Isaiah Hartenstein and the value of domestic league play

Oct 9, 2014; Lithonia, GA, USA; The NBA logo is shown with basketballs as the Atlanta Hawks conduct an open practice at Miller Grove High School. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 9, 2014; Lithonia, GA, USA; The NBA logo is shown with basketballs as the Atlanta Hawks conduct an open practice at Miller Grove High School. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports /

Scouting can be challenging for international NBA Draft prospects. The circumstances these players play in vary greatly from the familiar and relatively structured NCAA. The level of competition changes from league to league, and the goals and aspirations vary from team to team within those leagues. The result is that prior production in European leagues can be of little use for assessing a player’s readiness for the NBA.

International prospects from the last few years have painted the picture of just how hard this can be. Kristaps Porzingis shot 31.2 percent from the perimeter in ACB play in 2014-2015, but was putting up a 45.9 percent clip in Eurocup play at the same time. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was a struggling secondary scorer for a French junior league team, then went to Mega Leks with their army of 18-to-22-year-old players, and became the team’s leader. Dragan Bender was a superstar in international camps, and then couldn’t get any playing time for a disastrous Maccabi Tel Aviv team. Meanwhile his Croatian teammate, Ante Zizic, was putting up one of the most productive seasons ever by a draft-eligible European player at Cibona.

What, then, do you do with a player like Isaiah Hartenstein? Hartenstein is an 18-year-old German prospect who’s playing at Zalgiris in Lithuania and is on NBA Draft radars for 2017. He’s been playing as a bench player in the Lithuanian league, averaging 5.1 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 0.7 blocks per game and even earning a start in the opener against Siauliai. He’s alternated between very good and very bad stretches, and has played all of five minutes in one of the team’s six Euroleague games. With no other standard to compare him to than the level of Lithuanian league competition, it’s been difficult to get an early read on how he’ll translate to the next level.

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The Lithuanian league isn’t a top-tier league in Europe. Below the likes of the Spanish ACB, the VTB League in Russia, and the Adriatic League in the Balkans, the LKL is more in line with the domestic leagues of Italy, France, and Israel, with one or two elite teams and a lower level of overall talent below them. Much like Maccabi Tel Aviv (until recently) in Israel, Zalgiris is expected to handle their business domestically, and instead focus their attention on being competitive in Euroleague, where they are a full-time member. This allows them to stagger their roster between the two competitions, relying on their depth in the domestic league and their talent in Euroleague. This means Hartenstein gets squeezed out of the rotation against stronger opponents.

To a certain point, this is to be expected. At 18-years-old, Hartenstein is by far the youngest player to earn minutes for Zalgiris, and he certainly plays like his age at times. Hartenstein averages 7.2 fouls per 36 minutes, and he struggles with advanced concepts on the floor. He gets lost on the floor defensively, watching his man more than the ball, and he doesn’t have great control or coordination of his body at this point.

This has kept Hartenstein out of the rotation for stretches, along with his issues with conditioning. Therefore, the fact that Hartenstein isn’t seeing Euroleague minutes isn’t surprising, and even his lack of domestic league minutes makes sense, as this is a veteran team that isn’t interested in letting a young player play through mistakes, like Mega Leks and Strasbourg seem to be.

The question then becomes whether this should be an indictment of Hartenstein or not. Most NBA-caliber international prospects of the last half-decade have at least played rotation minutes in domestic play, even during their 18-year-old season. Even on a veteran squad, his talents could be useful. It’s hard to say no to a big man who can do the things that he has shown glimmers of this year.

That Hartenstein’s issues have held him off the floor despite his passing and scoring ability is a definite concern. Those defensive shortcomings in particular will keep him off the floor early on in the NBA, where he will get picked apart by pick-and-roll looks that will force him to defend more in space than he’s had to in Lithuania. Even if Hartenstein continues his development on the offensive end, his fitness and defensive IQ are significant question marks.

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It’s also worth wondering how much of his positives have come at the expense of competition. Many domestic leagues are at a size disadvantage against bigger prospects — the Lithuanian league is a bit unique, in that there’s a league-wide drop-off in quickness from the higher levels of competition. With Hartenstein’s mobility in the open floor, he’s had success getting in spots where Zalgiris’s guards can find him on dump-offs, and it’s allowed him to have a bit of an inflated ability to score off the bounce. While on the defensive end, his early success in post defense can be attributed to his agility in recovering.

This is why continental competitions and world tournaments are so valuable for the international scout, and why Hartenstein is so frustrating. If he could earn some Euroleague minutes, we’d get to see him compete with some big men at a similar skill level, like Nikola Milutinov of Olympiacos or Colton Iverson of Maccabi Tel Aviv. Similarly, we haven’t seen Hartenstein play in a FIBA competition since last July at the U-18 Euros, and only have his Basketball without Borders camp breakdown to go off of. He’s looked good in the competitions he played in in 2014 and 2015, and that’s where his potential has come from.

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At this point, Hartenstein’s body of work relies more on potential than actual substance, and it would be nice to see him show that potential against a higher level of competition, or at least more consistently at the domestic level.