The Global Stage

A record 12 international players were selected in the 2013 NBA Draft, in a fitting send-off for a commissioner who pushed the games to new heights -- and countless new markets.

BROOKLYN, NY – It was love, as they say, at first shot.

Alex Len didn't have much of a future in gymnastics. He had the love, sure. And the will. But at roughly the length of a parallel bar, the growing Ukrainian didn’t have a whole lot of prospects in contortion. So his gymnastics coach dragged him to another gym.

"My high school coach took me to a basketball gym and he gave me a basketball and he was like, ‘shoot it,’” Len said. “I shot it and I made it. My first shot. And I just fell in love with basketball ever since.”

On Thursday night, Len walked across the stage at the Barclays Center as the No. 5 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, putting on a Phoenix Suns hat to become the first player born outside of North America selected in this year’s Draft and the second international player overall. From there, a night that opened with a shock -- Canada-born Anthony Bennett opened up as a surprise No. 1 to the Cavaliers – was nothing short of a flood.

And in the last Draft of David Stern’s tenure as NBA commissioner – a career defined, as much as anything else, by the NBA’s worldwide expansion – a record 12 players born outside the United States were selected in the first round, besting the previous mark by two. The 19 international players chosen marked the highest total since 2005. And they came from everywhere. Picks flowed in from Germany, France and Spain; New Zealand and Montenegro and Brazil and many more places on earth where children can make a shot, fall in love and give themselves to dreams.

“Two years ago, I had no idea I was going to be here,” Len said. “But I worked hard. And the hard work paid off.”

Based on mock drafts, the first-round invasion came as a surprise. But it shouldn’t have been.

“It’s a global game. That was the commissioner’s main charge a few years back, and it’s paying off,” said Shane Battier, who spent the first round interviewing picks as they walked off the stage for ESPN. “The best players in the world are in this league now.

“There are really good players [in the Draft], and teams are really scouring the globe for the best talent.”

Battier, after all, just finished up a Finals in which he took on a team with 9 players born outside the States – and just 6 born in the U.S.

“You know, I don’t think it’s as different as it used to be,” he said. “European players and African players used to be anomalies. Now they’re just great basketball players, so it’s not bizarre at all.”

The first hand that Battier shook was Bennett’s, when the Cavs made the Toronto-born big man the first Canadian to go first overall. The Barclays Center – not to mention the Twittersphere – erupted.

“I’m just as surprised as everybody else,” Bennett said.

“It’s crazy. I made history. I can’t really complain about that,” he said. “It’s just like a long-time dream that I had since I first started playing basketball, even though it was six or seven years ago.”

By the time the Lottery ended, Bennett had some company, with fellow Canadian big Kelly Olynyk (Gonzaga) going at No. 13 to the Mavericks (who later shipped him to Boston), one pick after New Zealand center Steven Adams (Pitt) went to the Thunder. Olynyk’s pick marked the first time that two Canadian players were selected in the same Lottery.

For Adams, the Lotto selection ended a process that saw him declare a year before many felt he was ready. Just 19 years old, his offensive game could have benefited from another year of polish. But with Adams coming from a family of 18 children, the big man decided to make the leap for financial reasons.

And his act of faith was rewarded with another sort of leap – one that spans about 7,500 miles, and one that made him the first-ever Kiwi picked in the first round of the NBA Draft.

“My life is going to be the same,” he said. “All I’m focused on is basketball. Ain’t going to change anything. I think I’m pretty cool who I am. But in terms of basketball, I’m hoping that will skyrocket. Right now that was the main plan. Just instead of rugby [back home], everybody’s focused on rugby. They have a different path to take.”

Three picks after Adams, at No. 15, the least likely path of all led across the stage and, in time, to Milwaukee.

Giannis Antetokounmpo – the name that had sailed a thousand mispronunciations since he officially declared for the Draft a few weeks ago – had come to Brooklyn in a shroud of mystery. Known as the “Greek Freak” because of his assortment of assets (a 7-foot-3 wingspan, lightning bolt legs, four-position versatility and hands the size of a minor Greek island), the 19-year-old was born in Greece to Nigerian parents who’d immigrated in search of a better life.

They just found more hardship, with Antetokounmpo’s family often going hungry and Giannis and his brother resorting to selling purses and watches on the street to help put food on the table.

“This moment, I’m very happy,” he said. “Things in the past made me said. We struggled a lot in the past to have a better life, and now that I get drafted into the NBA, for sure we’re going to have a better life. And I think now my mother and my father at home, they will be very happy to see me drafted, because four years in sadness and poverty is very difficult. Maybe after four years, maybe today it’s the happiest day of their life, to see me drafted, to see after all that work and effort that they gave, he worked out. He worked out. A good thing.”

He’d signed a deal to play in the Spanish ACB before the Draft, though the contract sports a buyout clause for just such an occasion.

“I think for sure I will stay in the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks,” he said.

Four of the next six picks went to international players, with blossoming Brazilian center Lucas Nogueira going to the Celtics at No. 16 (though he’d later be traded to the Mavericks, then from the Dallas to Atlanta, where he’ll play with fellow Brazilian Raul Neto, who went to the Hawks at No. 47).

Nogueira had fought against accusations of immaturity and unpreparedness for two years, ever since his height and hops made this night seem like a possibility. So, given a quiet moment after the shock settled, he let a few tears fall.

Four years in sadness and poverty is very difficult. Maybe after four years, maybe today it’s the happiest day of their life, to see me drafted.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo, on his family
“I was just thinking about the past two years,” he said. “And how God gave me this opportunity. I thought about all the hard work. All the tears.”

German point guard Dennis Schroeder – considered by many to be the European player with the greatest chance of impacting the NBA right away, after decimating the competition at the Nike Hoops Summit in April – went No. 17. The Cavs selected Russian gunner Sergey Karasev at No. 19, adding one of the Draft’s best shooters to a team that suddenly has some inside punch.

“Cleveland needs shooters, and I think I’m a guy who can shoot the ball,” he said.

Senegalese center Gorgui Dieng, a star of Louisville’s NCAA championship run and the MVP of the 2009 Basketball Without Borders – Africa camp, headed to the Jazz at 19th overall (and was later traded to Minnesota).

French bigs Rudy Gobert and Livio Jean-Charles went back-to-back at No. 27 and No. 28 to the Nuggets and Spurs, respectively. For Jean-Charles, it’s a chance to join a team with three French players already on it, in the form of Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and Nando de Colo. And while Gobert would have played with longtime teammate Evan Fournier, he said his surroundings won’t matter.

“In France, I played against heavy guys,” Gobert said. “They were tall. 6-9. 6-11. Not 7-2 or 7-1. I just need to get better. I think I’m going to be good.

Seven more foreign-born players followed in the second round, led by long Spanish swingman Alex Abrines, who the Thunder took at No. 32 – likely to stash in Europe for a year or two while he transitions from small forward to shooting guard.

But not before the 30th and final pick of the first round, when, after decades of boos, Stern walked out standing ovation and the longest cheer of the night as he handed the podium – and the commissionership – to Adam Silver and surprise guest Hakeem Olajuwon. And with the final selection of his three-decade post, Stern announced that the Phoenix Suns had selected Nemanja Nedovic, a point guard from Serbia.