With hoop lovers’ focuses stuck solely on the riveting NBA offseason, one could be forgiven for missing the announcement of the All-Rookie First and Second Teams in May. Along with budding superstars Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum as well as impressive freshmen Lonzo Ball and Josh Jackson, there were also two notable international inclusions: Lauri Markkanen and Bogdan Bogdanovic.
Like most European prospects, Serbian national Bogdan Bogdanovic started his pro career in the EuroLeague. Widely renowned as the second best professional basketball league in the world, Bogdanovic split his five seasons in the Euroleague between Serbian club Partizan and European giants Fenerbahce. During that time the 6-foot-6 wing put up a tick over 12 points per game, making his name known as an impressive athlete and knockdown 3-point shooter. This strong resume led to Bogdanovic being selected by the Phoenix Suns with the 27th pick in the 2014 NBA draft. After the Suns traded his rights to the Sacramento Kings in 2016, the 25-year-old finally made the trip stateside this past summer.
Unlike Bogdanovic, Finnish prodigy Lauri Markkanen came to the U.S. directly after starring at Finland’s Helsinki Academy High School. It didn’t take long for the 6-foot-10 forward to impress at Arizona University. He put up 15.6 points and 7.2 rebounds while hitting a blistering 42.3 percent from behind the arc en route to a fantastic one-and-done campaign. Jimmy Butler’s trade to Minnesota may have slightly overshadowed Markkanen’s draft night, but his work as a Wildcat was rewarded when the Chicago Bulls’ selected him with their newly acquired seventh pick in the 2017 NBA draft.
Despite their contrasting paths to the NBA, both international rookies made their presence felt in their debut season. All-Rookie First Team member Markkanen has become a beacon of hope for the struggling Bulls after dropping 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game while hitting 36.2 percent of his 5.9 triples per night.
Even the King, Lebron James, had fond words for the man dubbed the ‘Finnisher’. Following on from Nick Friedell of ESPN, we can read those praises:
“A very confident kid, [can] shoot the heck out of the ball. He’s going to continue to get better. The best thing about it is he’s getting an opportunity. If he makes mistakes, he can learn on the fly, but he’s going to play a lot. He’s good. It seems like he’s learning. He’s a good player.” James said.
Similar to his Finnish counterpart, Bogdanovic was just as his EuroLeague play advertised for the Kings this season. The Serbian put up 11.8 points per game while chipping in 2.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists. He also splashed 39 percent of his long-range bombs. The mature-aged rookie hit the apex of his potential-laden first season by dropping 26 points and dishing out six dimes during the 2018 Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star weekend. He was given the game’s MVP award for his performance.
Grooming international prospects into NBA stars is something few do better than San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich, and he was quick to heap praise on Bogdanovic when the Spurs were in town this season. Wes Goldberg of The Step Back discussed the Serbian with coach Popp:
“[He] really understands innately how to play the game. He’s just built for it mentally. When you’re shooting the ball or understanding spatial arrangements on the court, who he’s playing with, what shot is good, what shot’s not, how to play with his teammates, he’s really got a high basketball IQ. On top of that, he’s got good skills. He handles the ball, he passes and shoots.” he said
These two rising European stars have proven that no matter how you get to the big leagues if you do your thing and do it well ears will perk up quickly around basketball circles.
With international faces littering the league already and new ones like potential first overall pick Luka Doncic on their way, Lauri Markkanen and Bogdan Bogdanovic will have plenty of global competition throughout their careers. And those careers both got off to a red-hot start despite very different paths from Europe to the NBA. The remainders of their NBA journey’s will be fascinating to watch unfold.