For years, we’ve been hearing how the basketball world is catching up with the USA. But is it time to stop couching that in “future-tense” logic and ponder whether it’s happened, even at the highest levels?
In 1992, the USA sent hoops pros to the Olympics for the first time, as the “Dream Team” captured the world’s imagination.
Kids around the planet started playing more basketball. Six years later, Dirk Nowitzki was drafted and became one of the best players in the game, further opening up the NBA to foreign-born and developed players. Yao Ming arrived in 2002 and opened up the Chinese market into a passionate basketball nation.
Since then, the proportion of players who aren’t “made in America” has grown steadily, although the elite players have mostly still been American:
To that point, only 73 players non-American players ever suited up for the NBA. In 1992, there were only 26.
This year, 24.5 percent of NBA players were born outside of the US. In 1992, that was just 6.0 percent. Last year’s record was 118, which is over 150 percent more than played in the league’s first 45 years.
American supremacy is no longer what it used to be, and there appears to be something cyclical happening: As more players prove they can succeed, that both spurs more young people in their home countries to play and encourages NBA teams to look for future talent there.
This brings us to the second point: It’s not just about how many players are in the NBA, but how foreign-born players are also assuming elite status.
Prior to the Dream Team’s visit, the only foreign-born player to win a major award was 1985-86 Rookie of the Year Patrick Ewing. Only Ewing (five times), Olajuwon (six times) and Dominique Wilkins (five times) had ever been named All-NBA. Just eight players had ever been named to the All-Star Game:
It’s worth noting that Olajuwon went on to win an MVP and two DPOY awards, and Mutombo won four DPOY awards post-Dream Team, even though they were in the league before that, so you can include those awards in the pre-1992 bucket if you want.
Regardless, there’s no question that things have gradually changed since then. More than half (76) of all foreign-born players to make the All-Star game have been named since the 2004-05 season. There were 73 in the first 53 seasons.
The initial rush of players who came into the league after the Dream Team started to fade around the early to mid-teens. In 2016, there weren’t any foreign-born All-NBA players and just two All-Stars.
But now there is another group of stars who are taking the stage.
The world is catching up to the US in terms of populating the NBA and in All-Star nominations, but where they’ve especially kept pace is in the awards categories and in becoming some of the most elite players in the world.
Last season there was an all-time high of seven foreign-born players in the All-Star Game and five All-NBA players. They even won four of the five major player awards:
- MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Greece
- ROY: Luka Doncic, Slovenia
- DPOY: Rudy Gobert, France
- MIP: Pascal Siakam, Cameroon
Australia’s Ben Simmons won Rookie of the Year in 2018. Joel Embiid, another Cameroonian, is arguably a top 5-10 player in the league. The Bahamas’ Buddy Hield is second in made threes with 63.
Five of the top 10 rebounders (Clint Capela, Rudy Gobert, Antetokounmpo, Embiid and Nikola Vucevic) are not American. Three of the top six in assists (Doncic, Simmons and Ricky Rubio) are imports. Three of the top five scores were born outside the U.S.
Doncic, after his incredible rookie season, has a running argument for both Most Improved Player and Most Valuable Player this season—a feat which would not only be unprecedented, it probably would never be duplicated. In fact, we might be looking at the two best players in the world being Europeans during the next couple of years.
And you could assemble an All-World team that would be very hard to beat with Doncic, Irving, Simmons, Jamal Murray and Buddy Hield as the guards, Antetokounmpo, Siakam, Andrew Wiggins, Kristaps Porzingis and Bojan Bogdanović as the forwards and Embiid, Jokic and Capela at the 5. You might be able to assemble a team of Americans that beats that group, but it wouldn’t be easy and neither would the win.
We’ve gotten to a point where American supremacy can no longer be assumed, and that’s a good thing. The basketball world keeps getting better, and the NBA product is better for it.
Kelly is a TBW co-Founder and frequent contributor. He spent 4.5 years in the USAF before attending University of Minnesota, Bible college in Anaheim and 15 years in youth ministry. Basketball blogger-turned-NBA Featured Columnist with Bleacher Report, BBallBreakdown, Fansided, The Step Back, Hoops Habit, SportsNet, Vantage Sports, Dime and FanRag, among others, his work has been read over 25 million times. The former NBA Assistant Editor at FanRag (2016-18), he is an NBA Twitter staple who is well-connected and respected among today’s finest basketball writers.