The Rise of the International Player in the NBA

As the new NBA season begins, a question on many people’s lips is how will Victor Wembanyama, the number one pick in the 2023 NBA draft, perform? Despite standing at seven feet four inches and with an eight-foot wingspan, his game is based on more than size. One would think with physical gifts such as that, his playing style would be dominated by rebounding, scoring in the paint and blocking shots. Yet the 19-year-old Frenchman possess a smooth three-point shot, decent dribbling and good court vision to go alongside his enormous frame.  This blend of size and skill leads to discussion of what the future of the NBA may look like and whether he represents the culmination of the recent trend of players the size of centres being able to pass like a point guard and score like a shooting guard.

However, while questions around the future of the NBA’s style of play are speculation at this point, Wembanyama’s arrival to the league is consistent with one trend that has emerged over the last couple of years – the rise of the international player.

From Serbian finals MVP and two-time league MVP Nikola Jokić, to reigning Cameroonian league MVP Joel Embiid, players from all across the globe are flourishing at the very highest level of the sport. Delving a little deeper into the numbers a clearer picture emerges. In each of the last five years the regular season MVP has been won by an international player whereas prior to this, dating back to the first award in 1955, only four previous MVPs had been given to players not from the US. This proliferation of international talent is further underlined by the record number of non-American players at the 2023 All-Star Weekend, with a record 25 internationals appearing overall and a record equalling nine playing in the All Star Game itself. Not only are there more internationals playing in the NBA, they are also dominating proceedings.

What are some of the factors behind the recent success of international players and how can this be used as a growth tool by the NBA in new markets?

Firstly, international players are clearly improving in terms of skill and basketball IQ, as aspect that can be tied back to the expansive work done by then NBA Commissioner David Stern in 1990s. His work to grow the league globally meant that international players were being exposed to high quality basketball from a younger age. He recognised that star power and placing players at the forefront of his marketing strategy would allow the league to spread globally at breakneck speed. Alongside Michael Jordan and his Air Jordan brand, the 1992 US basketball Olympic ‘Dream Team’ was the best vehicle to carry Stern’s international thinking. While initially against the idea of having professional players in the Olympics, he even stated that the players were simply being ‘good soldiers to support basketball’, the Olympics provided the perfect platform to showcase the NBA on a global stage. This, coupled alongside some savvy decisions provided the foundations for current international player success. These included striking the NBA’s first international TV deals at the start of the 1980s; having the first regular season NBA game outside of the US in Japan in 1990; and forming the NBA’s first team outside of the US, the Toronto Raptors, in 1995.

The advancement of different development systems for non-US players, particularly in Europe, has created a new generation of elite talent to enter the NBA.

European ballers will often turn professional very young and play for a couple of years with a professional team before declaring for the draft. This is clearly beneficial for these players as not only do they get experience in a professional environment it also means they will play less basketball as teams have a financial incentive not wear out their players. Moreover, the European game is predicated more on ball movement and team play whereas the US game focuses more on developing individual talent and relies more heavily on athleticism. This works at youth level as there is a greater imbalance between the top players in the US and their opponents at the youth level so they can thrive by relying on physicality.

However, upon reaching the NBA where there is more of a level playing field in terms of athleticism, the team skills developed by international players become all the more important. Moreover, relying less on physicality is conducive to a longer and more injury free career. Indeed Wenbanyama, referenced this saying of international young players: “they play at a higher level than American prospects, more competition.” Current international NBA players Luka Dončić from Slovenia and Lauri Markkanen of Finland even both stated that they have found it easier to score in the NBA than when playing in Europe, underlining the high level that leagues outside of the NBA have reached.  The league itself has contributed to international player skill development with the joint NBA and FIBA initiative ‘Basketball without Borders.’ This takes elite players from outside of the US and exposes them to top level coaching and also to people in the NBA, WNBA and FIBA. The joint venture has clearly been a successful pipeline of talent with the aforementioned Embiid and Markkanen as well as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Canada) and Deandre Ayton (Bahamas) standing as significant alumni members. Ensuring that there is a pathway to the league and putting investment behind this will reap benefits in the long term when these foreign born players develop and bring their own national support to the game.

While the international system is clearly in rude health, it could be argued that the American development system is failing its players. Firstly, American teenage prospects play all year round, moving from high school games to summer camps for most of their early teen years to ensure that they can develop a profile among the top colleges. This volume of time on-court can have a detrimental effect on the long-term physical health of athletes which is explored in Baxter Holmes’ article ‘Under the Knife: Exploring America Youth Basketball’, written for ESPN. Marcus Elliott, the founder of P3 Applied Sports Science, a well-renowned performance lab, even goes as far as to state that young American athletes are peaking physically at 16 and 17 and then wearing down by their early 20s. This sentiment was echoed by Lebron James who stated that: “I think too many tournaments are being played throughout the full year and not allowing these kids to recover.”

Whilst the reasons for international success have been outlined, what opportunity does this present for the NBA, as a rights-holder? Clearly, there are more fans globally and in new markets which the NBA can grow into. The link between player success and fan growth is most obviously demonstrated by the huge surge in popularity of basketball in China when Yao Ming entered the league in 2002. Basketball had already been introduced to China when it began to be broadcasted there in 1987 but it exploded after Ming was drafted by the Houston Rockets. His first game against the championship winning Lakers with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant had over 200 million viewers in China alone. This support has been maintained post Ming’s playing career despite the Chinese state broadcaster taking the NBA off air for 18 months in 2019 for due comments made by then Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey. The surge in support in a particular country when a player has success in the league is not limited to China as demonstrated by the growth of the NBA League Pass, which allows subscribers to access live games. In Cameroon, the home country of Embiid, there was a 272% increase in subscriptions in 2022. Simiarly, viewers in Italy also grew rapidly in 2022 by 81% and this can be linked to Italian-American Paolo Banchero being drafted number one that year.  This underlines the clear link between international player success and commercial growth, and the importance to the league in ensuring global accessibility to capitalise on this success.

So, what conclusions can be drawn from all this and where do the opportunities lie?

  1. International players aren’t going anywhere. As the sport has become truly global with the NBA being viewed in 215 countries and gaining more fans year on year. This is a market that will continue to grow and provide opportunity for agencies and players alike.
  2. The globalised NBA should foster competition between international and US players to generate even more interest in the sport. To leverage further the new global landscape of the NBA the format of All-Star game should change to pit international players against a US team. This would appease fans everywhere with the previous format becoming somewhat stale and provide the NBA a chance to recreate the passion and buzz around international sporting competitions like the Ryder Cup. A timeframe within the regular season to showcase this talent and celebrate the amalgam of cultures that now exist within the league not only makes sense from a sporting perspective but also from a commercial point of view with the possibility of new merchandising opportunities, sponsorship deals and brand activations.
  3. The NBA needs to ensure that new international fans become enduring supporters of the league. This means ensuring that not only do international players have a pathway to the league but fans have access to all the NBA has to offer. Given the duration of the NBA season, increasing the number of international games and broadening the locations would draw new loyal eyes to the sport, who could then have localised content created for them to ensure that they continue to interact with the NBA in the long term.