The National Basketball Association has gone international.
It happened years ago. But the tuned out tuning-in to Thursday night’s first round of the NBA Draft witnessed a shocker, an überraschen even.
Foreign-born players constituted 14 of the 30 men drafted in the first round. If one adds Domantas Sabonis, who fails to make the list because the birth of the Lithuanian big man occurred in Portland while his Hall of Fame father played for the Trail Blazers, then foreign players constituted half of all first-round selections.
These included first pick Ben Simmons, an Australian-born power forward born to an American father playing Down Under and an Aussie mom, and five other top-ten picks. In addition to Simmons, Jamal Murray, Buddy Hield, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, and Skal Labissiere all excelled at American colleges before NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called their names Thursday night. The Phoenix Suns (Dragan Bender, Croatia; Georgios Papagiannis, Greece), Milwaukee Bucks (Thon Maker, Australia), Denver Nuggets (Juan Hernangomez, Spain), Boston Celtics (Guerschon Yabusele, France; Ante Zizic, Croatia), and Philadelphia 76ers (Timothe Luwawu, France; Furkan Korkmaz, Turkey) all bypassed American colleges in favor of foreign leagues to grab first-round selections.
Never in the history of the NBA have so many foreign-born players heard their names said in the first round.
At least one future Hall of Famer who grew up abroad believes players learn to pass, dribble, and play as a team better outside of the United States.
“I just think European players are just way more skillful,” Kobe Bryant controversially explained last year. “They are just taught the game the right way at an early age.”
Outsourcing also works for NBA bottom lines. Not only did Hakeem Olajuwon, Pau Gasol, and Dirk Nowitzki help teams win championships, they won the league new fans and revenue. Foreigners pay attention because the NBA pays attention to foreigners. The league generates more money per year in their Chinese streaming deal, for instance, than the UFC or MLS makes in its American television contracts. While Americans lament the passing of the good old days when Michael, Magic, or Larry played, international fans see the golden age as now.
The NFL hopes to place a team in London and MLB hosts regular-season games abroad. The NBA merely imports the best from elsewhere to make foreigners export cash to the league.Unlike so many other sports, basketball rarely gets lost in translation.
The NBA bragged at the beginning of the 2015-2016 season that 100 international players from 37 countries peopled the rosters of its teams. For the second consecutive year, the league’s foreign-born population reached the triple digits. Canada tops the list with 12, followed by France with 10, and Australia comes in third at eight. The NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers included five foreign-born players on their roster.
One could say the foreign interest in the American game was present at the creation, when a Canadian immigrant invented the game in Springfield, Massachusetts. Much—flight, television, computers, space exploration, Minions, the polio vaccine—has changed in the 125 years since. It’s still a basketball shaped world.