Whenever I tell people I watch European basketball they usually have the same response, “oh, that’s cool.” Actually, I just ad-libbed the that’s cool part, they usually just say, “oh.” Unless the person I’m talking too is an actual NBA fan, like a few of my friends. They all usually have the same question.
How many guys in Europe could play in the NBA?
This question starts a discussion based on a series of sub-questions that aim to help us answer the initial question.
The first question we have to answer is, how do we define playing?
If we define playing as simply being on an NBA roster, then there are a lot of guys in Europe who could play in the NBA. Some guys I think of off the top of my head are Tyler Honeycutt, Kostas Papanikolau, and Artsiom Parakhouski. These guys are in Europe for a reason, though, and that’s because they aren’t good enough to be regular NBA rotation guys, which is how I define playing and is how it will be defined for this discussion.
Now that we’ve answered that sub-question we can begin to approach another sub question that helps us respond to the initial question.
What type of player who’s successful in Europe is also successful in the NBA?
The reason we use this sub-question is because not every player who’s successful in Europe is successful in the NBA. In fact, some guys who dominate in Europe are abysmal in the NBA while other guys who are just slightly above average in Europe go on to have successful NBA careers. This problem has happened so often that fans, coaches, writers and others have come up with a broad term to describe problems for Euro stars who are NBA busts. That term is eurosyndrome.
Eurosyndrome is a broad term, so to answer our questions we have to start to find the specific problems, or symptoms, of eurosyndrome. Once we’re able to diagnose eurosyndrome, we can know how to figure out which players have it and which ones don’t. Then we can really start to get an idea of which Euro players are good enough for commentators to learn their difficult last name and which ones aren’t.
To diagnose eurosyndrome we are going to run a series of tests, similar to actual doctors. This will be interesting because I’m actually nowhere near smart enough to be a doctor. But I’m going to give it a shot anyway.
Our first test will be a statistics test. We’re going to evaluate the numbers of Euro players who busted in the NBA and then compare them to Euro players who were successful in the NBA. We’re going to compare their stats in international ball and then their NBA stats. Now there are too many euro-NBA-players to evaluate all them so we’re going to build a sample size by setting up an All-Bust team and an All-Successful Team.
The All-Bust Team will be, Vassilis Spanoulis, Nando De Colo, Alexey Shved, Jan Vesely and Ognjen Kuzmic.
The All-Successful Team will be Pablo Prigioni, Alejandro Abrines, Nemanja Bjelica, Davis Bertans and Mindaugas Kuzminskas (I don’t know if it’s sad or impressive that I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t need to look up how to spell these players names, but I still rely on autocorrect when typing Wednesday).
The stats we are going to analyze and compare these players are usage rate (USG), player efficiency rating (PER), effective field goal percentage (eFG), true shooting percentage (TS) and points per shot (PPS). *
***All stats come from RealGM and are accurate as of March 9, 2017. RealGM didn’t start tracking European stats until the 2011-12 season. They also don’t calculate career averages for the statistics used so I had to calculate those on my own. For the All-Bust team, I did not use their averages for their current season in Europe.
Average Statistical Drop-Off from International play to NBA:
Average Statistical Drop-Off from International Play to NBA:
You can make your own assumptions to what these tables say and certain things may jump out at you. But what should jump out at you first is the usage rates for these players.
The first thing to notice when looking at usage rate numbers is that the lowest international usage rate for a player on the All-Bust team is Kuzmic’s 20.37. Only one player on the All-Successful team has a usage rate higher than that in international play, and that’s Kuzminskas, whose usage rate was 22.68.
Another thing to notice is that the busts experience a much bigger drop in usage rate when they come to the NBA in comparison to the players who are successful. The busts average drop in usage rate is 8.02, or 32.77 percent from their usage rate in international play. While the successful players experience a 3.99 drop in usage rate on average or 20.98 percent from their usage rate in international play.
Another to notice is that the decline in PER and usage rate are definitely correlated. The busts experience an average drop of 9.35 in their PER while the prosperous players only experience an average drop of 3.59. What these slides say is that the successful players are skilled enough to impact the game without having the ball in their hands. This raises an interesting point because there’s another thing the stats clearly show that some may say contradict the previous point. The usage rate and PER in international play for the busts are higher than it is for the better players. This would clearly indicate that they are more skilled players which brings us to another sub question.
Why does the superior skill of the busts not transfer to the NBA? While the inferior skill of the successful players does.
This is what really brings us to the core of eurosyndrome and also brings us to our other test for Euro players, the eye test.
The eye test is a test in which we watch the euro players and get an idea of their best skills. After we have established a set of their best skills, we have to determine if they do this skill to an NBA level. This where we can start to realize why the busts struggle. A lot of them have the same top skill, their ability to score. This is most notable in Spanoulis, De Colo and Shved. Vesely is a good post scorer in Europe. But these players aren’t good enough scorers to be top scorers in the NBA as the defense and athleticism are considerably better. Since they can’t score like they usually do, they aren’t threatening as they are in Europe. This leads to them not being able to capitalize on other skills they have and ultimately a severe decline in their performance.
On the other hand, the successful players tend to have NBA skills other than their ability to score. Prigioni had NBA level court vision and awareness. Abrines is an NBA-level shooter and is also a very smart defender. Bjelica is as skilled as NBA players as the roll/pop man in PnR/PnP sets and is also a great passer for his size. While Bertans and Kuzminskas have shown NBA-level ability when it comes to shooting and passing. Notice how none of these players have scoring as their top skill. Another eye test is that the players have to show effort on the defensive end, they don’t have to be good defenders, but if they show effort, it means there’s a good chance they improve on the defensive end as they gain more NBA experience. Players like Shved, De Colo and Vesely have all shown lengthy stretches of poor defensive effort in their careers while the successful guys have not only shown consistent effort on defense but some of them have shown the ability to be good defenders at certain times.
The diagnosis of eurosyndrome is complete. Players who suffer from it usually show these symptoms; they have an incredibly high usage rate which increases their PER, their best skill is their ability to score and they show flashes of laziness on defense. The players who are immune to eurosyndrome are players who are successful without a high usage rate, their best skill is an NBA level skill other than scoring and they always show maximum effort on defense.
Now that we have this all mapped out, we could start to answer the initial question of how many players in Europe could play in the NBA… but we’ll attack that another time.