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Why are Best NBA Players Not American?

The best player in the NBA Finals will not be an American for the third time in the last four seasons. Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks, at only 25, has already built a Hall of Fame-caliber career. And while he may be the “underdog” per the NBA betting odds, nobody is counting out his Mavericks. We may see yet another international player hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy and further emphasize a growing trend: The best NBA players are from outside the U.S. borders.

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Why are Best NBA Players Not American?
Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks - David Berding/Getty Images

The NBA’s Best Now Versus Then

It was 30 years ago when Hakeem Olajuwon became the first non-American player to win the NBA MVP, the league’s most prestigious award. In 2007, Dirk Nowitzki of the Mavericks became the first European player to do so. Now, the last six MVPs (counting Joel Embiid) have all been international players:

  • 2024: Nikola Jokic (Serbia)
  • 2023: Joel Embiid (Cameroon)*
  • 2022: Nikola Jokic (Serbia)
  • 2021: Nikola Jokic (Serbia)

If you include Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, it’s plausible that the five best NBA players now are all non-American. But just six years ago, in 2018 when James Harden became the last American to win MVP honors, the makeup was different. And if you’re feeling patriotic, we’ve got bad news for you: Get used to seeing fewer Americans dominating the league like before.

Future Hall of Famers like LeBron James and Kevin Durant are in their mid-to-late 30s. In a few seasons, they’ll be retired and the faces of the NBA will be players like Doncic and Gilgeous-Alexander. And they’re not all. We have not even mentioned the best players coming into the league.

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Wembanyama Heads French Invasion

We’re sure you’ve heard of this lad named Victor Wembanyama. Even non-NBA fans would have heard of the 7-foot-4 phenom who just took the NBA by storm in 2023-24. He became the first rookie to be named to the All-NBA Defensive first team and he finished as the runner-up for the Defensive Player of the Year award.

For you fantasy geeks, Wembanyama finished as a top-five player in most standard leagues. That is unheard of – not even James or Durant pulled that off in their rookie seasons. And he’s about to be joined by compatriots Zaccharie Risacher and Alexander Sarr, who may go 1-2 in the 2024 NBA Draft.

Most of the top NBA players are still composed of Americans. If you google the top 25 NBA players under 25, the list is still dominated by Americans. But when it comes to being at the top of the food chain, America is no longer the apex predator. And why is that?

 

Basketball Suffers When Adults Fail Kids

We can chalk a lot of reasons as to why international players have caught up. The game is more global now. The NBA has more developmental programs outside the United States. There is improved training and better facilities. But the real reason lies in something a lot more sensitive than that: parenting – or lack thereof.

It all starts from childhood. Why are there seemingly so many young NBA stars or prospects who lack fundamentals, are seen as “soft” mentally or have issues off the court? Three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner Jamal Crawford took to social media to call out what he believes is a major issue today.

“Being in the gym over these last few months in national games- watching, listening, talking to, hearing.. There is alot wrong with AAU. BUT the PARENTS are near the top of the list. It’s sickening,” Crawford wrote. “The delusion that exists is crazy. If we’re always making excuses for our children’s behavior where it has to be someone else’s fault, and we’re not teaching them accountability, we’re setting them up to fail.”

 

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The AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) often gets criticized for contributing to a toxic culture where young players become focused on being stars rather than playing team basketball. But we can’t deny Crawford’s take here when “basketball moms” inadvertently breed a childish mentality in prospects.

It does not help that most American prospects either play collegiately for just one year or skip college completely. It’s a far cry from the 1980s and 1990s when the biggest NBA stars played in college for three or more years. Thus, you have many young stars who enter woefully unprepared.

It’s different in Europe where they have a more structured system involving youth academies similar to the baseball system in America. Players are taught to “play as a team” and not to “put on a show” as longtime NBA head coach Doc Rivers once said.

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Euros vs Americans: The Narrative has Flipped

There used to be a time when European players were seen as “soft.” Dirk Nowitzki never heard the end of it after his Mavericks became the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round. But since he won the ‘chip in 2011, the tables turned. It is now European players like Jokic or Doncic who are seen as “tough” while other NBA stars are seen as “flaky.”

Kevin Durant, an all-time great, is best known for his nomadic tendencies. His otherworldly shooting skills are overshadowed by his sensitivity to criticism and his inability to lead a team without the support of another superstar – an idea popularized by LeBron James with “The Decision.”

And while Durant or James run around forming superteams, Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo stuck with the teams that drafted them and won NBA titles.

With young stars, Doncic stands out compared to the likes of Ja Morant, LaMelo Ball and Zion Williamson. Any of these three have the potential to be the face of the NBA given their godly talents. But immaturity issues, along with injuries, have hampered their development.

Morant was tabbed as the next new American star. But he wanted to “act a fool” one too many times. As for Ball, he played in just 58 games in the past two seasons. On top of that, he’s the subject of a lawsuit as he allegedly “ran over” an 11-year-old fan’s foot while failing to sign the autographs. Yikes.

Williamson also can’t stay healthy. And amidst his injury issues, he’s been mired in drama, whether it involves a pornstar, his weight issues or rumors about his intent to play.

But before we become too much of a doomer here, Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics is the beacon of hope for the United States. He’s the best American NBA star under the age of 30. And, coincidentally, he’s taking on Doncic in the NBA Finals.

This matchup may not just be for the NBA title. This will, undoubtedly, reignite conversations in this America vs International basketball debate.

 

 

Odds and information are accurate at the time of writing. Please check with official sources for the latest updates before placing any bets.

 

Questions Of The Day

Who are the best American NBA players now?


Jayson Tatum, Stephen Curry, and Ja Morant are three of the best American NBA players today.

Can Team USA beat “Team World” in an All-Star game?


This is an intriguing premise and something the fans have asked for. We bet the sportsbook will line this with tight odds though on Team USA’s side.

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