By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
The assistant coaching lineup could hardly have been better, a truly professorial collection of big man expertise, all with a Georgetown link.
At the Basketball Without Borders camp in Johannesburg, South Africa 11 years ago, the centers had Dikembe Mutombo harrying them about their footwork. Then it was on to Patrick Ewing’s station for tips on how to use the upper body for defensive effect. Then to Alonzo Mourning for offensive movements and using the glass.
Among the campers was a skinny young man from Cameroon who had only been playing hoops for a few years. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t stand out much more than any of the other hopefuls, but he listened to every word the three NBA legends had to offer. He dreamed a little, though realistically, what’s happened since outstripped even the wildest version of his basketball fantasies.
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The youngster, Joel-Hans Embiid, has since lost the Hans but gained a whole lot more. When Embiid was named as the center for the All-NBA Second Team on Tuesday, it was the latest chapter in the biggest modern basketball success story from the African continent. And, combined with a handful of other tales, the biggest proof yet that the NBA’s present, and almost certainly its future, is resoundingly international.
Embiid, who helped the Philadelphia 76ers to the Eastern Conference semifinals despite a fractured orbital bone, would have been in the All-NBA First Team if the only player to get more MVP votes than him hadn’t also been a center.
“Embiid, who was by everyone’s estimation one of the three best players in the league this year, did not make the (first team),” FOX NBA Analyst Chris Broussard said on “First Things First.” “It’s ridiculous. Embiid deserves better than this.”
But Nikola Jokić is also a big, and the Denver Nuggets star’s second-straight triumph in the MVP race two weeks ago led to another foreign scene that seemed a world away from the hardwood of the NBA and its sparkling arenas.
Jokić, a lifelong lover of horses, received his award in a stable in his native Serbia, where he was surprised by a group of family and friends, and where a curious pony looked on as he conducted some interviews to celebrate the accolade. That’s not the kind of thing that usually happens. Welcome to the new NBA, where geography counts for nothing and skillsets (like Jokić’s silky passing) are a universal currency.
This season, there were seven foreign-born All-Stars. The NBA began the campaign featuring 109 players from 39 countries. No fewer than 11 of the last 27 top picks in the draft have been international, but in reality, the overseas explosion at the top end of the game has largely kicked on over the last few years.
Luka Dončić (Slovenia) was also named to the All-NBA No. 1 squad. Pascal Siakam (Cameroon) picked up a place in the second team. With LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry headed toward the back end of their careers, the players currently seen as likeliest to be challenging for team trophies and individual accolades are mostly not from these shores.
But why? Well, it is a big world out there, basketball is wildly popular, and the willingness and ability to identify and coach up young talent is real and present in far more places than before.
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The NBA has tried for years to expand its reach and promote excellence around the world, the camp attended by Embiid being a prime example. Siakam also attended Basketball Without Borders in 2012. Fast forward to today, and the NBA was the primary driver behind setting up the Basketball Africa League, a Champions League-style competition for that continent’s best clubs.
Europe’s influence is also a major factor, and where it was once the case that stars of the Euro game would find it difficult to adapt physically to the NBA, now they are almost over-prepared.
Everyone being able to shoot the lights out from 3 is a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S., but it has been that way for years in Europe. There are also other nuances to consider, as highlighted by Dončić.
“Here in the NBA, it’s easier to score compared to Europe, of course,” Dončić told the Washington Post, soon after entering the league. “In Europe, the court is smaller, and here there is the defensive three seconds rule. I think it’s easier to score here.”
The international influx has done a lot of things. It has brought different skills to the fore, worked wonders for the NBA’s global popularity, and altered recruiting and talent identification systems.
And, most of all, it’s broadened our perception of superstardom in the NBA, a lofty perch that is hard to reach as ever — but that can start its journey anywhere.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
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