In the last decade, basketball has seemingly gone from a sport dominated by the Americans to a sport that everyone in the world could play. With recent setbacks of the US Dream Teams losing at the 2004 Olympics and 2006 World Cup, and the MVP of the NBA in the last two seasons being Steve Nash (Canada), and this year’s MVP top contenders being Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) and Nash once again. Nash and Nowitsky are considered the top point guard and power forward in the NBA right now and Yao Ming (China), the top center. United States still have the best shooting guard and small forward, with Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Although the US still has the most top 1% players in the world but why do they lose, when they have to put a team together against other international team that only have 1 really good player and maybe 2 or 3 other players that play in the NBA?
The first wave – Arvydas Sabonis (Lithuania), Valde Divac (Yugoslavia), Rik Smits (Netherlands), Luc Longley (Australia), Toni Kukoc (Lithuania)
In the late 80s and early 90s, top European players began to come to the NBA. At that time, most of the players that were able to come are mostly 7 footers, because we will never have enough of these giants in basketball in any period of time. Two things that all of them have in common are: they are not as physical as the other center and power forward in the NBA, and they could all shoot 15 foot jumpers or further, something that no big men in North America could do at that time. Sabonis and Divac are also good passer and Kukoc could shoot further and was pretty good at driving to the basket even at 6’10”.
Arvydas Sabonis was the best European player at the time. At 7 foot, he had been known to be able to dribble, occasionally shoot from 3-pt range and pass like a point guard (if not better). Sabonis led the USSR to win the 1988 Korea Olympics. However, due to the political circumstances, Sabonis was not able to come to the NBA in 1988, the year that he was drafted by the Portland Trail-blazers. When Sabonis was cleared to go to the NBA in 1989, he elected to stay and play professionally in Europe instead, and did not join the Trail-blazers until the end of his prime in 1995..
Toni Kukoc was perhaps the first non-7 footers that made a splash in the NBA. Who was a key player for the Chicago Bulls, when they won the NBA titles in 1996 / 97 / 98. At 6’10”, Kukoc shoot from beyond the 3-pt arc regularly and drive to the basket when guarded by a power forward. On the other hand, when he was defended by a small forward, Kukoc would be posting up, and at 6’10”, Kukoc could shoot over a smaller player from the outside at any time he wish. With his versatility, Kukoc revolutionize the playing style in the NBA, not just opening up the door for other European big men, but we see players like Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, Chris Webber and Chris Bosh, American big men that could now add a shooting touch to their arsenal on top of their post up game. And in the long term, at the end of Kukoc’s career, we see the Phoenix Suns, which has an Italian coach in Mike D’Antoni, play the fast pace European style of basketball, which stress passing and shooting from every player on the court, including the center and power forward that could also dribble and move the ball on the run.
The Second wave – led by Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Pau Gasol (Spain), Toni Parker (France), Manu Ginobili (Argentina) and Yao Ming (China)
Well, these are the group of players in the NBA, they are not just good players, but are considered as some of the elite players in the NBA right now. And now, not only big centers and power forwards are going to the NBA due to demand of big men, the overall skills of international players had improved. Big or small players became more athletic and are better suit for the North American style of basketball.
Nowitzki is a bigger, stronger version of Kukoc. Who is a MVP candidate this year, and finished 3rd in the voting in the past two seasons. Making him the first international player, who dominate the game regularly in the NBA.
Gasol is another Valde Divac, who could extend the other team’s defense, and play solid defense himself. Gasol has a better offensive skills set and more offensive moves, but not as good a passer as Divac.
Yao is just a good center that could shoot a little further away and dominate the paint area mainly because of his 7’6” frame.
Then there are Parker and Ginobili, they are the first international point guard and shooting that made a difference in the NBA. Parker uses his speed, quickness, as well as his basketball intelligence that a point guard requires, which he gain on the benefit of beginning playing professional basketball when he was 14. Ginobili is known to play tough defense, going strong to the basket and finding different ways to get to the basket in the most unusual/unbelievable ways. I guess it is just a matter of time that there are some good players in the pg, sg and sf positions from around the world to crack into the NBA.
Why is it good for NBA teams to draft / sign international players?
The advantage that international players have over players that grew up in North America is that, rather than learning to play basketball from the street and high schools, because the international style of basketball is less physical, they get a chance to play profession basketball beginning at a young age. This way, they get to learn the fundamentals better and become a more complete basketball player, thus higher basketball IQ, whereas the North American players are more athletic and could produce more spectacular plays. The international players are better passer and have more big game experiences in general.
In general, it might take a little longer for a young player from other countries to adjust to the more physical NBA basketball. But once they are used to the physical play, they began to excel and show their talent, and most of them become fairly successful in the NBA. This is because only the top prospects were drafted and since they began playing professional basketball at a young age, the level of competition that the European players had been through are higher than those who play in college in North America. So when they were drafted, NBA scouts know those players could play and it is just a matter of time on how long it would take for them to get use to playing in the NBA. So there are fewer busts in drafting international talents in comparison to drafting college players from NCAA.
Another advantage of international players is free agency, it is not necessarily to get young international players through the draft, NBA teams could sign a veteran player from any of the European league to help out their team right away. And with the continue increase popularity of basketball around the world, we could see more and more good international players joining the NBA in the future. All this would do is increase the overall entertainment level of the NBA, it is great for the true basketball fans.
In the next article, International Basketball – Part 2, I will talk about why the recent U.S. dream teams were failing to win in international tournament in the recent years.
BTW – When talking about great international players, we have to mention Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria), Dekembi Mutombu (Congo) and Steve Nash (Canada), but these guys are not mention above because they all had went to different universities in the U.S. and play in the NCAA. And of course, there are other international players that were not mention in this article such as Detlef Schrempf from Germany and Peja Stojakovic etc...