MIAMI — Isaiah Hartenstein’s NBA odyssey will start at the draft.
His pro career started years ago.
Unlike Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum and most everyone else who will get their names called at Thursday’s NBA draft — the true start of their pro lives — Hartenstein already knows what playing for a living is like. His pro career started in Germany in 2015, and he helped Zalgiris grab the Lithuanian Basketball League title earlier this month.
And now the NBA awaits the 19-year-old.
“First of all, me playing professional already helps a lot,” Hartenstein said. “My body is fit for the league right now. I still have to work on it a lot, but there are skills I couldn’t show this year because of the system we played. I have a good shot, I’m very versatile on defense and offense. I think I can help teams out a lot.”
His story is not typical.
Born in Eugene, Oregon, where his father played college ball, Hartenstein and his family moved about a decade ago to Germany. They went because his father, Flo, was playing pro ball there. Colleges made their recruiting pitches as Hartenstein got older and taller — he’s now 7-foot-1 and about 225 pounds — but he opted to stay in Europe and start practicing and playing against pros when he was 15.
Skipping college was a risk.
It might now be paying off.
“He’s a 19-year-old kid with a unique background,” said Wasserman agent B.J. Armstrong, who represents Hartenstein. “His maturity level is well beyond 19 and I think he has an opportunity to be a very good player here. I commend him for choosing what he thought was the best way for him to develop, and he’s now willing to take the next step.”
There won’t be as much international flavor in this draft as there was a year ago, when a record 27 players from outside the U.S. were selected. But there’s been at least 10 international draft picks in each of the last 17 years, and that streak is likely to continue.
French point guard Frank Ntilikina — 6-foot-5 with a massive wingspan and who doesn’t even turn 19 until July — has been playing pro ball in Europe, like Hartenstein. Ntilikina is projected as a lottery pick, and has had the NBA on his radar for years.
“I work every day to be the best player I can be,” Ntilikina said. “And I hope that I’ve done enough to be a good player in the NBA.”
Jonah Bolden is another foreign player with an intriguing back story. The Australian-born forward played one season at UCLA, then left and has since been playing in pro leagues in Australia and Serbia. And guard Terrance Ferguson, born in Oklahoma, decided against college ball and spent this past season playing in an Australian league.
So Hartenstein’s isn’t the only non-traditional path to the draft. But he’s convinced the path he took was the right one.
“The learning experience being overseas, learning from older people, playing with professionals every day, being in the professional lifestyle on and off the court, you learn you have to mature fast,” Hartenstein said. “You’re not just representing yourself, you’re representing the organization. So you learn from the good experiences and bad experiences others have had, and I think that really helps me out.”
The NBA was part of Hartenstein’s daily routine while playing in Lithuania: practice in the morning, eat, watch NBA League Pass, practice again in the evening, eat again, watch more NBA League Pass. And when he wanted to talk about NBA life, a great resource was always nearby — his coach with Zalgiris was Sarunas Jasikevicius, who played for Indiana and Golden State.
Being 7-foot-1 with German ties — Hartenstein holds dual German and American citizenship — and a jump shot, the comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki are unavoidable. Even his father sees some parallels between their games.
For now, Hartenstein shrugs off comparisons.
He’s just ready to take on whatever challenge the NBA brings.
“Everyone will have their own opinion on how they see me,” Hartenstein said. “I’m my own player. At the end of the day, no one can be like Dirk. He’s done a lot for the game and I definitely appreciate what he’s done for the game in Germany and for European basketball. So comparisons are nice, but at the end of the day I’m my own player and have to show what I can do.”