The NBA is truly a global league, with an abundance of international talent. The 2002-03 season featured more than 65 international players from 35 countries and territories, including four players from Canada. The league's international players are making their mark, establishing themselves among the NBA elite.

The NBA Draft: Selecting International Talent

Choosing an international player in the NBA Draft may require patience, as some are unable to play in the NBA immediately due to contracts with non-NBA teams. Toni Kukoc (Croatia) was selected by Chicago in 1990, but did not play for the team until three years later. Considering Kukoc's success in the NBA, such players are well worth the wait.

NBA teams now spend as much as 20 per cent of their scouting budget on overseas scouting. The attraction of big centres in Asia and skilled swingmen from Europe make it a necessity for NBA teams to scout foreign talent.

Predrag Stojakovic
Predrag Stojakovic (above) and Vlade Divac of Yugoslavia play for the Kings.
Kent Horner
NBAE/Getty Images

Getting Adjusted

There is an adjustment period for the NBA's international players, who must adapt to a different culture and new way of life.

"There is a 'wow' factor," remarks Dallas assistant coach Donn Nelson. "Think about what these guys see overseas. They see all the highlights of only the best players, usually All-Stars. They see these guys jumping and dunking and that is intimidating because it leads them to believe these guys are superhuman. With Dirk (Nowitzki of Germany) . . . He wasn't comfortable socially, he wasn't comfortable with the team, he wasn't comfortable with the culture, he wasn't comfortable with the living situation . . . At times he was just homesick."

Despite the culture shock, many international players are more ready than their North American counterparts of the same age for the rigours of the pro game. A 20-year-old European may have played five years of professional basketball with men, rather than playing against high school players his own age.

"One of the advantages foreign players have is playing against more experienced players and pretty talented players," says New Jersey Nets president Rod Thorn. "A player of comparable age might be further along than a player in the United States because of the competition."

Though there may be some learning with regard to language and culture, international players typically have a great understanding of the importance of fitness and nutrition, and are used to the constant travel that comes with professional sports. Because of this, they may be able to contribute sooner to their team's success.

The Influence of Zone Defence

Zone defence often is used in international play. This can help the offensive development of international players, as there is greater emphasis on shooting and passing, creating well-skilled and multi-dimensional players. This is especially true of the perimeter players at small forward and shooting guard who have the size and talent to play both on the wing and in the post, such as San Antonio's Hidayet Turkoglu (Turkey).

International players are less likely to develop "playground style" habits of one-on-one confrontations that may arise from man-to-man defence. Instead, they are more adapted to team play. They are generally less likely to drive and more likely to shoot. When they do drive, international players often look to draw the defence and "kick" or pass the ball to open perimeter shooters, rather than look to score themselves.

Some say, however, that playing zone defence may deter a player's development on the defensive end of the court. Because they are less accustomed to the more physical man-to-man defence that is standard in the NBA, conditioning and the understanding of their team's defensive schemes is very important for international players.

Global Centres

With the emergence of Shaquille O'Neal as perhaps the game's most dominant player, more and more teams are looking globally for a similar type of overpowering centre to build around.

In the past, American players who may have been centres grew up watching big guards like Magic Johnson and wanted to develop their "small man" skills. These players eventually felt more comfortable playing on the perimeter, like Minnesota's Kevin Garnett, rather than in the post.

International big men, on the other hand, understand that you can't "teach" height. They are comfortable playing with their back to the basket in the more traditional sense, like a "true" centre. The NBA has a number of international centres, including Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas (Lithuania) and Minnesota's Michael Olowokandi (Nigeria).

Steve Nash
The Mavs' Steve Nash is one of the NBA's Canadian players.
Glenn James
NBAE/Getty Images

China Contingent

The NBA also features a trio of Chinese centres in the Clippers' Wang Zhizhi, the Raptors' Mengke Bateer and the Rockets' Yao Ming, who was the top pick in the NBA Draft 2002. Yao Ming's agility, athleticism and ball-handling skills translate into an unlimited upside unmatched by players of his age and height.

Wang Zhizhi sees a bright future for China's basketball players: "We are getting better and better . . . with more good coaching and a few more years, we'll be a world power."

Big Brother, Little Brother

Prior to joining the NBA, Predrag Stojakovic (Yugoslavia) was a star in the Greek professional leagues, playing against former NBA stars such as Dominique Wilkins. Having grown up watching Yugoslavian players like Dino Radja excel in the NBA, "Peja" wanted to prove himself against the world's best. For him, the toughest adjustment to playing in the NBA was hardly playing at all.

Since joining the Sacramento Kings, Stojakovic's Yugoslavian countryman, Vlade Divac, has acted as big brother and mentor to the talented Stojakovic. Divac provided him with much needed guidance and advice on the NBA, both on the court and off. What made it more thrilling for Stojakovic was that he had grown up watching Divac play for a club team in Belgrade with his father. Stojakovic became an All-Star for the first time in 2002, following Divac, who made his first All-Star appearance in 2001.

The Canadians

Victoria, BC native Steve Nash has made a name for himself for his distinctive hairstyle and famous friends. Now he's making a name for himself with his game. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Nash led all players in assists, averaging 6.9 per game. Many NBA scouts felt that he was the best player not playing on the gold-medal-winning USA team. His leadership was best displayed in the preliminary round versus Yugoslavia, the defending world champion, as Nash guided his team to a 83-75 win with 26 points and eight assists. Nash capped his Olympic experience with NBA All-Star appearances in 2002 and 2003.

Nash joins Newfoundland native Carl English of the Indiana Pacers, Toronto, ON native Rick Fox of the three-time NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers centre Todd MacCulloch of Winnipeg, MB and the New Orleans Hornets' Jamaal Magloire of Toronto, ON to form Canada's NBA contingent.

The World's Greatest

With the influx of foreign players in the NBA, there may never have been more talent in the league than there is now. The world's best players are playing at an NBA arena near you.

"I could be a star in Europe, make much more money," says Utah's Andrei Kirilenko (Russia), "but (the) NBA is the best in the world, and I will grow up here."

"As long as you're on the court and playing, it doesn't matter where you come from," remarks Dirk Nowitzki. "It's about helping your team win."