Go back to the 1999-2000 NBA season and there were only two foreign-born players who averaged 15 points per game: Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan.
This season, there are 24 names on that list — by far the most in league history.
The league’s international imprint just keeps getting bigger, providing the sort of transformative impact the likes of which the league probably has not seen since the American Basketball Association merger.
One of the MVP front-runners is Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has led Milwaukee to the NBA’s best record entering Wednesday.
Dallas’ Luka Doncic looks like an overwhelming favorite to become the first Slovenian rookie of the year, while Cameroon’s Joel Embiid might be the dominant big man in the league, and keeps getting better for Philadelphia.
These are not just some guys taking up roster spots, either. These are franchise players. At least one-third of the league’s teams have a foreign-born player who would classify as their best, or at least their most important.
“It’s been fun to watch over the last two decades, where the game started internationally and where it is now,” said Nowitzki, the German who became the biggest star in Dallas Mavericks history. “I think the game has grown globally: China, Australia, Africa, Europe, South America. I think we’ve got 150 international players in the league or more. It’s been fun to watch.”
Tuesday’s box scores show the impact:
There were six guys with at least 12 rebounds, five of them born outside the US.
There were six with at least seven assists, all of them born outside the US.
There were four guys with at least three blocks, all of them born outside the US.
Nikola Jokic had 19 points, 14 rebounds and 15 assists for Denver, and it might not have even been his best game of the season. Jokic is Serbian and represents how the game is played today. He is 213cm tall, fast and skilled. He is going to be a problem for teams for a long time and is the biggest reason the Nuggets entered Wednesday atop the Western Conference.
The NBA has utilized a “US vs the world” format in what used to be called the rookie game at All-Star weekend since 2014, and maybe it is time to think about doing something like that in the varsity matchup as well.
“You’ve got guys coming from everywhere and anybody now in the world, you know if you work hard you can come play in the NBA,” said Charlotte’s Tony Parker, who was born in Belgium.
There is a myriad of theories on why this is happening.
The one that makes the most sense is that the game is basically beamed in real time to every smartphone in the world. Young players like Doncic can see fellow Europeans succeed in the NBA while oohing and aahing over their basketball heroes — and for the Mavericks rookie, it was LeBron James.
Embiid went slightly more old school, saying his favorite all-timer is former MVP Hakeem Olajuwon. Antetokounmpo modeled some of his game after Scottie Pippen.
The seeds have been planted over the past 20 years. It was only a matter of time before they bore fruit.
“We just know what this game is about,” Doncic said. “I don’t know if people think international players aren’t that good, but I think we showed up.”
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