A Global Game: The Rise in Overseas Stardom in the NBA

Since the creation of the Most Valuable Player award in 1956, American basketball players have always seemed to win it. However, this season, not only did Serbian player Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets win MVP, but all the top four finishers were foreign born as well. Half of the Rookie of the Year award winners in the last eight years were also international athletes—a huge jump compared to the one foreign-born winner before that. With the rising offensive success of foreign players, why is this surge happening, and what does this mean for the NBA?

In America, the high school basketball emphasis is mostly on athleticism and body control.Whereas college coaches in America mostly prioritize athletic potential and size, European coaches value a recruit’s fundamental skills more. On the other hand, in Europe, most players are chosen for teams based on their basketball skill such as shooting, playmaking, and dribbling. The emphasis on ball-handling skills and shooting accuracy within the overseas leagues allows international players to contribute much more to NBA offenses that highly value the three-pointer. Additionally, in the Euroleague, players have a lot more offensive freedom compared to college basketball, where coaches have full control over the play calls. The creativity encouraged from a young age translates well to the NBA as players like Luka Donkic are able to pioneer the game, finding new moves to get around defenders and making ridiculous passes and unique footwork look easy.

Furthermore, overseas players have a tendency to make a great offensive impact in the NBA because of the greater scoring difficulty of the Euroleague. Young foreign prospects playing overseas typically are more used to extreme competition than young American players, as the Euro Leagues are already filled with NBA-caliber professionals. There is also a defensive three second penalty in the NBA but none in International Basketball Federation (FIBA) rules, making it harder for players to score layups. Also, the FIBA courts are smaller, so it is easier for defenses to guard the three pointer and recover. With a wide open paint in the NBA, overseas players are able to exploit the lack of help defense in order to create easier shots for themselves and their teammates. 

As the Euro leagues begin to fill with young talent rather than just ex-NBA players, it is safe to assume that more Luka Donkic’s and Giannis Antetokoumpo’s will emerge. With overseas players finding so much success, the Euroleague might be a good option for NBA prospects still in high school. In upcoming years, European players are without question going to continue shaping the game of basketball.