Is There Room For the WORLD In The NBA?

March 20, 2018 |  by  |  Editorial

I know it’s been a while. Lately I’ve been so focused with making videos, there really hasn’t been much time to write anything worthwhile on this blog. This is supposed to be a “journal” after all, right? Well, it’s only right I get my unfiltered thoughts out there from time to time and I do have a lot to get off my chest before this 2017-18 season comes to a close.

Even though I might not be writing it down in the moment, I’m always thinking about the NBA and the many issues relevant in today’s game as well as basketball culture as a whole and throughout the season one topic in particular stayed on my mind is that of foreign/international players and how the league is quickly turning into what David Stern would call the “global game”. Recently it has become clear to me that Sterns wishes for a league full of international players playing a game that appeals as much to fans overseas as it does stateside has come to fruition.

It’s no secret that the NBA has been branching out and marketing itself to for years most notably since Jordan, Magic, Bird and the rest of the USA Olympic Dream Team introduced the game at its highest level to millions of basketball fans across the globe back in 1996. With the rise Superstar players like Jordan, Barkley, Penny Hardaway, Kobe, Shaq, Vince Carter and Allen Iverson (to name a few) the NBA of the mid 1990′s/Early 2000′s was always destined to reach a wider audience and grow into not only one of the most popular sports in not only the USA but the world. At least this was the goal of then commissioner David Stern set out to accomplish before retiring in 2014. Ideally this was only the natural progression of a game and culture that was steadily outgrowing the boundaries and limitations of the USA.

The mission former commissioner David Stern started, current commissioner Adam Silver has inherited and this modern NBA with a new set of Superstars like Lebron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are carrying on where the previous generation left off, only this time it is arguably the most popular sport in the USA. It was only a matter of time that it would reach the world or better yet, the world would come to it.

Fast forward to 2018, the NBA is more poplar than I can ever remember it being, and for the first time ever even more popular than Football. Seeing that Basketball has all but conquered the USA, where else does the league have to go from here, but overseas? As I type this its no doubt in my mind that the NBA is no longer seen by fans as just an an North American game but a global one. Matter fact theres more global fans inside and out of the USA than ever. Seeing dozens of Greek fans wait after games for Giannis Antetekunmpo is now the norm at every city he visits. And its not like American basketball fans haven’t embraced foreign NBA stars either. Just the fact that Kristaps Porzingis was hailed the “King Of New York” only days after Carmelo left is no better indication of how the game is changing. Before the only true foreign NBA superstar we had was Dirk and even he is under appreciated to this day. Now it appears to be one foreign star player in each NBA franchise.

But let me back track for a minute….

Years ago when I first heard the term “Global Game” I thought it meant that the NBA would expand more and include another international team or two like they did with Toronto raptors or former Vancouver Grizzlies in the 1990′s but that hasn’t happened. Other than a few games in London, Brazil, China and Mexico among a few other countries every season, the NBA doesn’t really venture out side of it’s US borders but does it really need to anymore? All the international players are coming here to the USA.

Today’s game isn’t the same we grew up with just like New York city isn’t the same place most native New Yorkers remember from 20, 10 or even 5 years ago. It’s much more international and multicultural than ever. The best players in the NBA today represent cultures from all corners of the globe, many different languages and cultures. If we’re being honest, some aren’t even fluent in English yet. Their game, however, speaks for itself and that’s all that matters.

This international basketball player gentrification of the NBA has already shown it’s effects in this years NBA All Star Game as Kristaps Porzingis, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetekunmpo were announced All Stars, two of which are starters. Along with Dominicans Karl Anthony Towns these and Al Horford that amounts to Five players total participating Sunday night and almost half of “Team Stephen” was made up of international players. Goran Dragic was later added to the game to replace injured Kevin Love for his first All Star selection making it 6 total foreign players. Just imagine in 5-10 years what the teams will look like.

So whats really going on in the NBA? Is this “Foreign Invasion” all part a new attempt to appeal to the growing NBA fan base around the world. Are international players simply the new trend or maybe us fans are bored with players whose names we can actually pronounce. Is the novelty of overseas player more marketable than homegrown talent? Is the future of the league really foreign or is that what they want us to believe? Or maybe…. just maybe African, Canadian and European players are actually as good as if not better than American ones.

Seems like ever since the Knicks lucked up and landed Kristaps, every GM is looking for their own overseas “unicorn”. I’ a player around 6-10 to 7 foot plus who can shoot, handle the ball, and/or even pass. This is “the European way” supposedly or the popular stereotype at least among NBA scouts. Add on Crazy long wingspan and elite athleticism as an added bonus and you got yourself a franchise player, with out all the added baggage that comes with say, your typical African American teenager… but I digress. These days the more favorable Black player in the eyes of many NBA Gms has been the prospect who is more likely Tony Parker than Allen Iverson. This suggested European “bias” or preference is a just reflection of the new rookie profile or prototypical player that fits this new NBA landscape where foreign players in some instances are actually more desired than American ones, despite any lack of equivalent talent or skill…. as long as they’re more the “Greek Freak” and less Darko the “human victory cigar” in the long run.

While there probably won’t be another Giannis in the NBA anytime soon (he is literally a freak of nature after all), there will always be international men of mystery for all those eager NBA GM’s who dare to take a risk them every summer. Right now there is no shortage of promising international young talents in the league so the risks are paying off. For example, Nikola Jokic, who was drafted by the Nuggets in the 2nd round of the 2014 NBA draft, is now showing more potential than anyone could’ve imagined. As of today ESPN has him as one of the top five players in the league under 25.

It’s no surprise then that, in today’s position less NBA players like Kristaps and Jokic are the new prototype. And it’s no secret there are more players like them out there overseas than stateside. Granted, for every potential foreign unicorn, there’s also a Bruno Caboclo. Looks can be deceiving. Obviously not every hyped up international prospect pans out. Anyone remember Darko Milicic? How about Andrea Bargnani? Does the name Hasheem Thabeet ring bells? Each were drafted in the top 2, with high expectations and now they’re just another cautionary tale.

That was nearly 10 years ago. Foreign born draft busts from the past might’ve slowed things down, but it hasn’t stopped teams from drafting them today. Just last year the Milwaukee Bucks have doubled down on the international lottery picks in taking a Canadian by way of Australia, Thon Maker with their 10th pick. One look at him however, and you can tell hes originally from Africa, Sudan to be exact. Before even stepping foot on an NBA court the 7 foot Center/stretch Forward had lived 3 different countries and continents. If NBA potential today is measured in how many stamps a player has on their passport, he’ll be an All Star in no time.

But seriously, many teams are going the international route on draft day and I’m not just talking safe picks in the 2nd or late first round, but the lottery. Just this past NBA draft the Bulls might’ve found themselves their own unicorn in the 7 foot Finnish sharp shooter Lauri Markennen. The Kings clearly got a steal at 27th pick in drafting Serbian rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic who just won MVP during in the All Star Rising Stars challange. The Knicks decided to go international again and drafted France’s Frank Ntilikina over notable US talent like Dennis Smith Jr and Donovan Mitchell. The “French Prince” who despite his enormous potential is a work in progress. But that is far from the case for Rookie of the year candidate Australian born Ben Simmons. These three rookies are just the newest editions in long list of international players who are on their way to being in the league for years to come.

Other players like Sixers talented Croatian forward Dario Saric, and son of legendary Lithuanian player and Portland TrailBlazer Arvydas Sabonis Domantas Sabonis are just a few notable names part of a large pool of talented young foreign born players. Some of my personal favorites are point guards Dennis Schrouder and Dante Exum and big men Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter.

Although we shares the same continent and barley consider them another country (if I can speak for myself), let’s not forget Canada, specifically Toronto or the “GTA” region which can probably have their own NBA team made solely of Canadian talent from the likes of former number 1 pick Andrew Wiggins to Nuggets combo guard Jamal Murray who’s having his own break out year. Kelly Olynk is fitting in nicely off the bench in Miami. Cory Joseph got a ring in San Antonio brought it home to the Raptors and now is a instrumental part to the the post Paul George rebirth that’s taking place in Indiana. Rookie Dillon Brooks is one of the few bright spots for the Memphis Grizzles this year and fellow rookie Dwight Powell might be the Mavs future big man. Last, and honestly probably least is Tristian Thompson who has fell off substantially this year thanks to the “Kardashian curse” but he does have a ring.

Being such close neighbors to the USA, Canada has really been on the forefront of the international Basketball movement taking place in the NBA and still has enough talented players -like the Duke bound 2019 projected top draft pick RJ Barrett- within its borders to make James Naismith proud. Whether it was Canadians going back to back number 1 NBA draft picks in 2013 and 14, (lets just try to forget Anthony Bennett or Karl Anthony Towns in 2015 and now Ben Simmons in 2016, this new wave if international talent taking over the League is undeniable and its only the beginning/sign of things to come. Even This upcoming draft is no exception as Real Madrid’s Luka Doncic has been projected as a top pick by scouts for years. Further, as I type this Bahamas born Deandre Ayton is the consensus number 1 pick overall across the board. If one of the two do become the Top pick overall this Summer, that will be the 5th international player drafted number 1 in the last 6 years!

Now all these recent picks, minus Anthony Bennett (who we’ll just continue to ignore) were all clear cut franchise talent. Although they weren’t American born, we still saw them in college after all, which admittedly helped them go high in the draft. This seems the ideal route for an international player to enter the NBA even if the player doesn’t pan out. And it’s not even about going number one either or even being a surefire franchise player or future NBA star. These days you a player only need not to be from the USA period.

The key to the foreign players appeal is that scouts really don’t know what you’ll get. The American player has become predictable, but the worlds talent pool is so vast and diverse. This attracts scouts alone. Enough to travel hours just to see potential prospects. Many of these international players who are virtually unknown (to basketball fans in the USA let alone NBA Gms) and some haven’t been playing basketball for long and at the time of being “discovered” are still scratching the surface with their talent. Remember Embiid only started playing basketball 2 years in Africa before he joined the University Kansas team.

I’m no Chad Ford but it’s easy to see current draft trends already leaning more towards the international players even if they are “2 years away from being 2 years” in the famous words of Fran Fraschilla. And in every draft any given team could end up with the next Dirk or Hakeem lurking within the lottery and even beyond if they’re willing to take a shot in the dark. It’s that unknown element that’ll cause a team to gamble on foreign prospects over better American ones. Think of it as an investment or project that might not pay off immediately but the risk is ultimately worth the reward. That’s how an 18 year old kid from a small town in France like Frank Ntilikina had so many teams willing to take a chance on just off the strength of him NOT being American. Think about that for a moment? Foreign is in. And it’s not just a trend but future.

Perhaps the spark that the 1992 Dream Team set off over two decades ago has finally flame that making it’s way stateside and now there’s no stopping it, to the point that every team must have some international representation in NBA and they aren’t just role players like Tony Kukoc or scrappy tough guys like Dellavadova or Zaza Pachulia, or however Europen players have been stereotyped in the past. In 2018 they’re not only some of the best players in the NBA today but the biggest prospects for the future; the next Ginobili, Hakeem and Steve Nash.

Just weeks ago ESPN revealed their Top 25 NBA players under 25 list. No surprise 4 out of the top five players listed are foreign and that’s not even including Porzingis or Ben Simmons who make up the top 10 at 7 and 6 respectively. Say what you want about ESPN’s credibility in the past, but this time I have to agree.

As a diehard basketball fan, I’ve seen the NBA changed drastically over the past few years. I could list countless examples of how the game is not the same as when I started watching, but the biggest change today is coming from overseas with the influx of foreign players. The identity of the game fans like me grew up with was always American.

Basketball was never a considered a World game like Soccer. And unlike Soccer which is dominated by any country but the USA, we ruled the Basketball. Whether it was for patriotism, competitive nature or just pride, USA had to always be the best at Basketball. I can’t think of a time where that wasn’t true until maybe right now.

Foreign players might just take over the NBA like Whites have taken Brooklyn, or the Bay area. And over the next 5-10 years, who’s to say league wont be dominated by international players. Then we will be talking about where all the American players left the same way we question what happened to White ones. Part of me questions if the NBAs transition to a “Global Game” is an attempt to balance out the Black American dominated league it’s been for over a decade. It’ll never be a White American majority league again, after all.

Black or White, the league can only fit so many players. It’s already overflowing with talent as is. With new prospects coming every year from College basketball and soon to be High school, will there even be any room for the World in the NBA? And does this fit David Stern’s vision for a Global Game?

Right now the NBA is still overwhelmingly American and Black, but will there soon be a struggle for American players to even get drafted it in a league where teams looking overseas for the next Ben Simmons or Porzingis? If the NBA truly becomes a “Global Game” I predict it to be over the next 5-10 years, maybe the proper question is if there gonna be room for American players soon in the NBA?