Tuesday October 3, 2023

From the Champs to the Draft, the World Has Taken Over the NBA

  • Serbia's Nikola Jokic and Canada's Jamal Murray starred in the Denver Nuggets first title.
  • France's Victor Wembanyama is the most hyped prospect since LeBron James.
AAron Ontiveroz/Denver Post/Getty Images | Steve Marcus/TNS
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In 1992, the first superstar-laden U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team — now commonly known as the “Dream Team” — went to Barcelona and dominated on its way to a gold medal.

That dazzling display would echo through the decades to inspire a generation of hoops hopefuls, and not just Americans.

At the time, Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) was 14 years old, Pau Gasol (Spain) was 12, and Tony Parker (France) was 11. The three Europeans went on to cumulatively appear on 20 All-Star rosters and win seven NBA Championships. This year, all three will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“Tony Parker, a young boy growing up in France, probably otherwise would’ve gone on to play professional soccer,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum told Front Office Sports. “But because he saw Michael Jordan play basketball, that inspired him, and he decided to bounce a ball instead of kick a ball.”

This season’s MVP is from Cameroon, the Finals MVP is from Serbia, and the can’t-miss, once-in-a-generation talent set to be selected first overall in Thursday’s NBA Draft is from France. The NBA is enjoying its biggest international moment since the process of conquering the world began in earnest that summer in 1992.

Former NBA commissioner David Stern knew there was a space in the global market for the league, and his successor Adam Silver has broadened those horizons, growing the game globally by making the league accessible — both via media and live — as well as sponsoring youth programs.

Soccer may be the world’s game, but basketball seems set on challenging its supremacy.

“Basketball truly is a global game.” says NBA head of international basketball development Troy Justice. “It’s limit-free, everybody has access now. If you want to be a part of it, we want you to engage with the NBA and to be a part of it.”

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo sits on the scorers table during a game against the Washington Wizards.
Giannis Antetokounmpo kickstarted the current run of international MVPs. Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

International Inroads

When the Dream Team was making history, 21 international players from 18 countries were on NBA rosters. By opening night this season, there were a record 120 players from 41 nations.

And the leap in quantity is more than matched by the one in quality.

In 1994, Hakeem Olajuwan (Nigeria) became the first international NBA MVP. Steve Nash (Canada) came next, winning two straight in 2005 and 2006, followed by Nowitzki in 2007.

“[Nowitzki] redefined the ability of a 7-footer to be a shooting guard and to play multiple positions as we move into the positionless basketball era,” Justice says. “If you look at the last five years and the MVPs that we’ve had, they all approach the game as bigs with superior skill sets.”

The last five MVPs — Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece, 2019-2020), Nikola Jokic (Serbia, 2021-2022), and Joel Embiid (Cameroon, 2023) — all fit that mold.

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Those three, plus Luka Doncic (Slovenia) and Lauri Markkanen (Finland), were all starters at this season’s All-Star Game — and filling out the rosters were Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Canada), Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania), and Pascal Siakam (Cameroon).

Jokic and Jamal Murray (Canada) led the champion Denver Nuggets in points, each averaging a double-double during the Finals en route to the franchise’s first NBA title. Jokic was named Finals MVP.

As basketball has naturally moved away from physicality into a faster, more offensive mindset, international players in general have greatly benefited — it’s a style they generally grew up playing.

“I think it’s the evolution of the game of basketball itself. Faster pace, a lot more shooting, a lot of emphasis on offensive plays,” says George Aivazoglou, the NBA’s head of fan engagement and DTC for Europe and the Middle East. “Some of these players that come from these markets, they have the physical and technical skills, and the talent to really stand out.”

A view of Victor Wembanyama during a French league basketball game.
Victor Wembanyama is already a global sensation before joining the NBA. Credit: Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

The French Unicorn

Just over a week after the Nuggets’ title, the San Antonio Spurs will likely draft the most hyped NBA prospect ever not named LeBron James — and he’s from France.

Victor Wembanyama — a generational unicorn — will soon join the Texas team whose title-winning squads were characterized by a United Nations’ worth of non-American talent, including Argentine star Manu Ginobili (who arguably patented the now-ubiquitous Euro-step) and fellow Frenchman Parker.

Like James, Wembanyama has already become a folk legend without playing a single NBA minute.

His recorded height ranges anywhere from 7’2” to 7’9”. His ability to play like a guard at that altitude has made his highlights must-watch content — and made him the eighth-most-watched player across NBA social media this season with 350 million views. The league even streamed all of his games in France’s LNB Betclic ELITE league for free this season.

“What’s happening a lot more over the past year is that the players are becoming brands themselves,” Aivazoglou says. “I’m expecting his impact on the game of basketball, the NBA, and the fandom in France to be significant.”

Wembanyama is helping lead a moment for basketball in his home country, which included a regular-season NBA game in Paris and will culminate with an Olympics there in 2024. French prospects Bilal Coulibaly and Rayan Rupert could also be drafted in the first round Thursday.

In all, 24 international players, including those who played in U.S. leagues or colleges, have declared for Thursday’s draft, which will represent only a slight dropoff from recent years, including 2016, when a record 28 international players were selected.

Since 2013, when the Milwaukee Bucks selected Antetokounmpo, 154 international players have been drafted. Wembanyama is set to be the 14th international player drafted first overall after Paolo Banchero (Italy) received the honor last year; Olajuwan, of course, set the precedent in 1984.

A close-up view of the Philadelphia 76er's Joel Embiid.
Joel Embiid is one of the modern faces of basketball in Africa. Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Ever-Expanding Universe

The league has played over 200 games in more than 20 countries outside the U.S. and Canada since 1978. In addition to France, there was a regular-season game in Mexico, plus preseason contests in Japan and United Arab Emirates during the 2022-23 campaign.

Aside from live games, the league has consistently increased its global accessibility across media this season: NBA programming broadcasted and streamed to fans in 214 countries and territories in 60 languages — and the league notes that 70% of its social media followers are from outside the U.S.

“There is a huge demand for live premium sports content, and that’s what we are,” says Tatum. “The NBA, I think, is unrivaled in terms of our reach and our ability to attract fans under the NBA brand around the world.”

The latest international heroics represent another link in a chain of inspiration from the Dream Team to Nowitzki to Jokic and now Wembanyama. Tomorrow’s stars are surrounded by basketball at all times, feeding their drive to reach the pros.

“What’s interesting about them is they have an advantage because their entire life, they have been inspired in a different way because they have access to basketball on cellphones and computers and iPads,” Justice says.

With offices in 17 countries worldwide, the NBA is welcoming the global takeover, ultimately creating “a predictable pathway” to the league for the highest level talent, as Tatum puts it.

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“We’re collaborative partners with anyone that’s a basketball stakeholder in the world,” says Justice. To that end, the NBA partners with the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), as well as many of the professional leagues in Europe, to identify and develop talent.

The league also implements programs encouraging basketball from a young age, including Jr. NBA, NBA Basketball School, NBA Academy, and Basketball Without Borders, which has produced NBA players Deandre Ayton (Bahamas), Rui Hachimura (Japan), Jonas Valanciunas (Lithuania), and Murray.

But the one region where the league has made the most direct impact is Africa, a longtime source of NBA talent that produced the first international MVP and added another this season with Embiid, a BWB graduate, along with fellow countryman and NBA champion Siakam.

The league went a step further, launching the Basketball Africa League with FIBA in 2021.

“The level of African talent in the NBA is at an all-time high, and we truly believe we are just scratching the surface in terms of talent identification and development,” BAL president Amadou Gallo Fall told FOS. “[BAL] provides a platform for top African players to compete in a professional league without having to leave the continent, showcase their talent on a global stage, unlock future opportunities, and inspire more young boys and girls across the continent to play the game.”

The NBA’s success in Africa and elsewhere is giving credence to the idea that basketball is a global game, and that 1992 wasn’t some publicity stunt. With the Dream Team, the NBA conquered the world — and now the world is returning the favor.

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