International exchange: The next wave of international stars is here

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s awareness isn’t limited to what happens on the court. He knows when to perform, whether he’s windmill dunking to the delight of about 20,000 fans or charming a crew from China’s main sports broadcast provider.

Following a recent practice at the Milwaukee Bucks’ facility, Antetokounmpo was, as usual, the last player still hanging around when he decided to make some time for an interview with CCTV-5. When the hosts, Weiping Zhang and Manyuan Zhang, informed him that this conversation would be seen by nearly 100 million people, Antetokounmpo knew exactly what to say the moment the cameraman started recording.

“Follow me on Weibo,” Antetokounmpo shouted with a grin into the camera before a question could be asked, citing China’s most popular social-media platform.

Antetokounmpo cracked some jokes over the next few minutes about how he’s his favorite player, that he once tried chicken feet in China and took a liking to them, and even dropped a few phrases in Mandarin. Not willing to waste an opportunity, Antetokounmpo closed the interview with another request for more followers while setting up some anticipation for his next move. “Stay tuned for the Greek Freak Ones,” said Antetokounmpo, who just agreed to a signature shoe deal with Nike.

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Antetokounmpo’s star has never been brighter, with his game and profile extending beyond the seemingly endless bounds of his zip-code-covering strides. He had more All-Star votes than any player in the first ballot release, a surprising turn for an international player who doesn’t hail from a nation with more than two billion inhabitants. Yao Ming is the only non-American to get the most All-Star votes and he’s been retired from the NBA since 2011. But what might have been even more startling than Antetokounmpo leading LeBron James in voting is that two players born outside the United States — Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis — are third and fourth among Eastern Conference frontcourt players. These new young talents not only represent their respective franchises but also stand to serve as the face of the league for years to come.

“We believe we can do it,” Antetokounmpo told Yahoo Sports. “It’s not that bad of a responsibility. I love it.”

From the ground up

The beginning of this millennium proved to be the moment when the NBA had to take notice of the dream fulfilled by the Dream Team, as Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Yao Ming, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and a slew of international players came on the scene and knocked down barriers and myths, one by one, year by year, MVP by Finals MVP. Eventually, the craving for more skilled international players resulted in some ambitious swings and misses or, eventually, the acceptance that the next “fill in the blank” wasn’t going to be found. That dynamic wave — which confirmed that franchise building blocks and foundational pieces of championship contenders could be found globally — is either gone, or gone gray.

But the next international wave appears to finally be here. Young players have arrived, possessing no fear of what can’t be done and walking down roads that have already been paved and beautified with manicured accompaniments. They have flashy games, catchy nicknames, and aspirations for worldwide, household fame. LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant might be the current faces of the league, but it might not be long before they are sharing or ceding that popularity to an eager, determined bunch that includes Antetokounmpo, Embiid, Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Nikola Jokic.

“These kids. Ridiculous,” Ginobili told Yahoo Sports. “They are so extraordinary in their talent, size, athleticism and abilities that we didn’t used to see overseas. Overseas, you see more shooters and maybe guys with more basketball IQ but slower. We are talking about [some] of the top athletes in the league right now, which is unusual.”

Ginobili recalls having “no thoughts” of an NBA career when he was growing up in Argentina, a sentiment shared by his current teammate from Spain, Pau Gasol. “For me, it was like going to a different galaxy. It was like a dream far, far away,” Gasol told Yahoo Sports. “So it was something very hard to get to. Kids are getting confident. They see coming to the NBA as something that’s probable. I wouldn’t say easier, because this is a very competitive league. Everyone wants to make it. Everyone wants to be in it. But it doesn’t seem as improbable as it used to be.”

The current crop of potential perennial All-Stars grew up studying their international predecessors and their peers, which has helped transform how they play and what they believe is possible. That’s how a player from Greece has the flexibility of a rubber band and the bounce of a super ball; how a player from Cameroon has post moves reminiscent of Hakeem Olajuwon but shoots threes with the confidence of Ray Allen; how a 7-foot-3 big man from Latvia can dribble and shoot like a guard; how a player from Australia has earned comparisons to James; and how a center from Serbia continually flirts with and bags a few triple-doubles.

“It just seems like every year, the level of talent, skill injected into the league internationally just goes higher and higher,” Dallas Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson told Yahoo Sports by phone. “It’s truly a fun time and the global game is producing some very unique, talented players.”

Dirk Nowitzki changed the game as the greatest 7-foot shooter of all time. (Getty)
Dirk Nowitzki changed the game as the greatest 7-foot shooter of all time. (Getty)

The Nowitzki influence

Nelson and his father, Don, were among the first to embrace the globalization of the NBA. But they are perhaps best known for “for drafting this hockey-named guy out of nowhere” from Germany in 1998 and watching him become the greatest 7-foot shooter of all time, a top-five all-time scorer, a champion and an MVP. When Nowitzki entered the league, versatile forwards such as Detlef Schrempf and Toni Kukoc had already opened the door for players of his ilk. But in the 20 years since, Nowitzki has done some renovations and expansion on the home. After overcoming concerns that he would just be another Uwe Blab, Nowitzki has served as a Hall of Fame case study that franchise cornerstones don’t have to be groomed domestically.

“Even though Dirk was getting thrown around like a rag doll for his first two years, he knew that he had a franchise, a head coach and general manager, and teammates that supported him through thick or thin,” Donnie Nelson told Yahoo Sports, while acknowledging a difficult transition that left him worried about his job security when Mark Cuban bought the franchise in 2000. “Our gut was correct and we stuck with our guns. Mark literally embraced us at our darkest hour. That’s why, to this day, I’m on a handshake [agreement] with Mark [to remain with the Mavs].”

Nowitzki’s longevity and steady climb up the scoring list has kept him relevant to a collection of talent that looks to him as an example of hope. Last summer, Porzingis got to work out with his idol, Nowitzki, while the two participated in a Basketball Without Borders game in South Africa. Porzingis picked Nowitzki’s brain, studied his movements, and came away determined to forge a similar, if not better, path for himself in the NBA.

“The thing is, you can never dream too big,” Porzingis told Yahoo Sports. “Moving forward, I’m always setting bigger goals for myself. I want to be MVP of the league. I want to win a championship. I want to be Defensive Player of the Year. All those things. I have to stay hungry. Money can’t be the motivation. You’ve got to find another source of motivation. You’ve got keep growing and going toward those goals.”

Swimming lessons

Antetokounmpo wasn’t drafted to save the Bucks franchise. He was a gamble in an otherwise weak draft meant to simply upgrade the athleticism and talent on the roster. As Antetokounmpo continued to work and show he was capable of more, the bar was raised and the expectations changed.

“For me, it’s like throwing a baby to the water and telling him to swim. You got to swim, because if you don’t swim, you’re not going to survive,” Antetokounmpo told Yahoo Sports. “That’s what happened to me. I wasn’t right away ready to be the face of a franchise, but I knew if I worked hard and listened to my coaching staff and believed in myself, one day it might happen. It is happening. I’m loving it. Sometimes I fail, sometimes I succeed. I’m just having fun.”

Since Nowitzki became the last non-American to win league MVP in 2007, Parker is the only international player to come directly from overseas to finish in the top five in voting. Antetokounmpo is one of the favorites this season and he credits an early indoctrination into the NBA with expediting his progress.

“Being 18, starting in the NBA, playing against LeBron, KD, Kawhi [Leonard], Paul George. … When you’re 22, 23 now, you’re not even scared of them,” Antetokounmpo told Yahoo Sports. “I’ve done this for five years. Guys are coming in the league now … I saw in this past draft, there are [eight] guys older than me. This is my fifth year in the league. There is nothing to be scared about. I’ve gone against LeBron [nearly] 20 times, guarding him. I’m learning from that. That makes me better. Imagine if I came this year, I wouldn’t be as good as I am now.”

Antetokounmpo remains in the do-no-wrong phase of his career, when his blunders are excused for inexperience as his team continues to push toward contending status. Jason Terry was in Dallas when Nowitzki completed his final tasks toward basketball immortality — losing, then redeeming himself in the Finals — and crushed a prevailing stereotype that European players were “soft.” Now teammates with Antetokounmpo, Terry has recognized some similarities between the two.

“He hasn’t had to deal with that type of failure yet, but for Giannis … a lot of guys come over to this league and think something is going to be handed to them. I see him everyday, he works — I don’t want to say more than Dirk — but he’s in the gym just as much,” he told Yahoo Sports. “That’s why you see his growth and development.”

Unicorn sighting

Porzingis was panned within seconds of his selection in 2015, as fans jeered the Knicks’ choice and one little boy famously wept while delivering a thumbs down. The Blab he had to avoid becoming was Frederic Weis. Within a few weeks of making his professional debut, Porzingis had quickly established himself as the future of the organization, displaying a comfort in the immense scrutiny that came with playing in New York.

“For me, it’s always I’m never afraid of the pressure. I’m never afraid of the moment. I always try to keep it simple. I never overthink. And I always trust my work. Always trust my summer work,” Porzingis told Yahoo Sports. “I always know I’m going to be a better player coming into the season. And doing all those things, that’s how I gained that confidence. You know, you’re always going to be ready for the moment, or you’re going to be ready to be the face of the franchise, or whatever that is. That gives you the confidence if you’re ready for it.”

His tenure with the Knicks has included some frustrating moments and a temporary stint on the trading block. But Porzingis has survived and remains committed to delivering on the promise that comes with the unique skill set that earned him the nickname “Unicorn.”

This season has been a challenge. Carmelo Anthony is no longer around to shield him from double-teams or the responsibilities that come with being the face of an organization. And the adjustment has been fatiguing both mentally and physically.

“It’s definitely not easy, but I’m growing and I’m learning from every game, and the more I play, the more experienced I’ll be and the more comfortable I’ll feel in those situations,” Porzingis told Yahoo Sports.

From overlooked to impossible to ignore

While he appears more than comfortable handling the burden of a franchise that shamelessly tanked for some lottery luck — even to the point of assuming the nickname, “The Process” — Embiid has stepped into some unfamiliar terrain for his basketball career. Embiid played at Kansas in the shadow of Andrew Wiggins, another promising international player who hails from Canada. The 76ers took Embiid third overall in 2014 primarily because the two players considered the prizes of that draft — Wiggins and Jabari Parker — were already gone. Injuries hurt his draft stock and delayed his NBA debut by two seasons but he quickly reclaimed his time and started to believe he could be the guy.

“Truthfully, I didn’t know until I actually started playing my first game in the NBA. Back in college, it was all about Wiggs and then I kind of went under the radar. I got to the league, I ended up sitting out two years,” Embiid told Yahoo Sports. “People have always been in my ear, talking about how great I was going to be. They noticed the comparisons to Hakeem and all those great centers, but I think it took me to my first NBA game to figure out I had a chance.”

Embiid hasn’t played the equivalent of one full season but has already flashed enough potential to garner a highly protected maximum extension. He’s a power-dunking, smack-talking, fun-loving force whose only limitation appears to be an inability to avoid physical setbacks. But he remains eager to be an NBA A-lister sooner than later.

“I want to be that guy. I want them to look at me the way they do guys like LeBron or Steph,” Embiid told Yahoo Sports. “I feel like I’m, like, right there. I just need to stay healthy and keep playing. But I feel like I’m right there. But I embrace it and I love it. I feel like if I put in the work and stay healthy, I think I have a chance.”

With Embiid and Simmons, Philadelphia has the unique experience of having two international players leading the franchise back toward respectability. Simmons, a 6-foot-10 point guard, is the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year honors and has quickly created a formidable Shaq-Penny 2.0 combination with Embiid.

“You know it’s for the good,” Embiid told Yahoo Sports. “He’s having a hell of a season. We’re learning how to play with each other and I feel we’re doing pretty good this season and the sky … I don’t even know if there’s a limit to how good we can be. But I enjoy playing with him and I can’t wait to keep on going.”

Seeking longevity

The international lull that produced several role players, noted flops in Darko Milicic and Anthony Bennett, and disappointments like Andrea Bargnani appears to have entered a more fruitful and rewarding phase for the league. In addition to the aforementioned youngsters who appear poised to run the NBA in the near future, the Chicago Bulls are in the process of developing Lauri Markkanen, a Finnish rookie who has already received an approving nod from Nowitzki. Luka Doncic, an 18-year-old forward from Slovenia, is also considered a can’t-miss prospect in the 2018 draft. Until they establish themselves, the leaders of the new wave aren’t waiting for an invitation to leave an impression.

“They’re having, already, a huge impact on the game. Now it’s just matter of, can they do it 10, 15 years? That’s what would define them, I guess, at the end of their careers,” Gasol told Yahoo Sports. “But they’re very, very talented. Guys are very versatile. I’m glad that international players’ impact continues to be pretty high and we have some defining players in the league.”

Porzingis credits the latest movement to what came before. “I think they gave us even more confidence,” Porzingis told Yahoo Sports, “and I think we’re coming in with more force to go in and take it all.”

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