CHARLOTTE — If you still need Giannis Antetokounmpo to be the cute, aw-shucks Greek Freak, living a level of stardom beyond his dreams, he will oblige. He can still wear that mask, even though it defies what he has become: an edgy NBA superstar who openly wants to be the best and who just might be hiding a cudgel behind that wide smile.
Ask him about standing opposite LeBron James as an NBA All-Star Game captain, and he’ll say, “It’s crazy. Before I came into the league, I was looking up to him. Now I’m in the locker room and sharing a meal with Team Giannis. Like, I’m leading the all-star team! You know, picking teams with LeBron James! If you told me that six years ago, I would never, never, never thought I would be in this position right now.”
But it’s not 2013 anymore. Antetokounmpo is not an 18-year-old NBA mystery. He’s the 24-year-old, three-time all-star who reiterated last week that he doesn’t think he can be guarded. He’s an MVP candidate guiding the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA’s best record.
And on Sunday night, he was in the All-Star Game catching and dunking a ridiculous high-bounce alley-oop from Stephen Curry. And don’t look away: He’s catching another pass, this one a toss off the backboard from Paul George, and swinging on the rim en route to a game-high 38 points. On that play, James was wise enough to get out of the Freak’s way.
In the moment, it felt symbolic. King James, the long-standing best player in the game, is 34 years old and moving closer to giving up his crown. When it happens, Antetokounmpo will be in his prime. As a superstar with an evolving skill set, he has a chance to enjoy his own reign as the NBA’s premier player. It would be a face unlike any that has owned the league. A man of Nigerian descent who grew up in Greece and didn’t live in the United States until the NBA drafted him.
If not Antetokounmpo, there are several other international candidates to replace James as the face of the NBA, including Joel Embiid, who, if he can stay healthy, has the personality, the competitiveness and the stated desire to carry the league. And rookie Luka Doncic, the polished 19-year-old Slovenian who seems like he was created to thrive in this era of positionless basketball.
Of course, there are plenty of American candidates, too. But if you’re looking for the next long-term face, it has to be a player who is young enough to wait out LeBron, pull ahead of mid-prime stars such as Curry, Kevin Durant and James Harden and then lead a new era for at least a half decade. So, really, we’re talking about 25 and under stars in this conversation. And the fledgling international prospects on that exclusive list excite more than their U.S.-born colleagues.
It’s an incredible thought. Twenty-one years after Dirk Nowitzki came over from Germany and began the greatest NBA career ever for a pure international draft pick (no U.S. experience before the NBA), the global evolution of the league is stunning.
In a year in which 108 international players opened the season on NBA rosters, the league had a record seven international all-stars and 18 international participants in all-star festivities. But it’s not just the numbers that impress Nowitzki. It’s the quality of those players. They aren’t just players enjoying career years or thriving in the Robin role on their teams. They are franchise-carrying stars, just as Nowitzki was for most of his career. There’s a difference.
“They’re not only playing and contributing, but being franchise players,” Nowitzki said. “That’s been a big change over the last 20 years. It’s a different thing when you’re that kind of guy, when you’re influencing teams and the whole league in that way.”
For as much as the game has grown around the world, the roles of basketball’s best players have been reserved for American stars. There have been a few players not born in America’s 50 states who have enjoyed short stints as the best player in the game, but most of them — think Hakeem Olajuwon, think Tim Duncan — were Americanized during multiple seasons in college. If the NBA revolved around the Greek Freak, it would be unprecedented. That’s where the game is headed, and when it happens, that player will become another powerful symbol of what’s possible in basketball.
“The game is about evolution,” Kevin Durant said. “Everything we can do to push the boundaries is good for it. I’m all for everyone who can take the game to a higher place.”
Durant once touted Antetokounmpo as having the talent to be the best player in NBA history. He was the first to call Kristaps Porzingis a “unicorn” for his impossible skills at 7-foot-3. James likes to refer to Australian point guard Ben Simmons as “Young King.” The international talent is such that American players don’t feel the need to constantly define themselves as better. It’s not the U.S. vs. everyone else in a game of superiority.
In the early 2000s, every international triumph — especially in FIBA competition — was viewed through the prism of American hoops slippage. It’s not that simple anymore. The U.S. has restored its basketball dominance, and the world has continued to improve. In addition, the NBA has become more intentional in developing talent around the world.
Four miles from the All-Star Game spectacle in Charlotte, the NBA and FIBA hosted the Basketball Without Borders Global Camp at the Queens University of Charlotte. For the fifth straight year, the event was part of All-Star Weekend. It featured 63 boys and girls, all between ages 16 and 18, from 31 countries. They practiced, scrimmaged, underwent athletic testing and measurements and ran through drills for three days. All 30 NBA teams came to scout. The camp featured several elite teenage prospects, including Israeli point forward Deni Avdija and wiry big man Amar Sylla from Senegal, both of whom could be 2020 lottery picks.
The global camp has produced seven of those, including Deandre Ayton, last year’s No. 1 overall selection. A couple of big-name current college stars with significant NBA potential came through here, too: Duke forward R.J. Barrett and Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura. It’s the hidden gem of All-Star Weekend and one of the league’s most important developmental programs. Throw in the league’s establishment of basketball academies worldwide and its announcement last week of a league in Africa, and the NBA is serious about extending its global reach.
“I have this conversation with ministers of sport in countries around the world: Sometimes there’s the notion of when’s the next great player coming?” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “As opposed to, when are we going to develop the next great player?”
At the Basketball Without Borders camp, it was remarkable to observe just how mature and comfortable the participants were at playing what was once considered an American style. They ran, threw lobs, spaced the floor and played with great pace. There was no adjusting. That’s just how they play now.
“I think what’s great is now if you’re a young boy or girl from any country in the world, you believe you can make it here,” said Kim Bohuny, the NBA’s senior vice president of international basketball operations. “That’s the biggest difference in my mind. Before they hoped maybe, maybe I could get to the NBA one day.”
Bohuny has seen and contributed to the global growth for more than two decades. She has helped young international stars adapt to their new country. She has watched them change perceptions with their play.
“It took a while through the ’90s,” Bohuny said. “A lot of our teams were like, ‘Do we want international players or not?’ They always had that label of being soft, not good on defense, just great shooters. That is completely changed.
“Now all 30 teams have an international player, all of them have scouting staffs that cover every continent, not just Europe. But what’s happened is the growth in the number of players has increased, but they’re all-stars now. They’re some of the faces of teams. So now I just think the mind-set for young players around the world is, ‘I can do this, too. I’m not going to be held back just because I wasn’t born in America and didn’t go to college in America. I can do this, too.’ ”
There’s opportunity, and there’s belief. And there are examples of players who have the game and the willingness to proclaim how good they are.
“I can do everything on the basketball court,” Embiid said.
“I knew I was ready when I came here,” Doncic said.
“I know I can dominate the game,” Antetokounmpo said. “I also know I’m not anywhere near being a finished product.”
While James finishes his reign, the young stars are lining up. The coveted, subjective title of best player in the game will be up for grabs soon, and the person who claims it just might take the NBA’s globalization efforts to a new and regal place.
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