Each year, a growing number of international athletes come to the United States to pursue a career in the NBA.
The 2014-15 NBA season kicked off with a record-setting 101 international players from 37 countries and territories on opening night rosters. This number has more than doubled from 45 international players during the 2000-01 season.
During All-Star Weekend, the format of the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge has changed from all rookies vs. sophomores to a United States vs. World competition. The All-Star team also features international players including Marc and Pau Gasol, the first two Europeans voted in as starters by fans.
The transition of international players is judged by how they perform on the court, but their real challenges are encountered away from the game. From language barriers to cultural differences to living alone in a new country to trying to fit into a new environment, their learning curve goes far beyond basketball.
Each athlete has a unique experience chasing their basketball dreams. We spoke to 17 players from 14 countries about their journey and adjustment to the NBA.
Pau Gasol, Spain
Pau Gasol is one of the longest-tenured international players in the NBA. Now in his 14th season, it seems like ages ago that he struggled to get acclimated to the league when he was drafted third overall in 2001.
“It was hard at first because it’s part of the process,” Gasol said. “My English was not that good at the time. I could get by, but I was not comfortable speaking the language and really understanding everything.”
Gasol, who made his debut at 21 for the Memphis Grizzlies, chose not to take English classes. Instead, he tuned into movies with subtitles. He also watched the television shows “Friends” and “Sanford and Son” with then-teammate Stromile Swift. Over time, he became more comfortable.
“You have to be patient,” Gasol advised. “You’ve got to be willing to make mistakes and embarrass yourself. It’s part of the learning curve.”
Anderson Varejao, Brazil
Anderson Varejao has been a mainstay in the city of Cleveland for the past 11 years. Back in 2004, he had no way of envisioning he would establish himself in a place he came to with so much uncertainty.
Varejao grew up in Brazil and moved to Spain at age 16 to play basketball. The experience prepared him to live abroad, although neither location was much like Cleveland. He was used to warm weather and a large Brazilian community that shared his culture. Being without either was a hard adjustment at first.
Although Varejao spoke Portuguese and Spanish, he didn’t know English. After three classes that didn’t pan out, he turned to a Cavaliers assistant trainer who spoke Spanish for help. One area where Varejao had trouble was ironing out phrases that had the same meaning but were expressed differently. For example, being greeted with “What’s going on?” instead of “How are you?” was challenging at first.
Over time, the one-on-one guidance from the trainer combined with months spent with his teammates taught him his third language.
“I was ready for that; I knew it was going to be tough,” Varejao said. “Little by little I learned English. I’m still learning English (laughs).”
Once Varejao adapted to his new surroundings, he faced the question as to how long he would be there. He had signed a multi-year deal, but still wondered about the longevity of his career. More than 10 years later, it looks like he didn’t have to worry.
“The best part (of coming to the United States) is that I’m an NBA player,” Varejao said. “It’s the best basketball in the world and I’m happy to be part of that. When I got here, I didn’t know how long I was going to be there. I’m just happy that I made it.”
Mirza Teletovic, Bosnia
Mirza Teletovic was in the beginning of his rookie NBA season when Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012. In an instant, the Brooklyn Nets forward had to figure out how to navigate an unfamiliar city in an even more unfamiliar situation.
“Everything kind of stopped,” Teletovic said. “Our practice facility was flooded. I lived in New Jersey and I had to drive from there to Brooklyn every day for three months. I woke up every morning around 5 to get to practice at 9 or 10. I had to leave early because you never know how the traffic is going to be. It was really tough.”
Once he settled into the swing of the season, he encountered challenges adjusting to the time difference. He grew up in Bosnia and played six years in Spain before joining the Nets. Evening in the United States felt like the middle of the night in Europe. He picked up a new pregame regimen as a result.
“I started drinking coffee,” he said. “I didn’t drink it before, but we start the game at 7:30 p.m. and it’s 1:30 a.m. back home. You kind of get sleepy. I drink it before every game, it’s kind of routine. I always take a latte. Here I like white chocolate mocha from Starbucks.”
Even though Teletovic learned English in school growing up, he was faced with new basketball vocabulary in the NBA. He estimates it took him two or three months to pick it up, a process he described as “really tough.”
“I think it’s really important to realize once you come to the United States,” he said, “it’s a big change in your life.”
Marcin Gortat, Poland
In order for Marcin Gortat to succeed in the NBA, he knew his toughness had to extend beyond the court. Moving to the United States, understanding a new system and spending time away from friends and family would be a test of his mental strength, one that he came ready to tackle.
“It’s just not easy,” Gortat said. “You have to be tough mentally. You have to have the right people around you and you need to have the right organization that is going to provide you with a lot of different things to help you.”
Gortat had a firm understanding of English when he joined the Orlando Magic in 2007. He admits he was one of the worst students in his English class growing up, prompting his mother to hire a tutor, which helped him earn top marks. He left Poland to play basketball in Germany at 18. Since he spoke more English than German, he became friends with the Americans on the team and enhanced his language skills.
He remembers having to learn “everything from a basketball standpoint through life” once he arrived. He credits his coaches and veteran teammates on the Magic as well as his mentors for easing the transition.
“I believe those people helped me to survive,” Gortat said.
Gortat encourages other international players to dive into the English language and not be afraid to laugh at themselves if they misuse a word. He remembers when he would mix up a sentence and people teased him, he laughed it off whereas others may close up and become hesitant to speak.
“I believe the first thing for an international player if he wants to succeed in the NBA is, you have to be able to speak in English and have a conversation with (your) teammates,” Gortat said. “I think there are a lot of talented players from Europe that stayed in the NBA for just a year or two because they couldn’t communicate with his teammates.”
Eight years later, Gortat’s mental toughness has helped him experience a lot of success.
Al Horford, Dominican Republic
Al Horford put his plans for the NBA in motion earlier than most. Horford grew up in the Dominican Republic with his mother while his father, former NBA player Tito, lived in the United States. He and his family decided Horford should move in with his father in Michigan and play high school basketball in the U.S. to improve his chances of a college scholarship.
“It was a huge help,” said Horford, who won back-to-back NCAA championships at the University of Florida. “I was very lucky. A lot of people don’t have family here or they have to do it a different way.”
Spending his teenage years in the United States allowed Horford to adjust to a new culture and learn English, which he spoke very little of when he moved. By the time he was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 2007, the transition to the pros was dramatically easier than if he had stayed in the Dominican Republic.
“I would say coming here (as a teenager) is an advantage, especially going to college and developing,” Horford said. “If not, you’re looking at maybe going to Europe and it would be a longer road to get here. I would recommend it, definitely.”
Andrea Bargnani, Italy
Unlike most players, Andrea Bargnani did not live in the United States when he came to the NBA. He was drafted first overall by the Toronto Raptors in 2006 and his league experiences began in Canada.
“I think I was pretty lucky because I went to Toronto,” Bargnani said. “Toronto’s a very metropolis, international city. You’ve got people from everywhere. There is a huge Italian community, so it wasn’t really a big transition. I was comfortable almost right away.”
Bargnani spoke “just a little” English as a rookie. He watched Italian movies with English subtitles as a starting point. He moved on to English movies with Italian subtitles, until eventually he watched them only in English.
He also picked up favorite phrases along the way.
“The English word I use the most is, ‘What’s up?’” he said. “Coming from Italy, that’s the one I didn’t know that people say every day. In Italy we say, ‘Come va?’”
Ricky Rubio, Spain
When Ricky Rubio came to the NBA, his job was to run the floor for the Minnesota Timberwolves. He had basketball down. The problem was, the point guard from Spain had trouble calling his plays.
“I spoke English but not perfectly,” Rubio said in Spanish. “That influenced the communication on the court. It was like an obstacle little by little I got over.”
Rubio became more comfortable by talking with his teammates on the bench and away from the game. While he had an English teacher his first year, he found the casual conversations to be more helpful.
Four seasons into his NBA playing career, he is at ease on the floor and remembers how far he came to get there.
“You’re going to another country with another language that you can’t understand and you can’t express 100 percent how you feel,” said Rubio. “It’s hard in the beginning when you’re by yourself out there, and then it gets easy when you have good teammates that help you.”
Gorgui Dieng, Senegal
Gorgui Dieng began his NBA pursuits as a teenager when he left Senegal for Huntington Prep School in West Virginia. The flight to the United States presented its own set of challenges — Dieng did not speak English and had to navigate his way through a layover with the help of airline attendants.
Once with his host family, he struggled being away from his own. Not only did he miss his relatives, he also yearned for the traditions he had grown up with, particularly when it came time to eat.
“People have family meals back home,” Dieng said. “They make time for it, have lunch, breakfast, dinner. The (family values) are different.”
Over time, Dieng became comfortable in his new settings. He now views those he lived with in a special regard.
“When you come here, they take care of you,” he said. “They helped me and that’s like your family.”
Patty Mills, Australia
Often times, learning English can be the biggest hurdle for an international player. Patty Mills, who grew up in Australia, encountered challenges with the same language.
“There’s still a language barrier,” he said. “There are a lot of things that we say differently.”
Mills attended college in the United States at Saint Mary’s College of California, viewing the move to the West Coast as a better pathway to the NBA. His accent, pronunciation and terminology made it difficult at times to communicate.
“‘Ketchup’ for example — we don’t call it ‘ketchup,’ we call it ‘tomato sauce,’” Mills said. “If you say tomato sauce to someone, first of all they don’t understand your accent so they don’t know what you’re saying. Even when you say ‘tomato,’ they can’t quite understand you. Although it’s English, there are a lot of things that you still struggle to understand.”
Mills had teammates from Australia on his college basketball team and they stuck together to navigate the cultural changes they encountered.
“It’s winter here for Christmas and Christmas in Australia is summer,” he said. “The food you eat for Christmas and Thanksgiving is different than home. We would have a cold seafood dinner compared to a hot dinner.”
Even though Mills has adapted to the U.S. lifestyle, he hasn’t lost his Australian accent. If someone has trouble figuring out what he is saying, he will continue to repeat it instead of changing his pronunciation.
“That’s just me remembering where I’m from,” he said, pausing and smiling. “I think at the end of the day it’s more fun to see if they understood what I was saying.”
Dennis Schroder, Germany
Dennis Schroder brought a piece of home with him when he moved from Germany to Atlanta last year. His older sister, Awa Secka, lived with him during his rookie season, adding a sense of comfort in a new environment.
“It helped me a lot,” Schroder said. “She did everything off the court for me. Every time I came home from practice, the food was done, she cleaned everything, washed everything. When I came back home I didn’t have to do anything and just rested. It was great for me that she was staying with me last year.”
Secka did far more than make Schroder his favorite dish of lamb chops. She also gave him an ear to listen as he went through the ups and downs of his first NBA season.
“If you’re by yourself, if you have problems, you can’t talk to your family,” he said. “It’s only on the phone, you can’t talk to a person. That was the biggest thing. I could concentrate on the court because she did everything else.”
While Secka has moved back to Germany, Schroder’s brother and his family recently moved into his home. Schroder hopes his mother and younger siblings will join him next season.
Instead of worrying about what he couldn’t talk about with his teammates, Nene focused on a mutual understanding when he left Brazil for the NBA in 2002.
“Basketball is a universal language,” Nene said. “I didn’t have a problem with that because when you know basketball, it’s easy. You know a couple words, but you don’t need to use weird words to pass the message.”
Nene, who took one English class as a rookie, found it was easier to pick up a new language by beginning with simple words and phrases in conversations.
His advice to international players entering the league is to stay humble and be prepared for a long road that doesn’t always start off smoothly but can turn out differently with dedication.
“Work hard, because the beginning is hard,” Nene urged. “But in the end, it’s not how you started but how you finish. If you work hard, you can maintain yourself in the league for years.”
Pero Antic, Macedonia
In retrospect, Pero Antic would have come to the NBA much sooner. Antic, who was born in Macedonia, left home at 16 years old to play basketball. He moved to Washington, D.C. for his junior year of high school and was recruited by Georgetown University, but opted to sign a multi-year deal to play Europe.
He turned down two offers to play in the NBA for larger contracts overseas. After a successful international career, however, he changed his mindset as he entered his 30s.
“I didn’t want to be the player that when I retired I said, ‘I had the chance (to play in the NBA) but I didn’t try,’” Antic reflected. “I like challenges.”
Last season, Antic was a 31-year-old rookie on the Atlanta Hawks. He jokingly noted he wasn’t the oldest player, thanks to Elton Brand and Kyle Korver, and praised his teammates for helping him transition smoothly. At 32, he is glad he made the move.
“Finally, I decided to make that step,” Antic said. “Looking now from this point, I needed to do this a long time ago.”
Victor Claver, Spain
Victor Claver found his biggest help by turning on the television. He first learned English in high school and improved it through English-speaking coaches and teammates in his native Spain. He could understand the language and wanted to improve on his pronunciation and delivery.
As part of the process, he began watching American shows such as “Modern Family” while living in Spain. When he joined the Portland Trail Blazers in 2012, he began watching more English shows with Spanish subtitles, including “Breaking Bad.”
Claver also hired a tutor to help him with conversational skills once a week in Portland. He wanted to expand his vocabulary so he could engage in more discussions.
“The hardest thing was learning all the short words because they sound very similar,” Claver explained. “All the one-(syllable) words and the ‘S’ sounds for Spanish people is very hard. The easiest part I think for us is to write or text because we have to time to think about what you want to say.”
Being able to communicate is a top priority for Claver. He appreciates the teammates who speak slowly so that he can still be involved.
“I think people have to understand that we do our best to adapt to another country and culture,” he said.
Timofey Mozgov, Russia
Timofey Mozgov had grown up and played his entire basketball career in Russia. When he signed with the New York Knicks in 2010, the 7’1 center faced a big challenge.
“I didn’t speak English at all,” he said. “I’m (still) going to be better in a few years.”
Mozgov tried a tutor, but it was difficult to balance with practices and games. He said it was “natural” to pick up the language by being around his teammates and hearing them speak it.
When he needed help, he turned to then-teammate Danilo Gallinari who he played with him on the Knicks and Denver Nuggets. Gallinari, from Italy, became his go-to.
“He talked with me the most,” Mozgov said. “ If I didn’t understand something, he explained it to me. He’s a good guy.”
While Mozgov still watches television shows in Russian, he wants to watch more in English. He continues to work on improving his speaking skills and believes expanding his vocabulary helps with the process.
“The more words you know, the easier it is,” he said. “I feel like I can understand people and people can understand me.”
Jonas Jerebko, Sweden
Jonas Jerebko was in a unique situation when he came to the NBA from Sweden in 2009 — his father is from Buffalo, New York. Jerebko grew up speaking English and transitioned smoothly into the American culture in spite of its differences from Sweden.
“People in Sweden are kind of more laid back and to themselves,” he said. “The American lifestyle is very open, so it’s not that hard for people to get used to. It’s just a change from what people are used to. It really is a free country when they say that, so it’s kind of easy.”
Jerebko had already been through one move by the time he was drafted by the Detroit Pistons. He found the adjustment of relocating from Sweden to Italy, where he had been playing professional basketball, more challenging than Italy to the U.S. There was one change from Italy that took Jerebko a brief time to get used to.
“In Italy the team takes care of your car, apartment, everything basically, food,” he explained. “Here, you get paid and you take care of yourself. That was the biggest difference, getting organized and doing all that. Other than that, the transition for me was easy.”
Ian Mahinmni, France
Ian Mahinmi had an instant connection when he was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs. He was teamed up with fellow France native Tony Parker, which eased his transition.
“He always took me under his wing and was like my big brother,” Mahinmi said. “That helped me a lot on and off the court.”
Mahinmi already spoke English when he came to the league and had picked up on NBA terminology from American teammates in France. He describes his adjustment to the United States as “cool, nothing hard.”
The biggest surprise he encountered was a new-found love for a cuisine he hadn’t anticipated thousands of miles away.
“Before I got to Texas, I wasn’t really a big fan of Mexican food,” he said. “I learned to really love it. I especially like tacos, a breakfast taco or burrito. Now I need my Mexican fix once a week.”
Furkan Aldemir, Turkey
Furkan Aldemir moved from Turkey to the United State two months ago and made his NBA debut with the Philadelphia 76ers on December 15, 2014. A week later, he was on a five-game West Coast road trip in a whirlwind introduction to a new country.
Aldemir had been drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2012, but he stayed overseas until he found a fit with the 76ers. He decided to terminate his contract with the club Galatasaray and pursue the NBA.
“We had some problems in Turkey and I didn’t see the future there,” Aldemir said. “This team is a young team and it was a good opportunity for me.”
Life has been racing for the 23-year-old power forward since arriving in the United States. He misses traditional Turkish food. The winter weather in Philadelphia has been a frigid change. On the court, he is learning a new style of basketball with little opportunity for practice in the thick of a regular season schedule
“It’s not easy because European basketball and the NBA are different — different rules, different system, everything,” Aldemir said. “My big problem (is) I cannot play with my teammates in practice because we cannot practice because of the games. I try to make unusual practices with the coaches, but it’s not easy to try to learn set plays.”
Prior to moving, Aldemir sought advice from his Turkish friends who had played in the NBA. He knew his first season would be a challenge, one that he is up to meet.
“They said it won’t be so easy,” he recalled. “But you will get used to it.”
A New Beginning for Malcolm Brogdon
When he signed with the Indiana Pacers, success wasn’t a guarantee for Malcolm Brogdon. But he bet on himself, taking on a larger role than any he saw in Milwaukee. Drew Maresca breaks down how Brogdon has faired in that decision thus far.
Leaving a franchise on the precipice of greatness is slightly unusual. When faced with the opportunity to leave such a team, some players are torn.
But others want more: an extensive role or greater challenge. While the ultimate goal is to win, that desire for more can push certain players out of their comfort zone and into a situation in which they can prove themselves capable.
That’s Malcolm Brogdon in a nutshell.
On the surface, the decision was likely an easy one. Not only has Brogdon stepped into a vital role, but he was paid handsomely to do so, as he earned a hefty four-year, $85 million raise after making a pittance in his first three seasons. And the fact that the Milwaukee Bucks likely couldn’t have come close to that number, given they re-signed Khris Middleton and must maintain flexibility for a Giannis Antetokounmpo mega-deal in the near future, almost certainly made it even easier for Brogdon.
But, in reality, such drastic change is never easy, no matter how well one is paid. It would have been easy to sit back in Milwaukee, to cling to a role he was familiar with and a team that he knew would be one of the best in the NBA. But Brogdon, instead, chose to bet on himself.
“It was a great situation for me in Milwaukee,” Brogdon recently told Basketball Insiders. “This was simply a better opportunity for me.”
Of course, that “better” opportunity is unfamiliar territory to Brogdon: a new city, a new coach, new teammates and a new system aren’t easy to grasp right away. And yet, Brogdon hasn’t missed a beat. On the contrary, rather, Brogdon has flourished in his short time with Indiana.
It may be just 12 games, but Brogdon, thus far, has averaged career-highs in minutes, points, assists and rebounds per game with 33, 19.2, 8.2 and 4.8, respectively. Milwaukee’s fourth leading scorer a season ago, Brogdon has paced Indiana in the scoring department in 2019-20. If it wasn’t obvious, he’s proven that is capable of that larger role he sought out, and may deserve even more responsibility.
While his scoring has been impressive, Brogdon may be at this best when creating for others. Time and time again, Brogdon has broken down opposing defense and set his teammates up for the easy bucket. While everyone has the occasional slip, Brogdon, more often than not, will make the right play, the play that puts his team in the best chance to win every possession.
In fact, while anyone wants to get their own, it was the opportunity to step into a playmaking role, the chance to create for others on a consistent basis, that made the Pacers such an appealing destination to Brogdon.
“[It was] huge, to come here and play point guard, lead guard,” Brogdon said. “I wanted that role.”
His 8.2 assists per game, compared to just 3.2 a season ago, represent a major step in the progression of Brogdon’s game. The 2018-19 Bucks, as many teams have in recent seasons, employed a point guard-by-committee approach; Brogdon, for the majority of the season, started alongside Eric Bledsoe, giving Milwaukee two competent ball handlers. But, with Antetokounmpo as the team’s primary everything, Brogdon was often held back in what he was able to do.
Indiana has since freed Brogdon from that confinement. And he has responded: as of this writing, Brogdon is fourth in the NBA in assists per game and ninth in total assists.
Not bad for the 36th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
The Pacers, as they stand, are still missing a major piece. Their biggest piece, even: Victor Oladipo, a player whose impact could shift not only the team’s makeup, but the Eastern Conference hierarchy as well. What could his return mean for Brogdon and his role, which may have expanded beyond what even he expected in Oladipo’s absence?
To summarize, he isn’t exactly worried. “Our personalities match . . . our styles of play match really well,” Brogdon said. “Vic is an NBA All-Star. He’s going to come back and establish himself and we’ll take it from there.”
While one might worry about Brogdon’s involvement upon Oladipo’s return, there are plenty of teams that similarly employ two talented dynamos: while their rosters differ, the Los Angeles Clippers (Paul George and Kawhi Leonard), the Houston Rockets, (James Harden and Russell Westbrook) and the Portland Trail Blazers (Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum) have found success with a similar makeup.
And, whatever his role may ultimately become, Brogdon should continue to see a greater usage than he did in Milwaukee. Last season, Brogdon averaged 28.6 minutes per game with just the sixth-highest usage rate on the team (20.7 percent), both a result of the Bucks’ depth and the presence of Antetokounmpo.
In contrast, Brogdon has set his aforementioned career-high in minutes played, 33, and has seen a usage rate of 27 percent through the start of the 2019-20 season.
Indiana bought Brogdon in because they know he can be a special player in this league. If the eventual goal is to win, and it always is, the Pacers know they would be best served using Oladipo (once he’s back up to speed, anyway) and Brogdon in a high-usage tandem, rather than one or the other.
So, until Oladipo’s return, Brogdon should continue to serve as their interim team leader. From there, he’ll be poised to step into a role that, while it may not prove as extensive as it is now, is far larger than any he served in Milwaukee.
Can Brogdon and the Pacers push for an NBA title? Or could they even do so before the Bucks? We may never know for certain, but it hasn’t always been about that for Brogdon. Ultimately, Brogdon wanted to prove to everyone that he’s a more-than-capable high-end player. Making the jump from Milwaukee to Indiana, Brogdon bet on himself.
And, so far, it would appear as if his gamble has paid off.
NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 11/22/2019
Douglas Farmer checks back in on the top second-unit players in the league with another edition of Basketball Insiders’ Sixth Man watch.
Just like any season-long award, health is crucial to remaining in the Sixth Man of the Year conversation. Even a slight ankle injury can halt a campaign, though Serge Ibaka’s inclusion a couple weeks ago was more nominal than anything. Similarly, missing five of the Detroit Pistons’ last eight games returns Derrick Rose to his usual status of spot contributor.
Unlike other season-long awards, though, success can halt a Sixth Man bid. At some point, that may befall a name below, but as long as a certain Charlotte Hornets guard stays out of the starting lineup more often than not, his breakout season will include a chance at this hardware.
Spencer Dinwiddie — Brooklyn Nets
While the Nets have stumbled to a 6-8 start, they are still in the playoff race and figure to improve upon their No. 7 standing as the team coalesces around Kyrie Irving. As Irving’s backup, Dinwiddie’s role may seem minimal, but with Irving currently sidelined by a shoulder injury, that has meant more time for Dinwiddie. He responded with 24, 28 and 20 points in Brooklyn’s last three games, raising his season average to 18.6 points with 5.1 assists per game.
If Irving ends up out longer than expected, and there is no reason to anticipate such, Dinwiddie’s starting role will damage his Sixth Man candidacy. If, however, Irving gets back into action after Dinwiddie has found a rhythm, it should mean more minutes for Dinwiddie the backup, burgeoning these chances.
Dwight Howard — Los Angeles Lakers
Yes, you read that correctly. No. 39, Dwight Howard. His numbers may be only middling — 6.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game — but he has been an undeniable part of the Lakers’ recent success. He has a +6.0 net rating, after all.
Howard’s fit this season will somehow be underrated, partly due to his lack of gross numbers. However, that is evidence of his fit. By accepting a secondary role — and if there was a tier after secondary but before bench, then that would be the role Howard is in — he has allowed the Lakers to hum along, easing Anthony Davis’ load when possible and giving Davis the spotlight when needed. Without Howard, the wear on Davis may simply be too much, especially given his lengthy injury history.
The Sixth Man of the Year is almost always a microwave scorer known for boosting his team’s offense (hey Ben Gordon, Eric Gordon, Jamal Crawford, Lou Williams), but Howard’s contribution betters the Lakers just as much, if not more.
Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers
Lou Williams sees this space’s concerns about his inefficient early-season shooting, and he laughs. Those were his closing minutes that helped power the Clippers to a three-point win against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, finishing 10-of-21 for 27 points. That was his 31-point, 9-assist night at New Orleans that almost carried Los Angeles to a shorthanded victory on Nov. 14. In the next game, he merely went 15-of-15 at the free-throw line to get to 25 points.
Along the way, Williams’ effective field goal percentage rose to 46.5 percent and his shooting percentage climbed to 42.1, right in line with his career figure. It may have taken Williams a few weeks to find his groove, but the three-time winner of this award is now averaging 22.5 points and 5.7 assists per game and should be considered a threat to win his fourth, barring injury.
Devonte’ Graham — Charlotte Hornets
At some point, the Hornets may have to admit they made a $57 million mistake in signing Terry Rozier to helm their offense. His 16.5 points and 4.5 assists per game are not paltry, but they pale in comparison to Graham’s 18.2 and 6.9. When it comes to shooting percentages, the argument skews even further in Graham’s direction.
Admitting that mistake will obviously be difficult; it could lead to three years of regret. Instead of moving Rozier to the second unit, Charlotte benched third-year guard Dwayne Bacon. Plugging Graham in for him has raised Graham’s average to 18.8 points. In the two games before the promotion from the bench, Graham dished out 10 assists in each, doing so again in this second game as a starter.
Graham has now started 5 of 15 games. If he remains a starter for the next five, he will be removed from these considerations. The second-year guard’s breakout may deprive him of hardware.
Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers
Harrell is not matching his aforementioned teammate’s scoring, but otherwise the big forward is the clear class of the Clippers’ stellar bench. Harrell averages 18.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 59.2 percent. Los Angeles could want little more from its high-energy big man in small lineups.
This is a distinct continuation of Harrell’s long-term growth. His points, rebounds and blocks per game numbers have ticked up every year of his five-year career, and his per-36 averages have tracked closely to linear progression. Thus, there should be every presumption Harrell will keep this up all season. Doing so on a title contender should land Harrell the Sixth Man of the Year.
NBA Daily: Chasing 40
Can James Harden outdo his last season and drop 40 points per game in 2019-20? History says he can. Drew Mays takes a deep dive into the numbers.
As of this writing, James Harden is averaging 38.4 points per game.
He’s within striking distance of 40 – a number that would put him in the most rarified of air, joining Wilt Chamberlain as the only other player in NBA history to accomplish this feat.
Of course, Wilt averaged over 40 twice – 50.4 in 1961-62 and 44.8 in 1962-63. Harden has played 14 games. There’s a long way to go. But with each passing night, 40 looks more and more in reach.
And why not? He put up 36.1 per contest across 78 games last year. His partitioned game is like a filing system: Put threes there, rim attempts here and free throws in the back. Who says he can’t make one more three and one more free throw per game? He even started this year “slow,” getting 19 and 29 his first two out.
Since those two games, he’s scored under 30 twice. The other 11 games he’s been above 36. Even in today’s game, that’s unheard of – well, unless you’re James Harden.
Only two modern comparisons exist for what Harden’s doing the last 13 months: Michael Jordan in 1986-87 and Kobe Bryant in 2005-06. Jordan averaged 37.1. Kobe averaged 35.4 (for extra points, Rick Barry joins these four in the top-10 scoring seasons of all-time with 35.6 in 1966-67).
This year, Harden has a chance to go supernova — to really pass the Kobe season and to pass Jordan.
On any level, scoring points in the NBA is hard. But scoring at the rate these guys did requires two factors to blend seamlessly into a third. Talent has to meet opportunity in the right era. This equation was true of Wilt’s 50 and 44 seasons, and Jordan and Kobe’s 37 and 35, respectively.
It’s true of Harden’s 2019-20. And he might average 40 because of it.
Kobe, Jordan and Wilt are third, fifth, and seventh in scoring all-time. It’s no surprise they had outlier seasons (though Jordan went for 35 per game the year following 37.1). Harden is currently 55th, but will move into the top 35 or so by year’s end. There’s a good chance he breaks 30,000 career points in the next five years.
The truth is, Harden is as good of a scorer as they were. And he may even be better. Any argument to the contrary isn’t rooted in statistics or results – it’s rooted in a bias against Harden’s ways, or a distorted, reminiscent view of the past. A common refrain against Harden is that his scoring is a product of flopping and free throws – that without that, he wouldn’t be as effective.
Here’s Harden in 2012, still a member of the Thunder.
That looks pretty similar to what he does now — the paced attack; the ball-out, arms-locked attack to incite fouls; the strength to finish anyway.
And here he is the following season, his first as a Rocket.
Copy and paste that into game film from today, and no one notices the difference.
He’s been doing this his whole career…he’s just leveraged his ability with opportunity in the right era to become the most dominant isolation player of the last decade.
Opportunity arises in part because of talent. It’s also borne of team and organizational needs. When Jordan scored 37.1, he was coming off a broken foot and an 18-game season. The 1986-87 campaign saw the Bulls go 40-42, with only three players scoring over 10 per game. Charles Oakley and John Paxson joined Jordan in double figures, with the fourth-highest scorer being Gene Banks at 9.7. Only 8 of the 17 players from ‘86-87 returned the following year.
Charles Oakley scored 9.7 points per game for his career. Paxson scored 7.2. Those were Chicago’s second and third options – with Jordan’s skill level, he had one of the greatest opportunities of all time to put up huge numbers.
In 2005-06, the proud Los Angeles Lakers were on the heels of a 34-48 record and missed the postseason in their first year after Shaquille O’Neal. They entered ’05-06 with Lamar Odom as the only player outside Kobe able to create offense (To our frustration, Smush Parker was as disappointing as we remember him.).
Kobe was all LA had – he obliged by taking 27 shots per game and leading the league in scoring.
Generational, ball-dominant perimeter talents anchoring otherwise average to below-average rosters equal the recipe for lots and lots of points.
That’s where Harden has found himself in Houston, this year more than ever.
Since the now-infamous Thunder deal, Harden is averaging 29 points per game. He’s on his way to his third straight 30-point-per-game season, and second above 35. His numbers have continued to climb not only due to individual improvement, but also within his permanent place as the unquestioned center of the offense. This is the collection of point guards Harden’s seen during his Houston tenure:
Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Aaron Brooks, Ty Lawson, Chris Paul.
The latter four were far from central playmakers – Paul was the only other star Harden’s joined forces with, and even he declined significantly last season. Sidenote: We’re also not counting the failed Dwight Howard experiment. While other teams were doubling and tripling down on star-laden rosters, Harden was primarily left as the single-engine to the Rockets’ vehicle. He had no choice but to make all the decisions.
This becomes even more true with Paul gone. Paul and Harden have similar styles in that they both control the ball. Consequently, even with the two often playing staggered minutes, Harden’s opportunities decreased. Paul took some of the slowed-down possessions away from him.
The fit with Russell Westbrook, however, is more complementary. Westbrook has Houston playing at the fastest pace in the NBA. He gets it and goes. When he doesn’t have it in transition, he pulls back and gives it to Harden. Harden isn’t losing those prodding isolation possessions anymore.
As Harden has improved year-by-year, he’s done it amid a changing NBA. His rise has coincided with the three-point boom – and it’s led to the possibility of a 40-point-per-game season.
In 1986, Michael Jordan was doing things on a basketball court that few had ever seen.
The ability to leap and hang in the air wasn’t common then. The clip below encapsulates Jordan’s 37.1 ppg season:
Look at that spacing! Jordan clunkily misses a jumper over a double-team, gets the ball back and makes a play at the basket. He scored because he was more athletic than everyone else. That’s not an indictment on Jordan, and he didn’t only score this way – he was skilled this early in his career, too. But the athleticism was the predominant thing. Just check out this clip from 1988:
(1988) Jordan breaks out a wrap around dribble to his same hand and the commentators go crazy.
"I can't explain what he just did." pic.twitter.com/iv2KSTKLRK
— Timeless Sports (@timelesssports_) August 14, 2019
You’d have thought MJ was a Salem Witch the way the announcers reacted to a behind-the-back dribble. Imagine if they saw Kyrie back then!
Jordan was unparalleled in talent over the history of the NBA; this was especially true, athletically, in 1986. That, along with the state of the Bulls’ roster, mightily contributed to his single-season top-five scoring average.
Kobe Bryant took 2,173 shots in 2005-06. Of those, 1,655 were two-pointers. And of those two-pointers, 1,041 were taken between 10 feet and the three-point line. Kobe took 27 shots per game and 13 of them were long twos. Think about that: Kobe spent an entire NBA season not only shooting 27 times a night, but taking the least efficient shot in basketball nearly half the time.
(Quick aside: Jordan took 27.8 shots per game in ’86-87. Wilt took 34.6 shots per game in his 44-point season and 39.5 shots per game in his 50-point season. So, when Harden scores 49 on 41 shots as he did in Minnesota last week, please don’t complain while standing up for the other three.)
The league’s climate in ’05-06 was perfect for Bryant to hoist an inordinate amount of mid-range shots. 79.8 percent of the league’s field goal attempts came from two-point range, compared to 62.5 percent this year — Harden’s Rockets are at 49.4 percent. Kobe’s greatest strength was the NBA’s most popular shot, and he took advantage.
That brings us to Harden. If Harden followed Steph Curry’s lead and broke basketball last season, he’s slammed into a million pieces in 2019-20.
Harden set a record last year by attempting 1,028 threes, making up over half of his total field goal attempts. That averages out to 13.2 per night – and most of those were unassisted. His shooting percentage of 61.6 was otherworldly, considering the difficulty of his looks.
Now, he’s back for an encore.
His shot chart is more categorized than ever. 56 percent of his attempts are threes, up slightly from last season. 21 percent come at the rim, and almost 20 come from 3-10 feet – and if you watch, most in the 3-10 range are short floaters. Only 2.9 percent of Harden’s looks are between 10 feet and the three-point line.
He’s taking 13.9 three-point attempts per game. Before last night’s loss in Denver, he’d already taken 200 threes!
His total shot attempts per game are at 25.4 (lower than Wilt, Jordan and Kobe during their historic seasons) and he’s taking 14.5 free throws per game. If you threw twos out the window, Harden would get you 28 points on threes and free throws alone!
The free throw rate should slightly regress. He took 11 per game last year and should stay in that 11-12 range. But his shooting percentages are down; he’s shooting 42.5 from the field and 34 from three, about two percentage points lower than his Houston norms. Assuming those tick back up, there’s no reason to believe he can’t add a few points per game to break 40.
Averaging 40 is next to impossible. Only one person has ever done it – and he did it towering over the league, on 39.5 and 34.6 shots each night, at a breakneck pace. Jordan, Kobe and Harden are the only players in the last 30 years or so to even sniff it.
Harden is at the peak of his powers. He plays with a team that relies on him to be the offense and a star running mate whose game doesn’t clash with his. He’s reached the heights of his game at the summit of the three-ball movement, where shot distribution and efficiency are king.
He still has to prove it can work in the playoffs. And even if he can’t, maybe that’s okay. Maybe, among the detractors whining about his style, complaining about his methods, we should enjoy this for what it is: an all-time scorer tearing through the league.
Jordan had a funny quote about his 37.1-point season that went something like this: It was hard, because he’d score 32 one night and then realize, man, I have to get 42 tomorrow to stay on track.
Harden had 27 last night. He’d need 53 Friday to keep the pace.
It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it that way. Still, it seems unwise to bet against him.