In a seemingly inconsequential move, the Grizzlies drafted little known Janis Timma with the last pick in the 2013 NBA draft. To date, Timma has yet to play a minute in an NBA game, and likely never will. One pick does not make a trend, but drafting internationals can be good business. The Spurs are the model of success in the NBA, and much of that success is a product of identifying the international player market as undervalued. They have augmented their roster with players like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter. There are many reasons why drafting international players can be advantageous.
1). Doing More with Less Information - The average NCAA prospect is a known quantity, internationals are difficult to quantify. Scouting is an exercise in extrapolating a player's future into an NBA context. And that context is extremely hard to create for international players. Rebounding has long been seen as a statistic that translates well from college to the pros. If you can rebound as a Duke Blue Devil, chances are you will continue rebounding as a Milwaukee Buck. But how translatable is scoring fifteen points on 45% shooting in the Spanish League? Is that feat more or less impressive in the Big Ten? In the Turkish League? How much credence should we place on any stat current Australian phenom Dante Exum puts up in the Australian league?
They could throw their hands up in the face of this challenge, and discount all this international data as useless, or just assume if you can shoot in Australia you can shoot in the NBA. However, when faced with dynamic problems, it is the people that are willing to use every tool in their belt that will arrive at the best answer.
The Grizzlies have been branded of late as a team that has relied too heavily on analytics, almost entirely due to the hiring of John Hollinger in the Front Office. But the idea that Memphis takes a solely numbers based approach on basketball decisions is laughable. Basketball isn't played on a spreadsheet - neither in the NBA, nor the Spanish League - and I'm pretty sure the Grizzlies Front Office has identified that fact. The search to place potential NBA players into an NBA context is ceaseless and cutthroat. Talent evaluators cannot afford to throw out a scout's opinion or a spreadsheet. Teams who are willing to look at analytics as a part of the whole, pairing them with a scout’s real world observations, have an edge against teams that use just one or the other.
2). Cost-Free Asset - Every team is looking to prolong the life of their assets. Draft picks are one of the few cost-free trade currencies in the NBA. The only problem is that the cost-free dynamic of the currency has an expiration date, and that date is the NBA Draft.
Once that pick is made, the player selected now eats up the two most precious commodities in the NBA – a roster spot and salary cap space. Both are finite and fixed resources. You cannot trade for more salary cap room or roster spots.
But drafting an international can be the next best thing. The player may not come over right away. In the meantime, the player gains more experience, and hopefully improves. In short, the player appreciates as an asset without taking up a roster spot or counting against the salary cap.
3). Draft-and-Stash – As we mentioned above, roster spots are finite, and especially for good teams, precious. A newly minted Grizzlies draftee must be able to steal minutes from Kosta Koufos, James Johnson, or Tony Allen to see the court. Ed Davis, a former lottery pick in his own right, can’t even do that.
Unfortunately many rookies on good teams fall into this vicious cycle: they aren’t good enough to get playing time, but they need playing time to become good. The D League offers a third path, but even then, the player occupies a precious roster spot.
Drafting an international solves all of these issues. Tiago Splitter wasn’t good enough to play for the Spurs when they drafted him, and he still wasn’t good enough a couple of years later when he signed his first contract. But last year, he played a pivotal role in the Spurs playoff run. Tiago Splitter appreciated for the Spurs while another team paid him and gave him playing time. In a weird way, many teams see this as a more favorable minor league relationship than the D-League.
Hold that thought.
4). No Powerhouse Agents – An underrated subplot of offseason negotiations is how much influence agents have. Some look at the contract the Wizards gave Martell Webster in the offseason and wonder where Webster’s leverage came from. But Webster’s agent is also John Wall’s agent, and clearly the agent was able to leverage a better contract for the lesser player simply because he controlled John Wall’s negotiations as well.
While some internationals boast superstar agents (Marc Gasol employs Arn Tellem), that is not the norm for international non-lottery picks. Here’s an interesting trip down the rabbit hole. Per RealGM.com, Dario Saric, (a skilled big man projected to be a mid-lottery pick) is represented by Marc Cornstein. DraftExpress.com has not yet attached an agent to Saric yet, which is telling.
Even the most hard-core NBA fans likely have never heard of Marc Cornstein, but he has carved out a nice niche for himself as an agent to players with international ties, or domestic players looking to play abroad. Glance through Marc Cornstein’s client list, and you will see a slew of middling players with international ties– Samuel Dalembert, Bostjan Nachbar and Ike Diogu amongst them. Maybe you’ve heard of those players, maybe not. But here are a few more names that will sound more familiar. Chris Johnson, Darko Milicic, Hamed Haddadi, and current Grizzlies player and Slovenian: Beno Udrih.
Connections like this may not decide where a player signs, or is drafted. But they also are not irrelevant. The Grizzlies did not sign Beno Udrih in a vacuum. Taking care of Udrih – giving him a modicum of playing time, making him feel a part of the organization, being a class organization – may have ripple effects in upcoming NBA drafts with players like Dario Saric.
It is not difficult to connect the dots. Few teams have such an established relationship with any agent, let alone with an agent that specializes with international clients. It would be worthwhile for Grizzlies fans to pay attention to Cornstein's client list as the draft comes up.
Let's finish this article where it started, with Janis Timma. The recent Grizzlies international draft pick is represented by a gentleman named Tolga Tugsavul. He also represents a player currently languishing on the cellar-dwelling Milwaukee Bucks: Ersan Ilyasova. It takes more than a connection with an agent to make a trade happen. But in a fish bowl of just thirty teams, each trying to gain a competitive edge and differentiate itself from the others, a myriad of small connections add up.
Food for thought, Grizzlies fans.