April 16, 2014

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NBA draft: Rick Noland breaks down the top international players

Their names are like alphabet soup, but they’re also the top international prospects in the June 23 NBA Draft. The Czech Republic’s Jan Vesely, Lithuania’s Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas and the Republic of the Congo’s Bismack Biyombo all could end up being lottery picks, but there are questions surrounding each.

For that reason — and some others — their NBA futures draw different projections from different people. Some reputable mock drafts have one or two going high and the others slipping, while other drafts offer the exact opposite forecast.

Nothing is certain, but there’s a decent shot one of the four — Biyombo is the biggest long shot — could go to the Cavaliers with the No. 4 pick.

Here’s a look at the four players:

Jan Vesely

Jan Vesely

Jan Vesely

Not counting likely high first-round pick Enes Kanter of Kentucky, who was born in Turkey and ruled ineligible by the NCAA, Vesely could be the most NBA ready of the international group.

The 21-year-old is 6-foot-11, 230 pounds and considered capable of playing small forward and power forward.

“I really like his game,” said Ryan Blake, the NBA’s co-director of scouting. “He played for one of the best teams (Partizan Belgrade) in Europe and he’s very skilled.”

Vesely is considered tremendously athletic and capable of making “wow” plays. He has a great motor and gets a lot of his points off sheer hustle. In addition, he can shoot the ball with range.

On the down side, most scouts are of the opinion he needs to improve his consistency and develop go-to moves, both in the low post and facing the basket.

“He needs to improve on little aspects, but he has great athleticism and drive,” Blake said. “If he’s not the best international player coming out, he’s right up there.”

Not everyone agrees. One mock draft has Vesely going to the Cavs at No. 4. Another has him lasting until the 16th pick. Others have him going somewhere in between.

While scouts from some NBA teams rate Valanciunas higher — there’s a chance Cleveland’s could be included — Blake puts Vesely at the top of the list when it comes to international players.

“All have great qualities. That’s important to say,” he said. “I like Vesely because he’ll be able to turn it on. And he’s more prepared for the climate of change (on and off the court) coming in from overseas.”

Jonas Valanciunas

Jonas Valanciunas

Jonas Valanciunas

The biggest concern — but in some cases, it may also be a plus — is that the 6-11, 240-pound Valanciunas doesn’t have a buyout in place with his current team, Lietuvos Rytas.

Some reports have put that buyout as high as $3 million, though others have stated it won’t be that much. Regardless, an NBA team can contribute just $500,000 toward it, so Valanciunas would have to foot the rest.

For that reason, Blake expects Valanciunas, who just turned 19 in May, to pull out of the draft by the June 13 deadline.

“The fact he doesn’t have a buyout in place is going to scare a lot of teams,” Blake said. “He may not be ready this year.”

On the flip side, teams with multiple first-round picks — like Cleveland (Nos. 1 and 4) and Utah (Nos. 3 and 12) — could be willing to gamble on Valanciunas if he stays in the draft.

If Valanciunas negotiates a buyout, great, he can come to the NBA. If he doesn’t, no big deal, because he’ll likely play and develop more overseas, anyway.

“Cleveland’s in a great position,” Blake said. “They don’t have to have him and you can still hold his rights. You can store him and he can develop.”

Of course, there’s also the aspect of appeasing a fan base anxious to have a player who can come in and contribute immediately, but there’s no guarantee Valanciunas will do that even if he stays in the draft and comes to the NBA.

Valanciunas is considered to be a fluid big man with great hands — he also has a long wingspan — but he needs to add weight and strength. He won’t work out for NBA teams with other international players next week, but will conduct interviews, which should afford clubs an opportunity to determine just how much he wants to play in the NBA.

“His confidence is high, but there are a lot of questions out there,” Blake said.

Donatas Motiejunas

Donatas Motiejunas

Donatas Motiejunas

A month ago, most mock drafts ranked the 7-foot, 224-pound Motiejunas, who will turn 21 in September, behind Vesely and Valanciunas. Today, a number of them rate him higher.

The positives include his footwork and shooting touch; the negatives include a still-thin body and poor rebounding and defensive instincts.

The biggest concern, however, may be an intangible.

“I don’t know where his work ethic is, where his heart is, his motor,” Blake said. “His improvement hasn’t gotten to where we want it. He’s 7 feet, but he’s got to grind it. He’s got to get in the weight room and get stronger.”

On the flip side, Motiejunas’ shooting touch has led some to compare him to a young Dirk Nowitzki or Andrea Bargnani, two European big men who aren’t overly strong but have found a way to succeed in the NBA.

No one knows for sure which view is correct, but Motiejunas will still likely go somewhere in the top 15 picks, with the potential to vault real high if just one team likes him a lot.

“He’s still young,” Blake said. “He’s still a low risk.”

Bismack Biyombo

Bismack Biyombo (11)

Bismack Biyombo (11)

Biyombo is only 6-9, but carries a well-developed 243 pounds. His listed date of birth, Aug. 28, 1992, means he’s just 18, though some suspect he could be several years older.

Biyombo has tremendous athleticism and a virtually unheard of 7-7 wingspan. Combine that with natural off-the-ball defensive instincts and he is already a great shot-blocker.

Of course, Biyombo’s offensive repertoire at this point consists of one thing — dunking.

For all those reasons, one mock draft has him going as high as No. 5, while others don’t have him being taken in the first round and still others have him going somewhere in the middle.

“He’s a defensive force, but his offensive game is just weak,” Blake said. “When you’re 6-9 and you’ve got all that athleticism — quick bounce, quick reactions — he’s someone you really don’t want to ignore.

“But he is a risk, because he’s not ready (for the NBA).”

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.