In the wake of USA Basketball’s stunning losses to France and Serbia in the FIBA World Cup Tournament, we have once again seen that the rest of the world is producing players that are comparable to elite American talent. While the 2019 Team USA was not at the level of the USA Basketball team that will compete in the 2020 Olympics, it still featured many All-Stars and solid NBA performers. But the days of easy USA dominance in international competition are clearly numbered.
The 2019 NBA Awards resembled a global summit. Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo won the MVP and made a stirring and emotional speech. Slovenian teenage phenom Luka Doncic took home rookie of the year. Rudy Gobert from France took home the defensive player of the year, and an All-Star from Canada’s team, Cameroon’s Pascal Siakam, captured most improved player. Over 100 current NBA players are from countries other than America. As teams look to get the edge over their opponents, they are looking outside of just the NCAA to find the next great players.
The migration started in the 1940s. Hank Biasatti was the first international player to be a part of the Basketball Association of America, which later became the National Basketball Association. The Italian-born immigrant who grew up in Canada was signed by the Toronto Huskies for just a year in 1946. Hundreds of players from overseas have brought their talents to the NBA since then and changed the landscape of the league.
Spain’s Liga ACB, Turkey’s Basketball Super League, Russia’s VTB United League and the Chinese Basketball Association are just few of the top leagues outside the NBA. There is also the EuroLeague, where some of the best European clubs compete. Luka Doncic and Real Madrid won the 2017-18 EuroLeague Championship before being selected with the third overall pick by the Atlanta Hawks in the 2018 NBA draft. Before he reached the NBA or even the EuroLeague, Doncic went through a training process that is generally associated with soccer teams. The Slovenian was practicing and playing games for Union Olimpija’s under-12 and under-14 teams. By putting Doncic through a professional club’s academy, he was always facing high-level competition. At age 13, Doncic signed a contract with Real Madrid and became a professional with the club at 16. Heading into next season, he will begin his sophomore year with the Dallas Mavericks playing alongside Kristaps Porzingis, who went through a similar process in Latvia and Spain.
The surge of international athletes can be attributed to the European style of player development, where team-play and fundamental skills are emphasized. While the NCAA still produces the most NBA players, leagues across the world continue to improve, and youth development has become a major topic of discussion in America. Kobe Bryant was previously critical about Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball in United States and its lack of ability to teach young players the fundamentals of the game.“Horrible, terrible AAU basketball,” Bryant said, per Arash Markazi of ESPN. “It’s stupid. It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game at all so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game.”I got lucky because I grew up in Europe,” Bryant said in another interview. “Everything there was still fundamental, so I learned all the basics.”
Bryant makes a strong argument when looking at some of the top young talent from overseas. In his rookie season, Doncic averaged 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game. Simmons put up 16.9 PPG, 8.8 RPG, and 7.7 APG. Antetokounmpo had an MVP season with 27.7 PPG, 12.5 RPG, and 5.9 APG. These stats are evidence of each player’s “all-around” game.
Is player development better outside of America? There are strong arguments for both sides of that question, but it is important to acknowledge that America is still likely far ahead of any other nation in producing elite talent. The NCAA provides top-level competition and a big stage. Domantas Sabonis from Lithuania played on junior and senior teams in Spain, but his stock really rose at Gonzaga, where he played two seasons before being drafted 11th overall in 2016. Finland’s Lauri Markkanen played at Arizona and went seventh overall in the 2017 draft. Simmons started basketball in Australia, but the eventual #1 overall pick in 2016 burst on the scene while playing at Montverde Academy and Louisiana State University. Other key players to come over to the States are Joel Embiid, who played at Kansas, and New Mexico State product Pascal Siakam.
While international players continue coming to America to play high school and college ball, several American players are heading overseas to turn professional. Seventeen-year-old LaMelo Ball, a potential 2020 lottery pick, announced he will be playing in Australia’s National Basketball League for the Illawarra Hawks. The youngest Ball brother’s other option was playing in China. R.J. Hampton, also a potential 2020 lottery pick, decided to skip college to play in the NBL as well. In addition to playing for the New Zealand Breakers, Hampton also signed a deal with the Chinese shoe company Li-Ning, the same company Dwyane Wade is working with.
Prior to signing to play in Australia, LaMelo Ball left high school in 2018 to play with his brother, LiAngelo for Vytautas Prienai–Birštonas, a professional team in Lithuania. The younger brothers of Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball departed from the traditional path of going to the NBA after college basketball. This change in direction took place following LiAngelo’s suspension at UCLA due to a theft incident in China.
As the debate about college athletes being paid continues, the option to turn professional has become an option for many players. Luka Doncic was down with the idea after Zion Williamson left a game against UNC with an apparent knee injury.
go play in europe 🤷🏼♂️😂✌️ https://t.co/2o2VPbwnYX
— Luka Doncic (@luka7doncic) February 21, 2019
Playing against professionals and being paid may be beneficial for some, but it is certainly not for everyone. Regardless, the NBA and even the NCAA successfully tapped into an international talent pool that will continue to provide high level talent to American teams. As teams search for the next Dirk Nowitzki or Yao Ming, the NBA has also invested in resources to make basketball more accessible across the world. The Jr. NBA program is already in eight regions, including Latin America, China, Africa, the Middle East and India. The NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program put Siakam on the radar screen and he soon enrolled in college at New Mexico State.
Europe might be producing the most players outside of America, but the NBA is high on the talent level in Africa. NBA and FIBA announced plans for a professional league in Africa, where there is “a huge economic engine” according to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. The plan is to have a 12-team league across the continent.
Clearly, basketball’s worldwide growth will continue as the NBA expands its effort to make the sport much more accessible to potential players from regions of the world that were previously ignored or underserved. As the new season approaches, the league has benefitted from tapping into an expanded international talent pool and boasts more diverse talent than ever before. When fans around the world see someone from their country become a star in the NBA, they just might pick a basketball in hopes of becoming the next Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki or Giannis Antetokounmpo.