bogdanovic, SG (6'6, 200), 21
Bogdanovic is the oldest of the Adriatic prospects and that has to be factored into his potential. Scoring 14.8 points per game with 3.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists. He is a capable 3-point shooter (37%), but not an assassin. His finishing in close and ability to put the ball on the floor from perimeter to the rim are lacking. He has good hands and instincts on defense and is an outstanding facilitator for a shooting guard. The greatest challenge for teams looking at Bogdanovic is that he fits the classic negative connotations of being a combo guard. He facilitates well, but does not have the full skill and quickness to be a point guard. His shot is not so effective that he can simply stand outside and shoot, yet he cannot get to the rim well enough to be an explosive scoring 2. There was a time people thought similar things of Manu Giniobili and Goran Dragic, though.
Bogdanovic would benefit from being stashed in Europe for an additional season, but he probably could impact an NBA rotation next season. He should go between picks 25-40 which unfortunately means he may not be an option for Atlanta. From a fit and skill perspective, he is clearly a player that would meet Atlanta's needs should he somehow fall in the second round.
Vasilije Micic, PG (6'4, 188), 20
Micic is a pure point guard who has as clear a position as any of the five Adriatic prospects. He has already been touted for his leadership skills at both the club and national level and for his toughness in overcoming an ACL injury. He lacks the athleticism you would like to see for an NBA point guard, but he makes up for it with great hands and an unusual maturity that makes you think he is older than he is. In that regard, I think of him as the Serbian Tyler Ennis.
Due to lacking some physical abilities, Micic is not ready to come over and play immediately. You would want to see his body mature more so that his limitations are not so readily exposed. A likely second round choice, Micic could be stashed for a season or two before coming over and being a solid backup point guard. His stock would likely be higher if he was a shooting guard, but the depth of players at the point guard position makes it more difficult for a team to invest in his development. An unlikely choice for Atlanta due to the Hawks' own point guard depth, Micic is nonetheless a player like Pekovic and Dragic who may not impact the NBA upon being drafted but could have a long and productive NBA career.