At the turn of the century, the NBA All-Star game only featured two players not born in one of the 50 states. Tim Duncan, who was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, represented the only international player on the Western Conference roster. Likewise, Democratic Republic of the Congo native, Dikembe Mutombo played alongside a team of Americans for the Eastern Conference.
The 2000 All-Star game showed how far the NBA had to go before it could call itself an internationally diverse league. An ESPN article from 2017 claims only 29 international players began the 1997 season on NBA rosters. No wonder the 2000 All-Star game featured mostly homegrown talent.
However, the number of international players in the league skyrocketed in the 2000s. At the start of this season, 108 international players, representing 38 countries, made opening-night rosters, according to the NBA.
The 2020 All-Star game rosters reflect the surge in international NBA players and show how many superstars come from overseas.
The Greek Freak filled his own team with international sensations. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who became Greece’s first All-Star just a few years ago, drafted foreign-born players with his top two selections in the All-Star draft.
First, he claimed Cameroon native Joel Embiid, followed by first-time All-Star Pascal Siakam, who is also from Cameroon. Embiid became the first player from Cameroon to make an All-Star game in the 2017-18 season.
Antetokounmpo went back to the world map with his seventh pick, taking French center Rudy Gobert. No French player has appeared in an All-Star game since Dominique Wilkins during the 1993-94 season.
LeBron James didn’t shy away from drafting international players either. With his third pick, James took Slovenian sensation, Luka Dončić. Goran Dragić is the only other Slovenian to appear in an NBA All-Star game. James went on to claim Australian native Ben Simmons in the sixth round and Serbian sensation Nikola Jokić in the seventh.
Assuming Dončić is healthy enough to participate, seven international All-Stars will take the court in Chicago on February 16th. Last year also saw seven foreign-born players appear during the All-Star game, if you count Kyrie Irving. However, more international players are starting in the game this year.
In 2010, a decade removed from two international players appearing in the All-Star game, five claimed spots. That number came close to hitting zero in 2016. If not for Pau Gasol and Al Horford replacing injured selections, no international players would have appeared.
If 2016 marked the low point of international stars in the NBA during the 2010s, every year since that has been a straight arrow up. Antetokounmpo made his first All-Star game in 2017, beginning his climb to the top of the league. The next year, Dragić, Embiid, and Kristaps Porziņģis made their first appearances. Jokić, Simmons, and Nikola Vučević followed in 2019.
Now, Dončić, Gobert, and Siakam sit on the cusp of their first All-Star games.
The appearance of so many first-time All-Stars over the past three years suggests we are witnessing the arrival of another great class of international players, similar to the trio of Duncan, Steve Nash, and Dirk Nowitzki that captured five MVPs in six years.
Arguably, the NBA’s brand is stronger around the world now than ever before. It’s easy to see why, with so many of the league’s premier players coming from foreign countries. The young, emerging class of international All-Stars could make a significant impact in the 2020s. This group could become the faces of the league, especially since so many of them are already playing at an All-NBA level.
For now, they will settle for playing in the All-Star game, but expect these international All-Stars to make a lasting impact in the NBA over the next decade.