The NBA named its 75th Anniversary Team back in October. Of the 75 players who were selected, six legendary international players — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Tim Duncan, Patrick Ewing, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Hakeem Olajuwon — have etched their names in history, paving the way for hundreds of other foreign-born players.
In the final part of our series, we take a closer look at the only active player from this list: Nigerian-Greek basketball phenom Antetokounmpo.
The Greek Freak: Giannis Antetokounmpo
In this NBA era, hundreds of foreign-born players grace the hardwood. But Giannis Antetokounmpo has stood out amongst them all, especially after achieving his first championship win in 2021.
“It’s because of guys like Dirk Nowitzki,” Antetokounmpo told Sports Illustrated. “Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and those guys. Even older, Drazen Petrovic. They set the path for us.”
“The Greek Freak” is a nickname to memorialize, representing the freakish authority Antetokounmpo has applied over this generation of basketball. Selected by the Bucks as the No. 15 overall pick in 2013, Antetokounmpo’s determination to bring a championship title to Milwaukee came full circle in 2021, defeating the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals.
It’s been a quick yet powerful journey since he entered the league at just 18-years-old. The early days of Antetokounmpo’s NBA career was similar to Nowitzki’s, both taking big leaps for a chance in the NBA. He came to the United States having two seasons of semi-pro experience with Filathlitikos in Greece where he grew up playing after his Nigerian parents immigrated there.
In his rookie season, he appeared in only a handful of games for the Bucks.
“It was difficult [in year one]. I felt lonely at times. Thank God, I had people around me that helped me on a daily basis. But it was definitely hard living without my family here,” Giannis told Sports Illustrated.
Within the next five years, Antetokounmpo grew nearly 2 ½ inches and put on a recognizable amount of muscle. His breakout year happened in the 2016-17 season, averaging 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists as well as leading Milwaukee to the playoffs where they were eliminated in the first round.
In that same season, Giannis was named a first-time All-Star and won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
Antetokounmpo continued to take the league by storm, earning back-to-back Kia MVP honors in 2019 and 2020. Additionally, he also won the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award in his second MVP season — one of only three players in NBA history to win both awards in the same season.
Recognized among the top 75 elite players in the league, Giannis took notice of the company he’s among and was named a caption for the 2019 NBA All-Star game in Charlotte.
“It’s crazy. Before I came into the league, I was looking up to [LeBron James]. Now I’m in the locker room and sharing a meal with Team Giannis. Like, I’m leading the all-star team! You know, picking teams with LeBron James! If you told me that six years ago, I would never, never, never thought I would be in this position right now,” Antetokounmpo told the Washington Post his experience.
All these accomplishments led him right to center stage, the 2021 NBA Championship. His performance would shake the basketball world, dropping 40 points in Game 2 against the Suns and then a huge close-out performance of 50 points in Game 6 to bring Milwaukee its first NBA title in 50 years. He was crowned Finals MVP after averaging a record-shattering 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals. His jersey was ranked the third most popular of the 2021-22 season, according to NBAStore.com.
That August, Antetokounmpo took the Larry O’Brian trophy all the way to Athens that August, along with his brother and teammate Thanasis, and their mother to commemorate his win at home in Greece.
“I know I can dominate the game,” Antetokounmpo said to the Washington Post. “I also know I’m not anywhere near being a finished product.”
International Players Rise To Win
As the NBA’s reach has expanded, international stars have become even more of a pivotal asset for the winningest of franchises as the league continues to invest in opportunities for these athletes.
Just last season, a record six foreign players were named to the All-NBA team, including Antetokounmpo, Mavericks star guard Luka Doncic, reigning Kia MVP Nikola Jokić, and 3-time DPOY award winner Rudy Gobert.
Fifteen international players from 20 countries were named to participate in the 2022 NBA All-Star Weekend, with a record-tying six All-Star Game international starters.
The 2021-22 season marked the eighth consecutive season to include at least 100 international players across rosters. There was also a record 35 players this season that have experience in Basketball Without Borders, a program between the NBA and FIBA that began in 2001 to increase global development and community outreach.
Thunder rookie Josh Giddey also became the first NBA Academy graduate to be drafted in 2021. The Academy seeks out non-U.S. prospects to develop and assist in maximizing their potential.
The league continues to welcome players from around the globe, expanding its reach of opportunity. In the past several months, Wizards’ Jaime Echenique became the first Columbian-born player to hit the hardwood in December 2021 and Kings’ Neemias Queta became the first Portuguese player to score in the NBA in January 2022.
“You see our games everywhere, all the time now. That’s also a big thing. There are so many international players, it doesn’t matter if you’re from Senegal or Spain, you know that you can make the NBA. There’s no longer, “Oh, I have to come from Yugoslavia to make it.” That mindset is gone,” Buhony said in Coming To America.
The NBA has put major effort into reaching players, but the same goes for fans. As of this season, the league reached fans in 215 countries and territories in more than 50 languages. More than 40% of visitors to NBA.com come from fans outside of North America and nearly 70% of social media followers are from outside the U.S.
It’s safe to say the NBA is far from finished when it comes to generating and connecting global talent.
“International players are just basketball players. But there’s a lot of good players overseas, and they’re going to keep coming over here,” Antetokounmpo said.