The Rise of European Dominance in the NBA
The NBA landscape has been changing. Players across all racial, religious, and national spectrums have made America their basketball home. And this represents a major shift from just 40 years ago. According to Cork Gaines of Business Insider, during the 1980-1981 season the NBA only had 1.7% of its players born outside of the United States of America. The National Basketball Association is an American league so those numbers should make sense — but almost 40 years later the Association looks very different. According to the same article, in the 2016-2017 season the NBA had 24.8% of its players originate in foreign countries. Essentially one of four professional ballers in America is not American.
The NBA is now a global league with influence in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. And the biggest regional source of talent has become Europe. According to the NBA’s communications department, on opening night of the 2016 season the NBA had 61 European players. The numbers are still being crunched for this season, but should easily rise. Just looking at the 2017 NBA draft, 11 of the 60 picks were European. The National Basketball Association has definitely become more international than its name would suggest. Prospects from around the world are coming to America and making an impact. Even some of the top stars of the league are foreign these days …
The Greek Freak
One of the biggest, emerging names in the NBA is Giannis Antetokounmpo or as the fans like to call him the Greek Freak. He is the current face of the Milwaukee Bucks and has a bit of a cult following around the league for his peculiar name, goofy demeanor, and of course — enormous talent. Take it from one of the NBA’s very best, Kevin Durant:
“The Greek Freak I think is a force, and I've never seen anything like him. And his ceiling is probably ... he could end up being the best player to ever play if he really wanted to.” An American talking about a European. Giannis is almost 23 years old and is easily one of the top 10 players in the NBA. Just think about the future for the bright young European. If Durant thinks he can potentially be the best player “ever,” he just may have a shot at it. The Greek Freak has a bright future and has already impacted the game of basketball in America.
Easily one of the most recognizable players in NBA history is the European, German stalwart Dirk Nowitzki. He stands out not only in stature, but in skills and awards as well. Nowitzki was crowned MVP in 2007 and an NBA champion in 2011. His awards don’t even stop there: he is a 13-time NBA All Star and an NBA Finals MVP too. The Dallas Mavericks forward became the face of Europe’s basketball insurgence in the early 2000’s. His career was not always the success that it is now as he faced some initial difficulty adapting to the American game. But soon it adapted to him instead as he paved the way for a new generation of big men with deep range. Now towards the end of his career, Nowitzki is still a legend and when it comes to influence on basketball perhaps no other European will ever come close.
The Gasol Brothers
When thinking of European ballers, it can easy to forget about the Gasol Brothers. Marc and Pau Gasol are gentle giants, but ferocious warriors on the court. They do everything well and have each had long careers making use of their varied talents. Pau was the first European to win the Rookie of the Year Award. Marc has dominated the Western Conference since being drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies in 2007. Coincidentally, both Marc and Pau started their careers in Tennessee with Memphis.
The two brothers have racked up many awards between European leagues and the NBA. They each have their own style of play, but have made an important impact on the league. These brothers really paved the way for other Spanish players to come over to America. Spain has become one of the stronger basketball nations in the world. The Spanish National Basketball team claimed silver in both the Beijing and London Olympics. Other top Spanish players in the NBA are Ricky Rubio, Willy Hernangomez, Juan Hernangomez, Jose Calderon and Alex Abrines. Who knows if these players would have had the same opportunities in the NBA without the Gasol brothers?
The San Antonio Spurs
Although not all were European, the core of the championship San Antonio Spurs were players from outside of America. The main person that comes to mind is Tony Parker. The Frenchman has become one of the winningest point guards in NBA history. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is not afraid to use players from other countries. Pau Gasol, Davis Bertans, and Joffrey Lauvergne round out the Europeans on the roster this season. Besides Europeans the Spurs have Australian Patty Mills and Argentinian Manu Ginobili on the team as well. This also does not take into account former Spurs from Europe Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli, and Boban Marjanovic. There is an international feel to the San Antonio Spurs and it is not just from the players.
What sets the Spurs apart from many other teams is that they have a European coach as well. Ettore Messina is an Italian coach that is currently an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs. Messina is also the head coach of the Italian National Basketball team. The Italian coach is considered one of the best basketball coaches in Italy and has had success as an assistant with the Spurs. San Antonio is not afraid to think outside of the box to win games. The hiring of a European coach and various international players proves that.
Young Influx of European Talent
The NBA has a young group of Europeans that keep getting better. Players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, Dennis Schroeder, Evan Fournier, Dario Saric, and Frank Ntilikina all could change the way America views European players. These athletes have the potential to become bigger stars than they already are in the USA. The fact that they are the faces of their teams bodes well for European basketball in general. It is possible that with the rise of these players that basketball will grow in Europe and beyond. There are already decent leagues throughout Europe and that will only improve with the rise of successful European players. Basketball may not be as big as soccer across the pond, but there is the possibility that young athletes will pick the game because they see young players with success in America. If that happens, there will just be a bigger rise in international players in the NBA.
Overall, the NBA has a great and diverse balance of players from around the world. It truly is the top league on the planet and will continue to grow globally in every continent. There are definitely more European players having success in the NBA that were not mentioned, going to show just how successful European basketball is in America. There are too many of them to cover in one article. The National Basketball Association had two foreign players out of every one hundred in 1981, now it’s one out of four. Maybe it should be called the World Basketball Association.