OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) - International talent has turned from novelty to necessity in the National Basketball Association and that shift was on display in Monday’s clash between two of the league’s best teams.
When the defending champion and league-leading Golden State Warriors hosted the San Antonio Spurs, the game featured players from seven countries.
The Warriors, aided by centers Andrew Bogut of Australia and Festus Ezeli of Nigeria, cruised to a lopsided 120-90 win over a Spurs squad that includes French point guard Tony Parker and Argentine veteran guard Manu Ginobili.
The contest highlighted the outsize impact international players now have on the NBA, which for the second consecutive season boasts 100 or more players from overseas.
For scouts savvy enough to spot them, international players can offer great skill and less hype than top U.S. prospects and give teams a key edge as they try to amass as much talent as possible while adhering to salary restrictions.
“If you can get a player who is undervalued, you are getting performance in excess of contract, and that’s kind of the name of the game,” said Robert Boland, director of the graduate sports management program at Ohio University.
“I don’t need to be a great player - I need to be a cost-effective good player.”
NBA teams have long pulled from overseas, but international recruits were few and far between, and teams struggled to incorporate them into their lineups.
But around the time of German forward Dirk Nowitzki’s arrival in 1998, the NBA found a reliable source of talent in European players, and their presence has steadily grown.
“I was like the first European point guard to make it,” San Antonio’s Parker told reporters earlier this month. “So now it’s a lot different because you have 50 to 60 European players, 100 international players, so the game has been growing a lot and it’s great for basketball.”
No NBA team has exploited the talent pool better than the Spurs, whose lineup includes four international players, plus five-time NBA champion Tim Duncan, who hails from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The Warriors have taken a page from their rival’s playbook, with three international players on their roster. And they play an upbeat, European style of basketball, heightening the international flair.
The New York Knicks found the season’s hottest new star in Kristaps Porzingis, a 20-year-old forward from Latvia taken fourth overall in last year’s NBA Draft.
Porzingis has made an immediate impact on the Knicks, who have won more games in the first half of the 2015-16 season than they did the year before he joined.
The dawn of the international NBA can be traced back to the U.S.’s “Dream Team” that won the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics behind the dominant play of Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.
That team inspired future standouts like Parker, Ginobili, and Nowitzki, who were just kids in their respective countries at the time.
As the 2016 Rio Olympics nears, those players are all edging closer to retirement but there’s a long line of internationals waiting to replace them. And the NBA is poised to profit once again, Boland said.
“A great Olympic tournament is beneficial for all basketball, and the NBA stands to benefit as much as anyone because it has the biggest ship in the water,” he said.
Editing by Frank Pingue