Just a few years ago it seemed every other pick in the first round of the NBA Draft was an international player. Many of those overseas guys had great success in the NBA, ranging from Dirk Nowitzki to Manu Ginobili to Tony Parker but a bunch of others fizzled -- many before they ever made it to the States. This year, only five foreign-born players are projected to go in the first round of June's NBA Draft, according to colleague Jeff Goodman. The most curious part of this is that's actually the same number of foreign-born prospects many project to go in the first-round of this month's NFL Draft.
Longtime NFL exec-turned draft analyst Gil Brandt has two of these players going in the top 10: DE Ziggy Ansah (Ghana by way of BYU) at No. 6 and Bjoern Werner (Germany by way of Florida State) at No. 9. Brandt also has OT Menelik Watson (England by way of Florida State) going at No. 21; DE Margus Hunt (Estonia by way of SMU) at No. 29 and DT Jesse Williams (Australia by way of Alabama) going at No. 31.
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Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout who now works for NFL Network, is one of those draft analysts who also projects five players born outside of the United States going in his first-round mock draft with Ansah going at No. 5. Jeremiah says this is a trend, not an aberration -- at least from the football side.
"I think we will see more of this in the future," said Jeremiah, a former scout with the Ravens, Eagles and Browns. "Most of these guys were playing other sports in their country: Hunt came from track, Watson from hoops, Williams from rugby and Ansah from hoops. College coaches are looking for athletes and some of these other sports are filled with exceptional (raw) athletes."
I posed this outlook to several college coaches who agree with Jeremiah, but process is not the same as it is for NBA scouts who can scout their sport overseas at camps or tournaments.
"For us, the biggest issue is how do you find these guys or do they really find you?" said one college coach, noting that most of these NFL hopefuls merit the "freak" tag given their explosiveness and athleticism.
Exhibit A is Hunt, a former gold medalist in the shot put and discus at the 2006 World Junior Championships in Beijing. He moved to Texas not with any thoughts of being a football player, but rather to train with SMU track coach Dave Wollman. Through an odd set of circumstances, Hunt ended up on June Jones' Mustangs football team.
Nutshell: SMU wasn't able to get back its men's track program. Hunt still wanted to train with Wollman, who had mentored another star discus thrower from Estonia. To help cover the cost of tuition, Wollman figured with Hunt's size and athleticism, he might be able to help the Mustangs football team. And Jones was intrigued after seeing the 6-foot-8 powerhouse clock a 4.70 40.
Since then, Hunt has blossomed into a standout football player (he also ranked as the No. 1 guy on our annual Freaks list last off-season) and a guy NFL teams think could be an impact player at the next level.
In the cases of Williams and Watson, you have two guys who flashed on college scouts' radar after creating a little buzz in the junior college ranks.
They key thing now is that with the added visibility of these crossover acts, gifted, big athletes will be intrigued by the possibilities American football may offer much in a similar fashion to the way some undersized power forwards noted Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham flourishing in their second acts as NFL tight ends. Jeremiah agreed with that and with the notion that NFL personnel people have become more open to such projects, especially since some of them have gotten some seasoning in the college level.
Then there's the case of Lawrence Okoye, who showed up at one of the NFL's Super Regional Combines last weekend at Cowboys Stadium in Texas. A chiseled 21-year-old Olympic discus thrower from Great Britain who has deferred an offer to attend Oxford University with aspirations of becoming a lawyer to try out for the NFL, Okoye clocked a 4.78 40, broad-jumped 10-feet, 7-inches and had a 36-inch vertical jump despite measuring at over 6-foot-5 and 304 pounds.
Okoye has been training in the U.S. since Feb. 1, he told CBSSports.com Tuesday night. Prior to excelling in track, Okoye was a star rugby player and said he's been curious about American football for years. He describes the combine workouts as "the fun part" because it played to his strengths as an athlete. He's trained with several draft hopefuls at a combine prep camp in suburban Atlanta and is studying film of standout NFL linemen from J.J. Watt's power-rushing skills to Justin Smith's run-stuffing game, he said. "Now, I'm just learning as much as I can (about football.)"
Okoye sees several parallels between football and the traits he's honed as a discus thrower. "One of the biggest crossovers is producing power from the ground up, getting that power from your ankles, knees and hips," he said.
Just like Hunt, Okoye believes his body awareness will be a big help getting him up to speed technique wise. "The discus is such an event where you have to master every little thing to go far," he said. "And so when I look at tape and see things, I can implement them myself."
As eye-popping as his combine numbers were, Okoye said he did "O.K." considering he was dealing with a sore hamstring. He said he's broad-jumped 11-feet, 4-inches before.
Okoye's path to the NFL draft sounds like some latter-day Sidd Finch scouting fish tale for personnel folks and (admittedly) over-eager media. But the reality is the raw athleticism that he has displayed both in his track career and over the weekend at the NFL regional combine in Texas is the kind of stuff that turns heads.
Okoye (no relation to former Chiefs running back Christian "the Nigerian Nightmare" Okoye) said he's been inspired seeing the rise of both Hunt and Ansah as football prospects. "I'm trying to do the same thing they're doing," he said. "It's a big kick for me to see how well they've done, and watching them, it's clear they still have a long way to go. And so I know that I have a very long way to go."
Jeremiah says he just heard about Okoye this week and doesn't know much about him: "The biggest issue with these types of players: are they willing to put in the work to catch up to speed, or is this just a hobby or way to make some money?"
Okoye said football is something he's always wanted to pursue because of the physical nature of the game. The hitting, he says, is something that drew him to the sport. "It's fun. Playing rugby I had that in me. The discus is great but there's nothing like a team sport, and football is the ultimate team sport."
Just how well Okoye or the projected first-rounders prove to be in the NFL figures to impact the fortunes of many other potential American football hopefuls in the near future.
"You do wonder how instinctive these guys are and how quickly they can pick up a sport most of them didn't grow up watching," said a college coach. "The other thing is a guy can test out great and be really explosive and look great, but that doesn't mean when you get him out on the field he won't be really stiff or that he can play. And without much film, you gotta be careful you don't get caught reaching."