The NBA has truly become global.
At the start of the 2019-20 season, there were a total of 108 international players on the league’s opening-day rosters. That number is four times more than the 24 foreign players who suited up for the NBA 25 years ago.
These players come from 38 different countries and territories with Canada claiming the most at 16 and Australia coming in second with 9 players on opening-day rosters. When it comes to teams, the Dallas Mavericks led all franchises with seven international players at the start of the 2019-20 season. The Phoenix Suns and Philadelphia 76ers had six each.
Let’s take a look at which of these international players were the best in the league during the 2019-20 season:
The international revolution is led by the 2019 MVP, Giannis Antetokounpo. The Greek Freak has been one of the most dominant players in the league in the last couple of years. Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks to the best record in the league right before the season was suspended.
Individually, he also led the Bucks in points, rebounds, and assists during the 2019-20 season. League-wise, he ranked third in scoring at 29.6 points per game, 3rd in rebounding at 13.7 boards per contest, and 15th in field goal percentage at 54.7% from the floor. Antetokounmpo was also one of the best defenders in the league as he led the NBA in defensive rating and defensive win shares. If the season had not been suspended, he would have easily been a leading candidate for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Luka Doncic was perhaps the biggest revelation this season. After winning Rookie of the Year honors with a 21-8-6 season where he made so many clutch baskets, the Slovenian became a full-fledged superstar an All-Star season. Doncic teamed up with Kristaps Porzingis and they transformed the Dallas Mavericks to an instant playoff team.
Doncic put up spectacular numbers this season, averaging 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.7 assists, and 1.1 steals per game. Doncic ranked in the Top 6 in the league in scoring, passing and Player Efficiency Rating. That’s impressive considering this is only his second season in the NBA and that’s more impressive given that he is only 21 years of age. We saw Dirk Nowitzki become an all-time great in Dallas. We’re likely going to see that with Luka as well.
Joel Embiid proclaimed himself as the best player in the world last February after putting up 39 points and 16 rebounds against the Brooklyn Nets. Well, he was exaggerating but I agree that he was the best player in Philadelphia this season and he was one of the best players in the NBA as well. You could argue that Embiid was the league’s top center last season but this year, I think a couple of big men were better than him. That doesn’t make him less elite though as he had another impressive statistical season for the Sixers.
Embiid’s numbers went down this year but he still averaged 23.4 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.3 steals per game. If there was one thing that improved this year, it was his three-point shooting as he shot a career-high 34.8% from deep while making a total of 56 three-pointers (54 more than teammate Ben Simmons) this season. Unless he brings the Sixers over the hump and takes them to the NBA Finals, nobody will believe he is the best player in the world.
It’s funny why they call Nikola Jokic as the Joker when his basketball skills are no joke. One of the NBA’s unicorns, Jokic is a big man who can shoot the three-pointer, run the break, and make the right passes. He may not be as athletic as his American counterparts, but Jokic’s IQ, skill, and soft hands make him one of the best in the league. He also led the Denver Nuggets to the third-best record in the Western Conference and that was impressive given the quality of opposition in that part of the league.
Jokic started the 2019-20 season slow but as the season progressed, he began to assert himself. When the season was suspended, Jokic averaged a career-high 20.2 points per game and was having his third consecutive double-double season for Denver. He also shot 52.8% from the field which is his best shooting mark in three seasons. Jokic is only 25 years old and he is going to be a force to be reckoned with in many years to come.
He was already a triple-double threat as a rookie. But what you get out of Ben Simmons today was what you got from him three years ago. What I don’t like is that his outside shooting hasn’t progressed and he hesitates to take three-pointers. Sure, Ben Simmons had an underwhelming season but despite that, he still posted great numbers and was still one of the best international players in the NBA during the 2019-20 season.
Simmons averaged 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.2 assists, and 2.1 steals per game. He led the NBA in steals and was fifth in assists. But you know that he could improve that 6.27% free throw shooting and he could take more outside shots. But while he doesn’t go beyond his limitations, Simmons shot an impressive 58.5% from the field this season. It’s another great year for Ben but I hope he develops his outside shot while the season is suspended.
The Stifle Tower is the reigning back to back Defensive Player of the Year winner. The Utah Jazz starting center stands 7-1 tall but has a wingspan of a 7-9 guy. That helps him with his shot-blocking ability and rim protection duties. His offense is limited but he gets the job done on defense and that’s what matters to the Jazz.
Gobert averaged 15.1 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks per game this season. Gobert was looking to become the first player to win the DPOY award in three consecutive seasons but he had tough rivals in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis. The NBA season prematurely ended after he tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.
Spicy P became an instant hit last season when he played a key role in the Toronto Raptors’ championship-winning team. At the end of the year, he was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player of the Year. With Kawhi Leonard leaving Toronto for the LA Clippers during the offseason, Siakam improved again and became the Raptors’ leading scorer at 23.6 points per game during the 2019-20 season.
Siakam became an All-Star for the first time this season and given his rapid year to year improvement, Spicy P should be an All-Star for years to come. Some people doubted the Raptors after Kawhi left but with Siakam at the forefront of their attack, they have been able to replicate the same regular-season success they had with Leonard playing.
The son of the legend also rises. Domantas’ father Arvydas is considered one of the best European players ever. While Arvydas didn’t get to play in the NBA sooner, Domantas has been here since he was 20. Domantas began as a role player with the Oklahoma City Thunder but since he was traded to the Indiana Pacers, he has blossomed not just into one of the league’s best rebounders, but as one of its All-Stars as well.
Sabonis got his first mid-season classic invite this year after averaging career-highs of 18.5 points and 12.4 rebounds per game. This left-handed forward has a good shooting touch from the outside and nice soft hands on the inside. What makes him special though is his ability to get to where the ball bounces. He is one of the best rebounders in the NBA this season.
I still remember the time when he was booed on the draft night only to find out that he was the best thing that Phil Jackson ever did for the Knicks. Then he got seriously injured and many wondered if he will ever be the same again. But Porzingis bounced back nicely this season and to me, he had an impressive year given he played alongside Luka Doncic.
The Latvian unicorn averaged 19.9 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game. However, he only shot 42.9% from the field this year. Despite that, Porzingis showed that he has fully recovered from that devastating injury and that he will only be better in the coming years. With Luka Doncic beside him, the Mavericks will be tough to beat in the coming years.
The Orlando Magic made the playoffs last season and were on course to do the same again this year when the season was halted. The main reason behind Orlando’s success is the rise of this seven-footer from Switzerland. Vucevic was the 16th overall pick in the 2011 draft and he has improved every year. Last season, he was named to his first-ever All-Star team.
Vucevic averaged 19.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game this season. He was the most consistent player on Orlando’s team and the focal point of their offense. Vucevic can knock down the outside shot with consistency and he is a big body who can score inside the paint. He is also a very solid rim protector and a very good rebounder.