The Rise of Basketball’s International Popularity

Over the years, the NBA has shifted from being strictly a league filled up almost entirely of American players to being an internationally diverse one. Players from all around the globe now populate the world’s most popular basketball league. From Australia to the Bahamas, foreign talent is pouring into the NBA. In order to see the full impact of this transition, we are going to take a trip around the world to see just how the NBA is changing.

Shanghai, China

August 8, 2013 – Outdoor venue. Thousands of Chinese super fans are gathered together as a part of a Nike and Kobe Bryant offseason tour. They are all gathered together for one reason; Kobe. Fans shout his name, hoping to get a chance to take a picture with him or nab his autograph. Say what you will about Kobe Bryant the man, but Kobe Bryant the basketball player is one of the most popular players of all time. In fact, Kobe is by far the most famous athlete in one of the world’s biggest markets: China. Due to his popularity in China and all over the globe, Kobe Bryant is, in a sense, the NBA’s Chinese and international ambassador.

Brooklyn, NY

June 23, 2016 – NBA Draft night. Adam Silver steps up to the podium to announce the very first pick of the 2016 NBA Draft. There’s no question who the first pick is going to be. Everyone has known since the start of the college season. So why is this a pivotal point for basketball?

“With the first pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, the Philadelphia 76’ers select Ben Simmons from Melbourne, Australia.”

The 76er’s selection marked the fourth straight year an international NBA player was picked first overall in the NBA Draft. 2013’s Anthony Bennett and 2014’s Andrew Wiggins both hail from Canada, while 2015’s Karl-Anthony Towns was from the the Dominican Republic. In fact, 28 international players were selected out of the 60 total players chosen in the 2016 NBA Draft; 15 of those went in the first round. Both of those numbers are the highest ever.

Cleveland, OH

October 25, 2016 – Quicken Loans Arena. It’s opening night of the 2016-17 NBA season. At tip off, roster’s around the league featured 113 international players from 41 different countries or territories. That is enough players to form 10 separate teams, filled solely with foreign born players. Seven of these players were suited up between the Cavaliers (2) and the Knicks (5). For reference, opening night of the 2015-16 NBA season saw 100 international players suited up league wide – a 13% increase from 2015-16 to 2016-17.

Philadelphia, PA

January 1, 2017 – Wells Fargo Center. As the clock winds down, the Philadelphia faithful barely notice the box score, a 123-118 loss to the Houston Rockets. They all have their minds on something else: “The Process”; also known as Cameroonian star Joel Embiid. The 76’ers stud rookie center dropped 32 points, nearly leading his team to knock off the Western Conference powerhouse Rockets. Joel Embiid has become one of the many international faces of the NBA.

Joel Embiid is not alone. There are many other young polarizing international NBA superstars all around the league. Latvian big man Kristaps Porzingis is the new face of the big money New York Knicks. Porzingis’ lanky frame and fantastic footwork allows him to impact the game on both offense and defense. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are one of the top young duos in the NBA for the Minnesota Timberwolves. KAT might be the most well rounded big man in all of the NBA, while Andrew Wiggins’ athleticism is putting him head and shoulders above other young players. Finally, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or the Greek Freak, is becoming one of the best NBA players in the entire league regardless of nationality. Giannis can play any position for the Milwaukee Bucks, making him the most versatile player in the NBA.

London, England

January 12, 2017 – The O2 Arena. London is buzzing. European stars from around the continent are gathered in the O2 Arena. Soccer’s Alex Sanches, Mezut Özil, Delle Alli, and Theirry Henry are all in attendance. This was the NBA’s 7th ever game in London as part of their Global Games. Fantastic end to end action saw the Denver Nuggets top the Indiana Pacers 140-112. The game’s leading scorer, Nikola Jokić, a Serbian, led the scoring with 22 points. A Serbian player on an American team, playing in England? A truly unique situation in a truly unique time.


So, we have seen the impact international influence is having on the game in five different cities on three different continents around the globe. This, however, is only small sample of the places the NBA is reaching. In fact, the NBA is in the process of opening academies across the world, starting in Africa, India, China, and Australia. With the level of international NBA talent already at an all time high, how much more talent will these academies put into the fold. We are witnessing the greatest era of international talent the NBA has ever seen and it is only the beginning.