We already knew something was changing in the NBA last season when none other than LeBron James suggested a thought that had previously been taboo – and, to be honest, would have been coming from anybody else but The King. This time last year, the Los Angeles Lakers’ star turn shared his belief that Europeans “develop faster than American players,” signalling a new era of respect for a group of players long looked at with suspicion in NBA circles.
Two-time Most Valuable Player (MVP) Steve Nash recently told Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles on the Knuckleheads podcast how acute Dirk Nowitzki’s understanding of needing to go the extra mile to rebuff popular perceptions of Europeans and their apparent softness was. When Nash and Nowitzki were teammates for six years with the Dallas Mavericks, they would get up early and go to the gym in the apartment block they both lived in, and then go there again in the evening after practice, Nash confessed to Richardson and Miles.
Now, nearly 20 years on from Nowitzki’s midnight sessions pumping iron, the worm has turned – partly due to the German’s groundwork. There are currently 59 European players on NBA rosters but it’s not so much the number as the influence of the cream of the crop that is most notable. In 2019 both of the game’s most prestigious individual titles, that of MVP and Rookie of the Year were won by Europeans – the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Dončić of those same Dallas Mavericks respectively.
Like stars of the level of Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and LeBron before them, they have reached a level of public consciousness that has made them largely mononymous. Last season belonged to Giannis, turning his formidable physical power into relentlessly consistent production and averaging career highs of 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds per game in edging out reigning MVP James Harden for the big prize. The Greek Freak took the Bucks to the Eastern Conference finals, where he was eventually shut down by the might Kawhi Leonard and eventual champions the Toronto Raptors.
The only European to win the MVP apart from Nowitzki in 2007, Antetokounmpo has become hugely popular in the mainstream, charming the public with his wit and easy manner as a team captain in the 2019 All-Star. He created his first signature shoe, the Freak 1, launched this summer to some fanfare and with Leonard leaving the Raptors to go west with the Los Angeles Clippers, the East has the potential to be Giannis’ own private kingdom.
Not that he has a clear run to the pedestal of top European in the league. In the West, Dončić is making the metamorphosis from prince to king in a scorching start to his sophomore season. “He's going to push Dirk for the greatest European to ever play this game when it's all said and done," New York Knicks coach David Fizdale said after the Mavs played at Madison Square Garden last week – a game that the Knicks surprisingly won, but in which Dončić registered 33 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds on one of basketball’s sacred floors.
It’s one of six triples-doubles that he has posted already this season, a league-leading total ahead of triple-double machine Russell Westbrook of the Houston Rockets and even his childhood idol LeBron, who has started the campaign in strong form for the Lakers. When Dončić posted yet another in Tuesday night’s thrilling win over the San Antonio Spurs, he set a new points personal best of 42, and thus become the second-youngest player in NBA history to score a 40-point-plus triple-double. The youngest? LeBron.
The Mavs’ plan is to have a European heart to their team, as Dončić is paired with Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis, brought in by a blockbuster trade from the Knicks in February and now recovered from an ACL injury that kept him off the floor for more than a year. Porzingis signed a max deal to stay in Dallas long-term in pre-season, but there is no doubt whose team this is. Dončić leads the way for the Mavs on every possession, imbued with the star swagger with which he arrived in the NBA, having already been a Euroleague MVP with Real Madrid, and which has gone up a level further still this season.
Even after the summer retirements of two legendary players in Nowitzki and French point guard Tony Parker, whose number nine jersey was retired by the Spurs in an emotional ceremony last week, it feels as if we are entering an unprecedented era for European talent in the NBA – one which will be underlined by the NBA’s arrival in Paris for a regular season game in January, taking the place of the habitual London fixture. With the Bucks taking on the Charlotte Hornets in the French capital – under the watchful eye of the greatest, the now-Hornets owner Michael Jordan – Antetokounmpo will likely take the next step in his global coronation as a bona fide megastar.