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Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic and the age of the international franchise player

The Mavericks and Nuggets building their franchise around an international talent has changed the game once again.

Dallas Mavericks v Denver Nuggets
Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks and Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets talk before the game on March 14, 2019 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.
Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

For a long time, Dirk Nowitzki was a rare breed; the international star who became a franchise player in the NBA. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were around during that time as well, although Tim Duncan is considered the centerpiece of that San Antonio Spurs dynasty. That’s not to say Ginobili and Parker weren’t important but they didn’t have Duncan’s stature. Nowitzki and the Spurs duo weren’t just great players, they led championship-caliber teams. The Mavericks and Spurs combined for five championships and seven NBA Finals appearances.

Twenty years after the Mavericks drafted Nowitzki, they selected another international player destined for superstardom in Luka Doncic. The Slovenian guard has developed into an all-around force and is the favorite to win NBA MVP in the 2021-22 season, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. Doncic is part of a wider league trend to not just seek out international talent, but also build around it.

That trend takes center stage Friday when the Mavericks meet the Denver Nuggets on ESPN. Both teams are headlined by international stars, one being the MVP favorite while the other is the reigning MVP. Nikola Jokic suffered a right knee contusion in Tuesday’s contest and may not play in Friday’s game, but reportedly did not suffer structural damage. Coincidentally, his injury happened bumping knees with another prominent international player in Utah’s Rudy Gobert.

International players, mostly European ones, have long been seen as weaker prospects to their American counterparts. There’s a long list of failed international talents at the top of NBA drafts, headlined by the likes of Darko Milicic, Jan Vesely, Yi Jianlin and Andrea Bargnani. In recent years, that list includes Dante Exum, Mario Hezonja, Dragan Bender and Frank Ntilikina.

Yao Ming was an All-Star but injuries eventually kept him from reaching the pinnacle of the league. Pau and Marc Gasol were high-quality players as well, although their style of play was also considered detrimental for typical big men. As we know now, the ability to space the floor and create offense is highly desirable in bigs.

There are plenty of international role players like Bojan and Bogdan Bogdanovic, Jusuf Nurkic, Enes Kanter, Nicolas Batum, Danilo Gallinari and Joe Ingles. None of those players have reached the heights of Doncic and Jokic. And then there’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, the forward from Greece who developed into a superstar and led the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA title in 2020-21. If Doncic wins the MVP award this season, the last three league MVPs will be international players. Antetokounmpo won the honor in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

The success of Antetokounmpo, Jokic and Doncic is once again taking NBA franchises outside the United States in the search for great talent. Killian Hayes, Deni Avdija and Josh Giddey went in the lottery despite not playing in America, all to rebuilding teams. Alperen Sengun was drafted just outside the lottery, by the rebuilding Rockets. LaMelo Ball grew up in America, but he’s a product of Australia’s NBL. He was taken third overall by the rebuilding Hornets and is the reigning Rookie of the Year.

After years of being wary around international prospects, teams are once again willing to spend high draft picks on foreign players despite several recent busts. That’s largely a product of Antetokounmpo, Doncic and Jokic having individual and team success. When the Mavericks and Nuggets meet Friday, Doncic and Jokic will represent what many around the league knew before but never took advantage of; basketball was always an international game. With MVP awards and championships coming in through foreign players, teams are entering that talent pool like never before.