While the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets continue their chase for a championship, the other 26 teams shift their focus to next season, which begins with NBA Draft 2023 presented by State Farm on June 22.
Seventy-eight prospects are currently participating in the Microsoft Surface NBA Draft Combine 2023 in Chicago with the goal of hearing their names called on Draft night, and among the 78 Combine attendees are a boatload of intriguing international prospects.
Interest in foreign talent is arguably as high as it’s ever been thanks to the global stars who have taken the league by storm. The 2022-23 season awards results perfectly illustrate the NBA’s growing international footprint.
Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo were the three finalists for the Kia MVP award in 2022-23, and the Kia All-NBA First Team is comprised of four foreign-born players (Embiid, Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander).
These players have helped change the sometimes-skeptical manner in which international prospects are evaluated — particularly, the players who choose not to move to the United States for more domestic exposure. Foreign prospects are often labeled as “projects” due to a lack of familiarity with their games and question marks regarding how they would transition to the NBA.
Jokic experienced this firsthand when he entered the league back in 2015. Despite seeing success in professional leagues overseas, Jokic was not touted as a top prospect. He even slipped to the second round of the 2014 Draft before the Denver Nuggets finally scooped him up as a stash-away pick. But Jokic would quickly prove that it was a worthy investment by flashing the skills he honed overseas — skills that would eventually help him capture a pair of MVP trophies.
Jokic and others have helped level the playing field in regard to how international players are projected. Now, it’s up to this year’s prospects to capitalize.
And with that, here is a breakdown of some of the notable international prospects to keep an eye on during the Combine.
Sidy Cissoko (France, played for G League Ignite)
The first European-born prospect to join G League Ignite, Cissoko showed flashes of his all-around ability during the 2022-23 season. In 28 games on a talented Ignite squad, Cissoko ranked in the top five in points, assists, steals and led the team in blocks per game.
Mojave King (New Zealand, played for G League Ignite)
King proved to be an active cutter and reliable finisher during his one season with Ignite. The 20-year-old’s smooth shooting mechanics suggest that he could one day be a consistent marksman, and his near 6-foot-8 wingspan should help him when guarding on the perimeter. Prior to joining Ignite for the 2022-23 season, King spent time in the NBL and played alongside future NBA players Josh Giddey, Bennedict Mathurin and Dyson Daniels as a teenager in the NBA Global Academy.
Azuolas Tubelis (Lithuania, played for University of Arizona)
Tubelis has a unique skillset that’s suited for an NBA roster. At 6-foot-11, the 21-year-old is able to space the floor and keep opponents honest with his perimeter jumper. Tubelis also possesses great touch around the basket, using his size to control the paint, averaging 20 points and nine rebounds for Arizona in 2022-23. Currently projected as a second-round pick, the former NBA Basketball Without Borders Camp standout hopes to improve his stock this week in Chicago.
James Nnaji (Nigeria, played in EuroLeague)
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Nnaji is one of the more physically impressive prospects despite being one of the youngest players at the Combine. The 18-year-old’s 6-foot-11, 226-pound frame and 7-foot-5 wingspan helped him hold his own in the EuroLeague, where he played for Barcelona. Nnaji’s still raw on the offensive end but his strong stature and high motor could help him become a solid rebounder and interior defender immediately at the NBA level.
Rayan Rupert (France, played for New Zealand Breakers)
Like Klintman, Rupert possesses tools that make him the ideal wing prospect. A broken wrist caused him to miss a good chunk of the New Zealand Breakers’ 2022-23 season but during his time on the court, the 18-year-old displayed his defensive versatility and shot-making ability. Combine those with his 7-foot-3 length, and Rupert is projected as high as a mid-first round pick in some mock drafts. The France native would become the second-ever European NBL Next Stars program alum to be drafted, following his fellow countryman Ousmane Dieng’s selection by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2022 Draft.
Adama Sanogo (Mali, played for University of Connecticut)
Sanogo carved a nice three-year stint at UConn, culminating in a national championship back in April. The two-time Big East Player of the Year was arguably UConn’s best player during its 2023 NCAA Tournament run. He averaged 19.7 points and 9.8 rebounds in six games and was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player. Sanogo proved to be a solid finisher around the rim during his collegiate career and even showcased some outside shooting ability — he shot 36.5% from deep during the 2022-23 season.
Tristan Vukčević (Serbia, played in EuroLeague)
Vukčević saw limited action with Partizan Belgrade in 2022-23 but when he did get on the court, the 20-year-old flashed skills that could make him a solid pickup in the back half of the Draft. Vukčević’s respectable shooting touch combined with his ability to put the ball on the floor make him an enticing stretch four prospect for NBA teams. His three-year tenure playing against professionals in the EuroLeague should also help ease his transition to the next level.