Fran Fraschilla on NBA Draft, G-League, New York Knicks & More

Fran Fraschilla has been a staple of ESPN’s basketball coverage at all levels for the past 18 years.

What began as a “be the international draft guy” assignment for the former college coach has turned into a multi-faceted and modern approach to covering all things NBA draft.

Fran sat down with TBW’s Ray LeBov to continue his story, sharing how he approaches draft and college basketball coverage, as well as his thoughts on the NBA G League, this year’s NBA Draft class, his beloved New York Knicks and more.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length, and you can catch up on Part 1 here.

RAY: What is your view of the new G League developmental program?

FRAN: I think there should be more than one way for an elite 18- or 19-year-old basketball player to get to his dream of playing in the NBA. I think college basketball is still the best way to accomplish it because of its track record.

The G League is offering an alternative to a young man who doesn’t really have an interest in getting a college education or feels that the better way to go about reaching his dream is the road less traveled. So I see the value in it.

I’m eager to see how influential it is on the elite young players in our country. I tend to think that the vast majority of players are still going to take the college route. College offers a way to move toward a degree, which will help him after basketball. It has also been a great marketing vehicle through the years for elite players.

Most recently, one month into a season, I said that Zion Williamson’s time at Duke would be worth 150 million dollars before he even played an NBA game.

I think I was proven correct.

I’ve also made the statement that, at some point in time, because of his one year at Duke and the fact that he was on television so much there, that he would be worth a billion dollars if he stayed healthy by the time he ended his career. A large part of that was because we got to know him and love him during that brief time.

RAY: I’ve been observing with interest what’s been going on with the Knicks’ recent hires. People were wondering what Leon Rose taking over was going to mean. Over the past few weeks, the people that they’ve hired have such sterling reputations and experience, it seems like it’s a real shift in the way that they’re doing business. Maybe I’m reading too much into it but I’m curious about your view as a New Yorker.

FRAN: It pains me to say this, but the owner has been a major issue in the lack of success over the last two decades. He has not surrounded himself with the kind of basketball people that can build a franchise worthy of Madison Square Garden and the new New York Knicks fan base.

There is no place in the NBA where the success of a franchise would have as big of an impact on the rest of the league—with all due respect to the Lakers, Celtics, Spurs and Warriors—when the Knicks are very competitive. It brings the NBA up a notch, simply because of the history of the league, the history of that building, and what basketball has always meant to New York City.

My hope is that Leon Rose can put together an organization that can get to the right level of competency in a few years. That would be so much fun for many of us who are lifelong basketball junkies and lifelong Knicks fans.

It looks like he’s off to a great start with the type of people that he’s bringing in to run the show.

Walt Perrin has a sterling reputation as an evaluator of talent. He’s genuine, has an incredible work ethic and a great eye for talent. If you look at the success that Utah had while Walt worked under both Kevin O’Connor and Dennis Lindsay, I think he’s going to be an incredible asset to Leon and the Knicks.

RAY: If Dolan will just stay out of his way.

FRAN: The amount of money that Jim Dolan has put into renovating the building is fabulous. Now he just needs to let basketball people run the show with minimum interference so that they can get on track. Owners hire basketball people because they’re basketball people and so they should let them do their job.

There’s no question that the best owners in the NBA hire great people and stay out of their way.

Some owners like Mark Cuban and Steve Ballmer and the guys in Golden State are hands-on there, but that’s in terms of the business of the league, not on the basketball decision making. Mark has admitted that he blew it with the Greek Freak. Donnie Nelson was committed to drafting him and Mark vetoed it. But he learned from that experience.

He certainly didn’t veto Donnie’s interest in tracking down for Luka Doncic.

I have tremendous respect for most of the basketball people that I know in the NBA, and I’ve known many of these people for 30 to 40 years. Many of the decision-makers are guys that played or coached in college.

If everybody knew what they were doing in the NBA, every team would be 41 and 41. But the reality is most of the people who are on the personnel side know the basketball side of the league far better than their ownership does.

It is healthy when ownership is involved, but not to the degree where they are in the kitchen with the cooks.

RAY: Before we get into the specifics about this year’s draft, I want to talk a little bit about your role. You are seen by some as primarily the international expert even you know just as much about American players. How has that identification happened?

Fran Fraschilla

Photo via Fran Fraschilla

FRAN: I have always been an NBA Draft junkie. I have been evaluating players since I was 14 years old! It was a hobby of mine, and, of course, it was hugely helpful as a college recruiter.

I covered the NBA Draft for 14 years at ESPN, and I covered the NBA Combine for most of that time as well.

So, in a given year at ESPN, I knew the college players even better than I knew the international players. I always enjoyed the combine. It is the beginning of the end of the Draft process.

I also keep a player database year-round. I study tape, and I watch them 12 months a year. I don’t need a researcher!

I’ve had the good fortune at ESPN to do a lot at the grassroots summer level with Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, so I got to know elite players even going back to their time as high school players. That not only translated into my role as a broadcaster when they got to college but helped as they became NBA prospects as well.

Back in 2004, Dan Steir, who hired me as a college basketball analyst at ESPN, said, ” I could use you on the draft if you want to handle the international players.”

Back then it was just a handful of guys each year. There was the occasional Marciulionas or Dirk or Kukoc, but the floodgates had not opened and the NBA was traversing on virgin territory. The amount of scouting resources on the internet was still limited. And so I was getting in on the ground floor.

When I was coaching at Manhattan College, I had a Spanish player who later on went back to Spain and was a professional player for over a decade. Because of my involvement with Spanish basketball, I began to do clinics around Europe. And I did more of them when I left coaching in 2002.

Pete Philo, another one of my former players at Manhattan, became an NBA scout after playing in Europe. Along with Tony Ronzone, Pete became one of the two best international scouts in the NBA through his involvement with the NBA and Reebok at what started out as the Reebok Euro Camp.

It was the European version of the NBA Combine and was the brainchild of Donnie Nelson and Kiki Vandeweghe. I went over in 2004 to cover it exclusively to cover it as a media guy.

Before the camp even started, Donnie Nelson said, “What are you doing here?” I said that I was covering the camp for ESPN.

He goes, “No, you’re not. You’re coaching.”

I said okay, and so I was the only non-NBA person that coached at the camp in its first 12 years. It gave me this unique insight into most of the top players that were going to be in the ensuing NBA Draft for each of the next 14 years.

I got to know them personally, coach them and study them on tape, 12 months a year. I developed great contacts in Europe, and it turned into an incredible niche.

Fran Fraschilla with Walter Tavares on NBA Draft night. (Photo via Fran Fraschilla)

I became the “international draft analyst” right when the floodgates of international players coming to the NBA was opening. And I was very conscious of the fact that I was introducing players to the NBA audience that they had never heard of before.

My job was not just to inform but to entertain as well.

I’m best known, obviously, for something that slipped out of my mouth accidentally, when I said something about Bruno Caboclo, who I felt was a second-round pick at best and was being hidden by some teams. He was drafted in the first round.

After I gave my breakdown of him as a player, I was running out of things to say but I still had time on camera. And I blurted out something I’d said many times as a college coach: “This guy is two years away from being two years away.”

It became something that I’m kind of attached to, probably until they write my obituary. The year Porzingis was taken when they showed the crying young Knicks fan, I said “You have no idea how good this kid is.”

There was a time when the Nets made a late second-round pick that I said, “Don’t worry Nets fans, you’ll never hear from this guy again. ” I knew he wasn’t going to be playing in the NBA since he wasn’t good enough.

I’m proud that I helped bring international basketball to ESPN and that I did it at an All-Star level for a very long time (by TV standards).

RAY: Let’s turn to this year’s draft. Sam Smith recently said that, because there are no dominant, obvious choices at the top, this is the rare draft where one team’s number one might be number 10 on another team’s list. 

FRAN: Sam is absolutely right. This is a unique draft because there is no transcendent player staring teams in the face like there was the past two years.

Last season, it was apparent from the very first time Zion Williamson put on a college uniform that he would be the number one pick, and it looks like he will be a transcendent NBA player, barring any health issues.

There’s no Zion Williamson or LeBron in this draft. There’s a mystery to this draft that we haven’t seen in a couple of years.There are guys that are going to be drafted between 10 and 25 who could legitimately end up being the best player in this draft, five to seven years from now.,

RAY: Can you identify some potential draftees who are not getting the attention you think they deserve.?

FRAN: This is a draft where it’s hard to pinpoint who the All-Stars are going to be. In every draft, there might be three or four all-stars and there may be 10 to 12 eventual starters. If you can get a solid rotation player late in the first round, you’ll grab that and run with it.

Can a kid like Aaron Nesmith from Vanderbilt become an NBA starter? Let’s say he’s drafted 15th. He arguably is the best shooter in this draft. He’s got NBA range, he’s got NBA accuracy, he shoots well off the move There’s a lot he does that translates to the NBA because he’s got an elite talent.

He has a chance to be a starter for 10 years in the NBA, and the only great skill he might have is that he’s a great shooter. Any NBA GM or coach would take that and run with it, whether or not he ever plays in an all-star game.

It’s kind of like what Khris Middleton became with the Milwaukee Bucks after having been drafted in the second round. Eight to 10 years later, he’s considered one of the best offensive players in the NBA simply because you know what you’re getting out of him every single night, which is 18 to 20 points a game.

And so when I think of sleepers, I think: Could this kid who we draft 28th end up being a really good player for 10 years, potentially as a starter or at least as a really good rotation player?

RAY: Are there other players that you have a contrarian view of in the sense that you would put them in a higher one of your tiers than the consensus places them?

FRAN: By this time of the year, the guys that I highlighted three to six months ago have become known by now. I’ve always tried to be ahead of the curve.

Photo via Fran Fraschilla

I was lucky to be ahead of the curve on Tyrese Halliburton because I know the Big 12 so well. It’s not “an incredible gift” because anybody who studies the NBA draft is lucky if they hit 33 percent, whether you are GM of the Bucks or the Warriors or you’re a guy like me who studied the game his whole life.

For example, take the second game of Tyrese Halliburton’s freshman year. That was a game I did not broadcast but I saw him against Missouri while he was on a team that had three other guys who were considered better NBA prospects than him. I said that he was Iowa State’s best prospect.

And now in a draft like this, it’s conceivable that he goes top five or six, which, for a kid who came from Oshkosh, Wisconsin as a three-star recruit, would have been unheard of.

So Tyrese has already made the trek up the ladder to a point where everybody now has him high on their mock drafts.

Take Saddiq Bey. I’m fortunate enough to have a little insight into Villanova because my youngest son Matt is the video coordinator there. They’ve produced a lot of NBA talent lately.

All of a sudden Saddiq Bey goes from being a nice freshman a year ago to being a 6’8″ kid at a hard-working program with an elite ability to shoot the ball and defend multiple positions. Teams now have fallen in love with him because, whether he’s a star or not, he’s almost a can’t-miss NBA player.

So you can pretty much count on a guy like that for the next 10 years, no matter where you draft him. Those are the kind of guys I look at when I say, “this kid’s probably not going to be able to fail.”

Obi Topping fits into that category because he’s got a unique ability to shoot the ball and he’s an NBA athlete. And I know what kind of character these guys have. And so I’m rolling the dice on guys like that.

RAY: What about some of the best international players in this year’s draft, starting with Killian Hayes?

FRAN: Killian is an interesting prospect. It’s rare to see such a one-hand-dominant player. He plays almost exclusively to his left hand. But as a young player in this draft, I think his potential is vast.

He has an interesting background as his father, DeRon, was a star at Penn State in the early 90s who then spent over 20 seasons playing professionally in Europe.

Killian had a very good season, leaving France to play for Ulm in Germany, where his head coach, former European star Jaka Lakovic, essentially gave him the reins of the team in a very good league. He allowed Killian to play through a lot of mistakes as an 18-year-old.

I’m very high on him. He is an excellent playmaker. He’s a terrific passer. His shooting must improve and be more consistent. I think he’s going to be a very good NBA player in time.

RAY: Another player I want to ask you about is Deni Avdija.

FRAN: He’s got the weight of his country on his shoulders because he’ll be the highest-drafted Israeli player ever. He wears that weight well.

He is a tough, hard-nosed kid. At 6’9″, he could play small-ball four or the three spot. He’s a good defender. For his size, he’s an excellent ball-handler and passer. The one mystery is how a guy with a seemingly good shooting stroke can have such poor results so far.

He shot 54 percent from the foul line this year. That’s a head-scratcher, but I like his long term potential.

And while I don’t see him as an NBA star, I think he’s going to be a good NBA player. I project him as a starter, and I also think that he has a winning game. It’s not just his talent and athleticism, but he plays to help you win games.

I think that he’s got a good solid future in the league.

RAY: How about Theo Maledon?

FRAN: His is an interesting story because he and Killian have come up together on the French Junior national team. What makes this process so interesting is, unlike Killian—who was recruited to leave France and come to Germany this year to grow as a point guard with a lot of opportunity to be successful—Theo went to Asvel. That’s a team owned by Tony Parker, which played in Euro League this year at the highest level.

So Theo didn’t have the unlimited opportunity to play through mistakes. He had to share the point guard spot with a couple of seasoned veteran players. He didn’t stand out statistically as much as Killian did, but he also played at a higher level.

There are some things in Theo’s favor: He’s got very good size for a point guard. He’s got excellent shooting form and touch. He’s very good at pick and roll. And he already possesses the potential to be an above-average defender. There’s a lot to like about him. He’s been a professional since he was 16 years old.

The one thing Theo’s teammates say about him is that they love him as a kid. He’s a gym rat, he’s mature, and they believe his talent will show more in an NBA system than having to play with some handcuffs on him as an 18-year-old point guard in the Euro League.

RAY: In April of 2018, you said this about Luka Doncic: “He’s a pick and roll maestro, an excellent team defender with the body and skills of pre-injury Hayward and the mind of Ginobili”. You indicated that you were saying that in order to restrain some people’s excitement about him, but to me, that sounded like a description of a future Hall of Fame player.

Feb. 1, 2018; Moscow, RUSSIA; Luka Doncic of Real Madrid drives the ball during the 2017-2018 Euroleague Basketball match between Moscow CSKA and Real Madrid. Mandatory Credit: Xinhua/Sipa USA via USA TODAY NETWORK

FRAN: I thought he would go No. 2, behind Ayton at No. 1. So I am no “genius” even if I loved Luka.

One of the things that’s always helped me in my evaluation of European kids is a translation that’s been developed over 15 years: We have figured out that college basketball is like Double-A baseball. The Euroleague and the ACB are Triple-A baseball, and the NBA is the major leagues.

You could average 17 a game at Kansas and be Andrew Wiggins. That’s like hitting .300 in Double A. It means that you have a chance to be a major leaguer, but it’s by no means certain that you’re going to be an All-Star.

At age 17, Luka hit the equivalent of .400 in the Euro league. If you hit .400 in Triple-A, you’re probably going to hit .350 in the majors.

If you go back and listen to all my comments on international players, I always gave you a sense of whether I thought they could make it in a league or not. I wouldn’t crush them on draft night. But I would give you an idea that I had my doubts, without me saying this kid stinks.

With Luka, I had talked to a number of American players who played with and against him in the Europa League. They all said to me, he’s going to be a very good NBA player. And when I would ask, “What about an all-star?”, they said, “maybe not right away.”

But they all said that this kid was not going to fail.

The one thing I’ve learned through the years from my NBA friends is makeup. What is inside a player is going to determine how great a player a guy can be. If you compare DeAndre Ayton and Luka right now, the difference is not just talent. Ayton wanted to be in the league, and he is becoming a good player. Doncic wants to be an all-time great.

RAY: That raises an interesting question: In this season of the virus, when interviews are by Zoom or something similar, in terms of figuring out those sorts of things during the interview, in addition to watching demeanor on the court and talking to teammates and talking to coaches, do you think that’s going to have much of an impact as far assessing the ability to find out things like heart and motor and motivation?

FRAN: That is a great question. The teams that do this the best have great scouts who have divined this information way before we got to what would have been the middle of May and the NBA combine and the beginning of the interviews.

There is more digging than ever on background information, and the one thing that I notice every year that I think many franchises miss is whether the prospects have a winning game.

We know if they are NBA athletes; we know he if they have elite skills. The important question is, “Does he have a game that translates to winning in the NBA?”

There are a number of young players who are having success early in their careers in the NBA right now. But they are producing individually, and I’m not sure you can say that kid will take a franchise to the promised land. That’s something that I don’t think is as much a part of the equation as it should be.

I look at a kid like Tyrese Halliburton. I think he’s going to be a good NBA player—likely a starter but potentially maybe just a really good rotation player his whole career. But I know wherever you put him in his career, he’s going to have a winning game. Even if it’s off the bench for 22 minutes a night as a backup point guard.

Monte Morris was the Nuggets’ 51st pick in last year’s draft. For four years in college, he had a winning game. Patrick Beverley has a winning game. If you look at the Warriors’ title teams, supporting the superstars you had Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green with winning games. The aspect of helping a team win NBA games is not as highly placed by some teams as it is by others.

RAY: You mentioned Draymond. When he was coming out of college, most people were saying that he was too chubby, can’t shoot and that he doesn’t have a position. So I asked our mutual friend Coach Finamore about him, and Steve said to ignore all that because he is going to be a star.

FRAN: The one guy on TV that had Draymond right was Digger Phelps. He said over and over that he would be a very good NBA player.

One thing I try to do when I analyze players for the draft is, to come at it from a coach’s point of view. How is this guy going to help a team impact winning? I don’t just look at talent.

I try to figure out what makes a guy be a really good teammate, even if he will become the fifth or even eighth-most talented guy on a roster.

The beauty of basketball is that it’s a team game. In order to win an NBA championship, you’ve got to have a couple of superstars. But show me who your role players are! And we just saw that in The Last Dance. We saw that with Steve Kerr and John Paxson and Bill Cartwright. I love that aspect of evaluation.


Want more great NBA broadcaster profiles? Don’t miss Ray’s previous interview with Atlanta Hawks announcer Bob Rathbun.

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