Making the most of 'potential' players

Correctly predicting which players will be selected when and by whom in the NBA Draft is an art form, practiced by fans, enthusiasts, analysts and reporters alike worldwide. In recent years, the practice has become even more challenging as the flux of international players entering their names in the NBA Draft continues to grow. While doubt about the validity of many of the international players in the draft may still linger in the minds of experts and fans due to lack of exposure and differing styles, the practice of drafting international players is now recognized as a norm. And though there have been numerous international "busts," such as Nikoloz Tskitishvili, drafted fifth overall by the Denver Nuggets in 2002; or the Dallas Mavericks's 2004 first rounder, Pavel Podkolzine, who has played only 28 minutes in two seasons - not to mention last year's 11th overall pick, Fran Vasquez, who ultimately decided to remain in Spain, effectively rendering the Orlando Magic's pick useless - others like China's Yao Ming, Tony Parker of France, Argentinian Manu Ginobili and Dirk Nowitzki of Germany have won over the hearts of fans in America and the world. For this year's draft, which took place after press time last night, let's take look at a new breed of player being considered - the "prospect player." For our purposes, we'll define a prospect player as an international prospect who is considered to have great potential or upside, but still not ready to play in the best league in the world when they enter their names in the NBA Draft. Not wanting to miss out on the talent of these "phenoms," NBA teams often draft them and leave them on teams in their home countries to develop and hopefully come to the NBA once they are ready. A perfect example of a successful prospect player is center Nenad Krstic of the New Jersey Nets. Drafted with the 24th overall pick in the 2002 draft, Krstic spent the next two seasons with Serbian giants Partizan Belgrade, honing his skills against seasoned pros in the Euroleague. During that time, Krstic worked on filling out his lanky frame and developing his low-post game, something that is essential for NBA success. By the time he joined the NBA for the 2004/05 campaign, he quickly became a star among rookies, averaging 10 points and 5.4 rebounds a game, before improving his numbers to 13.5 points and 6.4 rebounds this past season. A raw European player back in 2002, Kristic is now a premier center in the NBA thanks to the time he was given to develop in a system he knew. Although many such players do not make it, they at least have this luxury - something Ndudi Ebi did not when he was selected 26th overall out of high school by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2003. Ebi signed a four-year $4.4 million deal with the Timberwolves based on his upside. After a career including averages of two points and one rebound over 19 games played in out of the nearly 200 he was on the team for, Ebi was cut by the Timberwolves, and is no longer in the NBA. Had Ebi been given a chance to season his game at a high professional level, he could have done what Israel's Lior Eliyahu is hoping to do this year. Eliyahu, a forward from Hapoel Galil Elyon-Golan, is expected to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv whether or not he is selected in this year's draft. Many experts feel that he will one day play in the NBA. The difference between Eliyahu and Ebi is that Ebi was already out of the NBA by his early twenties, while Eliyahu, if all goes as planned, will have played at the highest European level for three to four years by the time he comes to the NBA. Ebi was an incredible athlete, once considered the top forward from his graduating high school class. However, he was raw and unable to develop on the bench in the NBA. In the eyes of many scouts, prospective players are often more developed than many US college players, as the international prospects have had the opportunity to play in leagues that are better than the NCAA college system. Will Eliyahu one day be better than the cream of the crop American players in this year's NBA draft? Only time will tell.One thing we do know is that his transition to the NBA should be smoother than that of a raw college player. Eliyahu is one in a long line of players trying to make it to the NBA. However, thanks to being a "prospect player," he may eventually have a better shot at making it than most. On TV: NBA Draft (tape delay 8:30-9:15 a.m. on Sport5+ and 7:40-8:25 p.m. on Sport5).