In the 1994 film, The Air Up There, Jimmy Dolan (played by, obviously, Kevin Bacon) travels to Africa to recruit a potential basketball phenom, Saleh. Nowadays, NBA scouts are increasingly traveling overseas in search of their next star (Ricky Rubio) or role player (Kevin Séraphin). In this installment, we take a brief break from the US-based focus of last week to take a closer look at the foreign-born men currently playing in the NBA.
Note well when dealing with international players that sometimes where someone is born is not an indication of anything other than the job their parents had. For instance, Kyrie Irving was born in Melbourne, Australia where his dad was playing basketball for the Bulleen Boomers, and Carlos Boozer and Anthony Randolph were both born to military parents in Germany. These three guys are, essentially, Americans, but for fun’s sake, we’ll call them international.
Along these same lines, while Jose Barea was born in Puerto Rico and Tim Duncan and Raja Bell were born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, we will count them as international players. That's because, while "technically" Americans -- the technical aspect being the inclusion of those born in Guam/Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, according to the 14th amendment, as natural born citizens -- they did not enjoy the infrastructural advantage of the American high school system (which is why Tim Duncan was a swimmer until Hurricane Hugo).
The table and map (below) show where in the world foreign-born NBA players come from. Dark green countries have provided the most players. Non-shaded countries have provided no players (players born in the US are excluded from the map).
Altogether, there 98 foreign-born players total in the NBA. For the purposes of this article, we are referring to these countries by what they’re called today (yes, we looked up the hometowns, and transferred everything over to avoid writing the words “Czechoslovakia” and “Soviet Union” too often). Not counting the US, a total of 44 countries are currently represented in the NBA. France has produced the most players currently playing in the NBA, including the aforementioned Seraphin as well as Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum and Boris Diaw. Not to be outpaced by their western neighbors, the former Communist Bloc has produced a full fifth of the international lot, with 22 players come from European countries that either used to be part of the Soviet Union or were non-Moscow affiliated communists.
Thankfully, these players have fully embraced the finer points of capitalism and they -- along with the other 76 foreign-born players -- will earn about $475.3 million during the 2012-2013 season, good enough an average salary of about $4.8 million. To put things in perspective, the average salary of American-born NBA players is about $3.9 million. Does that mean that foreign-born NBA players are better than NBA players born in the US? One way to think about it is to look at the percentage of NBA players in different salary buckets.
The figure below shows the distribution of foreign-born players (green bars) and America-born players (blue bars) across five different salary buckets. For example, about 73% of American-born players will earn less than $5 million next year, while only 67% of foreign-born players will be earning less than $5 million.
There are a number of reasons for such a disparity, but the most significant factor seems that NBA scouts use their resources more selectively when scouting foreign-born players (especially those that didn’t play college basketball in the US). In other words, a team won’t waste the time and money researching a player out of Armenia unless he’s already, to some extent, proven himself, or unless he has some very unique characteristics, like being really really tall and appearing somewhat coordinated (see: Tskitishvili, Nikoloz). This system selects against low-quality players, and also leads to international players making it past their rookie contracts, allowing to exceed the earnings of those players who got into the association on looks alone.
Also benefiting international players is that this "really really tall/relative coordinated" criteria seems to have the added bonus of being true. While Foreign-born players account for about 20% of all players in the NBA, breaking that down by position yields some interesting results. As you can see in the chart below, most notable amongst these is that while percentage of NBA players that are foreign-born is 20%, a full 40% of all centers in the NBA were born outside the US.
Selection bias, of the flavor we alluded to above, and demographics work in conjunction to produce this inequality. Demographically speaking, the US is a *fairly* tall country, with an average height of 5’10” for adult men. But "fairly tall" and "proper basketball height" are two vastly different things, and a quick look at the nature of these statistics highlight the United States' "growing" problem.
That's because less than 0.14% of adult men in the US are over 6’10”, and most of them are too old to be playing basketball, a function of the rules of statistical distributions (and the ability of those in their mid-to-late 40s to effectively run the pick-and-roll). That is to say that although a man of average height from United States could be considered relatively tall, with the tallest countries (like Lithuania and Germany) only a few inches bigger (5'11.5"-6'), the difference in the number of people found at the extreme ends of the spectrum -- in this case, the tallest -- is astronomical.
The machinations underlying this are very math-y, but essentially, when the average height in a country is 6', it means that the number of people found in upper limits of height (the number of people who are going to be VERY tall) is much higher -- as a percentage of the population -- than a country with a lower average height, similar to the way that a class with a higher average test score would likely have a larger percentage of kids who did very well on the test than another class.
Because of these statistical facts, the NBA must rely on the global population to produce enough tall players for the league. For their part, these countries probably push basketball on their tallest youth from a very young age to hone their fundamental skills instead of applying the stringent "education" requirements that we pose on our young athletes (we're looking at you Perlas and Jonas Valanciunas). In many a European country, taller people recognize very early on that their time would surely be better spent outside, learning how to post up and fall over at the slightest hint of potential contact.
That 20% of the NBA’s players were born outside the US, so it shouldn’t be too big of a surprise. We’re all becoming increasingly aware of basketball’s growing popularity around the world, and as such, we should have definitely seen this coming, even before Jimmy Dolan made his way to Africa. However, thankfully for Jimmy Dolan and the thousands of other scouts like him, these days, recruiters may have it a bit easier as tall kids like Mamadou Ndiaya come to the US for high school and college in hopes of increasing their NBA exposure. Whether that trend continues, or whether European players see the structure of the international game advantageous to their development as ball players is something that we, and we are sure the NBA, will be looking at closely for years to come.