Go back to the 1999-2000 NBA season, and there were only two foreign-born players in the NBA who averaged 15 points per game: Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan.
This season, there are 24 names on that list — by far the most in league history.
The NBA international imprint just keeps getting bigger, providing the sort of transformative impact the likes of which the league probably hasn’t seen since the ABA merger.
One of the MVP front-runners at this point is Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has led Milwaukee to the NBA’s best record entering Wednesday. Dallas’ Luka Doncic looks like an overwhelming favorite to become the first Slovenian rookie of the year. Cameroon’s Joel Embiid might be the dominant big man in the league, and keeps getting better for Philadelphia.
These aren’t just some guys taking up roster spots, either.
These are franchise players. At least one-third of the league’s teams have a foreign-born player who would classify as its best, or at least its most important.
“It’s been fun to watch over the last two decades, where the game started internationally and where it is now,” said Dirk Nowitzki, the German who became the biggest star in Dallas Mavericks’ history. “I think the game has grown globally, China, Australia, Africa, Europe, South America. I think we’ve got 150 international players in the league or more. It’s been fun to watch.”
Just take a peek at Tuesday’s boxscores to see the impact.
— There were six guys with 12 or more rebounds, five of them born outside the U.S.
— There were six guys with seven or more assists, all of them born outside the U.S.
— There were four guys with three or more blocks, all of them born outside the U.S.
Nikola Jokic had 19 points, 14 rebounds and 15 assists for Denver, and it might not have even been his best game of the season. Jokic is Serbian — and represents how the game is played today. He’s a 7-footer. Big, fast and skilled. He’s going to be a problem for teams for a long time, and is the biggest reason why the Nuggets entered Wednesday atop the Western Conference.
The NBA has utilized a ‘USA vs. The World’ format in what used to be called the rookie game at All-Star weekend since 2014, and maybe it’s time to think about doing something like that in the varsity matchup as well.
Think about this possibility: Antetokounmpo, Doncic, Embiid, Jokic and Ben Simmons starting. Select Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela and Nikola Vucevic as the backup big men. Ricky Rubio, Danilo Gallinari, Buddy Hield and Bojan Bogdanovic as backup guards and wings. Jamal Murray, Jonas Valanciunas and Boban Marjanovic would be snubbed on this 12-man mythical roster.
And that scenario even has Australian-born Kyrie Irving playing for the U.S. side in this made-up game.
The U.S. team led by LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis would probably still win. But it might be worth the NBA taking a look at this sort of format before too long.
“You’ve got guys coming from everywhere and anybody now in the world, you know if you work hard you can come play in the NBA,” said Charlotte’s Tony Parker, who was born in Belgium.
There’s a myriad of theories on why this is happening.
The one that makes the most sense is that the game is basically beamed in real time right now to every phone in the world. Young players like Doncic can see fellow Europeans succeed in the NBA while oohing and aahing over their basketball heroes — and for the Mavericks rookie, it was LeBron. Embiid went slightly more old school, saying his favorite all-timer is former MVP Hakeem Olajuwon. Antetokounmpo modeled some of his game after Scottie Pippen.
The seeds have been planted over these last 20 years.
It was only a matter of time before they bore this sort of fruit.
“We just know what this game is about,” Doncic said of the young foreign cluster of stars. “I don’t know if people think international players aren’t that good, but I think we showed up.”
AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina contributed to this report.
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Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com