Over the past several years, the influence of young international players on the NBA draft has steadily declined. During the 2008 NBA draft, just one international player, [Only registered and activated users can see links. ], was selected in the lottery. Several others, including [Only registered and activated users can see links. ], [Only registered and activated users can see links. ] and [Only registered and activated users can see links. ], went late in the first round.
The same trend generally holds true for the Olympics. National teams, the U.S. included, invite their most experienced players to play for the gold. There is very little space for a young player to get significant minutes in the Olympics.
However, there is good news for draftniks who are watching the Olympics hoping to catch a glimpse of the next great Euro. The top-rated international player on [Only registered and activated users can see links. ], 17-year-old [Only registered and activated users can see links. ], is not only on the Spanish national team -- he's been given significant minutes in Spain's warm-up games.
Who is Ricky Rubio? He is one of the most promising young point guards ever to emerge from Europe.
He started for his club, DKV Joventut, in Spain's ultracompetitive ACB league this year. Rubio's numbers last season were solid for a teenager playing with grown men. He averaged 10.5 points, 4 assists and 2 steals in 23 minutes per game.
The things scouts emphasize about Rubio are his terrific basketball IQ and feel for the game. He's a leader who shows incredible poise for someone so young.
And that doesn't mean his game is dull. Rubio's game has plenty of sizzle. He can make the impossible pass seem routine and he has a flair for the spectacular. He is fearless with the ball, which makes him one of the most fun European players to watch. Some scouts call him a young Pete Maravich.
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Ricky Rubio's game reminds some of Pete Maravich.
Rubio is also an excellent defender. He uses his long arms and his height (6-foot-4) to disrupt passing lanes and terrorize the offense. Most importantly, he understands defense and rarely puts himself in a bad position.
So why isn't Rubio ranked higher on our draft board? While there is very little doubt that he'll be a phenomenal European player, he lacks the elite athleticism and explosiveness that is essential in the NBA. Rubio isn't a bad athlete, but he doesn't have the spectacular speed of many of the NBA's elite point guards, like [Only registered and activated users can see links. ] or [Only registered and activated users can see links. ].
Rubio is also still figuring out his jump shot. He can be solid from midrange but doesn't shoot with much accuracy from distance. Rubio is improving in this area, but he still has a long way to go.
I'd expect to see Rubio play an important role off the bench for the Spanish national team in the Olympics. His defensive ability alone will get him opportunities, and his leadership skills allow him to play confidently, even against the top talent in the world. I think many of us are crossing our fingers for a Spain-USA gold medal game.
If there is someone else to keep an eye on in the Olympics beside Rubio, it is Australia's Patrick Mills. The Australians continue to produce some serious basketball players -- Aussie [Only registered and activated users can see links. ] was the first pick in the 2005 NBA draft and center [Only registered and activated users can see links. ] was drafted in the second round this year. This Australian national team has two NBA prospects -- Mills and Joe Ingles.
Mills is a super-quick combo guard who played for Saint Mary's (Calif.) last season as a freshman, averaging 14.8 points per game and 3.5 assists. Mills put on a show against Team USA in a warm-up game, leading the Australian team with 13 points off the bench. Mills, like Jawai, is an indigenous Australian from a tiny place called Thursday Island. He has the speed and quickness that NBA teams love in their point guards, but he is a bit undersized and an inconsistent shooter -- think a poor man's Tony Parker.
Ingles is a 6-foot-8 small forward with an excellent midrange game and good scoring instincts. Ingles has better size (and a better feel for the game) than fellow Aussie Brad Newley, whom the Rockets drafted in 2007. The downside for Ingles is that he lacks great strength and athleticism. He isn't bad in those areas, but he'll struggle to hang with the NBA's elite athletes.
After those three prospects, things drop off very quickly. A few NBA scouts are interested in Iranian big man Hamed Hadadi ... but he's already 23 and no longer eligible for the draft. Hadadi, who stands 7-foot-2, has had a few impressive games this summer. NBA teams can sign him as a free agent.
Meanwhile, China's Jianghua Chen is a local favorite thanks to his AND-1 antics. But most NBA scouts see him as an out-of-control showboater who will never play in the league.
[Only registered and activated users can see links. ] covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.