The history of international players in U.S. professional basketball is as old as the NBA itself, when Italian-born Canadian Hank Biasatti joined the Basketball Association of America’s Toronto Huskies in the league’s first year, 1946.
Half a century later, though, basketball was still largely an American-dominated sport. When the iconic Dream Team took the court at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, there were just 21 international players in the NBA.
That’s no longer the case – not by a long shot. Over the last two decades, basketball has become more and more international, and foreign-born players on NBA teams are now commonplace. At the beginning of last season, a record-tying 84 international players were on the NBA’s opening night rosters.
This year looks set to keep up this trend. Based on rosters as of October 15 (though there has been some shuffling and cutting over the past two weeks to get the teams down to a standard max of 15), 102 foreign players were in contention as the NBA season approached. (Of course, NBA rosters turn over a lot, especially training camp rosters. This data is necessarily a snapshot in time). The NBA's global talent pool hails from 41 countries – along with Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the overseas French territory of Guadeloupe – with no one country contributing more than 2 percent of the league’s total players.
The map below, from Zara Matheson of the Martin Prosperity Institute, shows the distribution of foreign players by country of origin. France is at the top of the list with nine players. Canada is next with eight (including top draft pick Anthony Bennett from Toronto. Fellow Canadian Andrew Wiggins is projected to be a top draft pick next year, leading the Globe and Mail to declare that we may be living in the “golden age of Canadian Basketball”). Then comes Germany with six, Spain with five, and Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Italy, Russia and Turkey with four each.
The story of San Antonio’s remarkable run with foreign talent is well known. The franchise, which lost to the Miami Heat in last year’s finals, has arguably been the league’s most successful team over the past 15 years (with 14 straight seasons with 50 plus wins), and Vegas gives them 10 to 1 odds of winning it all this year. Under the leadership of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have made foreign players a staple of its disciplined model of team play, so much so that ESPN asked this June, "Is avoiding American players the key to the Spurs’ success?" This year a whopping 67 percent of Spurs players – 10 of 15 – were born outside the United States, including stars like Tony Parker (France), Manu Ginobili (Argentina), and Tim Duncan (U.S. Virgin Islands, which counts as international in the NBA’s statistics). The Spurs are five times as international as the San Antonio metro, whose population is just 11 percent foreign born.
But how far has globalization of basketball talent has spread across other NBA teams? To get at this, I turned to Patrick Adler, a Martin Prosperity Institute alum and urban planning doctoral candidate at UCLA.
We crunched the numbers, and it turns out that the NBA teams are often far more cosmopolitan than the cities in which they play – for two-thirds of the league’s teams (20 of the 30) the roster is more internationally diverse than the city in which they play.
The map below, also from MPI’s Matheson, compares the number of international players on each team’s roster as of October 15 to the overall share of foreign residents in each metro. And in the spirit of competition, with the whole season spread out before us, we looked at how a team’s "international factor" stacked up against what Vegas Insider had projected as the odds that the team will take home the NBA championship trophy this year. The teams with a better shot are marked in dark black, while those projected to do worse (sorry, Orlando) are in grey.
Thirteen teams had more than 20 percent of their roster originating from outside the United States, while on eight of them, foreign players made up more than a quarter of their roster. San Antonio of course has the highest ratio of international players, as players born outside the U.S. make up a whopping two-thirds of the Spurs’ squad. The Minnesota Timberwolves are next with 40 percent foreign-born players, followed by the Cleveland Cavaliers with 35 percent. Foreign-born players make up between 25 and 30 percent of the rosters of the Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic, and Oklahoma City Thunder. And they comprise between 20 and 25 percent of four more teams: the Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards.
Two teams have no foreign players at all – the recently renamed New Orleans Pelicans and the Los Angeles Clippers.
But to what extent does the foreign born composition of teams match up to the foreign-born share of metro populations? The short answer: Not too much.
Twenty metros have a greater share of foreign players than they do residents, while eight teams have a greater share of foreign residents than players. Those eight teams are mainly in the biggest and most diverse metros: the New York Knicks, L.A. Lakers and Clippers, Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, New Orleans Pelicans and Toronto Raptors. Two other teams, the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards, have foreign-born shares that match that of their metros.
You might think franchises in larger, diverse metros – with larger foreign-born populations – would have more incentive to field teams with more international players. But that's not the case. In fact, all five teams in America's three biggest metros – New York, L.A., and Chicago – have relatively low shares of foreign players. And that's also the case with Miami and Toronto, which have very high shares of foreign born residents. (It's worth noting that the countries of origin for these players – largely in Europe and Canada – don't match that well to most of America's immigrant demographics these days). In New York, where foreign-born people make up 27.6 percent of the population, foreign players make up just 15 percent of the Knicks and 27.8 percent of the Nets (who, incidentally, have a foreign born owner, Mikhail Prokhorov). In L.A., where the foreign born population is an even higher 34.2 percent, foreign players make up just 17.6 percent of the Lakers, while the Clippers do not have a single foreign player. In Chicago, where the population is 17.2 percent foreign born, international players make up just 6.7 percent of the Bulls’ roster. In Miami, where 36.5 percent of the population is foreign-born, only one player, Joel Anthony who hails from Canada, is foreign born. And in Toronto, where foreign-born residents make up nearly half of the population, just 11.8 percent of the players hail from outside the United States, and not a single player is Canadian.
This dynamic has resulted in contrasting approaches to talent taken by two of the league's most elite and successful teams. While the Spurs (with 10 to 1 odds of winning it all) have dug deep into the wells of international players over the last two decades (and with other teams soon jumping on the bandwagon), the Miami Heat (with 13 to 5 odds of repeating) rely almost exclusively on American players. This is all the more curious given that the share of foreign born people in Miami outnumbers the share in San Antonio by more than three to one.
With a record-setting 12 foreign-born first-round picks in this year’s draft, it is clear that global talent in the NBA is here to stay. Soon, the very idea of "All American" basketball dream teams will be relegated to the Olympics.
Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs have become known for their international roster. In Game 7 of the NBA Finals this past June, the Spurs' Tim Duncan (21, U.S. Virgin Islands) leads teammates Manu Ginobili (20, Argentina), Gary Neal (14, United States), and Tony Parker (9, France) back onto the court after a timeout (REUTERS/Mike Segar).