This season, 108 players from 38 countries were on an NBA roster for opening night. (The record is 113 players from 42 countries, set in 2016-17.) The reigning MVP (Giannis Antetokounmpo) hails from overseas (Greece).
There’s a lot of talent to be found all around the world, and all front offices now routinely search through Europe, Asia, South America, etc. to find the next great import.
Even though the league announced it would postpone the draft lottery and the combine recently, we do know the names of the 205 players that entered their names early into the draft pool. Of those 205 prospects, 42 of them qualify as international early entrants. The 2020 NBA Draft will happen eventually.
The players below are those that all fans should know by the time the draft rolls around. A few of the names will be very familiar, and some were even born in the United States but opted to play internationally for a season.
LaMelo Ball, G (Illawarra Hawks)
The youngest Ball brother is also arguably the most talented at this stage. LaMelo Ball was no stranger to playing overseas, dad Lavar shipped him off to Lithuania in 2017 rather than let him continue to play at Chino Hills in the U.S.
Though that ended up being a glorified marketing ploy, it wasn’t the last time Ball would leave America to play basketball: Following his senior year in high school, he elected to become a professional player in Australia rather than attend UCLA as his older brothers did.
Ball was part of the NBL’s Rising Stars program and played for the Illawarra Hawks where he instantly became the league’s main attraction and was the youngest player in NBL history to record a triple-double (32 points, 13 assists, and 11 rebounds).
Still soaked in the flashy style of play his father preached, Ball turned heads and made highlights nearly every game he was part of. However, his season would be cut short after suffering an ankle injury.
During those 12 games, he showcased how he possessed a similar feel for the sport, averaging seven assists per game and making evaluators gush over Lonzo.
Upon entering the NBA, LaMelo will already be one of the better facilitators and passers. As a 6’8” lead guard, he can see angles and lanes that few others can. He also has the array of passes—one-handed outlets, no-look lobs, hit-ahead assists—to make an impact on the highest level.
His basketball savvy stands out among a weak draft pool, and it’s why he is considered as possibly the best prospect in 2020.
He doesn’t come without weakness, though: He needs to work on that shot.
Ball’s form needs a total retooling as he was more streaky than consistent from the perimeter. He has shown some touch with his floater, but despite his size advantage over other guards, he doesn’t get to the rim as much as expected. This is similar to what older brother Lonzo (New Orleans Pelicans) struggled with after being drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers. Through a couple years of hard work, Lonzo’s shot and scoring ability continue to look better every season.
It’s clear that he’s working to fix his weaknesses, and the hope is that LaMelo will do the same.
Defensively, the younger Ball also gambled a lot and often seemed to just be going through the motions at times. If he goes to a team that prioritizes that side of the ball, he has the skills and the smarts to become highly-skilled on that end of the floor. It will just take some additional fine-tuning and coaching.
Ball’s game and personality will be broken down more over the coming months, which might bring about the return of Lavar mania. But at this stage, he’s the clear leader in the clubhouse as the top international prospect.
Deni Avdija, F (Maccabi Tel Aviv)
Prior to LaMelo uprooting (again) from the United States, the title of best young overseas player was foisted upon the head of Deni Avdija. After the early success of Luka Doncic, many were ready to place the 6’9” Israeli point-forward on a pedestal right away.
That comparison hasn’t turned out to be correct (or fair) to Avdija.
Doncic was a star for European powerhouse Real Madrid as a teenager. Despite playing for hometown Maccabi Tel Aviv, Avdija is still a bit-player on the clubs’ main team. He sees a lot of action in the local Israeli League, but his EuroLeague playing time has continued to fluctuate.
Yet, when going up against his peers, he has clearly looked like a can’t miss prospect. Avdija was named MVP of the FIBA U20 European Championship in 2019 and has helped the Israeli national team win the event in back-to-back years. The first time he played more of a supporting role, but he carried the national team to victory during the 2019 event.
His versatility is his main calling card. Avdija possesses abilities on the floor that should allow for his game to translate when he crosses the Atlantic in a few months. He is comfortable handling the ball and operating as a primary initiator but is also just as well-versed working out of the post.
The versatility carries over to the other end of the court too.
Avdija is not going to be an All-Defense-level player, but he can hold his own defending 1-4. He isn’t the quickest or most agile, either, but his length allows him to hassle smaller players.
The same strength that makes him effective offensively in the interior translates over to defense, too. He knows how to wall up and make himself bigger in the paint and has just enough spring in his step to protect the rim.
Avdija could hold his own in an NBA game today. Yet, teams aren’t looking to select players who can do just enough to survive in the lottery—even in a down year. The makings of a potential franchise player lurk within Avdija’s game, but he’s going to need a few seasons to adjust and put it all together.
Previously, a player like him might have once been presumed too soft or weak to play well in the NBA. Some of the stigmas that once surrounded top international players have been washed away by the likes of Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and others over time.
But it’s certainly no guarantee that Europe’s next big thing will ever be thought of on par with the current generation of overseas superstars.
Unlike some of his counterparts, Avdija has been crowned and celebrated as the next big thing already. He has proven himself worthy at home, but it will be a daunting task to repeat in America.
Fit is going to be crucial for his development. While he might possess the highest floor of any prospect in this bunch, he’s going to need the right environment in order to have sustained success.
Killian Hayes, G (Ulm)
Killian Hayes is the prospect du jour at the moment.
As the media searches far and wide for a player to take the mantle as the best 2020 youngster, a few have turned to the French guard as their choice. (Hayes is the second player in this article that was born in the United States (Florida). His father, De’Ron, played at Penn State before having an extended career in Europe.)
Like Avdija, Hayes has saved his most impressive stints for the FIBA youth tournaments.
He had his coming out moment during the U16 European Championships where he helped France win gold and was named MVP. He followed that up by going toe-to-toe with Cole Anthony and Team USA as the French National Team took home silver at the 2018 FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup.
A 6’6” left-handed combo guard, Hayes reads the court like a veteran and can also take over games as a scorer. He is poised with the ball in his hands; the opponent never seems to rattle him or speed up his process.
Hayes has some flashes of James Harden and D’Angelo Russell in his play. He also relies heavily on his left.
After not seeing consistent time with Cholet of the Pro A French League, he spent this past year with Ratiopharm Ulm of the Basketball Bundesliga in Germany. On a team that featured former NBA players Isaiah Briscoe, Zoran Dragic, Archie Goodwin and Tyler Harvey, his coach entrusted him with the responsibility of running the show. He responded by averaging 11.6 ppg, 5.3 apg, 3.15 rpg, and 1.35 spg while leading the team in minutes per game (25.08).
The number that jumps off the page when looking through all of Hayes’ statistics is his 63.2 two-point field goal percentage.
His ability to not only get into the lane but to finish consistently too makes him the type of player that any NBA team would love to add to its roster. There he’ll see more athletes like himself, and so it’s going to take some time for him to adjust.
He’ll be a useful player if he can continue to convert at an above-average level.
Hayes’ size and athleticism are two key reasons why he was so effective around the basket. Those things also make him a nuisance for opposing teams on defense. He’s constantly produced impressive steal and block rates for a teenager.
Hayes has great timing on that end, often knowing just when to jump a passing lane or meet a player to contest a shot at the rim after rotating over as the help defender.
Like Ball, the biggest flaw in Hayes’ game is his perimeter shooting. His percentages paint him as a non-shooter: 19.2 percent and 21.8 percent respectively on three-pointers during his last season with Cholet and this year with Ulm.
Nonetheless, there is hope that his 85.3 free throw percentage is an indicator that there is a reliable jump shot tucked away somewhere in his game.
Hayes has shown time-after-time that he can produce on the biggest stage and with the ball in his hands. The question is whether or not there is an NBA team that will provide him with that opportunity in his rookie season.
If there is, he could end up as the best French point guard since Tony Parker. If not, he could end up as another “what if”.
Theo Maledon, G (ASVEL)
Speaking of Tony Parker, our final member of the overseas elite group is none other than his heir apparent.
Theo Maledon plays for ASVEL of the French Pro A League, which is owned by the former San Antonio Spurs guard. He has been the team’s starting point guard since he was 17 years old.
It wasn’t just ownership playing favorites either. Maledon became the youngest all-star in the French league since 1987.
Before Hayes’ breakout campaign with Ulm, Maledon was thought to be the best prospect in France and one of the best prospects in the 2020 class period.
Another tall guard (6’5”), he also has an incredible amount of length (6’9” wingspan). With the NBA falling deeper down the positionless rabbit hole each year, Maledon has the measurements to fit right in a switch-heavy defensive scheme.
Defending just happens to be one area of the game that he excels at. He is a gritty on-ball defender that fights over screens and contests many shots because of his length. Parker told ESPN’s Mike Schmitz that Maledon was better than Frank Ntilikina who was taken with the eighth overall pick (New York Knicks) in 2017.
Of all the top international players mentioned, Maledon has had the most success as a perimeter shooter. During the 2018-19 season with ASVEL, he connected on 40.6 percent of his three-pointers. That number plummeted to 28.6 this year, but he has two other seasons at over 34 percent—34.5 in 2017-18 and 41.3 in 2016-17—on his resume.
He’s also shot 75 percent or higher from the free-throw line in four of his six professional seasons.
Besides that, Maledon has a similar skill set to his fellow countryman, Hayes: He plays at a steady pace and teeters the line between score-first and pass-first pretty fluidly. Yet, he wasn’t given the same opportunity to showcase his game every day, as he saw a decrease in minutes from last season.
Having a future Hall of Fame player in his corner is certainly a leg up on his competition, however.
All NBA 30 teams saw Parker grow, mature and develop during his time in San Antonio. It’s only right that they assume he passed over some of the lessons he learned to his prodigy. Thus, Maledon will enter the league with some idea of what to expect and how to best navigate it.
Even if he doesn’t, he can always get the information he needs from one of the better players to ever man the 1.
All the tools are there, it’s just a matter of finding the right handyman to use them. Maledon is the type of prospect who could’ve seen his stock rise during workouts, but given the current landscape, he’ll have to hope he showed enough in limited time to make an NBA franchise comfortable entrusting their future to him.
There’s also a chance that whatever team selects Maledon chooses to leave him in Europe for another season. His game might be more mature than an average teenager, but his body composition certainly isn’t. He would do well to pack on some muscle prior to attempting a path in the NBA.
Some extra seasoning could be the difference between Maledon being barbecue chicken or a five-star entree.