Are International Players On the Verge of Taking Over the NBA?

Kit Shepard | July 25th, 2018

Who is the best player in the NBA under the age of 25? Like all questions based on opinion, the answer will vary depending on who you ask. Nevertheless, there will be a few names which are mentioned frequently. For fans who love watching jaw-dropping dunks from players with superhuman athleticism, they would lean towards Giannis Antetokounmpo. If you prefer a positionless playmaker with a sky-high IQ, Ben Simmons is your pick. Those more into dominant centers would perhaps say Joel Embiid. While each of these players is in the discussion for different reasons, they have one clear characteristic in common; they are all international players.

In some ways, the impact of players from outside the US is nothing new. Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon became the first foreign winner of the NBA MVP way back in 1994. Canada’s Steve Nash won back-to-back MVPs in 2005 and 2006 before German Dirk Nowitzki took the accolade in 2007. Beyond individual awards, the San Antonio Spurs, the most consistent team of the 21st century, built their success on the foundation of France’s Tony Parker, Argentina’s Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan (who is from the US Virgin Islands, but could be classified as an international player depending on how pedantic you want to be).

However, the NBA has never seen so much overseas talent. Although the best of the best are from the US for the time being (last season, there was not one non-American in the top 5 of MVP or the all-NBA first team), that trend will not continue for much longer. When the likes of Lebron James (aged 33), Stephen Curry (30), Kevin Durant (29), and James Harden (28) reach the end of their primes, they will be replaced at the summit by a generation dominated by internationals.

Antetokounmpo, Simmons, and Embiid are not merely young players with the potential to possibly make a couple of all-star games. They are sure-fire talents who have shown they have the necessary qualities to be the best players on championship teams. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

The Greek Freak

In drafting Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick in 2013 the Milwaukee Bucks look to have pulled off one of the biggest steals of the decade. With his popular nickname ‘The Greek Freak’ ensuring nobody forgets where he hails from, the 23-year-old has lit up the NBA during his short career to date. Standing at 6’11” but with the ball handling of a point guard and otherworldly athleticism, Antetokounmpo averaged 26.9 points and 10 rebounds per game last season, on his way to a sixth-place finish in MVP voting. With his apex still to come, there is very little that Giannis does not have the ability to achieve in the NBA.

Simmons and Embiid

Over in Philadelphia, the 76ers’ return to the playoffs last season was led by rookie Ben Simmons. While he was born to an American father and played high school basketball in Florida, Simmons spent the majority of his formative years in his birthplace of Australia and took the NBA by storm in his inaugural campaign. With his quality as a passer at 6’10” drawing comparisons to the likes of Magic Johnson, the 22-year-old has already put up some superb numbers. He led all rookies in assists (8.2), rebounds (8.1) and steals (1.73) per game, as he won Rookie of the Year. Moreover, his shooting of 54% was the second-highest out of point guards who played over 70 games, and he led his position in blocks per game (0.86). The future looks very bright for Simmons, and the present is not too bad either.

Yet Simmons did not spearhead the Sixers on his own. Alongside him was Joel Embiid, a 24-year-old center from Cameroon who is the perfect big man for the modern game. Embiid can fit the role of a traditional five, as he made the top six for both rebounds (11.0) and blocks (1.8) per game last year. His versatility ensures he can stretch the floor also, with his averaging of one three-pointer a night in the top 10 for centers, while his assists per game (3.2) were bested by only Nikola Jokic and Marc Gasol (also international players) for his position. Like Antetokounmpo and Simmons, Embiid’s performances were recognized at the end of the season, as he was nominated for Defensive Player of the Year (which was won by Rudy Gobert who is, you guessed it, another international) and made the All-NBA second team.

This trio of foreign superstars already boast impressive resumes in their short careers and, if their career path continues in the same direction, they will each have the opportunity to establish themselves as the face of the NBA in the near future. Considering what they have already achieved, it is far from outlandish to say that the three best players in the league could, for the first time ever, all be internationals.

Others to Watch For

And the youthful talent from abroad does not stop there. Latvian Kristaps Porzingis has been out of the headlines since an ACL injury in February, but the New York Knicks forward has shown that he too can lead his team, and was voted an all-star last season at 22. The aforementioned Jokic just signed a max contract (5 years / $147,710,050) with the Denver Nuggets, and the Serbian is just a year older than Porzingis. Last month’s draft continued the trend, as Bahamian DeAndre Ayton was drafted first overall, and Slovenian Luka Doncic at number three. This pair looks to be just the latest to join a growing crop of outstanding foreign players.

Of course, the NBA is still very much an American league, just under 80% of players on the opening day rosters in 2017 were of US nationality. This sizable majority includes Kyrie IrvingAnthony Davis, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum who, with some or all of their best years still ahead of them, will challenge the likes of Antetokounmpo, Simmons, and Embiid at the pinnacle of the sport. Yet despite this, the constant arrival of new stars from faraway lands is unprecedented. In years past, the successes of Olajuwon, Nash, Nowitzki, and company were considered outliers, rare events surrounded by US domination. Now, as the NBA extends its global reach, the heavy influence of players from all corners of the world could become a regular occurrence.

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