Dirk Nowitzki. Marc Gasol. Tony Parker. Giannis Antetokounmpo. What do these names all have in common? They are all NBA players that are not from the United States. The emergence of more international players in the NBA cannot be ignored or understated. The 2016 NBA draft set a new record for the number of international players drafted in the first round, with 15 out of the 30 players selected coming from outside of the United States (the previous record was 12, set in 2013), en route to 26 total international players being selected in both rounds. Two international players were taken in the first four picks – Ben Simmons (from Melbourne, Australia) was taken by the Philadephia 76ers at No. 1, and the Phoenix Suns took Croatian native Dragan Bender with the No. 4 overall pick.

Opening night of the 2016-17 NBA season also featured a record number 113 players of international original on opening night team rosters from a record 41 countries and territories. Canada was most heavily represented with 11 players on opening night team rosters. 10 players came from France. Brazil boasted nine players, while Australia and Argentina each had eight players on NBA rosters. These numbers are incredibly impressive, and they also represent the NBA’s stellar rise in popularity around the world.

The first overseas basketball game to feature an NBA team occurred in September of 1978, when the then-defending champion Washington Bullets played Maccabi Tel Aviv at Eliyahu Sports Arena in Tel Aviv, Israel. They would go on to play three more international exhibition games the following year in Shanghai and Beijing in China, as well as in Quezon City in the Philippines.

The global impact of the NBA can still be seen every year around the league. Last Sundays Golden State Warriors vs. Sacramento Kings featured the Kings’ annual Bollywood Night at the Golden-1 Center, and it was also the first ever NBA game to be streamed live to India.

This past Thursday featured the Indiana Pacers and the Denver Nuggets playing at the O2 Arena in London. This was the seventh regular season NBA game played in London in as many years. Likewise, the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns also played a regular season game in Mexico City on the same day. The Suns are scheduled to play another regular season Mexico City game tonight, this time against the San Antonio Spurs.

Since 2012, two NBA teams have always been scheduled to play two preseason games against each other in China every fall. China is one of the largest international basketball markets in the world, with many NBA players choosing to play in the Chinese Basketball Association to either revive or maintain their careers, as well as many Chinese players from the CBA aspiring to be signed or drafted by NBA teams. This can largely be attributed to newly enshrined Hall-of-Famer Yao Ming being drafted as the No. 1 overall pick by the Houston Rockets in 2002 (also becoming the first player ever drafted at No. 1 without having played college basketball in the U.S.). Yao’s NBA dominance, despite a somewhat disappointing rookie season, brought a new level of NBA exposure to China. A November 9, 2007 game between the Rockets and the Milwaukee Bucks that featured Ming going up his fellow countryman Yi Jianliang of the Bucks was watched by over 200 million people in China, going down in history as one of the most watched NBA games ever.

There are many factors which can account for the massive rise of NBA popularity overseas. The biggest reason can be attributed to the dominance of the USA Men’s Basketball Team on the Olympic stage. Since the 1992 Dream Team when NBA players were finally allowed to compete in the Olympics, the USA has displayed a level of talent on the international stage that has largely been unparalleled. Many international players say that some of their first memories of wanting to play basketball came after seeing Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan showcase their elite talents in Barcelona that summer of ’92.

Another huge factor is the growing Basketball Without Borders NBA and FIBA instructional camp, in which NBA players travel to other countries to promote the game of basketball, as well as being a positive force for world relations. It is also used as way of scouting and nurturing young international basketball players who may also have dreams of playing in the NBA. Los Angeles Clippers forward Luc Mbah a Moute, a native of Cameroon, was one such player, as he was a camper at the first BWB Africa program back in 2003. He remains a passionate part of the BWB programs in Africa. Mbah a Moute also played as part of Team Africa, consisting of current and alumni players who were born in or had parents born in Africa, against Team World, which consisted of players from the US and other parts of the world, in the first ever exhibition NBA Africa Game in August 2015 in Johannesburg, South Africa. NBA alumni Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo also made “cameo” appearances playing for Team Africa in the first NBA game ever played on the continent.

The NBA has boasted many fantastic international players that have gone on to have very successful careers in the league. There are also many young international players currently in the NBA who are still on the rise. As the NBA’s global presence continues to grow, it is clear that there will be many more rising stars from other countries and territories that will continue to make their impact on the NBA for years to come. Hopefully that means fans will eventually get to see more “around the world” plays like this:

… One can only hope.

About The Author

Darrin Burrell is a life-long fan of the NBA. He has a been a fan of the Washington Bullets/Wizards his whole life, he grew up playing basketball, and considers himself a true student of all aspects of the game. Darrin currently resides in the Washington, DC area.

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