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This year's NBA draft was different — and it wasn't just Victor Wembanyama

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In a surprise to zero people last night, a 19-year-old who stands well over 7 feet tall but can shoot and dribble like a point guard was picked first in the NBA draft.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM SILVER: The San Antonio Spurs select Victor Wembanyama.

(CHEERING)

SUMMERS: Victor Wembanyama is from France and the French pro league, and most of the early picks in this year's draft also come from other pro leagues, not American college basketball. Rafael Barlowe knows something about this. He's director of scouting for the NBA Big Board newsletter and host of their podcast. Welcome.

RAFAEL BARLOWE: Thanks for having me on.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. OK, so Wembanyama, we know, is French, but what about the rest of the top five picks? Where did they come from?

BARLOWE: Well, the second pick was Brandon Miller. He went to the University of Alabama. He's from Nashville. And then there's Scoot Henderson, who played for the G League Ignite, which is the NBA's - I guess you can say it's like their feeder program, in a sense. And then there's the Thompson twins, Amen and Ausar Thompson, who went four and five, and they played for Overtime Elite. Overtime's, like, a media company where they have a basketball league, and they were giving high school students, like, an opportunity to make a living and play professionally at a high school. And so it was a very unique class. And I don't know if we'll ever see anything like it.

SUMMERS: I mean, and we should just be clear here that the good majority of the 58 players who were eventually picked last night, they still came from college programs, just not the very top picks. But I want to ask you, are you seeing more of the top prospects in basketball coming from foreign leagues or these sort of alternate fast track programs compared to when you first started following the NBA draft?

BARLOWE: Yeah, definitely, 'cause when I grew up, there weren't really alternate paths. And even as a kid growing up in the '90s, international players were few and far between. Then we started to see a shift in the 2000s, you know, with like Yao Ming coming from China, then Andrea Bargnani coming from Italy in 2006. And then we had guys like Luka Doncic, you know, you got Giannis Antetokounmpo winning two MVPs and Nikola Jokic winning MVPs and championships. Teams are more comfortable drafting international guys, and now we're going to see in the coming years they're going to be more comfortable drafting guys from these alternative paths to the NBA.

SUMMERS: You mentioned that when you were growing up in the '90s, these kind of alternate entry paths into the NBA, they didn't really exist. So why have we seen these kind of start to spring up as places that are attractive for teams looking to draft players?

BARLOWE: Well, No. 1, the international game has changed, so there's a lot more really talented international players that can come in and be drafted high, and then, for years, college athletes, they weren't getting paid. They didn't make any money. But now, once they started coming up with leagues where guys could play and prepare for the NBA draft while earning money, it kind of forced the NCAA to come up with the NIL to where they can start keeping these really talented guys in college.

SUMMERS: So NIL, that's name, image and likeness rights, right?

BARLOWE: Yes, that's correct. The NCAA said, well, if we don't make some changes, we're going to continue to lose all the top guys.

SUMMERS: Last thing. When you think about the future of the league - the situation that we had in this year's draft with these five players who came from a sort of unique series of places rather than just American college basketball, is this a one-off or are we going to see this play out more?

BARLOWE: Yeah, we're definitely going to see it play off more. I mean, it's too early to really predict the 2024 NBA draft, but I think there's a good chance that maybe even the first two picks will be from the G League Ignite. And it's a really good chance it'll be two years in a row that the No. 1 pick didn't play a minute of college basketball.

SUMMERS: Rafael Barlowe, basketball talent scout and author of the NBA Big Board newsletter. Thanks so much.

BARLOWE: Thank you so much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mia Venkat
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.