Basketball fans may have noticed in recent years that the NBA has become progressively more international. It’s not that the league hasn’t often had good international players; there just seem to be more of them who make very meaningful contributions of late. A league that once seemed almost exclusive to the United States, in its way, now seems decidedly more international.
Within this transition, the Caribbean has gained a significant foothold in the NBA. This was actually pointed out recently by the celebrated writer and cultural commentator Malcolm Gladwell, albeit as part of a completely ridiculous theory.
Gladwell went on the popular Bill Simmons Podcast to discuss his theory that Nigeria could claim the best basketball team in the world, and justified the idea by essentially claiming any player with even a remote ancestral connection to Nigeria (and eventually, as his theory loosened, all of sub-Saharan Africa).
Specific theory aside, Gladwell wound up pointing out the almost surprisingly rich recent history of Caribbean players in the NBA, which got us thinking about some of the true standouts from the region. And though it still isn’t too long, the list is impressive.
Al Horford – Born in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic
Al Horford, currently of the Boston Celtics, has been one of the most consistently successful basketball players in America over the last 12 years or so. He burst onto the scene as the starting center for a University of Florida team that won back-to-back NCAA Championships, and soon thereafter became a regular rotation player and then a star in the NBA.
His Atlanta Hawks teams were consistently among the winningest in the NBA, and he is now the key veteran role player on a Boston Celtics team expected to compete for the NBA Championship this year and in the next few.
JJ Barea – Born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico
JJ Barea has had a remarkable basketball career, not because he’s quite on the talent level of the other players mentioned here, but specifically because he’s accomplished so much without any kind of unusual talent.
Barea is taller than some believe (he’s listed at 6’0’’), but still small by today’s NBA standards. He’s athletic and quick, but largely incapable of surprising or overwhelming other NBA players physically. Yet year after year he proves to be an incredibly capable player, able to score points quickly off the bench and run an offense with an inherent sense of what to do and when to do it.
Barea was initially undrafted in the 2006 NBA Draft following a career at Northeastern University, but wound up working his way into the league where he’s mostly played for the Dallas Mavericks, winning a title with the team in 2011.
Buddy Hield – Born in Freeport, Bahamas
Buddy Hield has always been a popular player in front of American audiences. He was a four-year player at Oklahoma University and was a superstar and Wooden Award winner (for the best player in the NCAA) in 2015-16.
He then became the rare college senior to be drafted in the top-10 of the NBA Draft, landing with the New Orleans Pelicans before being traded to the Sacramento Kings – where he’s now having something of an emergence. Interestingly enough, his fellow Kings guard De’Aaron Fox is leading the charge for Most Improved Player this season, but Hield is in the mix as well. He’s become a rock solid starting shooting guard with a bright future in the league.
Karl-Anthony Towns – Mother from Dominican Republic
Karl-Anthony Towns has been a star since his high school days, when he was sometimes compared to NBA legend Tim Duncan – who, incidentally, hails from the Caribbean. Towns went to the University of Kentucky and helped lead the Wildcats to an undefeated regular season, which continued all the way to the NCAA Final Four before Kentucky was defeated by Wisconsin.
Towns was then the top overall pick in the NBA Draft in 2015, and is in the early stages of his career with the Minnesota Timberwolves. While he’s had some growing pains and his team has experienced some turmoil, Towns helped end a decade-plus playoff drought in Minnesota last season, and figures to be in the mix again this year. There are many in NBA analyst and fan circles who expect him to become one of the best players in the world.
Klay Thompson – Father from Bahamas
Klay Thompson (who was ludicrously claimed for the Nigeria team by Gladwell) is half Bahamian by blood, just as Towns is half Dominican. From Los Angeles himself, Thompson spent three seasons at Washington State before leaving for the NBA, where he was picked to play with the Golden State Warriors.
The early years of his career were promising but not extraordinary. However, a few years in, something clicked and he and fellow guard Stephen Curry became the most exciting duo in the NBA. They have now won three championships together, and while Curry is regarded as the best shooter of all time, Thompson is climbing up that list as well.
Just this season he broke a record for three pointers in a game, and the greatest testament to the show that he and Curry put on is that when he did it, the immediate commentary consisted of people simply wondering when one of them would break the new record.