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NBA

Get ready for the year of the international superstar

Giannis Antetokounmpo leads the charge of international stars around the NBA.
Giannis Antetokounmpo leads the charge of international stars around the NBA. (NBA Getty; DAZN illustration)

Try this on for size:

  • The reigning MVP. 🇬🇷
  • The best passing big of all-time. 🇷🇸
  • The most dominant center since Shaq. 🇨🇲
  • The back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year. 🇫🇷
  • The towering, all-seeing point guard. 🇦🇺
  • The No. 1 option on the defending champs. 🇨🇲
  • The cerebral do-everything closer. 🇸🇮

All of them born outside of the United States. For the sixth straight season, over 100 international players were on opening rosters including 11 which have at some point made the All-Star team.

Fresh off a 2018-19 season defined in part by award-winning achievements by international players, there's potential for even more in 2019-20 as a historic crop of talented players from every corner of the globe are on the cusp of taking over the league.

Four of last season's five award winners hail from outside of the United States with even more in the mix to add to that tally in 2020.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the reigning MVP and hasn't yet turned 25. Rudy Gobert has claimed two straight Defensive Player of the Year awards and at 27 is in the prime of his career. Pascal Siakam won Most Improved Player as a role player and seems primed for yet another massive leap, this time in a star-making role as a No. 1 option. Then there's Luka Doncic who ran away with Rookie of the Year honours and entering his second season appears to be knocking on the doorstep of superstardom.

MORE: Most likely first-time All-Stars in 2020

All four are stars in their own right but it's worth mentioning that Antetokounmpo is the only one who garnered All-Star status last season. Even without the likes of Gobert, Siakam and Doncic, 2018-19 still featured seven All-Stars born outside of the United States, tied for the most in any season in NBA history. If even one of that trio nudges its way into All-Star status, there will officially be more international stars than ever before.

Those aren't the only contenders for first-time All-Star status either as there are less obvious longshots that might budge into the conversation. Jamal Murray's stock is on the rise and could garner some love if the Denver Nuggets ultimately prove worthy of multiple All-Stars while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander turned heads in his first two games with Oklahoma City, setting career highs in back-to-back games as he poured in 26 and 28 points. That both are Canadian should be lost on nobody given that they are among a group of 16 Canadians on rosters, the most ever from a single country outside of the United States.

MORE: What can SGA learn from Chris Paul?

But why stop there?

The international impact at the top of the league is about so much more than who earns passage into a midseason exhibition.

Kristaps Porzingis is back and together with Doncic, forms an intriguing duo that's in some ways the 2019 souped up version of Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash, but if Nowitzki doubled as an elite shot blocker and Nash stood 6'7". In a league now dominated by transcendent duos, the Porzingis and Doncic tag team is wholly unique and leads the way for a Mavericks team featuring a league-high seven international players.

Also throwing their hat in the ring for moniker of best international duo is Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, two MVP candidates that on any given night each has the potential to look like the single most unstoppable force in the entire league. There's a case to be made that the Philadelphia 76ers possess a higher ceiling than anyone else, a statement that starts with the Embiid/Simmons pairing, but is bolstered by the arrival of five-time All-Star, defensive ace and Dominican-born Al Horford. If the 76ers do emerge as favourites to win it all come June, the road to the NBA title will go through not only Philadelphia but Cameroon, Australia and the Dominican Republic.

MORE: The 14 players that can win the MVP award

Speaking of the Dominican Republic, Karl-Anthony Towns would like a word with anyone that tries having a conversation about best players in the world. Though he may have been born in New Jersey, Towns carries Dominican citizenship thanks to his mother, Jacqueline, a native of the Carribean island. It's hard to argue that any of the stars across the league got off to a better start than Towns who led Minnesota to a surprising 3-0 start while averaging 32.0 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game which doesn't fully articulate just how dominant he looked early on for the Timberwolves.

It wasn't that long ago that Towns was considered the crown jewel of young prospects. Two seasons ago, he was singled out as the player NBA GM's would most want to build a team around, an honour that's since been bestowed upon Antetokounmpo as part of NBA.com's annual league survey.

That survey itself provides a snapshot of how the league is perceived by the individuals making personnel decisions and ultimately pulling the strings for each of the 30 teams.

It includes quite a bullish perception of how international players have set up shop among the inner circle of elite players. Antetokounmpo was deemed the favourite to repeat as MVP, Antetokounmpo and Doncic were two of the three players receiving votes for who NBA GM's would most want to build around (other: Anthony Davis), and Nikola Jokic and Embiid were voted the best centers in the NBA.

MORE: Ranking the top centers entering the season

This is far more than a growing trend, but rather the fruits of a decades-long effort to grow the game anywhere an orange ball can get be bounced. After a preseason that featured teams from Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, China, Israel and Brazil and featured games in India, Japan and China, there will be two regular-season contests in Mexico and another in France. There are NBA youth academies in four different continents while Basketball Without Borders - the NBA and FIBA's global basketball development and community outreach program - has a record 30 former campers on opening rosters, breaking last year's record of 28. It's perhaps no surprise then that this year's opening rosters included more than four times the number of international players on rosters to begin the season 25 years ago.

All of that to say: this is only the beginning.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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