International basketball has had its fair share of the spotlight on the NBA’s glamorous stage. From Hakeem Olajuwon’s unbeaten number of blocks, to Dirk Nowtiski’s legendary finals demolition of the star-stacked 2011 Miami Heat, it isn’t uncommon to hear the names of international players emerge in throwback talk between NBA fans.
While foreign-born stars have made their mark in the world’s fifth richest sports league, the handful of players who sit crowned at the peak of every season's player rankings have mostly been Americans — until now.
ESPN’s latest player rankings for 2023 have three European stars sitting at the top of the player food chain. Giannis Antetokounmpo, or more sensationally known as “The Greek Freak,” takes the top spot. Considering his humorous tweets over the years, cringe-worthy dad jokes and random sightings in the most civilian of places, Antetokounmpo has created a surprisingly relatable and likable presence off the court. However, the 2021 champion and finals MVP bares a different face on the court — one that reflects his widely considered status as the league's most unstoppable player.
“You’re not paying attention, I am playing today. My name is [the] Greek Freak,” said Hall of Famer center Shaquille O'Neal to ESPN.
O’Neal is considered one of the top five most dominant players of all-time. Bucks fans will unabashedly tout Antetokounmpo as worthy of such a title, and the despair of jaw-dropped opposing fans and shell-shocked courtside celebrities often wear expressions of agreement.
Second and third on ESPN’s top five player rankings are Serbia’s “Joker,” Nikola Jokic and Slovenia’s magician Luka Doncic, both of whom are expected to join Hall of Fame company.
While they are yet to join Antetokounmpo as champions, both players successfully made their mark on league history in a grand fashion. Jokic enjoys distinguished company as the latest of only 12 players to have ever won the hotly contested league MVP award back to back.
Doncic, on the other hand, is yet to win an MVP award despite his growing reputation as the Dallas Mavericks’ best player in franchise history. His 39 points-per-game average in playoff elimination games stands tall over Lebron James’s 33.5 and Michael Jordan’s 31.3.
Doncic, however, cemented his potential as an all-time great in the Mavericks’ 33 point decimation of the heavily favored Phoenix Suns — who were 2021-22 runner-ups and won the most games that regular season. This annihilation was in game seven, with the Mavericks ultimately moving onto the conference finals despite beginning the series down 0-2. Incredibly, Doncic scored as many points as the Sun's entire team within the first half.
“He will be the best player Dallas has ever had. I have great respect for [Dirk] Nowitzki, but Dirk is not him,’’ said Jerry West, Hall of Famer and the NBA logo’s living representative.
The fact that these three players are dominating the modern NBA landscape in such sensational fashion should not surprise current avid NBA spectators, but the eyebrows of those who keep a loose eye on the league’s dynamic proceedings still rise in curiosity when they no longer hear American names like LeBron James or Stephen Curry at the summit of official rankings, or when someone mentions that international teams of much smaller European nations have a historic reputation of making the U.S. sweat.
All three players ranked among the league’s podium have talked about how playing the game in Europe is harder than playing in the NBA.
“I think over there [in Europe], it’s more intense. People pick you up full court, double team you, they start from zone and then go man-to-man at the last second, they double team you in the post, there’s no lanes to drive, they’re more physical,” said Antetokounpo during the Bucks’ media day.
Antetokounmpo, who is known for his freakishly athletic drives to the basket, also went on to acknowledge there is much less space in European basketball, which contributes to its intense nature.
“It’s different. The floor is smaller, the bigs can be in the paint — the three point line is shorter,” reflected Jokic upon being asked about Antetokounmpo's claims.
He went on to confirm he does indeed consider European basketball harder, “just because you need to have really quick thinking.” Jokic carries a distinguished reputation for high basketball IQ.
Luka Doncic also made similar observations during his feature on retired shooting guard JJ Redick’s popular podcast: “The Old Man and the Three.” Wearing a humble smile, the 23 year old recalled his surprise upon entering the league and discovering he could score with ease, compared to his time playing in Europe.
“I would say that European basketball is more team basketball, more [tactical], the court is smaller, the fouls are different, the rules are different, everything is different,” Doncic said. “I only say that scoring is easier in the NBA just because of [these differences].”
Doncic, like Antetokounmpo, clarified that it is much harder to guard players in the NBA with the league surpassing European basketball in terms of sheer talent.
European basketball is played according to FIBA (International Basketball Federation) rules and dimensions, while still embodying the same culture of highly physical basketball the NBA boasts.
Space is more of a weapon in European and FIBA basketball than it is in the NBA.
The three pointer, which has become a popular option in today's league with players like Steph Curry having revolutionized it's offensive efficiency, has its boundary nearly half a meter closer to the hoop on a European court compared to the NBA’s 7.24 meters. This means European players have a tighter space within which they are to shoot the ball when a play is in action, especially considering the court itself is 28 by 15 meters, compared to the NBA’s 28.7 by 15.2 meters (all values rounded within a single decimal).
Increased pressure on the ball due to tighter spacing only scratches the surface of the differences. The NBA mandates that a defensive player cannot stay within the paint, or the restricted area, for more than three seconds at a time when not actively guarding an opponent. This rule exists to promote more dynamic play in the lane near the basket. This rule does not apply to FIBA basketball, giving defensively oriented big men, like three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert from France, with monstrous power in the playing space.
Aggregate playing time in European and FIBA basketball is eight minutes shorter than that for the NBA. European basketball allows for only five individual fouls, both technical and personal, before a player is ejected. The NBA fouls players out after six personal fouls or two technicals. With both time and physicality being more constricted for European players playing physically challenging basketball, there is much less room for error and much more of a requirement for caution.
With these conditions, it is no surprise that players like Antetokounmpo, Doncic and Jokic each show high levels of craftiness, selflessness and creativity. Other active European players, such as Goran Dragic, Dennis Schroeder and Ricky Rubio also demonstrate these qualities, often harnessing them into a specific role they play for their respective teams, whereas the top three embody them as superstars.
International basketball as a whole has always maintained a history of providing the U.S. with a challenge to rise to. “The Redeem Team” is a recent project on the struggles faced and overcome by the Team USA men’s basketball team between the early 2000s and 2008, produced by Lebron James and Dwane Wade. The documentary explores how international basketball showcased immense levels of teamwork and confidence that drove American players to test their limits.
However, European basketball in particular has propelled itself to unprecedented heights since then. Their players comprise the best in the NBA, and the Euroleague enjoys increasing viewership, with over a 10% increase in attendance between the 2017-18 season and the 2018-19 season. The international tournament Eurobasket 2022 boasted its second highest attendance record ever. The high level of play was also apparent, with the three most popular stars — Antetokounmpo, Jokic and Doncic — all being knocked out of the playoffs.
With Antetokounmpo, Jokic and Doncic’s comments having directed the spotlight onto European basketball’s scope for prowess in the modern NBA, it will be interesting to see how coaches integrate certain practices and adapt their playing philosophies to harness and contain such players — especially on the NBA’s courts, where they are no longer shackled.
European basketball is not just on the rise. It has reached the peak of the world’s biggest league. Basketball fans all around the world can only salivate in anticipation for the 2024 Paris Olympics, where they will witness the U.S. national team face their league’s very best on the international stage.