LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – ‘Greek Freak’ Giannis Antetokounmpo ended the Milwaukee Bucks 50-year championship drought and Denver Nuggets’ big man Nikola Jokic of Serbia took home MVP honors as international players dominated headlines in the 2020-2021 NBA season.
The dynamic Antetokounmpo, who was born in Athens to Nigerian immigrant parents, delivered a 50-point masterpiece in Game Six of the Finals to capture the title nL1N2OX06Z that had eluded the Bucks for so long.
The feat was all the more impressive because it looked like his season was done when the towering twice league MVP hyper-extended his left knee in the conference finals.
But he bounced back from the injury and is now a legend in Sepolia, the run-down Athens neighborhood he grew up in. A giant mural of Giannis dunking a basketball is painted on the court where he and his brothers played and practised.
Giannis and brother Thanasis, who also plays on the Bucks, brought the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Greece during the off-season and were greeted by throngs of fans.
Jokic’s emergence as one of the league’s best big men led to a 200% jump in NBA viewership in his home country last season as his skilful passing and creative scoring made highlight reels on a nightly basis.
Jokic finished the 2020-21 season ranked in the top five in total points, rebounds and assists and led his team to the conference semi-finals.
A second-round pick selected 41st overall by Denver in the 2014 draft, Jokic became the lowest-drafted player to be named MVP with the exception of three-time MVP Moses Malone, who was not selected in the draft.
The previous lowest-drafted players to win the award were also internationals – Antetokounmpo and Canadian Steve Nash, both selected with the 15th overall pick in their respective drafts.
A record-tying three international players were named to the 2020-21 All-NBA First Team: Antetokounmpo, Jokic and Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic of Slovenia.
NBA rosters at the start of the 2021-22 season featured a record 121 international players from 40 countries, marking the eighth consecutive season opening-night rosters included at least 100 international players.
For the eighth consecutive year, Canada was the most represented country outside of the United States, followed by Australia, France and Germany, with seven players each. Nigeria, Serbia, Spain and Turkey each have five players.
“International players have had a profound impact on the NBA and the global growth of basketball for decades, but the level of international talent in the NBA today is at an all-time high,” NBA Head of International Development Troy Justice told Reuters.
All-Stars like Antetokounmpo, Jokic and Doncic plus Joel Embiid of Cameroon and Rudy Gobert of France have changed the way the game is played, Justice said.
“They’ve captivated fans around the world and inspired the next generation of young people from their home countries and beyond to play basketball and pursue their dreams,” he said.
(Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Ken Ferris)