Inside the NBA’s Growing List of International Players – Basketball Network
In recent years, NBA teams have increasingly tended to recruit international players. Today, stars like Slovenian Luka Doncic and Cameroonian Joel Embiid regularly change their team’s NBA odds for the Mavericks and 76ers. In fact, the pundits who provide analysis on the league regularly cover stars from Europe and Africa, which influence the picks and predictions they make throughout the season.
But the rise in the number of international NBA players is a relatively new development in the league. Although European FIBA has been active longer than the NBA, the majority of non-US-born stars came from Canada. Currently, the NBA has a record 18 Canadian players, but it’s important to keep in mind that the NBA is active in Canada through the Toronto Raptors.
Hank Biasatti, the first international player to appear on an NBA roster in the league’s inaugural 1946-47 season, came from Canada. Since then, the range of international players has greatly diversified. This season, the NBA has 109 international players on its rosters, who come from 39 countries around the world.
So how did the NBA become one of the most inclusive leagues in the world? Let’s take a closer look at the NBA’s overseas presence, led by Commissioner Adam Silver.
Basketball Without Borders
While the NBA and FIBA generally operate independently of each other, the organizing bodies joined forces in 2001 to create a program called Basketball Without Borders (BWB). This program helps to develop the interest and infrastructure of basketball overseas, as the sport experienced a boom after the 1992 Olympics.
While BWB largely focuses on promoting basketball as a sport, the program has also helped develop active NBA stars. In fact, Embiid was once a BWB participant in Cameroon. Deandre Ayton from the Bahamas, Rui Hachimura from Japan and Pascal Siakam from Cameroon are other examples of former BWB players who are now signed with NBA teams.
Every year new countries are added to the NBA talent pool list. In fact, one of the Sacramento Kings’ two-way players, Neemias Queta, may soon become the first Portuguese player in the NBA.
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African Basketball League
NBA commissioner Adam Silver is known for his bold moves. He created a VR League Pass for remote viewers during the 2020 Finals bubble. He also ran the NBA’s Top Shot NFT marketplace. But one of the league’s biggest initiatives has been to help support an intercontinental competition in Africa, called the Basketball Africa League (BAL).
Although the inaugural BAL season in 2020 was postponed to 2021, the following tournaments were a resounding success. The original FIBA-led Africa Basketball League had enjoyed similar success, but ultimately opted to hand over the reins to Silver’s NBA.
Today, the BAL is broadcast worldwide, with TV partners in China, the Middle East, North America, as well as across Africa itself. Many teams now have international players, including a dozen American-born athletes.
The NBA in China
One of the NBA’s toughest pushes for international development has been in China. Since the early 2000s, the BWB Project has had a keen interest in increasing the visibility of basketball in China. In 2004, the NBA began hosting games around the country, which served as promotional tours for the league.
But Silver’s motivations weren’t squarely placed on athletics. In fact, basketball was already showing signs of growing popularity in China. The idea was to promote the NBA’s vast merchandising business, which includes the sale of jerseys, hats and shoes. Through exhibition games, the NBA has managed to generate interest in the sport and the culture of basketball at large.
However, Silver’s first pushes have been delayed in recent years. The NBA is known as one of the most socially responsible leagues in the world. Players and teams (both in the NBA and WNBA) routinely boycott and/or walk off the court due to social justice concerns in the United States.
Unsurprisingly, Chinese officials and NBA players and staff have not always been in agreement on international affairs. This has led to ongoing tensions between the nation and the NBA, which have encountered major hurdles in recent years. However, since Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States, tweeted his condolences over Kobe Bryant’s passing in 2020, tensions have started to dissipate.