An inside look at how international players are taking over the NBA

An inside look at how international players are taking over the NBA

International players have been dominating the NBA in recent years.

An American-born player hasn’t won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award since the 2017-18 season (thanks to Nikola Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo). This streak will likely continue this year, as the MVP frontrunners are Joel Embiid (-120), Jokić (+260) and Antetokounmpo (+600).

Every Defensive Player of the Year award since 2016-17 has gone to an international player too (with Rudy Gobert winning three and Antetokoumpo winning once). This year, oddsmakers once again see this as a two-man race between Gobert (-145) and Antetokounmpo (+440).

A record six international players were named to an All-NBA Team last year: Antetokounmpo (All-NBA First Team), Jokić (All-NBA First Team), Luka DonÄić (All-NBA First Team), Embiid (All-NBA Second Team), Gobert (All-NBA Third Team) and Kyrie Irving (All-NBA Third Team).

This year’s All-Star Game featured six international players (including a record-tying four starters): Antetokounmpo, Jokić, Embiid, DonÄić, Gobert and Andrew Wiggins. Overall, All-Star Weekend included 15 international players from 12 different countries.

Opening-night rosters around the NBA featured a record 121 international players from 40 countries — the eighth-consecutive season with at least 100 international players across NBA rosters. caught up with NBA Vice President and Head of International Basketball Development Troy Justice to discuss the growing impact that international players are having on the NBA, how much easier it is for foreign players to get discovered today, how today’s international stars have helped the NBA’s globalization efforts and more.

Many of today's international players say that they fell in love with basketball after watching past international stars like Dirk Nowitzki, Hakeem Olajuwon, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash among others. How excited are you to see what kind of impact Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokić, Joel Embiid, Luka DonÄić and so on will have on the next generation over the next 10-20 years?

Troy Justice: “Great question. And I'll tip this off by just going back through the history of international players in the NBA. Thirty years ago, when we really started digging in and investing in the international landscape from the NBA side, there were only 23 international players. Now, we have 121. [That’s] incredible growth over that period of time. And to be real honest, I think we're only scratching the surface in terms of not only talent identification but just the development of the game globally. So, it's amazing.

“What I would say is that it goes back to our mission statement for the NBA. I don't know if you've heard our new mission statement, but it's, ‘To inspire and connect people everywhere through the power of basketball.’ That's exactly what's happening. The next generation watched the previous generation and because of that, they said, ‘I can do it!’ Like, ‘Somebody else has done it, and look where they came from, look at their path, and nothing can hold me back. If I put my mind to it and work hard, I can do it too.’ And so that inspiration is what I think has created this legacy and also this new amazing level of stars that we're experiencing. We're really at an all-time high from an international perspective.” 

I’ve talked to some executives about how difficult it used to be to scout international talent, and how some foreign players were even drafted sight unseen. How much easier is it for international players to be discovered now compared to 20-30 years ago?

Justice: “Well, that landscape has completely changed. First of all, it's the 20-year anniversary of the Basketball Without Borders program that we, as the NBA, run all around the world for the top talented players. All of the NBA scouts attend our four summer camps and our Basketball Without Borders global camp during All-Star. They're all in attendance and scouting because they know that we have the best of the best and five different opportunities for data points for them. And we bring them all to one place, so they don't have to travel all over the world. So, it's more convenient for them. We do that work for them in a lot of ways in creating these platforms and programs. And then, of course, with the launch of our NBA Academy program, we're bringing players like Josh Giddey and Dyson Daniels to our NBA Academy games or the G League Showcase or other events where the pro scouts can also see them here on U.S. turf, domestically, so they're not traveling all over the world. Those types of things are just making it more convenient.”

When you’re seeing NBA Academy alumni like Josh Giddey and Dyson Daniels thriving and participating in All-Star Weekend, that has to be the best feeling.

Justice: “It’s an amazing journey that they’re on. For us, it's rewarding because we see their dreams come true, and that's what we're all about. Our job is to create pathways and develop programs and provide everything that they need to succeed, and they just have to work hard and grab hold of it and take the teaching. And it's paying off, We're seeing that now. And there's a whole bunch coming behind them. I think with Basketball Without Borders, we have over 94 former campers who have been drafted or [signed as] free agents. Honestly, it either gives me chills or I tear up, if you really want to know the truth.

“But because we're investing in them early, they come more prepared than ever. I think that's why we're seeing Josh Giddey doing what he's doing as a rookie. People were very surprised when he went No. 6 in the draft, so great job by OKC on the scouting and on the pick. But I think you can see the proof point now that when you're in the NBA system and in the NBA family early, you're way more prepared than you would be otherwise. And so it's just a testament to the great work by all the people who have been a part of their journey.”

With many international players dominating, I’ve heard fans wonder: Is there something that international players are doing that American-born prospects aren’t? How does an international prospect’s path and development differ from an American player’s path?    

Justice: “One thing I'll mention and this is an international concept: For example, in Africa, there’s a saying, ‘In the jungle, it's the hungry lion that hunts best.’ And I really think it's the concept of really having to come in and prove yourself. There's humility, No. 1. There is a desire and hunger. So the work ethic is very strong — and I'm not saying the domestic players [don’t work hard], I'm not speaking negatively about them, but I'm just speaking directly to the characteristics I see in international players. You know, the work ethic, the desire. And I would say they are incredible learners, very humble in the way they approach it. So they're great listeners, they take coaching very well in the sense that it immediately translates into change and improvement in their game — from IQ to skillset. 

“And then finally, you typically see that they're really great team players. They're team-first players, with very little ego usually and they’re very professional in their approach. Also, I would say that they're family oriented and community oriented. A lot of them come from places where this core value that sits within them allows them to not be self-focused or self-centered, but to be other-focused. And I think that allows them to be great teammates.” 

I’ve heard international players talk about how they grew up playing other sports (like soccer), whereas American players often hone in on one sport because they want to get a scholarship or go pro. Do you think the fact that international players have played multiple sports helps them in terms of their development and skillset?

Justice: “Yes, 100%. That's one of the things that we recommend globally as part of our Jr. NBA global curriculum that we use around the world. When we developed that, we put together documentation on this with the experts in the field and multi-sport at a younger age, without sports specialization, allows an athlete to excel further in the future — no matter which sport they choose. So this is not just an idea, this is stuff that experts study; it's stuff that's real. And so there's no doubt about it.”

One of my favorite things about international players thriving is that the misconceptions and stereotypes about these players have been disproven and they’ve largely disappeared. They were always really unfair, but how nice is it to see those ridiculous stereotypes — like “they’re soft” or “they don’t really love basketball” — go away?

Justice: “You are right on there. When you have Giannis and Jokić and Joel, I mean… come on! That just erases all of that. Because when your top players are your hardest workers… I mean, look at Giannis and how hard he plays night in and night out. And to do that, you know he had to work hard. He had to work hard to become a Most Improved Player and to get to that level. When the fans and sportswriters see that, it's real. That's reality TV, and they're seeing his growth right in front of them! And that's definitely a pattern we're seeing. So I'm so glad that the stereotypes have changed.

 “And these are young stars! What's amazing is these MVPs are not veteran players. These are young, talented players. When you are looking at the 121 international players, I mean, a large majority of them are young, hungry, growing players who are learning and reaching new heights. And so you're gonna see [a lot more from] guys like Giddey. I mean, he's got three triple-doubles, and he’s the youngest player to have those three triple-doubles; he's gonna have a lot more in his career. That’s for sure.”

You mentioned that we’re just scratching the service in terms of international players dominating the NBA. What are some of your goals going forward?

Justice: “I would start by saying that we're currently working in 145 countries as of this last year with all of our programs. And these programs are grassroots through Elite. So we're working with young players and we're working with coaches around the world — we're training coaches and we're training and developing players at the age of 10-and-up through our Jr. NBA program and then our NBA Basketball School program and our Basketball Without Borders program and our academies. So we've created a global basketball ecosystem in partnership with FIBA and federations around the world to say, ‘Let's all work together for the greater good of the growth of the game, and all boats will rise together.’ And that's really what's been taking place. And then in the future, we're going to expand all these programs. We're looking to go to 160 countries this year, with a goal to go up to 170 countries. And so we're just going to keep growing and expanding, and doing what we do even better and doing more of it.”

In Australia, Patty Mills had the top-selling NBA jersey and Josh Giddey was No. 4 (trailing only Mills, Stephen Curry and LeBron James). When so many international players are thriving, how does that help the NBA’s globalization efforts and worldwide popularity?

Justice: “It’s incredible because you see these fans coming [to games] with their flags flying. Even here at All-Star, I think Luka's going to be very popular because I know that there's a large community here from Slovenia. Wherever these stars go, not only do they attract global fans, but in particular, fans from their home country. And many of these players, if not all of them, are going back to their home countries in the offseason to give back — whether it's running their camps or refurbishing courts or providing training or giving shoes. Whatever it is, they're doing a lot to put back into the game because they realize what others have done to help them, so they're looking to help others on that journey. That's just kind of part of the culture and the ecosystem and that give-back stuff is like compounding interest that we're experiencing together.

“We are so proud of these international players and how they are representing themselves and their countries and their teams and their league. These are really incredible people who are making a real difference. And not only are they having these tremendous careers, they’re doing a lot of great things off the court to grow the game globally and give back. We often talk about their stats and awards, but they are also tremendous global citizens who are using this platform for a lot of the right reasons, and we’re very excited about them and for what the future holds.”

You and your team have also helped develop many young women through Basketball Without Borders and the NBA Academy Women’s Program. Can you share some details about those efforts?

Justice: “This is a huge focus area for us, a real area of passion, and something that we really work hard at. I just met with our women’s Elite team this morning and they briefed me that we now have over 60 athletes from around the world that we have placed in U.S. prep schools and U.S. colleges, including some at the highest levels like at South Carolina and Connecticut. We have women in our program internationally that are at the highest levels competing. And then Han Xu from China was our first women’s Academy player to be drafted into the WNBA, so there’s a lot of work we’re doing on that side too.”

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