As you all know, the Unicorn has been balling out. His progression from skinny European project caterpillar to Messiah butterfly has shaken New York City (and probably the rest of the world) to its core. KP has got me thinking though: Why are we so scared of drafting European big men? Sure, they get drafted, but there are always major concerns about their physicality and durability. They seem to be viewed as having a much higher “bust” potential. I was curious if this is true, so I did a bit of research, but first let’s recount the circumstances surrounding his draft.
Kristaps Porzingis hails from the illustrious city of Liepaja, Latvia. Fast forward a few years back. Knowing the Knicks’ history since our last really good teams in the 90s, I knew like any other Knicks fan that we would have to build through the draft. Which really hadn’t been our strong suit, with Isiah Thomas (who now is president of the Liberty, despite being accused of sexual harassment and, you know, sucking at running a team) trading away draft picks left and right for all-time greats like Eddy Curry. So, I came into the draft praying that we would get a franchise-changing player.
However, I was scared of KP, as Melo took to calling him. Despite his obvious potential and talent (he played well for Sevilla, a high-level Liga ACB team), I worried he would be a bust and for no other reason than that he came from a different country. This led to a moment of introspection for me: Was I discriminating on the basis of nationality, or was there legitimacy to the notion that foreign big men are more likely than their American counterparts to fail to live up to their potential?
We all know success stories of foreign big men, from Dirk or the Gasol brothers to current young bigs like Nikola Jokic or Jusuf Nurkic, but of course there have been some major, cringe-worthy and vomit-inducing busts (no offense Darko, or Nikoloz Tskitishvili, or Bargnani…). But it’s not as if American prospects are any less variable.
To begin, I set parameters on what draft prospects we’re looking at. First off, it didn’t make much sense to look at any draft picks beyond lottery picks, as those have too much inherent variability (it’s hit-or-miss regardless of nationality). I defined big men as players listed as power forwards or centers. To set clear standards, I excluded foreign bigs that attended college in the U.S. (you’re welcome, Olowokandi). Lastly, it wouldn’t have been fair to count all lottery picks up until present day since that doesn’t give some players enough to time to show their potential, so I looked at players from 1996-2010.
The list featured some clunkers, like Bargs, Biedric and Milicic. And it had a couple solid players, like Nene. Of the 12 foreign big men picked in the lottery, three went on to become all-stars: Yao, Pau and Dirk.
To compare, I checked out American (only American-born — I apologize to all foreign-born, American-college-attending players that I am neglecting) lottery bigs from the same drafts. Unsurprisingly, it was a much, much longer list! So there was certainly more variation in the results, running the gamut of franchise player to total bust. Of the 76 American bigs drafted, 21 were chosen as all-stars. And with so many selections, naturally all sorts of players came out of the ranks, from big-time busts who were gone in a few years to solid role players, to all-stars, to all-time greats.
Using some highly advanced statistics that don’t get taught at Stanford (probably because it’s too advanced), I divided the number of all-stars by the number of picks to come up with my All-Star Success Rating (or, if you prefer, ASSRating) for big men lottery picks.
Foreign players had a 0.25 ASSRating, while American players did every so slightly better at 0.28. The success rate doesn’t seem to show much of a difference. The Americans edged out the foreigners, but there were so few foreign bigs selected in comparison that we don’t have enough data for me to feel confident about that 0.25 number. Besides, 25 percent is just so round, isn’t it?
Unfortanately, it’s hard to get more data by going back in time because very few foreign big men were drafted in the lottery before the late 90s. It appears we don’t have the data to stereotype all foreign bigs as bad news (or as anything). I guess I had nothing to worry about with Porzingod. And it looks like he’s already on his way to becoming the greatest Knick of all time. If he isn’t already.
Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu.