Giannis Antetokounmpo — the reigning and likely repeat MVP — grew up playing in Greece. Luka Doncic, the reigning Rookie of the Year and a guy who will get MVP votes this season, played in Spain until he was 19.
It’s not just the stars. More and more, players who came out of the European system, not through the American AAU/NCAA system, are finding homes and thriving in the NBA.
The fact that the [NBA and NCAA] use different rules has major implications for pro development. The cleave between the NBA (24-second shot clock, maximum 3-point line distance of 23 feet, 9 inches) and college (30-second shot clock, maximum 3-point line distance of 20 feet, 9 inches), isn’t just some minor detail. A game’s rules are defining, and practicing for one set of rules means unlearning habits when you must succeed with another set. This difference between leagues almost certainly messes with the pro development of players.
Increasingly, I hear from NBA scouts that they prefer players out of Europe going forward, because the games are similar to the NBA style of play. NBA coaches have been pilfering European tactics. Or, to put it more generously, Jazz coach Quin Snyder hosts a yearly Las Vegas symposium, where European coaches teach NBA coaches and vice versa. Through this cultural exchange, NBA and Euro styles are merging, as the NCAA game putters on, locked into an older era. It used to be that Euro prospects carried this scary aura of mystery versus the tried-and-true NCAA guys. Now, with the great NBA/Euro convergence, that dynamic is getting flipped.
It’s about the style of play — the NCAA is game is very different than the NBA game; the European style less so — and understanding where to fit in the modern game.
The NBA game now demands big men who can space the floor (as seen in Europe), not only be power players inside (as still works in the NCAA). Having great handles and shot creation matters for James Harden or Damian Lillard or Kawhi Leonard, but a lot of American players who could lead their team that way at the AAU level can’t at the NBA level, and they don’t know how to adapt to a new role. They have to learn how to find space, how to become a catch-and-shoot guy, and become a complementary player. In the European system, that is the role, guys come in more quickly able to grasp what is needed and fit into a team.
This is not some simple “European players are better than Americans” thing, because they are not (or, at least not consistently). It’s about the evolution of the game, and with that how players are developed.
For Jalen Green and Isaiah Todd and Daishen Nix — three elite recruits who backed out of NCAA commitments to play on a G-League select team — moving into an NBA system now will better prepare them for the NBA game. They will not learn a style of play they will need to unlearn a year later, a former NBA coach will coach them in the NBA style of game.
Like European players, those three will come out of the G-League better prepared for the NBA game.