Back in the day, the future of the NBA could be found on America's inner city playgrounds. As a kid growing up in New York City, I could simply hop on the subway and catch a slew of future college Hall of Famers and impactful pros at various high school gyms, outdoor parks and summer tournaments throughout Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx (sorry Staten Island).
Nowadays, that is becoming increasingly rare. As a young hoops junkie, I can recall my excitement when the Summer Olympics would roll around. That's when me and my boys would have a chance to check out players like Brazil's Oscar Schmidt, Lithuania's Arvydas Sabonis and Croatia's Drazen Petrovic. They were skilled ballers with wondrous talents that we knew could rock out with anyone in the world, but our opportunties to watch them give out that work was very limited.
Petrovic would later to prove that he was among the very best while killing it with the New Jersey Nets in the early '90s, before a car accident tragically took his life during the prime years of his hoops excellence.
Sabonis was one of the greatest big men ever, but unfortunately arrived in the NBA when he was well past the crescendo of his dominance. And yet, even on bad wheels and with fading skills, he still got old-man busy in the league.
Unfortunately, we never got to see the great Oscar Schmidt, who is widely considered to be the greatest player to never suit up in the NBA. The world's all-time leading scorer with 49,737 points during his remarkable international pro career, he smoked any and all comers in five Olympic games.
Today, we no longer have to sit and wonder about what the best foreign players would do while showcasing their skills in the world's best basketball league, because the global takeover of basketball is in full swing.
With the NBA's Global Games taking place in Mexico and England this week, I've been thinking about this recent influx of young international talent arriving on America's shores, and how it is more robust than it's ever been.
Though there were players who trickled in before them, like Italy's Henry Biasatti who played in the very first game of the Basketball Association of America, the NBA’s predecessor, for the Toronto Huskies against the New York Knicks, and Thomas Meschery, a son of Russian immigrants born in China who became the first international player to play in an All-Star Game in 1963, the overseas explosion truly began in the 1980’s with players like Detlef Schrempf, Rik Smits, Vlade Divac and many others crashing the scene as more doors began opening to the untapped resources of foreign talent.
The crescendo of that first big wave was a raw prospect from Lagos, Nigeria named Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon. Along with Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem and Shaq, he is the best athlete to ever play center and went on to become one of the greatest players, and most beloved figures, in the history of pro basketball. If one snapshot encapsulates who he was, it was the 1995 Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs.
David Robinson had just been awarded the regular season MVP trophy and the Spurs walked into the playoffs with best record in the league. But The Dream averaged 35 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and four blocks as he utterly DESTROYED the Admiral.
The Rockets won the series and went on to capture their second straight NBA title. The Dream controlled every facet of the game on both sides of the floor. As the league's first true great international player, he singlehandedly changed the face of the NBA and is currently responsible for the global culture that permeates every arena on game night.
His magnificence opened the floodgates for the likes of Toni Kukoc, Andrew Bogut, Luol Deng, Serge Ibaka, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Peja Stojakovic, Dikembe Mutombo, the Gasol brothers, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and many others.
Germany's Dirk Nowitzki, Canada's Steve Nash and China's Yao Ming took things to an entirely different level in terms global sports marketing and social facets that widened the game's scope. From Olajuwon and on through Dirk, Nash and Yao, the NBA's economic, social, and cultural significance has increased exponentially, reaching every corner of the world.
Spain, Serbia, China, Brazil, Australia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Canada, England, France, Greece, Russia, Argentina, Turkey, Lithuania and many other countries are pumping out prospects like never before. And wait until those NBA developmental programs get up and running in India.
Cutty from The Wire was right when he said, "The game done changed." Though he was referring to the drug game, he could have easily been referencing the changing face of the NBA. And in response, Slim Charles was equally correct when he said, "The Game's the same, just got more fierce."
The NBA has never had an international talent pool that was this young and deep. Here are the young boys from overseas who are leading the next phase of the league's global takeover.
Dennis Schroder, Germany, Point Guard, Atlanta Hawks
He's Rajon Rondo 2.0, and no one can stop him from getting to the rim. On the defensive end, his oversized, active hands and wingspan, quickness and bulldog mentality make him an asset, even when his shots aren't falling. Over the last ten games, he's averaging 20 points and six assists.
Rudy Gobert, France, Center, Utah Jazz
One of the league's premier defenders, they call this Frenchman “The Stifle Tower”. A shot blocking phenom with length, hops and agility, once he expands his offensive game from simply ripping the rim down on put-back dunks he's gonna be a problem for years to come. Thus far this season, he's averaging 12 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks per game.
Jonas Valanciunas, Lithuania, Center, Toronto Raptors
If he can stay healthy, this dude is an absolute beast and an offensive threat both from outside and down in the paint. Don't be surprised if you hear his name mentioned as one of the league's best big men soon, and very soon. You can pencil him in catching for a double-double in points and boards on a nightly basis.
Nikola Vucevic, Montenegro, Center, Orlando Magic
Dude can score in a variety of ways in the paint and on the perimeter. Last year he averaged 18 points and nine rebounds per game.
Enes Kanter, Turkey, Center, Oklahoma City Thunder
Last year, Kanter finished third in the Sixth Man of the Year award voting behind Jamal Crawford and Andre Iguodala. He's currently averaging 14 points per game on 57% shooting and 6.4 boards in only 20.8 minutes per game. Per basketball-reference.com, Kanter is the only non-starter in the Top 20 of its Player Efficiency Ratings.
Andrew Wiggins, Canada, Shooting Guard, Minnesota Timberwolves
Not only is the young stud very good, but Andrew Wiggins brings some Jordan, Vince Carter and Human Highlight Film type of aesthetics to his flight game. His lateral quickness on defense is missed by the casual fan, but not the game's purists. A monster in transition whether he's handling the rock or running the wing, the 21-year-old Wiggins is averaging 22 points per game. If you missed his recent 41-point explosion against the Wizards, go back and check the highlights.
Russell Westbrook might bring the lightning, but Adams brings the Thunder! Wanna know why this guy plays with such hunger? He has 17 older brothers and sisters. His strengths lay on the defensive end. Huge in physical stature, he moves his feet exceptionally well for a player his size. Strong as an ox, he can maintain and hold his post position against anyone in the league, he plays above the rim and has the quickness to defend the pick-and-roll. My man ain't out there playing games, and I'm pretty certain that he was the inspiration for Khal Drogo, the Dothraki King on Game of Thrones.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Greece, Point Guard, Milwaukee Bucks
Antetokounmpo has gone from an intriguing prospect to a certifiable NBA MVP candidate who, barring injury, will be a perennial All-Star for the next ten to twelve years. At the age of 22 and the league's tallest point guard, he has the potential to redefine the position like Magic Johnson once did, but with a length, athleticism, hops and defensive acumen that shuts down fast breaks and alters shots in ways that the league has literally not seen in one package.
Kristaps Porzingis, Latvia, Power Forward, New York Knicks
At 7-foot-3, Porzingis is a bigger version of Dirk Nowitzki. He's currently averaging 19 points, eight rebounds and two blocks per game. Let's take a quick inventory of his techniques. Perimeter game? Check. Interior Skills? Check. Vision and passing? Check? Shot-blocking? Check. Interior defense? Check. Above the rim repertoire? Check. One of the most unique players in the NBA, his size, length, fluidity, mobility and skills from the perimeter to the paint are beyond impressive. The best Knicks prospect since Patrick Ewing, it's only a matter of time before they start calling him, The Big Kristapple, because he will soon own New York City.
Ben Simmons, Australia, Point Guard, Philadelphia 76'ers
When Simmons returns from injury, which is expected to be sometime in February, you better watch the Sixers every chance you get. Last year, he had one of the most productive college seasons in recent memory and was the first player to average over 19 points, 11 rebounds and four assists per game since Ron Harper did it back in 1986. A tremendous ball-handler and passer at 6-foot-10, he'll soon be conjuring up visions of an ultra-athletic, ultramagnetic Magic Johnson dropping critical beatdowns. He has an outstanding touch while attacking the basket with either hand, and his ability to shift gears and utilize various speeds is next-level. Bad, bad boy right here.
Joel Embiid, Cameroon, Center, Philadelphia 76'ers
The best Twitter follow in the NBA, Embiid is making his way back from injuries that many thought would make him a bust. But right about now, the only thing he's busting is his opponents ass! Over his last ten games, despite only averaging 27 minutes per night, he's rocking out to the tune of 23 points, eight rebounds and two blocks per game. Crazy agile and mobile for a seven-footer, he has sweet feet, good speed, quickness, and explosiveness. If he catches the ball anywhere near the rim, you might as well count the bucket. His offensive game is still developing, but his drop-steps, jump hooks, and turn-around jumpers have some whispering comparisons and projecting out to Tim Duncan and Kevin McHale. A beast on the defensive end, he's heading toward greatness if he can stay healthy.