The basketball world was turned on its head last summer when Team USA was eliminated from the World Cup of the International Basketball Federation — known as FIBA, from its French name Federation Internationale de Basketball — in the quarterfinals by France after more than a decade of dominance in international competition. This game raised a lot of questions about the future of basketball. Many began to wonder whether Team USA was going to be able to continue to dominate international tournaments and whether international players were going to take over the National Basketball Association.
To be fair, the Team USA squad at the FIBA World Cup only featured two All-Stars. Most of the top talent in the NBA elected to sit out of the tournament because they believed it was not prestigious enough to risk injury before the NBA season started. This boycotting comes after American NBA superstar Paul George suffered a historically gruesome injury competing for Team USA in the summer of 2014. Nonetheless, the team’s performance was still eye-opening as it seems as though the future of basketball is international.
The rise of international players in the league is a relatively new phenomenon. Going back 30 years, only a handful of international players were in the league, the most notable player being Patrick Ewing (CAS ’85), who hails from Jamaica, and Hakeem Olajuwon, who hails from Nigeria. However, the late 1980s saw an influx of talent from Eastern Europe, including Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc. This sudden increase in foreign players in the league increased the popularity of the sport throughout the world and showed that anyone can make it, regardless of the competition against which one grows up playing.
Since then, more and more international players have come through the league. Players like Olajuwon, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki have seen immense success in the NBA with a combined four MVP awards and three NBA championships between them.
Despite their individual successes as well as a sustained increase in foreign NBA players, American players still seemed as of a few years ago to represent the bulk of talent across the league and the most successful team in international competition. At the international tournaments where Team USA puts out their best roster, mainly the Olympics, the country has been definitively dominant. Since FIBA started allowing NBA players to participate in the Olympics in 1989, Team USA has won every gold medal, except for a single hiccup at the 2004 Athens Olympic games.
In the past couple of years, however, the NBA has seen the biggest influx of foreign players in its history. Not only are more international players coming into the league, they are succeeding at a high rate. If anyone doubted this, then the 2019 NBA awards truly solidified the place of foreign stars in the league. Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece won MVP, Rudy Gobert of France won the defensive player of the year award, Luka Doncic of Slovenia won the rookie of the year award and Pascal Siakam of Cameroon won the most improved player award. Never before had international players collectively dominated the end of the season awards, but it demonstrated the league’s transition from a domestic competition to a largely international one.
The Sports Illustrated Top 100 players going into the 2019-20 season included 15 players from outside of the United States in the top 50. Not to mention, three international players appeared in the top 10: Nikola Jokic at No. 8, Joel Embiid at No. 7 and Antetokounmpo at No. 1. International players are undoubtedly taking the league by storm, but at least in the short term, but this change does not portend a disappearance of American dominance at the Olympic stage anytime soon. For the time being, American players are still at the forefront of the NBA, with local fans of most teams still being able to look at their team’s brightest stars and see a fellow American.
For the time being, young international players seem to be the future of the NBA. With Doncic winning rookie of the year, not to mention Deandre Ayton coming in third place, the sophomores already have their presence from overseas. The rookie class also has an incredible presence of players from outside of the U.S. In fact, nine of the players taken in the first round are from overseas, including two in the top 10: RJ Barrett at No. 3 and Rui Hachimura at No. 9. With the addition of countless international talents each year, the NBA is inevitably going to change.
Assuming Team USA has a roster of its strongest players at the 2020 Olympics, they should expect to win the tournament behind the likes of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Lebron James, as the United States still boasts more All-Star and All-NBA caliber players than any other country. However, the 2024 Olympics could be a different story with most of the aforementioned American stars likely being too old to play at a high enough level for the Olympics. In summary, the future of the NBA seems to be international despite American rising stars such as Zion Williamson, Devin Booker and Anthony Davis.
Stylistically, the game of basketball has evolved to suit the international play style more than ever. The physical, “bully ball” style of play from the ’90s and early 2000s is outdated nowadays with defensive hand checks being illegal and big men drawing foul calls more frequently than in earlier eras. With the refs blowing their whistles at such a high rate to protect the players, the finesse game, emphasizing crafty lay ups and dribble moves, played by many of the international players, is much more sustainable with decreased injury risk from the playing styles of a younger Blake Griffin or Deandre Jordan. While international finesse players such as Jokic, Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis succeed more than ever in today’s league, physical bruisers in the paint such as Bill Laimbeer or Charles Oakley would have no place in the current game.
It will not be too long before the Sports Illustrated Top 100 players is going to have more international players than American players in its list. So one can only wonder if Olympic basketball will ever see the dominance of the ’92 Dream Team or the ’08 Redeem Team ever again. While Team USA still will boast more All-Stars than any other nation in the 2020 Olympic competition, other countries are producing a new generation of stars that are affecting the NBA and international basketball competitions more than ever before.