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Less than 24 hours after the 2022 NBA Draft ended, eyes had already shifted to next year’s 2023 Draft. Every discussion of the NBA’s future has been centered around expectations for one player: Victor Wembanyama.
At 18-years-old, Wembanyama has already been dubbed a generational talent. Teams have been purposely tanking in the hopes of a chance at the top lottery pick, so much so that the 2023 Draft has been renamed the “Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes”.
Unlike the majority of projected lottery picks for 2023, Wembanyama has taken a unique route to the NBA. Born and raised in France, Wembanyama has played in France’s top-tier league, LNB Pro A, since he was 16, and played his first game in the USA only this October.
On the other hand, the majority of lottery picks for 2023, including projected No. 2 pick Scoot Henderson, will have played against NBA-bound opposition in the US for years. Division I colleges and the G League offer young talents a tried and tested path to the professional level, feeding top players from the country into the Association year after year.
It is thanks to the globalization of the NBA in its recent years that the Association has become the destination for global stars like Wembanyama. Though the league featured a foreign-born player from its very first 1947 season Italian-Canadian Henry Biasatti, the NBA began its foundational shift to a global scene nearly forty years later, when David Stern was named NBA Commissioner in 1984.
Stern transformed the league to center around its star players rather than teams. In the years that followed, Michael Jordan would experience a rise to unseen heights of popularity. He was a single player who revolutionized both sports and pop culture in the US, and the aftereffects were felt in the kindling interest of foreign audiences.
However, it was the US Dream Team of the 1992 Olympics that ticked off the NBA’s explosion in popularity. The team was composed of the best NBA players of their time, and some of the greatest to have ever played the game: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird. That year, the Dream Team swept every single game, taking home the gold medal. By the time the Olympic Games ended, the Dream Team had left the entire world starstruck.
But people were not only in awe; they were inspired. The Dream Team had established the NBA as the indisputable top level of competition, and were changing the NBA landscape worldwide. Kids in Europe, Asia, and Africa all wanted to Be Like Mike; and anyone who wanted to be someone in basketball knew they wanted to go to the NBA.
The following decade ushered in a new wave of international talent. The 1991-92 NBA season began with 23 international players on its rosters. Two decades later, the number had more than tripled. Dirk Nowitski from Germany, Pau Gasol from Spain, Tony Parker from France, and Manu Ginobili from Argentina are now household names in the NBA, but they all began as youths inspired by the Dream Team. The different types of play, styles, and experience of international draft picks have set the NBA into a state of constant motion, advancing as it diversifies.
There were certainly impactful international players before this transition. Hakeem Olajuwon from Nigeria led the Houston Rockets to back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995, and Dikembe Mutombo from Congo was one of the best defensive players the league had seen in his time.
However, international players of the 21st century, on more than one occasion, have redefined the NBA with their influence. Yao Ming, the first overall pick in the 2002 Draft, remains one of the most memorable big men of the league over a decade after his retirement. But his legacy did not end with his skills as a player.
During the prime of his career with the Rockets, over 200 million viewers would watch him play from China alone. Ming acted as a conduit for the NBA to find an audience in China, an audience that has grown to over 500 million people. International stars clearly had the potential to draw in entire nations of fans; and each time, they revived a new wave of enthusiasm for the NBA.
The influence of international players on the league has only grown more evident in the last decade. Between 2013 and 2016, every single No. 1 overall pick was an international player. Nikola Jokic from Serbia has won the NBA MVP Award for the past two consecutive seasons. In 2021, Giannis Antetokounmpo from Greece led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first title in fifty years and was crowned NBA Finals MVP with 100% of the vote. Luka Doncic from Slovenia consistently tops projections of the next decade’s most valuable players in the league.
The image of the NBA has become inseparable from its international players, and perhaps even dependent upon them. In the FIBA EuroBasket 2022 games, the viewership of games where Antetokounmpo was playing was over triple the EuroBasket 2022 average. Doncic put up 62 points in a single game, the second highest scoring record in EuroBasket history. While both Greece and Slovenia were eliminated, the EuroBasket games proved once again that international players in the NBA are head and shoulders above the rest.
In fact, the same was true for the EuroBasket 2022 champion, Spain. A quarter of their 12-member roster is active in the NBA. Willy Hernangomez, a player for the New Orleans Pelicans, became the 7th Spanish player to win the Finals MVP award, while his brother Juancho Hernangomez of the Toronto Raptors led Spain in scoring.
For some, Juancho Hernangomez may be more recognizable off the court. He starred in the 2022 Netflix film Hustle with Adam Sandler, which tells the story of a foreign player who was discovered by an NBA scout traveling abroad and his journey to join the NBA.
Hustle represents the idea of the NBA in the world’s eyes today. We associate the NBA with the amalgamation of top talent from every walk of life or any corner of the globe. A league that began as a competition of local clubs and North American teams has become the premier professional league of the world and a stage for perennial international talent.
That the NBA is the natural destination for a world-class talent like Wembanyama confirms the impact of the league’s ever-growing popularity and list of legendary international players from the past and present: they have transformed the NBA into a stage which spotlights the world’s best of the best.