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Inside the NBA’s Growing Roster of International Players

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In recent years, there’s been a growing trend among NBA teams to sign international players. Today, top stars like Slovenia’s Luka Doncic and Cameroon’s Joel Embiid regularly shift their team’s NBA odds for the Mavericks and 76ers. In fact, pundits who provide analysis on the league regularly cover stars from Europe and Africa, who influence the picks and predictions they make all season long.

But the NBA’s uptick in international players is a relatively new development in the league. While Europe’s FIBA has been active for longer than the NBA, the majority of non-US-born stars came from Canada. Right now, the NBA has a record number of 18 Canadian players—but it’s important to keep in mind that the NBA is active in Canada via the Toronto Raptors.

Hank Biasatti, the first international player to land on an NBA roster during the league’s inaugural 1946-47 season, came from Canada. Since then, the range of international players has diversified greatly. This season, the NBA has 109 international players on its rosters, who come from 39 countries worldwide.

So, how did the NBA become one of the most internationally inclusive leagues in the world? Let’s take a closer look at the NBA’s presence abroad, led by commissioner Adam Silver.

Basketball Without Borders

While the NBA and FIBA typically operate independently of one another, the organizing bodies joined forces in 2001 to create a program called Basketball Without Borders (BWB). This program helps develop basketball interest and infrastructure abroad, as the sport experienced a boom following the 1992 Olympic Games.

While BWB is largely focused 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 of the Bahamas, Rui Hachimura of Japan, and Pascal Siakam of Cameroon are further examples of former BWB players who are now signed with NBA teams.

Each year new countries are added to the list of the NBA’s talent pool. In fact, one of the Sacramento Kings’ two-way players, Neemias Queta, may soon become the NBA’s first Portuguese player.

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Basketball Africa League

NBA commissioner Adam Silver is known for his daring initiatives. He created a VR League Pass for remote viewers during the 2020 Finals bubble. He’s also spearheaded the NBA’s Top Shot NFT Marketplace. But one of the biggest moves from the league has been to help support an intercontinental competition in Africa, called the Basketball Africa League (BAL).

Though the BAL’s inaugural season in 2020 was postponed for 2021, the subsequent tournaments have been a resounding success. The original FIBA-run Africa Basketball League had seen similar success but ultimately chose to hand over the reins to Silver’s NBA.

Today, the BAL is broadcasted worldwide, with TV partners in China, the Middle East, North America, as well as across Africa itself. Many rosters now have international players, including around a dozen US-born athletes.

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The NBA in China

One of the NBA’s most trying pushes for international development has been in China. Since the early 2000s, the BWB project has had a keen interest in raising the profile of basketball in China. In 2004, the NBA began hosting games throughout the country, which acted 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 extensive merchandising sector, which includes jersey, hat, and shoe sales. Through exhibition matches, the NBA found success in fostering interest in the sport and wider basketball culture.

However, Silver’s early pushes were stunted in recent years. The NBA is known as one of the most socially conscious leagues in the world. Players and teams (in the NBA and WNBA) regularly boycott and/or walk off the court based on social justice concerns in the US.

Unsurprisingly, Chinese officials and NBA players, and staff haven’t always seen eye-to-eye on international affairs. This has led to ongoing tensions between the nation and the NBA, which hit major roadblocks in recent years. However, since Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the US, tweeted his condolences about Kobe Bryant’s passing in 2020, tensions have begun to lift. 

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