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When in Rome

Sure, the NBA draft is a global dance. But this year's installment features an interesting Italian subplot.

Lottomatica Roma's Brandon Jennings goes up to score during their men's basketball Euroleague game against Union Olimpija in Rome, Dec. 18, 2008. (Giampiero Sposito/Reuters)

BOSTON — It is, by now, strictly routine for the NBA draft to feature prominently an international cast. Since the year 2000, when Turkish star Hidayet Turkoglu was the top foreigner drafted, 43 foreign players have been selected in the first round.

Among the headliners at Thursday night’s draft will be 7-foot, 3-inch center Hasheem Thabeet, who was born in Tanzania and starred at the University of Connecticut, and Spanish whiz kid Ricky Rubio, the 18-year-old point guard who starred on the Olympic team that gave Kobe, LeBron and company a run for the gold in Beijing. And 2009 also could witness the first Israeli player, Omri Casspi, to be taken in the first round.

But the most intriguing foreign development will involve a 19-year-old point guard from Los Angeles named Brandon Jennings.

Jennings was considered one of the nation’s best prospects from the class of 2008 after he averaged more than 35 points a game at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. Precluded from entering the NBA draft by the league’s minimum-age restrictions, Jennings made an unprecedented leap, at least since the NBA closed its doors to newly minted high-school grads. Instead of pursuing the now familiar one-year-and-out option at an elite college basketball program, Jennings signed a pro contract to play in Italy. (He had been expected to attend the University of Arizona, but was having difficulty meeting the academic requirements.)

Jennings said he was convinced that the boy-against-men experience in Europe would better prepare him for the rigors of the NBA than college ball or a domestic minor league. And certainly nobody could dispute the fact that his basketball and endorsement earnings, estimated at more than $1 million the past year, were far more than he could have reaped at even the most renegade college program.

Already this year, Jeremy Tyler, a 6-foot, 11-inch center from San Diego, has one-upped Jennings. Tyler, regarded as a potential top pick in the 2011 draft, announced in April that he plans to skip his senior year in high school and play pro ball in Europe for the next two years.