The rise of international basketball: who can challenge the US?

The rise of international basketball: who can challenge the US?

For decades, the United States has dominated basketball, but other countries are closing the gap. International stars such as Yannis Adetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic and Shea Gilgos-Alexander have swept the NBA, and their success has inspired a new generation of players around the world.

Antetokounmpo, Jokic and Embiid have combined for the last five Most Valuable Player awards, and four of the last six Defensive Player of the Year awards have gone to foreign players (Giannis and Rudy Gobert). Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks won the 2021 NBA championship, and now Jokic and the Denver Nuggets are the reigning champs. 

Whether it’s the FIBA Basketball World Cup or in the NBA, international players are often beating their United States counterparts. 

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Americans have been outshined as of late, but the U.S. continues to produce some of the very best players in the world. Veteran superstars like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Kyrie Irving continue to excel, while younger studs like Jayson Tatum, Devin Booker, Ja Morant, Donovan Mitchell, Zion Williamson, LaMelo Ball, Tyrese Haliburton, Anthony Edwards, are still realizing their full potential and could challenge the influx of international competition. However, Victor Wembanyama (France) enters the 2023-24 season as the most highly anticipated rookie since LeBron James.

The rise of international basketball: who can challenge the US?

Now, let’s take a look at the numbers. A year ago, Basketball News’ Alex Kennedy talked with Troy Justice, the NBA’s vice president, head of international basketball development about the international takeover on basketball’s biggest stages.

“Thirty years ago, there were only 23 international players. Now, we have 121. And to be real honest, I think we’re only scratching the surface in terms of not only talent identification but just the development of the game globally,” Justice said. “So, it’s amazing.”

Of the 537 active NBA players, 128 are from outside the United States (just under 25%). International players received 88% of the votes in the 2022-23 MVP race, with Embiid, Jokic and Antetokounmpo garnering 84% combined. Of the top-eight vote-getters, only Tatum and Mitchell were American.

And that’s not just a one-off. You have to go back to the 2020-21 NBA season to find an American player in the top-three of MVP voting, which was Curry at third (closely followed by Giannis). The last American player to win the MVP award was James Harden in 2017-18. Interestingly, there were no international players in the top-five of MVP voting that year, although Antetokounmpo barely missed out.

Also, following that season, the Larry O’Brien trophy has been very much up for grabs. Previously, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors were the perennial NBA Finals matchup and no other teams really came close. LeBron and Steph were the NBA’s poster boys, competing for a ring every year. We hadn’t seen an international superstar lead his team to a title since Dirk Nowitzki defeated LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2011.

There are many reasons for this championship diversity – with five different winners in the past five years – but a big factor is the emergence of these international juggernauts like Jokic and Antetokounmpo. However, it’s worth noting that teams with American superstars won three-out-of-five of these championships, led by Kawhi, LeBron and Steph, respectively.

The landscape of the NBA is constantly changing and this season will be a litmus test. Will an international player win the MVP award for the sixth consecutive season? Which team will emerge victorious? Will Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets defend their title? Can Yannis Adetokounmpo and Damian Lillard bring another title to Milwaukee? Or will one of the other contenders rise to the top?

While American players are still the best in the league, international players have closed the gap on the top players and are now building their own dynasties.

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