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The future of the NBA is more international than ever

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Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis, and the “unicorns” generation are showing the global power of basketball.

NBA: New York Knicks at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

You can tick off a list of incredible young players who will make up the next generation of superstars (even as some become superstars right now). Just among the under-24 set we have Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Ben Simmons, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Jokic. These are so-called unicorns. These are future MVPs, perennial All-Stars, champions.

You have to go back 12 years to a time when there were this many really high-end young players all in their early 20s, back when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, and Chris Paul roamed the box scores. The current generational NBA power structure — Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden — similarly came of age circa 2011 and 2012, albeit most on the same team.

USA v Lithuania - Pre-Olympics Friendly Photo by MN Chan/Getty Images

But here’s the twist: Look at that modern list of rising giants again. Antetokounmpo. Porzingis. Towns. Simmons. Wiggins. Embiid. Jokic.

All but one of them was born and raised in a country other than the United States.

Antetokounmpo grew up in Athens literally a legal citizen of no nation despite being born in Greece to Nigerian immigrants. Porzingis hails from Latvia, a Baltic state traditionally overshadowed by neighboring Lithuania in this sport. Towns was born and bred in New Jersey, but his mother is Dominican and he has played for the Dominican national basketball team. Simmons is Australian, spending two years in the United States at prep school and LSU before hitting the NBA.

Wiggins was born and bred in Toronto, heralding a new era of Canadian basketball excellence. Embiid, a Cameroonian, came to the United States at age 16 after being discovered by countryman Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Jokic is the latest Serbian basketball wunderkind.

The NBA has had high-level foreign-born players for four decades now, dating back to Dutch Swen Nater and Bahamanian Mychal Thompson. (Both, however, moved to the United States as children.) Croatian legend Drazen Petrovic, before his life was cut tragically short, had American fans fawning. Hakeem Olajuwon was the first true international superstar in the NBA, becoming the first foreign player to win NBA MVP in 1994. (He became a naturalized U.S. citizen and played for USA Basketball.)

Patrick Ewing emigrated from Jamaica at age 12 and became a star. Dikembe Mutombo, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is a living legend. Tim Duncan hailed from the U.S. Virgin Islands before starring at Wake Forest and winning an MVP and a fistful of rings with the Spurs. Steve Nash won two MVPs as a Canadian import. Nash’s old German running buddy Dirk Nowitzki has had a long, incredible career with an MVP and a title to his name. We’ve had Yao Ming, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Peja Stojakovic, and more in the intervening years.

But never have we had this deep a collection of young foreign talent in the NBA, and never has the future of the NBA looked so global.

Anthony Davis is just 24 years old, and he’s at the vanguard of the next generation of players. He’s a Chicago kid, through and through. Towns might not play for USA Basketball in the future, but his New Jersey roots are strong. But outside of Towns, the next-best American prospect age 23 or younger is probably San Jose native Aaron Gordon or Devin Booker (whose mother is Mexican-American).

NBA: Phoenix Suns at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

For years former NBA Commissioner David Stern focused on growing the NBA’s imprint overseas, not just to build revenue but to develop the global sport. It paid off in terms of expanding the audience, and it’s going to pay off for at least the next decade in terms of infusing the NBA with the best athletes in the world. The league’s globalization effort has never been stronger in terms of talent. It’s likely to only get better from here.


Giannis’ game is so complete he doesn't need a jump shot