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Nikola Jovic a Heat exception? International intrigue a wild ride over franchise’s 35 seasons

The last time the Miami Heat turned to the NBA draft for an international prospect without collegiate experience it turned into a multidimensional disappointment.

It also was the only previous time the Heat exited the draft with an international prospect without collegiate experience until last week’s selection of Serbian Nikola Jovic with the No. 27 selection.

Of the many things Heat President Pat Riley hopes for from Jokic, being Martin Muursepp 2.0 is not one of them.

To review how the Heat have fared with international prospects over what will be their 35 seasons is to go back to June 26, 1996.

That is when, with their draft board clear of their preferred prospects, the Utah Jazz decided to trade their No. 25 selection to the Heat for a conditional first-round pick, one that had to be within the first 20 selections in any of the next three years or unconditional in 2000.

With the Heat picking at No. 26 in 1997, No. 22 in 1998 and No. 25 in 1999, the pick ultimately was conveyed to the Jazz in 2000. Utah used the selection on guard DeShawn Stevenson, who would go on to fashion a 13-season NBA career, including beating the Big Three Heat with the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals.

Muursepp? A total of 83 games over two NBA seasons with the Heat and Dallas Mavericks, out of the league by 1998, after also being passed along to the Phoenix Suns and Chicago Bulls merely as salary-cap filler.

At the time of that 1996 draft, Riley said of the lone Estonian to play in the NBA, “From an offensive standpoint. I don’t think there was a better senior in the draft.”

There were, with Jerome Williams, Malik Rose and future Heat championship forward Shandon Anderson among those selected after the 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward.

“He’s a solid basketball player,” Riley said of Muursepp at the time. “We felt that if we had the opportunity to get a 21-year-old player with that kind of versatility, we needed to do that.”

Unlike the various video feeds of Jovic readily available that display his 19-year-old versatility, at the time, all the Heat had to offer as an example of their selection was a 30-seconds video loop of Muursepp making various plays against overseas competition, video on par with that of the Zapruder film.

Oh, and it got worse.

Apparently unclear of Muursepp’s contractual obligation, the Heat had to agree to play an exhibition in Israel against Maccabi Tel Aviv, with both the Heat and Muursepp having to pay $250,000 each to secure his international release.

The highlight of Muursepp’s Heat career? Arguably being a salary Riley was able to toss into the Feb. 14, 1997 trade with the Mavericks for Jamal Mashburn.

He wound up playing 27 total minutes in a Heat uniform.

As for other international players who saw action with the Heat without U.S. collegiate experience, it largely has been a mixed bag.

Goran Dragic: Arguably the most productive international player over the Heat’s four decades, drafted directly out of Slovenia in the 2008 second round, with time with the Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets before arriving to the Heat in 2015.

Over his 6 1/2 seasons with the Heat, Dragic was named an All-Star in 2018, helped lead the Heat to the 2020 NBA Finals and within one game of the 2016 Eastern Conference finals.

Sasha Danilovic: Drafted in the second round by the Golden State Warriors in 1992, the Serbian guard remained overseas until making his NBA debut with the Heat in 1995, at the start of Riley’s tenure with the team. The creative 6-foot-7 wing had been acquired in the 1994 trade that sent Rony Seikaly to the Warriors for Billy Owens.

Danilovic emerged to start 51 games with the Heat as a productive scorer before being included in the 1997 trade to Mavericks (along with Muursepp) for Mashburn. He returned to Europe for the balance of his career after that season.

Vladimir Stepania: Selected in the 2018 first round by the Seattle SuperSonics, the center from the Republic of Georgia spent a pair of productive seasons with the Heat starting in 2001, particularly efficient with his rebounding.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas: The Lithuanian big man, who arrived directly to the NBA from his native country as a first-round draft choice of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1996, joined former Cavaliers teammate LeBron James on the Heat in 2010-11.

Although he started 51 regular-season games and helped the Heat to the 2011 NBA Finals, he never found his footing alongside the team’s Big Three, retiring after that season.

Wang Zhi-Zhi: Drafted out of China by the Mavericks in the 1996 second round, the center nicknamed “Dodger” by the Heat, spent the 2003-04 and ‘04-05 seasons with the Heat, appearing in 35 games. From there, he returned to play again in China.

Beno Udrih: A 2004 first-round pick of the San Antonio Spurs who entered the NBA directly from Europe, the Slovenian guard spent most of the second half of the 2015-16 season with the Heat, appearing in 36 games and starting five.

Nemanja Bjelica: Drafted by the Washington Wizards in the 2010 second round out of Europe, the Serbian center finished the 2020-21 season with the Heat, appearing in 11 regular-season games and two playoff games, never quite establishing a foothold.

Zoran Dragic: Acquired as part of a package deal with his brother Goran from the Suns in 2015, Zoran Dragic appeared in 10 games for the Heat before being dealt the following offseason to the Boston Celtics in a salary-cap dump.

Others from overseas: The Heat over the years have featured several other overseas players, but those players, unlike Jovic (and Muursepp), had U.S. college experience, including Precious Achiuwa (University of Memphis), Milos Babic (Tennessee Tech), Manute Bol (Bridgeport), Luol Deng (Duke), Yakhouba Diawara (Pepperdine), Stephane Lasme (UMass), Chris Silva (South Carolina) and Seikaly (Syracuse).

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