This year’s NBA Most Valuable Player award race is coming down to the regular season’s final days. We’re almost a week into April with a handful of games remaining, and the pack leader seems to change by the day. There is no clear-cut leader, but one thing we do know is the winner is almost assured to be a player of International origin.
Nikola Jokić, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the consensus leaders in the MVP race, and not necessarily in that order. All three players were born and primarily raised outside of North American borders. This trio of international stars has headlined the MVP discussion for the better part of the season.
Players like Jayson Tatum, Ja Morant, and even Devin Booker (all American-born players) have climbed their way into consideration toward the end of the season. However, I can confidently say that this year’s MVP will be one of the foreign-born players mentioned above.
Booker deserves a few MVP votes for being the best player on the best team. But playing alongside a future Hall of Famer in Chris Paul has hurt his case. Morant will get a few MVP votes, and he may also win the award for Most Improved Player of the Year. Tatum has been the catalyst for Boston’s late-season surge, but he’s not the MVP of the league. And I think Tatum’s great, don’t get me wrong, but not the MVP.
It wasn’t too long ago when players raised outside the United States were viewed as nothing more than spot-up shooting finesse players. Many were considered soft by NBA fans, other players, and the media. That evolution really started with Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1980s and 90s. Olajuwon has always felt more like an American player due to his style and his having taken the traditional college path, attending the University of Houston from’ 81-84, en route to NBA stardom. But Olajuwon was born and raised in Nigeria, so he’s definitely part of this evolution.
This significant shift in mindset really came in the early 2000s when Dirk Nowitzki began to show the league that European-born players could dominate the game in their own way. Many people had never seen a 7-foot big man shoot the ball like Nowitzki did when he joined the Dallas Mavericks. Basketball traditionalists wanted Dirk down on the low block, back to the basket, banging inside with the other big men of that era. Nowitzki kept playing his game and continued to play on the perimeter long before the Golden State Warriors ushered in the ‘three-ball era’ we’re currently dwelling in.
Since 2000, there have been four players born outside the United States to win the MVP award in the NBA: Steve Nash (‘05 &’ 06), Nowitzki (‘ 07), Giannis (‘19 & ‘20), and Jokić last season. Now Jokić has the chance to join Nash and Giannis as back-to-back winners this season. Before Nash won his first MVP in ‘05, only one international-born player had received the award. That was Olajuwon in ‘94.
Unless something crazy happens over the last week of the season, this will be the fourth consecutive year an international talent has taken home MVP honors. I think this shows the game’s growth and how it has evolved in recent years. This is probably a trend we need to get used to because there’s another foreign-born player itching to break through that ceiling and win his first league MVP. Luka Dončić is coming and has already been in the conversation for MVP the last couple of campaigns. Luka’s time will come, Giannis is only getting better, plus Jokić and Embiid should still have skin in the game for quite some time.
The original Dream Team in ‘92 had a huge hand in promoting the game globally and grabbing the attention of children around the world. Those seeds planted in the early ‘90s are in full bloom now, and the game is better for it. Just looking at the MVP race, we can see how much basketball has become a global game.
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