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Scott Howard-Cooper

Enes Kanter
Enes Kanter of Turkey, playing for the World Select team last April in Portland.
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Down year for U.S. opens Draft door for internationals

Posted Mar 29 2011 12:23PM

This is the year time swings back -- all the way back -- through the pages of the calendar and across an ocean, to a place in time the NBA has not been since at least 2006. In truth, it's a place the NBA isn't thrilled about being now.

The European influence scheduled to return for the June 23 Draft could be the biggest overseas rush for lottery teams in five years, maybe longer. It's great news for David Stern's international marketing machine, particularly well-timed for the prospects.

For the teams doing the picking, though ... not so much.

As with most everything related to the 2011 Draft, the infusion of international talent comes back to what most personnel departments consider an underwhelming talent pool in the United States. That leads to openings for European players that might not have ordinarily existed. More college stars choosing to stay in school -- so far Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, headed to the top five, and reportedly Tristan Thompson, a possible lottery pick out of Texas -- leads to more openings from across the Atlantic.

By the time the Final Four arrives, three imports are tracking to the lottery. A fourth, who is all but a new arrival, could be the earliest off the board in a little less than three months when the Draft is held in Newark, N.J.

"It isn't that the international kids are so dominant as much as it's an opportunity for them with a weaker college crop from the U.S.," one general manager confirmed.

Four are certain for the first round if they stay in the pool: Donatas Montiejunas, Jan Vesely, Jonas Valanciunas and Enes Kanter. Each has been on the radar since before 2010-11, though Valanciunas without as much publicity.

Kanter had the most preseason buildup and has become the asterisk, a skilled forward who played a season in suburban Los Angeles before signing with Kentucky, only to be ruled ineligible by the NCAA without ever playing in college because it was determined he received excessive benefits from a team in his native Turkey in 2008-09. Despite missing all of what would have been his freshman campaign, Kanter could go in the top five.

Beyond that, Nikola Mirotic and Lucas Nogueira are bubble possibilities for the first round.

Three international players being picked in the lottery would be the most since 2006, and four -- considering Kanter played one season of prep school in the U.S. and never played in college -- would be a dramatic imprint. If the two others make the first round, those six would match the '06 crop.

Here is a look at the international prospects taken in the first round of the last six drafts:

2010 -- Kevin Seraphin (17th) to the Bulls was the only import taken in the first round.

2009 -- Ricky Rubio (fifth) to the Timberwolves was the only to go in the lottery. Victor Claver (22nd, Trail Blazers), Omri Casspi (23rd, Kings), Rodrigue Beaubois (25th, Mavericks in a Draft-night deal with the Thunder) and Christian Eyenga (30th, Cavaliers) also went in the first round.

2008 -- Danilo Gallinari (sixth, Knicks) was the lone lottery selection. Alexis Ajinca (20th, Bobcats), Serge Ibaka (24th, SuperSonics) and Nicolas Batum (25th, Trail Blazers after a trade from the Rockets) were first-rounders.

2007 -- Again, one lottery pick, when Yi Jianlian went to the Bucks at No. 6. Marco Belinelli (18th, Warriors), Rudy Fernandez (24th, Trail Blazers via Suns), Tiago Splitter (28th, Spurs) and Petteri Koponen (30th, Trail Blazers after a trade from the 76ers) also went in the first round.

2006 -- Andrea Bargnani (first, Raptors), Saer Sene (10th, SuperSonics) and Thabo Sefolosha (13th, Bulls via 76ers) were all lottery picks as part of a very bad Draft. The opening round also included Oleksiy Pecherov (18th, Wizards), Sergio Rodriguez (27th, Trail Blazers after a trade from the Suns) and Joel Freeland (30th, Trail Blazers).

2005 -- Two went in the lottery: Fran Vazquez (11th, Magic) and Yaroslav Korolev (12th, Clippers). Sorry, no refunds. Johan Petro went 25th to the SuperSonics and Ian Mahinmi 28th to the Spurs.

In an added twist, the Draft will arrive as the final major event before a possible lockout begins, a dynamic that makes the international prospects a much better bet to play 2011-12 overseas than the current NBA players who talk about heading to Europe. The members of the 2011 Draft not only would already be acclimated to playing there -- avoiding the major adjustment most veterans would have to contend with -- but they would have their salary slot secured in whatever new rookie scale comes with the next Collective Bargaining Agreement and still be free to sign with an overseas club if they choose.

"I think that's a possibility, maybe more so than in certain other years," a GM said. "If you were to draw a conclusion, a first-round pick who might have thought about staying [in Europe] anyway now may think harder. Get in the Draft, play another year there, where they're comfortable anyway, and then come over when they don't have to worry about sitting through a lockout."

Or as another personnel boss put it: "They're the safest of anyone in the group."

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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