Year 2021: Foreigners took over the NBA

The globalization of the NBA exploded in 2021, with foreign stars like Greece's Giannis Antetokounmpo and Serbian Nikola Jokic sweeping the season'

The globalization of the NBA exploded in 2021, with foreign stars like Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Serbian Nikola Jokic sweeping the season’s biggest accolades.

In a league where borders no longer exist and great talents have a free hand regardless of their origin, international figures are becoming an image of the NBA at the level of American icons such as Stephen Curry (Warriors), LeBron James (Lakers) or Kevin Durant (Nets).

The new king to dethrone is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who in July crowned a showcase of individual awards, including MVPs (Most Valuable Player) for the 2019 and 2020 seasons, with his first NBA champion trophy with the Milwaukee Bucks.

In his premiere on the top stage, Antetokounmpo seized the ring and the Finals MVP against the Phoenix Suns with stratospheric averages of 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game.

As MVP of the season, he was succeeded by another European, Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), who established himself as one of the best passing centers in history with 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists on average.

Both Jokic and Antetokounmpo were included in the Best Quintet of the season, which for the first time had a non-American majority. Young Slovenian phenom Luka Doncic (Mavericks) joined them alongside Americans Curry and Kawhi Leonard (Clippers).

French center Rudy Gobert completed a historic course for international players by claiming his third Defensive Player of the Year award. The Best Defensive Quintet also had a foreign majority with places for Gobert, Antetokounmpo and the Australian Ben Simmons (Sixers).

“It’s incredible. When I arrived, the teams had at most one international player,” recalled German Dirk Nowitzki, MVP of the 2007 season and the 2011 Finals, this month.

“The impact not only on the team but as franchise players or its impact on the community is part of the growth of basketball,” acknowledged Nowitzi, still considered by many to be the best European player in history.

The end of US hegemony in the NBA aristocracy is a fully established phenomenon that is also moving into the team locker rooms.

A total of 109 players of 39 nationalities started the new season in October in the 30 franchises, representing about a quarter of the rosters.

In addition to the already established figures, which include other participants from the last All-Star such as the Lithuanian Domantas Sabonis (Pacers) or the Montenegrin Nikola Vucevic (Bulls), new generations are pushing hard behind them.

This year, a first NBA Global Academy graduate was inducted into the league, Australian Josh Giddey, a 2.03-meter point guard selected by the Oklahoma City Thunder in sixth place in the Draft.

In addition to the Canberra center, the NBA has an academy in Mexico for Latin American promises and others in India, China and Senegal, where it hopes to form jewels of the thriving African basketball like Joel Embiid (Sixers).

Even the two favorite teenagers to be chosen in the first place of the Drafts of 2022 and 2023 also have European passports, the Italian-American Paolo Banchero and the French Victor Wembanyama.

All these jewels walk on the bridge opened more than three decades ago by the pioneers of international basketball in the NBA, such as the Spanish Fernando Martín or the Croatian Drazen Petrovic.

Then came players who were champions and figures of their teams, such as Nowitzki (Mavericks) himself, the Spanish Pau Gasol (Lakers) and the Argentine Manu Ginobili (Spurs), whose steps are today followed by his compatriots Facundo Campazzo (Nuggets) and rookie Leandro Bolmaro (Timberwolves).

“There are so many players who come here and play at a high level, in the best league in the world,” says Latvian Kristaps Porzingis, today at the Dallas Mavericks. “It’s good to see it. It means we are doing something right in basketball in general.”

gbv / ma