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How the Sixers Are Betting Big on International Talent

Philly has an exciting core, but every championship contender needs quality role players. The Sixers are finally entering that phase of rounding out their roster. Furkan Korkmaz, who had a solid EuroBasket showing, represents the process after the Process.

Furkan Korkmaz Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Furkan Korkmaz is not a star, though he looked like one for Turkey with a 20-point performance in 27 minutes in a EuroBasket round-of-16 loss to Spain on Sunday. The 20-year-old was the youngest player on Turkey’s roster, and he came off the bench in the tournament, averaging 10.5 points a game on 53.8 percent shooting. He was used as a spot-up shooter and secondary playmaker, the same role he had the last three years for Anadolu Efes, one of the top teams in Europe. Korkmaz has spent most of his career competing against older players rather than his age peers so he hasn’t had as much of an opportunity to dominate the ball. And because international players don’t have the same type of eligibility restrictions as Americans, he was only 18 when the 76ers drafted him with the no. 26 pick in 2016.

Under Bryan Colangelo, Philadelphia has targeted foreign players in the draft, taking five in the last two years. Korkmaz, who is coming over to the NBA this season, is the tip of the spear. If the 76ers are right about the undervaluing of international talent, players like Korkmaz could be the final pieces for a team with eventual championship aspirations.

Korkmaz, like many Europeans, turned pro at an early age, signing with the the Efes junior team at 15. He began playing for the senior team at 17, and he was loaned to a smaller club (Banvit) as a 19-year-old last season, helping it win its first-ever Turkish domestic championship. His stellar shooting numbers indicate he should be a high-level floor-spacer in Philadelphia:

Korkmaz’s 3-Point Shooting Over the Years

Season 3P 3PA 3P%
Season 3P 3PA 3P%
2014-15 33 78 42.3
2015-16 41 103 39.8
2016-2017 62 142 43.7

At 6-foot-7 and 190 pounds, Korkmaz has great size for a shooting guard, and a quick release that allows him to get his shot off cleanly when spotting up off the ball. Even a 6-foot-8 forward, like Semen Antonov of Russia, can’t bother Korkmaz on a closeout:

Korkmaz is much more than just a shooter, though. While Turkey ran him around a lot of screens off the ball, he’s not a pure catch-and-shoot player. He knows how to use the threat of his shot to get past his defender, and he has a full array of pump fakes and off-balance floaters in his game. What he does in this clip to Kyle Johnson, a 28-year-old playing for Great Britain, is just mean:

There are more than a few similarities between Korkmaz and J.J. Redick, whom he will back up next season in Philadelphia. One of the reasons the 76ers gave Redick a one-year, $23 million contract was for him to be a role model for their young players, and Korkmaz could learn a lot from a 12-year NBA veteran who has maximized every bit of his physical ability. There’s certainly no guarantee Korkmaz will have as successful a career, but the potential is there. Not only is Korkmaz much bigger, Redick could never make plays like this in the open court:

“Physical maturity and strength are the only things holding [Korkmaz] back. He’s very typical of the Euros who have had success in the league,” said ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla. “Given the right opportunity to play, he’s among the safest bets among internationals in the last few years.”

One of the biggest knocks on Korkmaz is his lack of physical development, and like many 20-year-olds, he could struggle with bigger and stronger players at the next level. He has a narrow frame and short arms: One NBA team measured him as having a wingspan nearly identical to his height, which means he may not have the versatility to guard multiple positions as you would expect for a player his size.

“Korkmaz is a good shooter and good passer with a great basketball IQ,” one European scout told me. “He’s not great defensively, and he has a skinny frame, but he could be a good role player in Philadelphia alongside Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Markelle Fultz.”

Perimeter players with Korkmaz’s combination of size, shooting, and feel for the game rarely bust. When given the chance to play with the ball in his hands, he has shown the ability to make plays for others: He averaged 4.8 assists on 1.8 turnovers per game at the Under-20 European Championships in July. He makes his fair share of reckless passes, but he knows how to run a pick-and-roll and read a defense. Watch him patiently wait for former NBA big man Semih Erden to get himself open at the front of the rim on this play:

Unlike most Americans his age, Korkmaz hasn’t spent much time being featured on offense, so he has had to earn playing time by competing defensively. He did a good job of fighting over screens at EuroBasket, and he understands his responsibilities on that side of the ball. He’s usually in the right position on the floor to cut off passing lanes and funnel penetration. In this sequence against Serbia, Korkmaz switches a screen, hands off the rolling big man to the next defender, steals a pass headed toward a different cutter, and then starts the break the other way before finding an open 3-point shooter:

The competition for playing time behind Redick will be fierce next season, with former first-round picks on their second team, such as Nik Stauskas and Justin Anderson, fighting for their NBA lives, so Korkmaz could spend a lot of time playing in the G League and learning from the bench. However, down the road, it’s easy to see how he would fit next to the 76ers’ young stars in a secondary role much like the one he had for Turkey this summer. With the shooting-challenged Ben Simmons playing as a point forward, floor spacing will be at a premium in Philadelphia, and not many 6-foot-7 guys can stroke the ball like Korkmaz, much less be a threat running around screens and in the pick-and-roll.

“I see him as a mix between a rich man’s Nik Stauskas and a less [volatile version] of Rudy Fernandez,” one Eastern Conference executive told me.

What’s interesting about the Stauskas comparison is that the former Wolverine was taken with the no. 8 overall pick in 2014, while Korkmaz fell to the end of the first round in a 2016 draft that was widely seen as much weaker. The difference in where they were selected isn’t too surprising when you consider what they had done at lower levels of the sport. Stauskas was a 20-year-old coming off a season where he was named a second-team All-American and lead Michigan to the Elite Eight, while Korkmaz was an 18-year-old averaging nine minutes a game in the EuroLeague. Korkmaz’s agents were reportedly looking for a lottery promise to keep him in the draft in 2016 and surprised many when they kept him in despite not getting one.

International players often declare for the draft several times before staying in order to build buzz for themselves, and Korkmaz likely didn’t declare when his stock was at its highest. That’s what the 76ers are counting on. Most of the attention the last two years has focused on what they’ve done with the no. 1 overall picks, but Simmons and Fultz were consensus top players almost any front office would have taken. What could push them over the top are their low-profile gambles on overseas talent much later in the draft:

The Sixers’ International Draft Acquisitions Over the Past Two Years

Draft Selection Player Country
Draft Selection Player Country
2016 no. 24 Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot France
2016 no. 26 Furkan Korkmaz Turkey
2017 no. 25 Anzejs Pasecniks Latvia
2017 no. 36 Jonah Bolden Australia
2017 no. 50 Mathias Lessort France

If everything goes according to plan, Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz will be on max contracts at the end of their rookie deals. Pay those guys and Philadelphia won’t have the cap space to go out in the market and sign role players. They will need players on cost-controlled rookie contracts whom they can develop in-house and exceed the salary cap to re-sign. While it’s too early to say what will happen with any of their draft picks, internationals have been some of the most valuable players taken in the latter parts of the last few drafts:

Impact European Players Drafted Since 2013

Draft Selection Player Team Country
Draft Selection Player Team Country
2013 no. 27 Rudy Gobert Jazz France
2014 no. 25 Clint Capela Rockets Switzerland
2014 no. 41 Nikola Jokic Nuggets Serbia
2015 no. 35 Willy Hernangomez Knicks Spain
2016 no. 48 Paul Zipser Bulls Germany

That list doesn’t include Serbian guard Bogdan Bogdanovic (no. 27 pick in 2014) and Turkish forward Cedi Osman (no. 31 pick in 2015), both of whom are playing extremely well at EuroBasket and will come over to the NBA this season. To be sure, there are just as many foreign players like Nemanja Nedovic (no. 30 pick in 2013) and Damien Inglis (no. 31 pick in 2014) who didn’t pan out, but there are no sure things once you get out of the top 20 selections of any draft. Everyone picking in that range is looking to hit on a lottery ticket, and the 76ers will get multiple chances over the next few years. They have 10 additional draft picks, not counting their own, over the next four years, so don’t be surprised if the overseas influx in Philadelphia continues.

There are several reasons why Colangelo has focused on international players. The first is practical: With so many draft picks over such a short period of time, the Sixers need guys they can stash abroad for several years without burning a roster spot. The presence of head coach Brett Brown, who spent more than a decade with the Spurs, certainly helps, as well as their confidence in their staff’s ability to develop young players. They also have a large analytics department that, as someone in their organization told me, tends to value traits like shooting and feel for the game that younger American players often lack.

The Sixers are now in Stage 2 of the Process. Under Sam Hinkie, they were trying to build a foundation, not a team. There wasn’t much of a plan for how any of their players would fit together, and the idea seemed to be to throw as much young talent against the wall as possible and see what stuck. However, even if Hinkie had stayed in Philadelphia, they would have needed to transition from accumulating talent to putting it together. They are in an enviable position: They have their building blocks in place, and enough draft picks to give them a lot of shots at putting the right players around them. Colangelo’s gamble is that international players are the best way to use them.