Foreign Policy Digest’s South Asia Regional Editor Mahanth Joishy asked me to discuss the globalization of the NBA and the influence of international players on the league. Here’s an excerpt from our Q & A session:
FPD: I recently read that there are approximately 80 international basketball players from over 30 countries in the NBA. I’d guess there are many hundreds more on the radar screen of NBA scouts. Many are all-star caliber players: Dirk Nowitzki of Germany, Yao Ming of China, and of course Steve Nash from Canada, via South Africa. Do you believe this trend of bringing in foreign talent will continue to grow?
Yes, I think this trend will continue to grow, because the pool of talent is beginning to diminish here in the United States, which in turn has watered down our product somewhat. Nowadays, many players are turning pro after one year in college, before they are close to maturing to the point that they will eventually get to. So scouts will continue to look at international players who have perhaps been playing as pros since they were 15 or 16 years old, and have therefore matured at an earlier age. A player who has four, five, six years of pro experience under his belt and enters the NBA as a 23- or 24-year-old rookie can help contribute more quickly than one who leaves college after one year and has only 35 collegiate games under his belt and isn’t physically ready to handle the demands of the NBA. So yes, NBA teams will continue to look outside the United States for talent.
FPD: There is the oft-repeated stereotype that European players have better fundamentals, such as long-range shooting and passing, though they’re not always as “well-fed” or flashy at dunking, due to differences in training mentality. Is this true?
Yes, I would agree that European players generally have better fundamentals than American players. One reason for that is that their game has always been more of a perimeter shooting game than the drive-it-and-dunk-it type game that we have here due to the speed, quickness, athleticism, and ball-handling abilities that we have in so many players in the United States. In other countries, their ball-handling skills have developed more recently and have gotten to a different level over the last 5-10 years.
Another factor is that they play only two games a week in Europe, as opposed to three or four games a week in the NBA, which affords them more practice time. It’s not unusual for European teams to have three practices in a day. One practice will be used to work on the skill areas: dribbling, passing, and shooting. Another will be for strength and conditioning. And the last will focus on playing the game itself. And when they have skills training, they do it with all the positions. That’s why so many of their big guys are good shooters. You haven’t had as many great low-post scoring players in international competition, which has something to do with the trapezoidal lane, which they are working to change. They are trying to make it the same as the NBA’s rectangular lane, so it’s consistent in international play.
FPD: Which country or region of the world may represent the next hotbed of undiscovered basketball talent, in your opinion?
It could be China, based on its population size and the growing interest in the sport. They have over 1.3 billion people, including a wealth of young men close to or over seven feet tall in the country. And they also have a great passion for the game now. Yao Ming certainly did a lot to promote the sport of basketball and upgrade the NBA’s image in that country. Now that the Chinese have had more exposure to basketball and understand what it’s all about, the sport has caught on. The Latin countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, also have a great passion for basketball now. And countries that have historically been very good are those that were part of the former Yugoslavia and former USSR. They have always had excellent teams.
FPD: It seems like national teams from other nations, such as Spain, Argentina, or Lithuania, are catching up with the US. What will the United States national team have to do better to continue to win at the highest levels of international competition, such as the Olympics or the FIBA world championships, and avoid disappointing upsets?
The United States national team will have to continue to get commitments from the best American players to go and compete, just as they did in the 2008 Olympics and in the 2010 FIBA World Championships. For the Olympics, they got top NBA players, such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, and Dwyane Wade to play for Team USA. And the young guys who had been their understudies when training and preparing for the Olympics, such as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose and Kevin Love all made a commitment to compete in the FIBA World Championships in Istanbul, and we wound up winning the title. So that’s what it will take: the continued commitment from our best players to still be a part of our national team.