NBA Draft 2011: Fulfilling the league’s global outreach with more international players

NBA Draft 2011, which starts Thursday night, includes several talented international players. With more foreign players, the NBA is reaching an increasing global audience that is proving to be profitable, as well.

Mike Segar/Reuters
Enes Kanter of Turkey speaks to reporters at a media availability session ahead of the 2011 NBA Draft in New York, June 22. NBA Draft 2011 will be held June 23 in Newark, New Jersey.
Giuseppe Cottini/AP
This photo, made Jan. 9, shows Benetton Treviso's Donatas Motiejunas, left, in action. Motiejunas is a top prospect in the 2011 NBA draft.

According to several mock-NBA draft sites, there are at least six international players who could go in the first 30 picks of the first round. And looking at a team like the 2011 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, who have five international players in their fifteen-man roster, you can win with them as well.

Add to that the recent sports media hysteria over the Minnesota Timberwolves’ pursuit and acquisition of 20 year-old Spanish phenomenon Ricky Rubio, and you’d think you were talking about a college All-American first-round draft pick.

As of the 2010-11 season, the NBA had 84 international players, an all-time high. And one team who has taken the lead in pursuing internationalism in the NBA is the New Jersey Nets. They have a Russian billionaire owner, and several international players and sponsors. This past season the Nets played an NBA game with one of the league’s own international teams (Canada’s Toronto Raptors) in London.

Last year, they made a preseason trip to China, and, prior to that, held a basketball clinic in Russia. They are enthusiastically embracing a longer, broader view of the appeal of the NBA beyond its traditional borders and fan base.

The Nets already have a Russian-language website and a TV broadcast deal to televise games in Russia. The team, from the top down, has emphasized the need to have attract international fans. “We’re really trying to differentiate ourselves from any of the other NBA teams, or even the other teams in U.S. sports, in that we want to offer our product, which is NBA-quality basketball, to fans all over the world,” says Christophe Chalier, the board Chairman for the Nets.

And the NBA has been responsive to this outreach effort. “Building the sport of basketball and the NBA internationally is a priority for the league as a whole, but we’re thrilled the Nets are so supportive of this,” according to NBA Europe senior vice president Sophie Goldschmidt.

European fans have responded, making L.A. Lakers’ guard Kobe Bryant’s jersey the No. 1 seller on the continent for several years running. It should be noted that Bryant spent a number of years growing up in Italy while his father Joe played professional basketball there. Because of this, Kobe speaks fluent Italian.

The effort to entice these international fans appears to be bearing fruit. According to basketball writer Sarah C. James, as of 2011, the league’s international merchandise sales were up 35%, and are projected to rise another 30% this coming year.

Over half of the website visitors are from outside the USA. And consistently reached 7.5 million visitors on its website throughout the 2010 finals. The NBA Finals have become an international goldmine for the league, with broadcasts to 215 countries in 41 different languages.

Africa is also a relatively untapped, but equally enthusiastic NBA fan base. The NBA recently opened their first African headquarters in Johannesburg, South Africa to encourage basketball events and increase their partnerships with the country/continent through media, marketing and merchandising companies. Offices are also being considered for Brazil and India, with one already opened in Russia.

International players have, for years, carried the unfortunate stigma of being called soft, perimeter-dwellers who have neither the athleticism nor the audacity to battle inside the paint. But that perception is changing. Dallas’s Dirk Nowitzki has dealt with that throughout his career, but as he’s come to find out, a championship ring does wonders for one’s stature.

And one of the outstanding international players in this year’s draft also defies conventional wisdom: Turkish big man Enes Kanter, who wanted to play for the University of Kentucky this past season but was ruled ineligible. Scouting reports are very high on him – he may go in the top five first-round picks – and describe him as a power player who loves to bang in the post, can grab rebounds in a crowd and moves very well on offense.

Another player expected to go in the top 20 draftees is Serbian sensation Jan Vesely, who, at six feet 11 inches, plays exceptionally well as either a strong or power forward. NBA scouts have raved about his athleticism and drive, and how he can shoot from the perimeter and dunk inside with equal prowess. Having come from one of the best teams in Europe (Partizan Belgrade), he is well-known in NBA talent-searching circles, and could conceivably be one of the most NBA-ready of this year’s international draft lottery.

Two other likely international standouts who should go high in the draft are Italy’s Donatas Motiejunas and the Congo’s Bismack Biyombo. In the case of Montiejunas, he is skilled at footwork and outside shooting; and Biyombo, with a practically unheard-of 7’ 7” wingspan, can block shots and dunk with extraordinary skill.

But the major problem with international talent is its relative unreliability. Though overseas players are often considered more mature, lower-maintenance and more refined than their college peers, they have also come to be known by the unfortunate phrase “draft-and-stash” - because of their often byzantine overseas contract arrangements. Sometimes, it takes years for them to actually get into an NBA game after being drafted.

Wading into the international talent pool has obvious risks; but, to quote Nets’ CEO Brett Yormark, “Our goal is to truly globalize our business … you need players of a global appeal.” And by the looks of both this draft and the NBA’s attitude generally, this idea is being aggressively fulfilled.

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