The Analytics of International Players

Goga Bitadze
Goga Bitadze, the MVP of the Adriatic League and the winner of the EuroLeague Rising Star Award, stands out statistically compared to the other international prospects drafted in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Buducnost VOLI and the Adriatic League)

International players always bring an element of intrigue to each NBA draft – relatively, they’re unknown quantities.  The average NBA fan in the United States has little-to-no exposure to prospects playing abroad.  Even more sophisticated fans, who enjoy diving into the numbers, probably don’t completely understand the context, and find interpreting international stats complicated and confusing.  However, for those who do understand metrics and analytics and also comprehend the different levels of international competition, projecting an international prospect’s productivity at the NBA level is a reasonably accurate science/art. 

The Context

A typical prospect in Europe will play in at least two different leagues, and sometimes those leagues differ greatly in terms of quality of competition.  For example, Goga Bitadze, the 18th overall pick in June’s draft, not only played in three different leagues this past season, but he also played for two different teams.  To make a rough analogy, putting his season in terms of American basketball, imagine R. J. Barrett playing a quarter of his season for Duke in the G League, another third of his season for Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference, playing another quarter for Notre Dame in the ACC, and playing the remainder of his season (+/- 17 percent) for Notre Dame in the Mountain West Conference.  As confusing as that scenario is, it would not be impossible to make mathematical sense of Barrett’s numbers, or Bitadze’s, for that matter.

Last year, nearly everyone considered Deandre Ayton to be the top-ranked player in the draft, but at Hoops Prospects, Luka Doncic was ranked No. 1 on our draft board from start to finish.  We favored Doncic, the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, over Ayton for a number of reasons, including his feel for the game, versatility, and competiveness.  However, making an argument for Doncic over Ayton using statistics was a challenge because comparing international to college basketball is like comparing apples to oranges.  Well, actually, it’s like comparing apples, grapes, and pears to oranges, bananas, and kiwis. 

Based on the numbers alone, you can see why people might have favored Ayton.  Playing for Arizona in 2017-18, he averaged 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 2.5 steals-plus-blocks, and 2.0 turnovers per game.  He had shooting splits of .612/.343/.733 and a player efficiency rating of 30.6.  Doncic, meanwhile, played in two different leagues for Real Madrid, averaging 14.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.5 steals-plus-blocks, and 2.2 turnovers per game.  He had shooting splits of .450/.310/.789 and a player efficiency rating of 22.8. 

When writing Doncic’s scouting report last June, I tried to put his statistics into perspective by comparing his numbers to other international players who had come before him.  The results were that he had the most impressive stats in recent memory, besting players such as Nikola Jokic and Kristaps Porzingis.  This analysis alone didn’t necessarily further the argument that Doncic was the top player in the 2018 draft, however. 

To fully appreciate Doncic’s success you must understand how the international game relates to the NBA and the NCAA.  Comparing FIBA rules to the NCAA’s, the international 3-point line is further back, and the maximum amount of time to per possession is shorter (24 seconds, same as NBA).  Also, the international lane is smaller (same size as NBA), making it more difficult for offensive players to play bully ball on the inside, which frequently happens at the college level.  High-level European play is typically much more physical than college, and the average Euro player is much more experienced and physically developed.  Minutes for young players are typically limited in the high-level Euro leagues.  In sum, the European game is much more similar to the NBA than the NCAA, and college players are almost guaranteed to see a decline in statistical productivity (even per minute) when moving to Europe, especially in EuroLeague and the Spanish ACB, the two leagues that Doncic played in. 

The quality of international competition varies from league to league just as it does from conference to conference in the NCAA.  Doncic played in the two leagues in the world that are the closest matches to the NBA, but not every international player can say the same.  Based on my research and statistical analysis, I would say more than a dozen foreign leagues are clearly better than any conference in the NCAA.  In the table below, I have divided the best leagues outside the NBA into four groups.  The five leagues in Group A stand above the others in terms of quality of competition, and in my opinion, are superior to the NBA’s G League.  The leagues in Group B are arguably on par with the G League, and are clearly tougher than any conference in the NCAA.  The leagues in Group C are more or less on par with the top conferences in the NCAA, such as the ACC and the Big 12.  Group D is the best of the rest (and there are many other leagues that I have not included), and these leagues are arguably on par with second-tier NCAA conferences, such as Ayton’s PAC 12, the American Athletic (AAC), and the Mountain West (MWC).

Top Professional Basketball Leagues outside of the NBA

The Method

The table below is a comparison of the top 2019 international draft prospects to the international players who were drafted over the last 11 years and either were a first-round selection or were relatively productive during that span. The data used was the players’ stats from the year that they were drafted, with three exceptions.  When stats from multiple leagues were available, the data used was from the most competitive league plus EuroLeague, if the player had a minimum of 150 minutes played in EuroLeague.  The draft-year data was unavailable for six players: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dante Exum, Thon Maker, Christian Eyenga, Serge Ibaka, and Joe Ingles.  In the case of the latter three, all of whom didn’t immediately jump to the NBA, the stats from the following year were used.   

The nine stats that were chosen for this analysis are some of the primary metrics used by Hoops Prospects to evaluate players: points per shot (PPS), assist-turnover ratio (A/T), points plus assists per possession (PAPP), rebound percentage (REB%), steals percentage (STL%), block percentage (BLK%), player efficiency rating (PER), floor impact per game (FICPG), and win shares per game (WSPG).  In order to eliminate many of the problems associated with basic stats being greatly influenced by playing time, FICPG and WSPG are the only included stats that are very likely to increase with more minutes played per game.  Also, WSPG was globally increased by a factor of 100 because it’s inherently a small number.  You can read more about all of these stats on Real GM’s glossary page, with the exception of PAPP, which was created by me.  PAPP estimates possessions with the following formula: field-goal attempts + turnovers + .53 * free-throw attempts. 

To make an overall comparison, each player was given a “score,” which is equal to a weighted average of the percentile ranks of the nine statistical categories.  PER, FICPG, and WSPG were given a weight of two, while the other six stats were given a weight of one.  The reason for weighting PER, FICPG, and WSPG is that they are accepted measures of overall productivity, while the other stats are more specific (and not overall metrics).  Because of the nature of percentiles, the average score is 50 percent. 

Additionally, to gauge how successful these players have been in the NBA, their career NBA PER was included, but this stat was not used in the “score” calculation. 

2019 International Draft Prospect Comparison

RankPlayerPickYearLeagueScorePPSAST/TOPAPPREB%STL%BLK%PERFICPGWSPGNBA PER
1Luka Doncic32018Euroleague82.4%1.531.871.2812.042.341.3122.912.413.419.7
2Luka Doncic32018Spanish ACB82.4%1.372.161.2914.432.391.8322.512.213.219.7
3Jusuf Nurkic162014Adriatic League80.5%1.650.431.0621.563.776.1434.68.614.019.1
4Clint Capela252014French Jeep Elite79.5%1.480.821.1720.232.087.2223.810.410.922.3
5Dario Saric122014Adriatic League78.2%1.430.941.1018.402.242.0222.713.815.614.0
6Danilo Gallinari62008Italian Lega A78.1%1.580.731.1610.973.041.5121.612.320.416.9
7Goga Bitadze182019Euroleague77.7%1.690.831.1617.191.0610.6323.410.910.9
8Nicolas Batum252008French Jeep Elite77.7%1.401.511.2510.392.582.8219.910.913.114.9
9Goga Bitadze182019Adriatic League75.5%1.810.381.1415.501.248.7023.59.912.6
10Ricky Rubio52009Spanish ACB73.5%1.441.901.297.735.381.5420.99.49.315.8
11Ante Zizic232016Adriatic League72.2%1.800.181.0818.720.305.4824.310.412.417.6
12Rudy Gobert272013French Jeep Elite71.9%1.840.271.1815.251.667.4121.08.811.121.5
13Nikola Milutinov262015Adriatic League71.6%1.481.001.1216.630.853.0320.09.913.8
14Nikola Jokic412014Adriatic League69.0%1.241.321.1515.431.693.9321.29.89.224.9
15Nikola Mirotic232011Spanish ACB68.9%1.490.721.1714.232.202.5323.07.010.416.7
16Nikola Mirotic232011Euroleague67.1%1.361.001.1514.491.473.6422.78.79.116.7
17Dzanan Musa292018Adriatic League66.8%1.491.181.189.662.630.3819.67.911.15.8
18Jonas Valanciunas52011Euroleague65.3%1.770.141.1824.750.734.2025.26.78.219.9
19George Papagiannis132016Greek HEBA A165.3%1.550.691.2615.171.056.4826.65.38.912.5
20Lucas Nogueira162013Spanish ACB65.0%1.600.471.2116.101.949.1223.25.77.415.8
21Yago Dos Santos-2019Brazilian NBB64.6%1.481.851.317.661.620.0018.110.112.4
22Danilo Gallinari62008Euroleague62.8%1.371.061.069.212.871.2319.39.110.616.9
23Bogdan Bogdanovic272014Adriatic League62.1%1.141.741.108.492.381.1519.39.213.113.8
24Guerschon Yabusele162016French Jeep Elite61.7%1.450.651.1415.402.141.5618.810.07.312.4
25Donatas Motiejunas202011Italian Lega A61.3%1.500.431.0610.722.591.7619.57.611.212.3
26Emmanuel Mudiay72015Chinese CBA60.0%1.171.821.1612.302.650.2417.913.86.511.6
27Anzejs Pasecniks252017Spanish ACB59.5%1.650.421.2212.301.234.2520.75.89.1
28Sergey Karasev192013Russian VTB56.7%1.410.951.089.111.571.0718.28.012.28.7
29Yovel Zoosman-2019Israeli BSL55.2%1.301.961.238.692.660.9513.16.810.0
30Dragan Bender42016Israeli BSL54.5%1.331.241.1812.692.216.2216.84.87.37.4
31Victor Claver222009Spanish ACB52.1%1.440.461.0613.512.923.1715.56.47.77.4
32Jan Vesely62011Euroleague50.7%1.380.671.038.542.673.3316.76.58.410.9
33Alen Smailagic392019G League50.4%1.310.721.0312.562.324.8818.16.65.8
34Jonas Jerebko392009Italian Lega A49.9%1.310.501.0713.842.601.5315.57.68.213.2
35Tim Luwawu-Cabarrot242016Adriatic League49.8%1.200.941.008.682.861.4216.47.810.37.9
36Kristaps Porzingis42015Spanish ACB49.5%1.250.331.0014.112.284.7919.26.96.118.4
37Bismack Biyombo72011Spanish ACB48.7%1.550.170.8819.621.1612.9118.76.63.912.8
38Alexis Ajinc202008French Jeep Elite48.4%1.450.561.0515.991.449.9620.14.24.114.8
39Nemanja Nedovic302013Russian VTB48.2%1.181.301.127.403.091.0817.96.17.4-1.7
40Amine Noua-2019French Jeep Elite45.9%1.261.061.1211.010.982.7315.06.38.2
41Juancho Hernangomez152016Spanish ACB45.5%1.400.411.0215.881.931.2316.67.65.811.7
42Rodrigue Beaubois252009French Jeep Elite44.2%1.191.211.136.872.752.0315.65.85.814.4
43Evan Fournier202012French Jeep Elite43.5%1.221.021.037.753.290.5517.66.75.813.3
44Omri Casspi232009Euroleague41.7%1.360.391.0511.712.641.2218.64.85.013.0
45Joe Ingles *-2009Spanish ACB41.2%1.320.971.079.072.191.6313.37.03.812.5
46Serge Ibaka *242008Spanish ACB40.3%1.290.211.0118.601.122.0318.25.35.017.2
47Marcos Louzada Silva352019Brazilian NBB39.2%1.330.841.099.351.660.5016.65.16.1
48Nicolas Batum252008Euroleague38.6%1.171.351.099.063.131.7812.86.51.614.9
49Bogdan Bogdanovic272014Euroleague38.5%1.141.081.037.832.950.8115.57.72.913.8
50Mario Hezonja52015Euroleague38.4%1.281.051.157.762.021.0215.94.35.910.7
51Kevin Seraphin172010French Jeep Elite37.9%1.200.530.9717.650.715.5417.65.05.212.1
52Dennis Schroder172013German BBL37.8%1.251.261.106.492.100.1316.86.34.014.9
53Goran Dragic452008Euroleague37.2%1.251.211.147.342.301.2313.26.23.317.0
54Yovel Zoosman-2019Euroleague34.4%1.231.521.218.652.541.5910.03.23.3
55Frank Ntilikina82017French Jeep Elite34.0%1.311.701.147.622.191.1211.93.85.06.7
56Brian Bowen-2019Australian NBL31.8%1.330.831.0511.590.791.6613.84.33.5
57Christian Eyenga *302009Spanish ACB31.3%1.270.891.0611.152.193.0813.63.02.38.7
58Livio Jean-Charles282013French Jeep Elite31.0%1.300.831.1013.342.051.0512.93.43.7
59Sekou Doumbouya152019French Jeep Elite31.0%1.210.661.0510.822.072.6513.74.92.7
60Vanja Marinkovic602019Adriatic League29.8%1.281.281.085.411.190.3612.05.26.0
61Mario Hezonja52015Spanish ACB29.8%1.201.061.139.232.780.4912.13.23.010.7
62Luka Samanic192019Adriatic League29.6%1.380.601.0214.891.061.5613.94.22.2
63Bruno Caboclo202014Brazilian NBB29.6%1.450.140.9015.071.656.3413.03.82.010.7
64Bojan Bogdanovic312011Euroleague29.5%1.190.550.946.442.670.5116.77.10.013.3
65Furkan Korkmaz282016Turkish BSL27.8%1.231.531.196.651.160.4412.52.74.210.7
66Deividas Sirvydis372019Lithuanian LKL26.6%1.091.891.089.172.210.5610.93.13.2
67Brandon Jennings102009Italian Lega A24.9%0.961.520.996.126.650.2412.94.02.515.6
68Joshua Obiesie-2019German BBL22.3%1.380.801.028.351.782.689.43.10.4
69Brandon Jennings102009Euroleague22.2%1.091.371.005.013.360.3712.43.41.815.6
70Adam Mokoka-2019Adriatic League21.6%1.161.060.987.652.290.6610.15.30.6
71Furkan Korkmaz282016Euroleague14.6%1.111.121.046.510.661.688.01.10.810.7
72Terrance Ferguson212017Australian NBL6.8%1.000.640.884.080.761.545.41.20.06.7
Averages50%1.360.961.1011.722.142.8117.46.87.113.6

The Analysis

Doncic tops the chart with both his EuroLeague and Spanish ACB stats.  His numbers are even more impressive given the strength of those two leagues and his age at the time (19). 

The rest of the list’s top 20 features many familiar names and productive NBA players, but there were a handful of surprises.  At No. 11 is Cleveland Cavaliers center Ante Zizic, a promising 22-year-old from Croatia.  At No. 13 is Nikola Milutinov, one of the better young centers in Europe, who plays for Olympiacos in both EuroLeague and the Greek HEBA.  The San Antonio Spurs own his draft rights, but have yet to add him to the roster.  At No. 17 is the 20-year-old Dzanan Musa, who barely played for the Brooklyn Nets as a rookie last season.  Two other big men, George Papagiannis and Lucas Nogueira, came in at No. 19 and 20, respectively.  The 22-year-old Papagiannis didn’t get a lot of playing time during his two years in the NBA, and will be playing for the top club in Greece (Panathinaikos) this coming season.  Nogueira is probably the only top-20 player that could be called a bust at this point.  He was on his way to becoming a solid role player for the Toronto Raptors before his career was derailed by mental health issues

Looking at the top portion of the list, 18 NBA veterans had a score greater than 60, and out of that group, 72 percent (13) have an NBA career PER of 14 or higher.  The average NBA PER of those 18 players is 16.4, ranging from Nikola Jokic with 24.9 to Musa with 5.8. 

On the other end of the list, 14 NBA veterans had a score of less than 40.  Out of that group, just 29 percent (4) had an NBA career PER greater than 14.  The average NBA PER was 11.9, ranging from Goran Dragic with 17.0 to Frank Ntilikina and Terrance Ferguson with 6.7.  

Based on the comparisons of career NBA PER, this rating system would appear to be fairly predictive of NBA success, and if that’s true, it doesn’t bode well for the international draft class of 2019.  Of the 13 prospects included in this chart, only four had a score greater than 50 (average), two of whom were not drafted, while eight had a score less than 40. 

Bitadze’s numbers clearly stand out among the 2019 international draft class.  He recorded the second highest score in EuroLeague, and the third highest in the Adriatic League.  The only other prospects to score above average were Yago Dos Santos in the Brazilian NBB, Alen Smailagic in the G League, and Yovel Zoosman in the Israeli BSL.  It should be noted, however, that Zoosman scored well below average based on his numbers from EuroLeague. 

Bitadze joined Doncic as the only players to have two scores among the top 10 overall, and based on the company that the 19-year-old Georgian center has around him at the top of this list, he should have a solid NBA career at the very least.  Due to work-visa issues, Bitadze was unable to play with the Indiana Pacers during NBA Summer League, but he has since joined the team.  Many NBA scouts and executives were surprised that he fell so far in the draft, though the rookie may have trouble finding minutes this season, with Indiana having Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis on the roster as well.  

Besides Bitadze, two other international players were first-round picks this year: Sekou Doumbouya and Luka Samanic.  Both players had a score of less than 32, but both also are very young. 

Doumbouya, who was limited to one Summer League game for the Detroit Pistons due to a hamstring strain, won’t turn 19 until the end of December.  He was not only the youngest player in this year’s draft, but also the youngest player on this list based on age when drafted.  Given that Doumbouya was at least one year younger than most of the players on this list, it’s safe to say that his score is a bit of an underestimate.   

The 19-year-old Samanic was a borderline first-round pick in my opinion, but the Spurs selected him 19th overall.  In comparison to Doumbouya, who went 15th overall, Samanic is a year older and played in an inferior league, and yet his overall stats were not as impressive.  Samanic’s draft stock was boosted by a strong performance at the NBA Combine, but his up-and-down efforts during Summer League showed that he has a long way to go before becoming a regular contributor.  In five Summer League games, he averaged 23.2 minutes, 10.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, with shooting splits of .357/.333/.889 and an assist-turnover ratio of 0.65.

A Final Observation

As I noted above, there can be significant differences in the quality of international leagues, and evidence of the superiority of EuroLeague can be seen in the lower scores.  Of the 15 players who played in EuroLeague, only six (40 percent) had a score above 50.  Data from at least one other league was available for ten of those players, and seven of them (70 percent) had a lower score in EuroLeague than their domestic league due to the increase in quality of competition.  From the group of ten, the average domestic league score was 58.2, while the average EuroLeague score was 47.7.

The section on the comparison of the various international leagues was updated on August 9, 2019.

About R. C. Harris 62 Articles
Richard has worked as a sports writer/editor/analyst since 1998. He is the former CEO of FantasyFootballExperts.com and a former member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA). He has contributed to various magazines, radio shows, and a number of other sites, including ESPN.com, SI.com, and USAToday.com. Follow on Twitter @HoopsProspects.