USA vs. international basketball: Is the gap closing or opening up?

USA vs. international basketball: Is the gap closing or opening up?

For decades, the United States dominated on the hardwood. Now, that’s changing.

Today, the U.S. still produces some of the best players in the world and certainly has the deepest talent pool, but other countries have closed the gap considerably. International superstars have taken the league by storm.

With the success of players like Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece), Nikola Jokic (Serbia), Joel Embiid (Cameroon), Luka Dončić (Slovenia) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Canada), it's no surprise that people are high on international players.

Antetokounmpo, Jokic and Embiid have combined for the last five Most Valuable Player awards, and four of the last six Defensive Player of the Year awards have gone to foreign players (Giannis and Rudy Gobert). Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks won the 2021 NBA championship, and now Jokic and the Denver Nuggets are the reigning champs. 

Whether it’s the FIBA Basketball World Cup or in the NBA, international players are often beating their United States counterparts. 

Americans have been outshined as of late, but the U.S. continues to produce some of the very best players in the world. Veteran superstars like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Kyrie Irving continue to excel, while younger studs like Jayson Tatum, Devin Booker, Ja Morant, Donovan Mitchell, Zion Williamson, LaMelo Ball, Tyrese Haliburton, Anthony Edwards, are still realizing their full potential and could challenge the influx of international competition. However, Victor Wembanyama (France) enters the 2023-24 season as the most highly anticipated rookie since LeBron James.

Now, let's take a look at the numbers. A year ago, Basketball News’ Alex Kennedy talked with Troy Justice, the NBA’s vice president, head of international basketball development about the international takeover on basketball’s biggest stages.

“Thirty years ago, there were only 23 international players. Now, we have 121. 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,” Justice said. “So, it's amazing.”

Of the 537 active NBA players, 128 are from outside the United States (just under 25%). International players received 88% of the votes in the 2022-23 MVP race, with Embiid, Jokic and Antetokounmpo garnering 84% combined. Of the top-eight vote-getters, only Tatum and Mitchell were American.

And that’s not just a one-off. You have to go back to the 2020-21 NBA season to find an American player in the top-three of MVP voting, which was Curry at third (closely followed by Giannis). The last American player to win the MVP award was James Harden in 2017-18. Interestingly, there were no international players in the top-five of MVP voting that year, although Antetokounmpo barely missed out.

Also, following that season, the Larry O’Brien trophy has been very much up for grabs. Previously, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors were the perennial NBA Finals matchup and no other teams really came close. LeBron and Steph were the NBA’s poster boys, competing for a ring every year. We hadn’t seen an international superstar lead his team to a title since Dirk Nowitzki defeated LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2011.

There are many reasons for this championship diversity – with five different winners in the past five years but a big factor is the emergence of these international juggernauts like Jokic and Antetokounmpo. However, it’s worth noting that teams with American superstars won three-out-of-five of these championships, led by Kawhi, LeBron and Steph, respectively.

The NBA landscape is volatile and this season will be telling. Will an international player win the MVP award for a sixth-straight time? Which team will be standing after the smoke clears at the end? Can Jokic and the Nuggets repeat? Will Giannis and Dame bring another title to Milwaukee? Or will one of the other contenders win it all?

American players are no doubt still some of the best in the sport and are well ahead in terms of numbers. But, particularly at the top, international players have fully closed the gap and have begun building their own disparity. 

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