International scouting a different game today – and Pistons, after drafting 2, are all in

Sekou Doumbouya
Sekou Doumbouya is the youngest player drafted to the NBA since the league changed eligibility rules following the 2005 draft
Jesse D. Garrabrant (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

LAS VEGAS – For the first time since the Pistons drafted Darko Milicic in 2003, they used their first-round pick on a foreign-born and -trained player. That there wasn’t a hue and cry from Pistons fans still haunted by Milicic’s selection over future Hall of Famers Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade speaks to the undeniable impact international players have had on the game in those intervening years.

The Toronto Raptors just won an NBA title with heavy contributions from Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka. Dirk Nowitzki brought a title to Dallas and just retired as one of the all-time greats. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the reigning MVP and has Milwaukee poised for a run at future NBA titles.

On opening night last season, 108 players from 42 foreign countries were on NBA rosters. That’s 24 percent of the 450 roster spots. Ignore players beyond our borders at your peril.

It’s a sea change from what Gregg Polinsky recalls when current Pistons front-office leader Ed Stefanski hired him as a scout with the then-New Jersey Nets more than 20 years ago.

“It’s changed immensely,” he said. “The amount of time, effort, resources, manpower, financially – you have to be committed to what’s overseas. That does not mean you have to lean that way, but this year we just felt like where we were picking, these were the best guys going forward.”

The Pistons not only took Guinea-born and French-trained Sekou Doumbouya with the 15th pick, they maneuvered in the second round to take Lithuanian native Deividas Sirvydis with the 37th pick. Doumbouya won’t turn 19 until late December. Had he been born nine days later, he wouldn’t have been eligible for the 2019 draft. He’s the youngest player drafted since the NBA altered eligibility rules in 2006 to mandate players born in the United States weren’t eligible to be drafted until one year after their high school class graduation. Sirvydis turned 19 just 10 days before the draft.

Polinsky admits the Pistons accepted a fair degree of risk in drafting two of the youngest players drafted.

“Time will tell, like anything. We say, to some degree with really young players like we took, it’s a little bit of a leap of faith. But that’s why we go through the process and when all the criteria add up, then we feel like, hey, we’re going to take that leap.”

Age isn’t the only aspect of projection required in assessing Doumbouya and Sirvydis. There’s also the challenge of weighing their impact in professional leagues of varying quality vs. grading American college players where the variance isn’t as wide.

On that front, there is much greater context today than there was for scouts like Polinsky, the Pistons director of player personnel, two decades ago. There is plenty of history as a reference point today. There are the 100-plus NBA players born outside United States borders and their history in pro leagues for players that preceded them to the NBA to act as measuring sticks, for starters.

It’s still the toughest hurdle to clear.

“I still think that’s the kicker,” Polinsky said. “That’s the tough part. The rules are different, first of all. The style of play, in many cases, is different. There are excellent coaches. It’s great basketball, but the style is different.”

Doumbouya had one year in France’s Pro A, the top league, but he started that season as a 17-year-old playing with men. Ditto for Sirvydis in Lithuania, playing for one of the top teams in his country’s pro league at 18. Both Doumbouya and Sirvydis’ teams competed in EuroCup play when they weren’t in domestic league play. EuroCup is a notch below EuroLeague, but still competition limited to top teams from domestic European leagues – and a cut above the best of college basketball.

“You’re dealing with young guys that may not get a lot of court time, so you’re incorporating going to practices and, for us, trying to have a mindset – a lot of video study, a lot of intel, our organization working as a whole to try to figure it out. It’s still the toughest part of what we do, no question. It’s not really apples to apples.”

Most organizations are now apt to weigh the production of college players against their age more than their class. An 18-year-old freshman gets evaluated on a different scale than a 20-year-old freshman. But that’s still a narrower variance than is routinely found internationally.

“Over here, college players are playing against maybe the oldest is 23 – a fifth-year senior, transfer. Over there, in the instance of Deividas or Sekou, guys they’re going against could be 35, 28. How do you measure that? The experience, the physicality. That is still the hardest part of the job, trying to figure out what’s going to transition.”

The Pistons have a full-time European scout, Andrea Fadini, based in Italy. He tracks all the top potential draft prospects and lays the groundwork for scouting missions for Polinsky and Stefanski that make the most efficient use of their time.

Their European presence isn’t only to scout draft prospects, either. Players develop at their own pace. There are many NBA international players who never declare for the draft or do and don’t get picked, then emerge as legitimate prospects in their 20s. Boban Marjanovic is one such example for Pistons fans. Then there are American college players who play themselves into NBA prospects after international seasoning.

“We want to make sure that we have good coverage over there,” Polinsky said. “The amount of talent and players – and not just guys available via the draft, but also some who have gone over there and are possibly looking to come back. Is there a guy there that might help the Pistons going forward?”

In a league where payrolls routinely soar past $100 million annually, it’s well worth the relative pennies spent on European scouting if a team can find one European player a generation who rises to the status of above-average starter. The Pistons took two swings at it in the 2019 draft with a pair of players still a few years away from their first legal beer. Will it pay off? Check back in a year or two.

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