Basketball’s talent pool has never been as deep as it is today. The sport has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few generations. There are players in the NBA from six continents, and American players in pro leagues in nearly every industrialized country on Earth. Players who go overseas are often out of sight, out of mind for NBA teams. Even the most diligent organizations can’t keep track of all of them. Pro basketball is like any other industry: It’s hard to get back on the expected career path once a player falls off the first time. There have always been a few players in the NBA who needed time overseas after college to develop their games, but that number is growing every year. The expected career path is starting to change.
“You have to look at it in terms of an age window. There aren’t many players who can play in the NBA at the age of 19, and the ones who can are usually pretty special,” one collegiate scouting director for an NBA team told me. “Even when you get to the 21- and 22-year-olds, there’s still a small number who are ready to contribute immediately on a good team. However, when those same guys are 25 and 26 years old, they have matured on and off the court, and the pool of NBA-caliber players around the world in that age range is much larger.”
There are seven players in the NBA this season who were signed out of Europe as free agents. The headliners were Ekpe Udoh (Jazz) and Milos Teodosic (Clippers), 30-year-olds who had established themselves as some of the best players on the continent. The other five, though, fit the description of relatively anonymous guys in their mid-20s who slipped through the cracks: Brandon Paul (Spurs), Daniel Theis and Shane Larkin (Celtics), Darius Miller (Pelicans), and Mike James (Suns). They have all worked out well so far, contributing to their new teams in the first month of the season.
Beyond their background overseas, there’s no one category that fits for all of them. Paul and Miller are wings, Larkin and James are point guards, and Theis is a big man. Their NBA environments are all different, too. Boston and San Antonio are model organizations, with coaches who excel at getting the most out of their players. New Orleans, in contrast, has cycled through 48 different players over the past three seasons trying to put a supporting cast around Anthony Davis, while Phoenix exiled its star point guard and fired its coach in the first week of the season. Guys who have played in Europe are used to that type of turnover, and they have learned how to adapt quickly to new situations.
“I played in three different leagues in three countries, and they are all different in their own ways. It’s a different paced game. There are different rules. You get used to the difference,” Paul told me after a shootaround in Dallas two weeks ago.
Experience helps a player transition into the NBA. The best seasons of a player’s career are typically in their mid-to-late 20s, when they are in the narrow window where their knowledge of the game has increased and their athleticism has yet to decline. The problem for teams trying to fill out their rosters is that established NBA players in that window are typically fairly expensive. If a team is over the salary cap and can only offer contracts near the league minimum, they are usually choosing between players near the beginning or the end of their careers. They have to get lucky to find a quality player at that price, either an older guy who declines slower than expected or a younger guy who develops quicker. Signing players from Europe is a way around that dilemma. Guys in their mid-20s who have spent the past few years overseas don’t represent the same trade-off between basketball IQ and athleticism.
“I think playing in Europe has helped [Daniel] Theis a lot, as well as just being a 25-year-old multiple-year pro. All those experiences add up,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “Even though this is his first time through the NBA, he has already been through a lot, and he has had great coaching along the way. He thinks the game at a high level.”
Not every European veteran will succeed in the NBA. Gal Mekel, a two-time MVP of the Israeli league, couldn’t handle the speed of NBA-caliber athletes in two seasons with the Mavs and Pelicans. The downside of missing on a guy like Mekel, though, is much lower than striking out on an established veteran. The Wizards are paying $16 million a season to a backup center (Ian Mahinmi) with significantly worse per-minute numbers than Theis, who is making a little under $1 million a season. Mahinmi may have been a better player in his prime than Theis, but he’s a 31-year-old coming off major leg injuries whose game was based on his athleticism. Paying for NBA production in free agency is expensive, and it can be riskier than going with the unknown.
Young players have the opposite problem. They may have more potential than an older European free agent, but they are years away from reaching it. The Nuggets drafted Malik Beasley with the no. 19 pick in 2016 hoping to turn him into a quality 3-and-D player. It has been a challenge. Beasley is 14-for-47 from 3 (29.8 percent) in two seasons in Denver, and he is still adjusting to a smaller role on offense than what he had in his one season at Florida State, as well as how to play defense at the professional level. Beasley should be better at 26 than he is at 21, but he may be on his second or third NBA team at that point.
“What teams have to ask themselves is why pay for a guy to develop at 20 when you can get the same caliber player from Europe as a 25-year-old? Unless you think they are going to be really special, it’s probably not worth the investment,” the scouting director told me.
Brandon Paul is the player the Nuggets want Malik Beasley to become. Every team in the NBA needs guys like him. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, he spaces the floor and defends players at three positions. Paul has already earned a spot in the Spurs rotation, and he’s part of a deep bench that has helped San Antonio survive without Kawhi Leonard. He is an intelligent player who plays within himself and understands his role on the team.
A good 3-and-D player is the glue that holds lineups together. Paul’s defensive versatility allows Gregg Popovich to cover for many more offensively minded players. He can guard 3s, play with two smaller guards like Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills, and defend point guards when Manu Ginobili runs the offense. Paul matches up with players from speed demons like Yogi Ferrell to supersized wings like Jaylen Brown. He defends like he has something to prove, sacrificing his body and rarely giving up on plays. In this sequence, Paul anticipates where Devin Booker is going on the pick-and-roll, beats him to the spot, and falls to the ground when Booker initiates the contact:
“[Paul] is intelligent. He has some skills, and he has a great desire to carve out an NBA career,” said Popovich. “That’s a pretty good combination to have.”
Paul forces turnovers (steal rate of 2.8 percent) without taking unnecessary gambles. This steal from a game against the Celtics is a good example of how he does his work before the play happens. He rotates over to guard Marcus Smart when Smart pops out to the 3-point line after setting a screen for Al Horford. Paul motions to Davis Bertans, who had been guarding Horford, to defend Smart. He then finds Jayson Tatum, the guy he had been guarding originally, as he cuts to the rim. Paul barely moves the whole time, but he’s tracking the other nine players on the floor, which allows him to step in front of the pass to Tatum:
Paul has transitioned just as easily on the other side of the ball. Almost all his points come within the flow of the offense, and he takes advantage of the opportunities he receives. He rarely takes bad shots. Paul is shooting 40 percent from 3 on 1.5 attempts a game, and 62.5 percent from 2 on 1.2 attempts a game. He threatens the defense without needing the ball. He knows how to find the open area on the floor and create passing lanes for his teammates:
The Spurs rarely ask him to be an initiator, but he can serve as a secondary playmaker. There isn’t much hesitation in his game. He reads the defense quickly, and either moves the ball or attacks. In this sequence, he runs a give-and-go with LaMarcus Aldridge at the top of the key, as the two instantly move into a pick-and-roll after San Antonio’s initial set moved the help-side defense to the other side of the floor:
Paul played four seasons at Illinois, but he got his basketball education in Europe. “I think all my stops overseas helped me to mature, learn poise, and how to slow down my game,” said Paul. “Coming in as a rookie, a lot of guys get vet calls, so I’ve had to be careful about staying out of foul trouble. I show my hands a lot to show the refs I’m a good defender. I’ve had to change how aggressively I play defense, but a lot of the tools that I picked up overseas still help me.”
There have been big scoring nights—18 points against the Celtics and 15 against the Bulls—but he’s also had several games where he’s taken only three or four shots in 20 minutes on the floor. He’s happy to be a cog in the San Antonio system. Even if his playing time drops once Kawhi returns, Paul is a low-risk gamble that has already paid off. He has stepped in and replaced Jonathon Simmons, who signed a three-year contract worth $20 million with the Magic in the offseason, at a fraction of the price. San Antonio has a 3-and-D wing, one of the most valuable players in the league, on a two-year deal at the minimum.
It’s much harder to find the next Brandon Paul coming out of college than after a few years in Europe. I talked to a statistical analyst for an NBA team who ran the numbers and found that 3-point shooting at the NBA level is noisy and hard to predict from a player’s NCAA stats. Role players in the NBA tend to have different responsibilities in college. Unless they are playing for an NBA factory like Kentucky and Duke, most wings with NBA-caliber size and athleticism are primary scorers for their NCAA teams. Tony Allen averaged 16 points a game in his final season in college; Iman Shumpert averaged 17.3.
Paul fell into the same category as a senior at Illinois. He spent most of his senior season taking inefficient jumpers off the dribble, averaging 16.6 points per game on 40.1 percent shooting from the field. He wasn’t an efficient shooter (32.5 percent on 6.7 attempts from 3) or a consistent playmaker (2.7 assists and 2.7 turnovers), and all of his offensive responsibility left little energy for defense. He had to change his game if he wanted to play in the NBA.
“I pick my shots more carefully [than at Illinois]. It makes things easier for me because I don’t have to worry about doing too much,” said Paul. “I know my role, and I think that’s a key part of new players coming into the league. I shoot when I’m open.”
There’s an adjustment process to becoming a guy who plays off the ball. A primary option can shoot his way out of a slump, and his coach will run plays to get him going. A role player might only get a few shots the whole game, and he will have many possessions where he never touches the ball. He has to be able to manufacture his own rhythm, and he can’t lose confidence when he misses. Even guys who were spot-up shooters in college have to adjust to a deeper NBA 3-point line, as well as the increased size and speed of NBA defenders. When you also factor in how much harder it is to play defense against professionals, it’s easy to see why the miss rate on 3-and-D prospects is so high.
“We put out a draft guide every year for NBA teams with around 400 players on it. There are usually dozens of guys, most of them who don’t end up being drafted, with 3-and-D potential,” said Elan Vinokurov, the president of EV Hoops, an independent scouting service used by several NBA teams. “For the most part, these guys go overseas and never make it back to the NBA. They end up fizzling out because they don’t end up in the right situations or can’t handle the culture shock and they don’t know how to go from Point A to Point Z.”
Paul was undrafted in 2013, and played for the Wolves summer league team before heading to Russia. He struggled with the language barrier and the hostility from both his team and the city, which he talked about with Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated. Paul returned home for two seasons in the G-League. He played one season in the Spanish ACB then caught on with the 76ers during their 2016–17 training camp. After he was cut by Philadelphia, he went back to Europe because the money he was offered overseas was much better than in the States. He signed with Anadolu Efes, a Turkish club once home to Dario Saric. Efes plays in the EuroLeague, the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer.
The NBA began using two-way contracts this season to increase the appeal of the G-League for players in Paul’s position. Every team in the league now has two additional roster spots they can give to a G-League player, with their salary depending on how many days they spend with the NBA team, up to a maximum of 45. However, even in a best-case scenario, they could still make only $279,000—four or five times less than what they could make overseas—and they couldn’t be called up by any other team. The NBA executives I’ve talked to are skeptical of how big an impact they will have.
“I heard a lot of people in Europe were mad when Mike James signed a two-way contract with the Suns. He was on his way to being [an] over-a-million-dollar-a-year player if he had stayed,” one Eastern Conference executive told me. “There’s a sweet spot of guys an NBA team can go after who have been overseas for a few years but aren’t completely established over there.”
The more success a player has in Europe, the harder it is to bring them back. Guys with options overseas have more leverage than players straight out of college. They want more guaranteed money, and their NBA teams don’t have their rights for as long as they would for a guy they had drafted. Paul will be a restricted free agent after next season, and he will get a big raise from someone if he can maintain his current level of production. The same thing happened with Simmons in San Antonio. The Spurs signed him off their G-League team and had him for only two seasons before losing him to the Magic.
However, even if the Spurs lose Paul, there’s no reason to think they can’t find the next Paul or Simmons somewhere. Baseball analysts use the term “replacement-level player” as the amount of production MLB teams can expect from an average Triple-A player. The caliber of a replacement-level player in the NBA should be higher because the pool of available players is much larger. Basketball is more popular internationally than baseball, which is only played at a high level in East Asia and Latin America.
The NBA is the highest level of basketball in the world, and most young players wash out trying to make the leap from college. Fran Fraschilla, who covers college and international basketball for ESPN, often compares the NCAA to Double-A baseball and the best leagues in Europe to Triple-A. The NBA is trying to turn the G-League into a legitimate minor league system, but European basketball has more competition, a higher level of play, and more pressure-packed environments which weed out immature and mentally weak players. It’s a ready-made finishing school that more NBA teams should use. You probably won’t find a star in the European bargain bin, but there are players available who can contribute to a good team. There is plenty of free money lying on the ground over there, waiting for teams to pick it up.
“I definitely don’t regret the route that I took to get here. I learned a lot overseas, and it made me a better player,” said Paul. “There are a lot of guys in Europe who can play in the NBA.”