SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a basketball game that’s never happened, yet should happen. It would be the game not of the year, the decade or the century.
In fact, it would be the game of a lifetime. A game that would authentically reflect basketball where it stands, right here and now, and those who play it.
The performers would hoop — truly hoop. The ball would move, defense would deliver, shots would fall from all over the floor and the intensity would be feisty bordering on fierce. That’s because those involved would be wholly invested, in the name of pride, in the name of love, in the name of bragging rights and most definitely in the name of globalism.
One side would represent: “We are the USA.”
The other: “We are the World.”
And because these players are of the highest of quality, the winner would be the fans. At least overall. But on the scoreboard?
A game between the 12 best American-born players against the 12 best international-born players? The USA versus a World Dream Team?
What would the World say about this?
Match us with the Americans who are young and getting in their prime. Guys our age, in the 22-28 range. Yes, we beat them.”
— Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, on a U.S. vs. the World-style NBA game
“I would be confident that we will win,” said Milwaukee Bucks forward Joe Ingles, of Australia.
“I have to say international because I would be on the international team,” said Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, of Slovenia.
“We will win,” said Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who hails from Greece. “I really believe that.”
Now, this is all conjecture, of course. A hypothetical, unfortunately so. And even then, there would be nothing of significance on the line in such a game, as in the usual motivations, like a championship or a financial jackpot equal to the net worth of Google.
Yet it speaks of a larger revelation, one that’s becoming a revolution. Because, why would the outcome of a fictitious game between Americans and internationals even be a hot debate? Fifty years ago, this wasn’t even a conversation. Even 20 years ago it would’ve been someone’s idea of a joke.
But today? In an NBA where the last American to win Kia MVP honors was way back in 2018 … where arguably three of the league’s top four players are internationals … where the projected No. 1 pick in the next Draft will be a generational and possible game-changing talent from France?
Wouldn’t such a game register seismically on the hoop scale and put a team of Americans on high alert for 48 minutes? Of course it would.
With the annual celebration of basketball called All-Star weekend upon us, the rise of the internationals is suddenly a thing. Most if not all of the old slurs about them — can’t play defense, aren’t tough — are gone. Internationals are no longer designated role players … they are franchise players. Internationals aren’t being stashed overseas for further grooming … they’re hooping on these shores. Internationals aren’t being slept on until the second round of the Draft … they’re crashing the lottery every summer.
“We went from `Hell no’ to ‘Why not?’ in a hurry,’’ said LA Clippers forward Nicolas Batum, who hails from France.
And so: About that fictitious game?
“That’s gonna be tough for the USA,” said Chicago Bulls guard Goran Dragic, a native of Slovenia.
A starting five for the internationals would bring a front line of Antetokounmpo, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic and Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid — who, although he has U.S. citizenship, is from Cameroon. They happen to be the best front-line players in basketball based on the MVP vote of the last two seasons. All three finished in the top four both times and that order could repeat itself in 2022-23. The starting backcourt would be Doncic and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Doncic is on pace to be a top-10 all-time player while Gilgeous-Alexander is on pace to be top-five today at his position.
The next seven? Domantas Sabonis (born in Portland but reps Lithuania and is the son of an international pioneer Arvydas Sabonis), Pascal Siakam, Rudy Gobert, Lauri Markkanen, Deandre Ayton, Jamal Murray and … Victor Wembanyama? Too soon for the teenager? Well, that eliminates Nikola Vucevic, O.G. Anunoby , Kristaps Porzingis , Andrew Wiggins , Steven Adams and a Bojan Bogdanovic, among others.
“You’d be cutting players who are All-Stars or borderline stars,” said Ingles. “I wouldn’t make the team if it was 12 guys. But I’d go to training camp and watch.”
Against: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Jayson Tatum, Ja Morant, Devin Booker, Zion Williamson, Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden and Karl-Anthony Towns, perhaps.
In this scenario, Antetokounmpo would like to make an amendment that sounds like a concession, but really isn’t:
“To be fair, maybe we play the new generation of Americans, and if that’s the case, we beat them big,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think it should be generation vs. generation because the internationals, we are young and some of us are just getting into our prime. Match us with the Americans who are young and getting in their prime. Guys our age, in the 22-28 range. Yes, we beat them.
“If you add the others who have been around like LeBron and KD and Steph, maybe we still have success but it might be a little unfair and a little bit of an edge for them, you know.”
An edge? Yes, perhaps a little. But not enough to make an American victory, even if that happened, as easy as a Sunday morning stroll. The internationals superstars are here, and what’s more evident, they’re here to stay.
International stars follow trailblazers’ footsteps
Somewhere in hoop heaven, former NBA commissioner David Stern is beaming. This was his vision, his hope, that the globalization of basketball would mushroom and, over time, great talents would emerge from every corner and populate the NBA.
The late former commissioner, in partnership with FIBA secretary-general Boris Stankovic, seized a chance to market the game beyond its American borders in the 1980s and pushed for NBA exhibition games overseas, and for professionals to play in the 1992 Olympics — the Dream Team obviously serving as the bulldozer that blew down the wall for good.
The ripple effect was massive: Generations of internationals gravitated to Jordan and Iverson and Kobe; money gushed into the NBA by the millions through international TV rights and merchandise sales; and basketball took root in places where kids chose to shoot a ball rather than kick it.
From Arvydas Sabonis to Sarunas Marciulionis, Toni Kukoc to Drazen Petrovic, Hakeem Olajuwon to Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki to Luka Doncic, the handoffs were conducted smoothly over the decades. The number of internationals with the skills to compete with the very best Americans was only a trickle at first. Now, that faucet pours.
The first All-NBA international player was Olajuwon in 1985-86 and he was also the first internationally-born player to be named NBA MVP. Next on the All-NBA team was Petrovic in 1993, followed by Detlef Schrempf, Dikembe Mutombo, Duncan, Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Manu Ginoboli and Pau Gasol.
“Before it was the best players overseas came to NBA and not be as good as they were in Europe,” Antetokounmpo said. “Now we show them the best from overseas can come here and be among the best in the league. The people before us showed us the path.”
In 2008, five international players (Nowitzki, Parker, Duncan, Gasol and Yao Ming) made up one-third of the 15-member All-NBA teams. In 2021, there were three on the All-NBA First Team (Antetokounmpo, Doncic and Jokic), marking the first time internationals outnumbered Americans.
“Look at who the past four MVP winners are, two from a Greek player and two from a Serbian player,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “There’s a guy in Dallas right now from Slovenia who’s really good as well. And there is a center in Philadelphia who is really good. Who knows? There could be a first-team All-NBA with all international players. That’s not lost on anybody, I don’t believe. If it is, you are not paying attention to the league.”
Initially, the ceiling for international players in the NBA was the fringe of the rotation, often defined as role players and stigmatized as specialists. They could shoot and they brought fundamentals, but defense was lacking and toughness was questioned. Most were taken in the second round of the draft, or late first at best.
“When I got into the league, right off the bat you could see there was a prejudice,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, “a little hesitancy to sign a foreign player because either they wouldn’t play defense; that was the tone that would be used. Or they won’t assimilate. They won’t like it here. It’s not gonna work out.
“And nothing could’ve been further from the truth, and I knew that because I’d traveled to so many places, whether it was Europe, Eastern Europe, Northern Europe, Russia, South America, all those places. And we’d played against some of these guys, and they were awesome every place we went. So, I knew they were out there. They were everywhere. Well, long story short, now they are everywhere in the NBA.”
These players today aren’t hearing the same slander. You might say the conversation has changed.
“We probably get more respect than we used to,” Doncic said. “You have a lot of international players that are really good.”
The image of the internationals received a thorough cleansing when the Spurs ripped through championships in the 2000s. The top three players in the rotation for much of that era was Duncan from the Virgin Islands (a U.S. territory, but still), Ginobili from Argentina and Parker from France. Those three either are already in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame or soon will be. At various times, the Spurs also played Patty Mills (Australia), Beno Udrih and Rasho Nesterovic (Slovenia), Boris Diaw (France) and Tiago Splitter (Brazil) in those championship runs.
Popovich and the Spurs organization — led by then-GM R.C. Buford — put in heavy work over decades in their overseas scouting, but the pioneer in this regard was Don Nelson. He was big on internationals when he coached the Warriors and, through his son Donnie — who played overseas — found Marciulionis, a Hall of Famer who was a crafty Lithuanian point guard and solid NBA starter for years.
Donnie Nelson took that expertise to the Suns, where he was an assistant coach and pushed Phoenix to draft Nash from Canada. And then again to Dallas where he became GM. That’s where he swung a draft-day trade to get the rights to Nowitzki of Germany, and the rest was history.
When I got into the league, right off the bat you could see there was a prejudice, a little hesitancy to sign a foreign player because either they wouldn’t play defense; that was the tone that would be used. Or they won’t assimilate. They won’t like it here. It’s not gonna work out.”
— Spurs coach Gregg Popovich
But those were the early days when internationals were mainly rotational players. What exactly helped make internationals more top-heavy? Well: The increased popularity of the sport expanded the pool of players — and the larger the pool, the better the odds of a star emerging from it. Also: A higher quality of coaching overseas including annual clinics such as Basketball Without Borders happened, and don’t dismiss the motivation caused by insane NBA salaries, where stars command $40 million a year and up.
Just as well, internationals begin playing professionally at an earlier age than their American counterparts. Doncic earned a paycheck in basketball before he could legally drink or drive, competing against men.
And this: A number of internationals annually come to the States as teenagers for better coaching, facilities and competition by playing on high school prep teams to essentially “cheat” the system. This was the case for Embiid, Gilgeous-Alexander, Buddy Hield and Lu Dort among others.
Over the years, international hotspots were created, mainly in Europe, starting with Yugoslavia and Lithuania. Today it’s Canada and maybe Australia providing the biggest pipeline.
And tomorrow … Africa?
That continent remains the Last Frontier, even though it produced Olajuwon and Mutombo long ago. That’s because NBA scouts believe Africa is still untapped. And that’s why the NBA backed the new Basketball Africa League, a concept inspired by Masai Ujiri, the president of the Raptors and a tireless and passionate talent developer in his homeland. Kids who grow too tall for soccer now have options.
Again: The greater the numbers, the better the odds of finding another Embiid, Jokic, Doncic or Antetokounmpo.
The World is putting the infrastructure in place to compete with the USA. And a consolidated World team would be more than qualified to challenge and even beat a team of Americans, who do get a scare or two in Olympic play, where the world’s talent is divided up into dozens of countries and therefore diluted.
Wouldn’t a World Dream Team be groundbreaking?
Said Mills: “A game between us and them, it would be two different styles of basketball. It would be interesting to see. International basketball is played a different way.”
Doc Rivers, coach of Embiid and the Sixers: “It would be a fun game. Maybe that’s a better version of the Olympics. One country against each country doesn’t work out so well. But when you put them all together, we could start a Ryder Cup. It would be pretty cool.”
‘It doesn’t matter where you’re from’
What will the NBA look like in five or 10 years? Will it have a much more diverse foreign flavor like Major League Baseball, where an influx of Asians along with the constant flow of Latin Americans are turning an American sport more international by the season?
Consider this: Some of the best international players in the NBA are just getting started. There is Thunder guard Josh Giddey (Australia), Magic swingman Franz Wagner (Germany) and Indiana Pacers rookie Benedict Mathurin (Canada), all of whom are age 21 or under, among others. And this doesn’t yet include Wembanyama, the most desired Draft pick since James.
Nine of the 24 players, including six starters, in Sunday’s All-Star Game are internationals. Overall, 25 players representing 17 countries will be involved in All-Star weekend. That percentage could, and should, increase in the near future.
“It’s crazy but I believe for the next couple of years the best players will be international,” Antetokounmpo said, “which is fun because it expands the game globally, helps the NBA reach places where it hadn’t reached before. Jokic has 10 more years. I have 10 more years. Luka [has] probably 15. Wembanyama is going to come and, knock on wood, we wish him the best. We have a long way to go to play this game.
“It’s good for the game, good for a lot of kids overseas to understand it can be done that if you work extremely hard, you can be among the best players in the NBA. We put in the work and know how to pay the game. I’m extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished but we have a long way to go. It doesn’t stop here.”
Again: The winner here are the fans.
“People enjoy great basketball players,” Doncic said. “It doesn’t matter where you are from.”
That’s becoming more evident by the year in the NBA, where some of the most popular players aren’t from around here. A game between Americans and internationals would explain where the game is today … and might cause an intense a tug-of-war over one player while choosing sides.
“I’m American,” said Embiid, who has citizenship in the U.S., Cameroon and France. “Am I considered international? I got three nationalities.”
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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