How Non-American Players Are Dominating The NBA

Giannis Antetokounmpo
via Jose Garcia / CC-BY-2.0

Basketball was invented by Canadian James Naismith, in the United States, a melting pot for the different races, countries, and cultures of the world, and that was in many ways a herald for how global the game would become.

At the beginning of the 2019/20 NBA season, a total of 108 (not including a record 11 two-way contract players) international players from 38 different countries and territories were on NBA teams. This is not far from the record of 113, set in both the 2016/17 and 2017/18 seasons, but it sure is a long way from the 24 players from 25 years ago in the 1994/95 season. The trailblazing of Wataru Misaka, Hank Biasatti, Earl Lloyd, and the greatness of Hakeem Olajuwon paved the way for the international players in today’s NBA.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Back-to-back reigning Kia Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the NBA, Antetokounmp was voted by team general managers as the player most likely to win the MVP before the league started (52%) and the player they would pick to start a franchise with (82%). Born in Greece to Nigerian parents, Giannis Sina Ugo Antetokounmpo plays for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Greece national team.

Drafted 15th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2013, scouts saw potential in the 6’9’’ lanky 18-year old but questioned his physicality, strength, defense, and ability to play in a more aggressive and physically demanding NBA (if you did not see Giannis as an 18-year old, this would sound ridiculous). Needless to say, he went on to sprout to 6’11’, muscled out his frame and put all questions of physicality to bed with the way he dominates the NBA today with his interior-heavy play and nasty dunks. He is called the Greek Freak now for crying out loud! Giannis may not have had the postseason that his regular season domination projected but his greatness at this point is questioned only by something as superficial as a ring. Steadily progressing in all his seven seasons in the league (and still only 25 years old), Giannis has racked up Most Improved Player (MIP), MVP, and Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY), joining Hakeem Olajuwon and Micheal Jordan as the only players to win both MVP and DPOY in the same season. Coming back next season with a point to prove and extra motivation, expect the Greek Freak to be an even bigger nightmare for opponents.

Luka Doncic

There was no adapting or getting used to the NBA for this Slovenian point guard from the Euroleague. Doncic entered the NBA as an 18-year old Euroleague MVP, final four MVP, ACB MVP (Spanish basketball league), and immediately showed the league what all the hype was about.

Becoming a full-fledged pro at only 16 years of age and making his debut for the Slovenian national team at 17, Doncic was drafted third overall by the Atlanta Hawks in 2018 NBA draft and then traded on the same night to the Dallas Mavericks for sharpshooter Trae Young. The Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, and the Hawks surely are kicking themselves for passing up on “The Don”, but Dallas is licking its chops just looking at what he has accomplished so far and what the immediate future promises. Already in the MVP conversations in his first and second years, winning Rookie of the Year, and leading Dallas to an impressive postseason in the bubble, Luka Doncic has all the makings of a generational talent whose name and number will hang in the rafters one day.

Joel Embiid

A la Olajuwon, avec une couche de Shaquille O’Neal. This would be a perfect description for Cameroonian and Sixers’ big man Joel Embiid. Discovered by fellow Cameroonian and NBA player Luc Mbah a Moute, in Cameroon at age 15 under the Basketball Without Borders program, EMbiid is arguably considered the best centre in the NBA today.

He had plans to play volleyball, but basketball was his final stop and got him to the US, and one year of college with the Kansas Jayhawks before declaring for the NBA draft. Despite suffering an injury that would keep him out for months, Embiid will be selected third overall by the Philadelphia Sixers in the 2014 NBA draft. Not one to hold his tweet-happy fingers, Embiid would become a social media sensation as Johanna (look it up, its worth it), before ever making his NBA debut two seasons after the draft. Self-nicknamed “The process”, Embiid has everyone in the NBA trusting because he has backed up his talk with serious on-court pizzazz. One of the most exciting players to watch in today’s game, Embiid is a 7’0 forward/center with an elite all-around game. Only 26 years old, Embiid is poised to entertain the NBA and fans all over both on and off the court for years still, and oh, a fun fact, he is a teetotaler.

Ben Simmons

The other half of Philadelphia’s “Trust the process” alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons was worth the wait for both the Sixers and NBA fans. Australia, Melbourne, in particular, seems to have some basketball elixir with two former number one picks in recent NBA drafts (Andrew Bogut and Kyrie Irving), and THEN Simmons in 2016.

Always a leader and star player wherever he’s been, Simmons was a hands-down number one pick by scouts from High School until College. Selected first overall by the Philadelphia Sixers, Simmons would suffer a summer league injury that will make him miss the 2016/17 season. Upon his return, Simmons would take the league by storm, winning Rookie of the Year and then developing in following seasons into an elite defender. Now a two-way juggernaut who can dominate even without a proper jumper, Ben Simmons as opposed to teammate Embiid, does all of his talking on the court. With the championship aspirations of Philadelphia (both as a team and city) on his young shoulders, and Doc Rivers coming in to oversee the next step of the process, Simmons will have to surpass the level of greatness he’s already shown. If he does develop that jumper (the most anticipated event in the NBA), in the words of Vince Carter, “it’s over”.

Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic may lull you with his “slow” play but don’t you dare sleep else you may wake up to a triple-double. The player with the fastest triple-double in NBA history (14 minutes and 33 seconds), Jokic is a Serbian international who plays for the Denver Nuggets.

Unlike the other names on this list, neither greatness nor star potential was scouted in Jokic, selected in the second round and 41st overall in the 2014 NBA draft, despite the fact that he was already a star back in his native Serbia and the Adriatic league. The Nuggets had to wait one season before Jokic could join them, but it was not a wait in vain, finishing third in the 2016 Rookie of the Year voting, second in Most Improved Player voting the following season, before eventually breaking out in the 2017/18 season, his third. Nicknamed “The Joker” by former teammate Mike Miller, due to his unpredictability on and off the court, Jokic had a coming out bubble post-season alongside teammate Jamal Murray, for the Nuggets. Still only 25, and surrounded with a solid cast, the NBA may not have a Batman for this Joker.

This lethal starting five of non-American players amongst them have won almost every NBA performance award, are all All-stars, still to reach their peak, and have years of NBA domination ahead of them. Basketball is now truly a global game and no better and bigger stage is that showcased on, than in the NBA.

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