NBA talent from outside the U.S. is not new. Some of the league’s greatest players, like Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwan from Nigeria and Dirk Nowitzki from Germany, are within the top dozen all-time individual scoring leaders. Players from overseas have seen any number of roles from star players like Olajuwan, Nowitzki and Yao Ming to important contributors like Andrei Kirilenko from Russia, who played in the NBA for over a decade for three different teams, or Peja Stojaković from Yugoslavia, who helped the Dallas Mavericks win a championship in 2011 after over a decade of playing for the Sacramento Kings. Foreign players seem to have been in every role in league history, and this doesn’t include the role of draft bust or disappointment.
The name Darko Milicic stands out, as in 2003 he was drafted second overall by the Detroit Pistons, just after LeBron James inevitably went first. He was picked just before future Hall-of-Famers Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade. Milicic never found his NBA footing, and while he had a nine-year career and even won a championship with the Pistons, because of the players that succeeded him in the draft, will always be known as one of the biggest mistakes and disappointments in NBA history. Since then, there have consistently been talented players from overseas seen as “high-risk/high-reward” players that teams will hesitantly go for early in the NBA draft. Teams are hoping to find the next Dirk Nowitzki but sometimes end up with Darko Milicic. Hasheem Thabeet, Mario Hezonja and Dragan Bender are some of the most recent examples of these risks gone wrong.
While many of these risks haven’t paid off, a recent pool of players from outside the U.S. has been taking the league by storm.
“The Greek Freak,” Giannis Antetekounmpo, began his 2017 NBA season as the front-runner in the MVP race. He has piled up almost 30 points per game so far while leading his team, the Milwaukee Bucks, in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals, just as he did in his breakout 2016 season. The 6’11” forward has guard skills in the open floor and, when he finds his space in the half-court, is seemingly impossible to stop from scoring inside.
“The Latvian Unicorn,” star forward Kristaps Porzingis stands at 7’3” and has an eight-foot wingspan. Porzingis uses his length to be a defensive anchor for the New York Knicks, and he currently leads the NBA in blocked shots per game. He not only has the skill and touch to score in the paint with post moves, but he has shown increased shooting range every year. This year he is consistently hitting deep three-point shots, difficult to contest due to his height. He has refined his dynamic scoring abilities to currently stand as one of the top five leaders in points per game so far this season. His breakout performance combined with the large New York spotlight that has completely embraced him has made Porzingis one of the league’s superstars.
Nikola Jokic may be one of the most underrated players in the NBA. The Serbian center for the Denver Nuggets can seemingly do it all. He has an above average three-point shot percentage, especially for a center, at 41 percent. He can shoot from seemingly anywhere on the floor, while his 250-pound frame and great touch give him some excellent post moves to work with. These skills combined with his excellent vision and passing ability, which has helped his almost five assists per game this season, provide Jokic with a skill set that allows him to be one of the most dynamic and versatile players in the NBA.
Throughout NBA history, new players from overseas have always been seen as hit or miss, but the crop of international NBA players in the last decade has had some home runs. Perhaps the fact that most of these players play professional competitive basketball at an early age prepares them for the NBA lifestyle better. Another explanation could be that today’s NBA is adapting more to the more versatile players and away from role or position-specific players, and the skill set taught in professional overseas leagues creates more versatile and skilled young players. Either way, perhaps now is the era for international stars to take over the NBA.
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