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 Dončić (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, Dončić, 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.
BasketballNews.com 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 Dončić 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.”