Dating back to the days of David Stern and continuing under the commissionership of Adam Silver, the NBA has been committed to promoting and expanding basketball around the globe. In the modern age, the league plays regular season games in London and Mexico City, preseason games in China, and an exhibition game in Africa during the summer. This weekend’s All-Star Game will reach fans in 215 countries.
From a business perspective, it makes sense to broaden the revenue base for the league by entering as many different markets as possible. Meanwhile, the league’s globalization plan has also had the effect of bringing young athletes into the fold who might not have played the game otherwise. The NBA currently features over 100 international players from more than 40 countries. Decades later, Stern’s vision for the league as a worldwide entity has enabled the NBA to continue to grow while other American sports have hit a stagnation period.
A few years ago, the Philadelphia 76ers also felt it was vital to have the longest view in the room. It should come as no surprise that Philadelphia’s roster is centered around talented young players around the globe. Even on the sidelines, the team targeted a head coach, Brett Brown, whose previous head coaching experience was with the Australian national team. The 76ers’ multicultural roster was on full display at the Staples Center Friday night. Cameroon’s Joel Embiid, Australia’s Ben Simmons and Croatia’s Dario Saric all started for the World team in the Rising Stars Game.
Though the game is a glorified 3-point shooting and dunking exhibition, Philadelphia’s three young stars showed off the skills that have the 76ers on the rise. Simmons proved what a 6-10 point guard is capable of as a playmaker, dropping a double-double with 11 points and a game-high 13 assists. Saric displayed his newfound shooting prowess by knocking down 4 of 7 shots behind the arc. Embiid played just nine minutes, but that was long enough to flash his freakish unicorn powers. Even if the opposing defense was feigning to try, I’m not sure what it would do to stop this tidal wave of a human being from crashing down the lane.
Much as the league had to project how the sport would grow internationally, former general manager Sam Hinkie had to project how Embiid and Saric would grow their games when he selected them in the draft. Embiid only started playing basketball as a 15-year-old; the superstar potential was evident during his brief Kansas career, but his ceiling as a prospect was so high partially because there was still a lot for him to learn about the game itself. As for Saric, questions surrounded when he would come over (if ever), the transition to the longer 3-point line, and how his game would translate to the athleticism stateside. The NBA bet that the sport would thrive globally and the 76ers bet their international players would thrive; both bets paid off.
Since taking over the 76ers’ front office, Bryan Colangelo has continued the team philosophy of international expansion. He picked France’s Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Turkey’s Furkan Korkmaz in the first round of the 2016 draft, and recently signed Italy’s Marco Belinelli as a free agent to bring the roster up to six internationals. Luwawu-Cabarrot and Korkmaz were low-risk, high-upside plays rooted in the hope that the shooting would translate to a new environment. The sample size is too small to draw any conclusions yet, but a stretch in January when Luwawu-Cabarrot made 17 3s over five games was encouraging.
Just as the NBA did decades ago, The Process was about thinking outside the box, leaving no stone left unturned. Thus far, both the league and the 76ers seem to have found what they were looking for, even if the search took them around the globe.