The Jump: Porzingis and Hezonja Continue ACB’s Strong Draft Tradition

Both players are projected Top-10 picks in the 2015 NBA Draft

Photo courtesy of FCBarcelona.com

Austin Green is an independent journalist and scout covering EuroLeague and NBA prospects in Europe. If you’d like to support LosCrossovers.com and see more articles like this, feel free to donate.

Guillermo Bermejo is back in his Madrid office, weary after yet another transatlantic flight during the NBA Draft process.

Bermejo, who oversees the European operations of You First Sports agency, has been deeply involved with the Draft for five years. He just returned from Las Vegas where, on June 12, his most promising young client put on a show.

Kristaps Porzingis is a 7-foot-1 Latvian teenager. He went through a solo workout in front of NBA executives and did what everyone who has seen him play expected him to do: He crushed it.

He swished threes. He showed his unique mobility and athleticism. And, of course, he kicked the pre-Draft pendulum into full-swing: first the hype, then the backlash to the hype, then the backlash to the backlash.

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for everyone involved.

But on Thursday, June 25, Porzingis will finally hear Commissioner Adam Silver call his name. So will Mario Hezonja — a consensus top-10 pick like Porzingis — and Willy Hernangomez, another client of Bermejo’s who could go in the late first round.

When it happens, they will join a long list of ACB players to be selected in the NBA Draft.

The Right Situation

Since 2001, 34 ACB players have been drafted. Fourteen of those players went in the first round.

*Nogueira never played for the Hawks, who traded him to Toronto before his first seaoson.

A few (Pau Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Nikola Mirotic) made All-Rookie 1st-team during their debut seasons. Some are out of the league or never made it all. And others, like Tiago Splitter and Serge Ibaka, have carved out essential roles on perennial title contenders.

Bermejo, who also represents Ibaka, stresses that situation rather than Draft position ultimately determines a player’s success.

“A lot of the players — and I don’t blame them because it’s the easy thing to do — they get too caught up on whether they’re a first-round pick, second-round pick or whatnot,” Bermejo said. “So the first thing you want to try to make them understand is the Draft is what gets you the opportunity to get into the NBA, which is good. But the most important thing is once you get to the NBA, you have to prove that you belong, you know? That’s a whole different story.”

To prove you belong, you also have to be lucky — opportunity and fit are extremely important.

Bermejo said that Ibaka, the 24th pick in 2008, has developed into a crucial player on a good team because he fell into the right situation.

“I think Serge landed in the right spot for him. It was a very young team with not so much pressure, they were trying to build something. And (he was) surrounded by very talented and young players too, where he had space to grow and develop,” Bermejo said.

Less than four years after he was drafted, Ibaka was starting in the NBA Finals.

The Transition

Ricky Rubio of the Minnesota Timberwolves talks to the media at adidas EUROCAMP, the most prestigious international pre-NBA Draft camp.

Ricky Rubio of the Minnesota Timberwolves talks to the media at Adidas EuroCamp, the official international NBA Draft combine.

Like many foreign players who come to the NBA, Ibaka barely spoke English when he arrived. Someone from the agency stayed close to him during his first few seasons to try to ease the transition into a new language and culture.

Ricky Rubio, the 5th overall pick in the 2009 Draft, was in a similar situation. In an interview at the 2015 Adidas EuroCamp, Rubio said the non-basketball elements of the jump were most difficult.

“Off the court was the biggest change for me because I always lived in Barcelona and never left home,” Rubio said. “For the first time I was moving to a country and city that I didn’t know. I had to learn the language really well. I knew how to speak English, but it’s not the same living over there and having your own language, you know?”

This shouldn’t be as much of a factor for Porzingis and Hezonja, who speak English and have already moved to Spain from their native countries (Latvia and Croatia). But like Ibaka, the Gasols, Rubio and everyone before them, they will have to adjust to a different style of play.

“It’s a different game, but I like it more. It’s more up and down, a more open game,” Rubio said. “(It’s) more physical, so I had to hit the weight room more often. And just more games, so that means you gotta be healthy, you gotta be ready to play that amount of games.”

Can They Play?

Porzingis is a smart kid. He knows he’s thin. He knows the NBA is physical. After a tough loss at Fuenlabrada this season, I asked him what he needs to do to become NBA-ready. Without hesitation, he mentioned his strength.

“I mean, to be able to play at the next level I gotta become stronger. That’s basically what I’m working on a lot,” Porzingis said. “I’m working on my post moves. I’m not perfect at anything, so I’m just working on everything basically.”

Many of the photos you see of Porzingis are more than a year old, such as the two included in this piece by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. He’s added some muscle since then, and Bermejo doesn’t think his slim frame will be an issue.

“I remember Pau Gasol’s body when he went to the NBA — it didn’t look very different than what Kristaps’ body is right now. And Pau was the Rookie of the Year that year,” Bermejo said. “I’m not saying that Kristaps is gonna be Rookie of the Year, but I don’t think he will spend time in the D-League either, you know?”

After Sevilla’s loss to Barcelona in March, I caught up with Sevilla assistant coach and Barcelona legend Audie Norris to talk about how Porzingis and Hernangomez will do in the NBA.

“Well, I think they can compete on that level,” Norris said. “They’re young, obviously, but they work hard. And the reason I say they can compete on that level is ’cause they’re hungry. Whatever team that signs these guys or drafts these guys, they’re gonna be happy with what they get. They’re not gonna be impact players in their first year or two or whatever. They’re gonna be guys that are gonna develop over time.”

Unlike Porzingis and Hezonja, Hernangomez will likely stay in Spain for a couple years. He was unable to go through pre-Draft workouts because of his contract with Real Madrid, but he’s already producing at the rate of guys like Splitter, Mirotic and Luis Scola.

Hezonja hasn’t done pre-Draft workouts either, but for a very different reason. He was busy trying to win an ACB championship. In Game 1, he became the youngest player ever (20 years, 3 months) to score at least 18 points in an ACB Finals game.

DeShaun Thomas, a 2013 2nd-round pick of the Spurs and Hezonja’s teammate in Barcelona, told me earlier this season he thinks Hezonja’s game will translate well to the NBA.

“I mean, Mario is a great player,” Thomas said. “Great energy. He can play the 2, 3, he’s strong. He can knock down shots. He’ll be a good player at that next level because he’s versatile and the way he plays.”

Hezonja is well-known for his confidence, as Max Rappaport nicely summed up here:

But despite Hezonja’s reputation as an arrogant player, Thomas said he enjoys sharing the court with him.

“He’s a good player to play with,” Thomas said. “He’s just one of those players that gets you hype every game because he’s so hype. He’s a good player and at that next level he will succeed. I got big faith in him.”

Of course, as Bermejo said, situation is crucial for every player, whether they come from the ACB, the NCAA or anywhere else. Landing with Philadelphia at No. 3 would be very different from landing with New York at No. 4, which would be very different from landing with Orlando at No. 5.

And no matter what situation a player falls into, they have to be willing to put in the work it takes to succeed.

“Some (players) might think because they got drafted they made it, and that’s nothing — that’s just the start,” Bermejo said. “After that it’s a very tough road.”

For at least three more ACB players, that road begins Thursday night.

Austin Green is an independent journalist and scout covering EuroLeague and NBA prospects in Europe. If you’d like to support LosCrossovers.com and see more articles like this, feel free to donate.

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