LONDON — Maybe it’s the cevapi, or the souvlaki, or the mbanga soup.
Whatever it is, there’s no denying the tinge of international flavor when it comes to the NBA elite with Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic about to become the league’s MVP for a second consecutive season, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press. The MVP has not been publicly announced by the league.
This will be the fourth consecutive year that a foreign-born player has been crowned MVP, another first for the NBA.
The Serbian big man beat out two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece and the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia center Joel Embiid of Cameroon to mark another first — never before have the top three in MVP voting all been internationals.
The NBA playoffs are loaded with international talent, including Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, the 2019 rookie of the year and EuroLeague champion from Slovenia.
The influx of international talent was former Commissioner David Stern’s vision. He saw the NBA as a global entity and insisted the league be a driving force in growing the game internationally.
“It’s David Stern’s dream,” Philadelphia Coach Doc Rivers said. “Everybody else is good. It’s a world game. It’s no longer just ‘us,’ whatever us means. It’s a world game and that’s a good thing.”
The ripple of effect of international players extends well beyond the U.S.
For the basketball-mad countries of Serbia and Greece, the success of Jokic and Antetokounmpo means bragging rights. Antetokounmpo won back-to-back MVP awards (2018-19, 19-20), and now the pride of Sombor, Serbia, has matched him.
“We are a country of basketball. This is more proof that we are the best,” said Marko Cosic, who trained a teenage Jokic as strength and conditioning coach at Belgrade club Mega. “It is not easy for a country like Serbia with 7 million people to compete with the rest of the world.”
Cosic, now a professor at the University of Belgrade, said Jokic’s style of play “is really poetry. .. he’s an artist.” The 27-year-old Jokic averaged 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists in the regular season.
Across NBA Europe’s social media channels, content featuring Antetokounmpo performs 100% better than the average post, according to the NBA. Jokic content does 10% better than average.
Subscriber growth for NBA League Pass shows a 17% increase in Serbia, 14% in Slovenia and 9% in Greece this season over last season. It was up 40% in Africa as a whole, though the NBA does not release its total number of subscribers.
The league has scheduled the Bucks and Atlanta Hawks to play two preseason matchups at Abu Dhabi in October, marking the NBA’s first games in the United Arab Emirates and the Arabian Gulf.
It’s impossible to overestimate the impact Antetokounmpo has had on Greece, both as a player and a person. He was born to immigrant Nigerian parents and only acquired a Greek passport shortly before being drafted in 2013.
“Giannis is a hero. He’s a good image of Greece. He’s an ambassador of Greece worldwide,” said Vassilis Skountis, a broadcaster for NBA games on Cosmote TV.
In Greek sports media, there’s soccer, basketball and Giannis.
Yes, Antetokounmpo basically is his own category of news. There’s live coverage of games, no matter the hour in Greece, and analysis of his performances.
Parents love him, kids want to be like him.
“He’s Greek, he’s very spectacular, he’s very strong, he dunks, he wins championships, he’s playing with the national team,” Skountis said. “The kids here in Greece, everybody wants to be like Giannis.”
In Cameroon and around Africa, where soccer dominates, Embiid is a budding role model, as is Antetokounmpo.
“These kids coming from abroad … they end up working twice as hard,” said Joe Touomou, associate technical director at NBA Academy Africa. “When it’s time to compete, you see the result of that hard work. That’s why you see those three foreign guys at the top.”