Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic are four of the stellar names that the NBA currently has. Four figures who have stepped strongly in the most important basketball league on the planet and who have one thing in common: None of them are Americans. A factor that is becoming more common to see, and that is that in the middle of 2022 it is impossible to ignore the internationalization of the organizationespecially after the second consecutive MVP of the Serbian center of the Denver Nuggets.
It’s a matter of seeing the results of the voting for the Most Valuable Player in recent years. In 2019 Giannis Antetokounmpo achieved his first MVP and became the second non-American player to lift the Maurice Podoloff trophy in the entire history of the league, after the consecration of the German Dirt Nowitski in 2007.
That year would mark the beginning of international domination in the most important prize awarded in the regular season. In 2019 the Greek finished over James Harden and Paul George. In 2020 he would repeat the award by receiving more votes than LeBron James and Harden. That year of the remembered bubble would be the last with two Americans on the podium.
And it is that in 2021 Nikola got his first MVP by leading a podium completed by the Cameroonian Joel Embiid and the American Stephen Curry. For this year, for first time in history the three most voted players were foreigners: Jokic, Embiid and Giannis.
But international dominance goes beyond the MVP podium. Today the presence of players who were born outside the United States is increasing, even causing at the beginning of the current season there were 109 players foreign present in the 30 teams that make up the organization.
The countries (outside of Canada) that contribute the most to this list are France, Australia and Germany with 7 players each. Nigeria, for its part, has 5 basketball players.
It is in this list that Rudy Gobert stands out, the first of the active international players to achieve great prizes at the individual level. The French pivot has been one of the most successful defensive players of the past decadeachieving the Defense of the Year award in three seasons (16, 17 and 20).
When 76ers coach Doc Rivers was asked about international dominance in the MVP race, he was blunt: “It’s David Stern’s dream”. A forceful but true phrase if you analyze the great campaign that the former NBA commissioner made to open the doors of the league beyond North America.
With his arrival at the top spot in the league in 1984, the most important milestones of this expansion began to arrive. That same year, the first meeting of NBA teams outside the United States was played., when the Phoenix Suns and New Jersey Nets traveled to Italy. Six years later, the first game of the regular season would take place on another continent. The chosen country would be Japan and the teams, again the Suns but now against the Utah Jazz.
Events that over the years became more and more common. Currently, 76 preseason games and 33 regular phase games have been played outside the United States and Canada.. The last of those, the confrontation between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Charlotte Hornets on January 24, 2020 in Paris, France.
Situations that, like the mythical Dream Team of Barcelona 1992, were opening the global market of the NBA. It is indeed in the 90s when the first big international stars appeared in the league: Toni Kukoc and Detlef Schrempf.
Kukoc was part of Jordan’s Bulls that won the second hat-trick and achieved great accolades, including the Sixth Man Award in 1996. Schrempf, for his part, came to the league in 1985, but had his best moment in 1991 and 1992, when he also he won the award for best bench player of the season.
After those figures, the time would come for the Gasols, Nowitzki, Parker, Ginóbili and Noah, players who during the 00’s set the standard in the NBA and definitively transformed the league into an international tournament. It is already impossible to think of this competition as a purely American one. The doors have been opening for decades and today everyone fits in that house.
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The NBA is no longer just for the Americans: Nikola Jokic’s second MVP faces the internationalization of the league