While basketball isn’t quite as all-American a past time as baseball, there’s still no question that most people assume that NBA players are American. After all, that’s one of the reasons that the United States does so well in international competitions like the Olympics year after year – their roster is usually filled with NBA players. Plus, many of the players are outspoken about where they come from and how much that matters to them. I mean, just think of Lebron James and his strong ties to Cleveland, strong enough that he opted to eventually leave Miami to come play in his home state.
However, like in most sports, the NBA is bigger and better than most international leagues. That’s the reason that, if an international player is truly exemplary, they’ll usually come over to America to play in the NBA, while players who are struggling in the NBA are often sent to international teams to develop their skills a bit.
Given how culturally diverse the United States is, it can be tough to tell simply by their names who is a born American and who holds foreign citizenship and has just made the U.S. their home because they’re phenomenal at basketball. If you dig a little into various players throughout the league, though, you’ll find that there are actually far more international players than you might have assumed – including some that have been in the NBA for so long that most have totally forgotten they were originally from another country.
Here are 15 NBA players you didn’t know aren’t American.
15 Kyrie Irving (Australian)
Ever since entering the NBA in 2011 (as the prestigious first overall pick, no less), Kyrie Irving has been tearing up the courts for the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, unlike many of his superstar teammates, Irving actually isn’t American – at least, not technically. You see, though both his parents are American, Irving was actually born in Melbourne, Australia. His family moved to New Jersey when he was two years old, so he likely doesn’t have a ton of memories of his time down under, but he does have dual citizenship, so any Aussie vacations are probably no issue for Irving. Perhaps Aussie Matthew Dellavedova can give him a few Aussie tips if he ever wants to explore that part of his background a little more thoroughly – perhaps he could even test Irving’s Aussie roots by seeing if the basketball star is willing to eat the polarizing Vegemite or not.
14 Carlos Boozer (German)
Carlos Boozer certainly had an interesting upbringing before making it to the NBA. Though you might simply assume he’s American like the majority of his teammates, Boozer was actually a military brat who was born in Aschaffenburg, West Germany. His family eventually moved back to the United States, but picked Juneau, Alaska, of all places. However, Boozer didn’t let the chilly climate crush his basketball dreams – he practiced with his father despite the freezing Alaska weather. It paid off, as Boozer made it to the NBA in the 2002 Draft and had a career that stretched well over a decade, playing with teams the Cleveland Cavaliers, Utah Jazz, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Currently, Boozer is getting in touch with his international roots by playing with the Guangdong Southern Tigers in the Chinese Basketball Association. Perhaps eventually he’ll return to his birth place and play in beautiful Deutschland for a few seasons before he truly retires.
13 Matthew Dellavedova (Australian)
While he’s currently with the Milwaukee Bucks, you likely remember Matthew Dellavedova’s name from the announcer calling it constantly as he tore up the court with LeBron James during his time with the Cleveland Cavaliers. While Dellavedova seems like he could easily be an all-American boy from the Midwest, he’s actually originally from Australia and that’s where his talent was originally nurtured. He started playing basketball at a young age, eventually earned the attention of many around him and attended the Australian Institute of Sport for three years. Oh, and his two sisters also play basketball, so it clearly runs in the family. He eventually travelled to sunny California to play college basketball for St. Mary’s, and the rest is history – he went from going undrafted in 2013 to being on a team that won an NBA Championship in 2016, so his career is clearly on the rise. We have a feeling this isn’t the last you’ve seen of Dellavedova.
12 Luol Deng (Sudanese/British)
Los Angeles Lakers player Luol Deng has certainly had quite the journey to the NBA. The two-time NBA All-Star was born in Wau, Sudan and ended up moving with his family from Sudan to Egypt to escape civil war, before finally emigrating to London. Though basketball was on his radar growing up, he truly began to shine during his time at St. Mary’s RC High School in London. He got started at Brixton Basketball Club, played at the London Youth Games with the Croydon team, snagged an MVP award for his role with England in the European Junior National Tournament, and tested his skills on American soil playing basketball at New Jersey’s Blair Academy. Eventually, all Deng’s hard work and practice paid off and he was drafted into the NBA in 2004 and has since played with the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, and now Los Angeles Lakers – although he still represents Britain in international competitions.
11 Nicolas Batum (French)
Contrary to popular belief, Tony Parker isn’t the only Frenchman to make it big in the NBA – Nicolas Batum was also born in France, Lisieux in particular. Batum started competing at an early age, playing with France for the FIBA Europe Under-16 Championship back in 2004 and then competing once more in the Under-18 Championship (where he won MVP). Unlike many other international players, Batum didn’t opt to play college basketball at an American university – he just practiced on the French courts and in 2008 entered the NBA Draft. He started his NBA playing career with the Portland Trail Blazers, who he was with for over five years and has recently been playing with the Charlotte Hornets. Though he’s happy in the NBA right now, the French leagues are always an option for this international star – for example, during the 2011 lockout, he actually went to SLUC Nancy in the French Basketball League to play and keep his skills sharp while the NBA figured things out.
10 Steven Adams (New Zealander)
Again, like Russia and hockey, New Zealand is almost always associated with rugby thanks to the worldwide renown of teams like the All Blacks. However, it was the hoops that Adams’ sights were set on. He comes from a huge family – he’s actually the youngest of his father’s 18 children from various marriages – and athletic ability definitely runs in his genes. For example, his brother Sid plays in the New Zealand National Basketball League while his sister Valerie has won countless championships and Olympic gold medals for her skill at shot putt. In fact, it was one of his brothers that led him on the right direction. His brother Warren brought a young Steven Adams to live with him when he was a teenager, placing him in a local basketball academy, where the director saw promise in the young player and decided to send him to Scots College in New Zealand. He eventually played college ball in Pittsburgh before being drafted 12th overall in 2013 by the Oklahoma City Thunder.
9 Patty Mills (Australian)
Patrick “Patty” Mills has had quite the basketball career so far – and holds the distinction of being only the second Indigenous Australian to make it to the NBA, following in Nathan Jawai’s footsteps. The native Australian was a diverse athlete who grew up playing a variety of sports, but eventually realized he had a particular aptitude for basketball – he snagged a basketball scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport before playing college ball for Saint Mary’s College of California and eventually getting drafted in the 2009 Draft. Mills has played for the Portland Trail Blazers and is currently with the San Antonio Spurs, with whom he has a championship under his belt. He’s played for Australia countless times at international tournaments, both in his younger years and during his time in the NBA, so though he may be spending the majority of his time in the United States, don’t worry – Mills certainly hasn’t forgotten his roots.
8 Tony Parker (French/Belgian)
Although Tony Parker has been playing with the San Antonio Spurs long enough that he’s probably an honourary Texan, the well-known point guard isn’t actually American - he’s a Belgian-born Frenchman. Unlike many international players who ease the transition by playing at the college level in America before heading to the NBA, Parker stayed true to his international roots. He played in the French amateur leagues for two seasons when he was young, eventually signing with Paris Basket Racing in 1999 before the big league called and he was drafted in the 2001 Draft. Parker’s entire career has been with the Spurs, with whom he’s won a staggering four NBA Championships – in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014. Many also know him for his marriage to Hollywood starlet Eva Longoria, although that romance has since fizzled. Parker hasn’t indicated when he’s looking to retire yet, but we’re betting he’s trying to hold on long enough to snag a fifth championship – one ring for every finger.
7 Reggie Jackson (Italian)
Reggie Jackson had quite the jet-setting childhood. Though his parents are American, he was born in Pordenone, a town in northern Italy, while his father was serving at an air base nearby. Then, the Jackson family spent a bit of time across the pond in England, before finally returning to America. Jackson quickly got down to business, playing ball in high school, attending Boston College to play ball, and finally getting drafted in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jackson has stronger American roots now, having gotten his U.S. citizenship in 2008, but those jet-setting childhood years have likely had a strong impact on him. And let’s not forget the last great basketball player with ties to Italy – a Mr. Kobe Bryant – so that connection definitely bodes well for Jackson. Currently, Jackson is with the Detroit Pistons and though he hasn’t snagged a ton of awards thus far, he’s still a very young player with a ton of upside.
6 Al Horford (Dominican)
Many of the NBA players who aren’t American have parental ties to the league that likely encourages them to take a step away from the international leagues and go for gold in the NBA – Al Horford included. Horford’s father, Tito, played in the NBA for three years and Al definitely grew up loving basketball. He spent his childhood in the Dominican Republic, but when he reached high school, his family opted to move to Michigan, where he started playing basketball for his school team. He went on to the University of Florida to play college ball with the Gators and was drafted, impressively, as the third overall pick in 2007. He’s played with the Atlanta Hawks and, more recently, the Boston Celteics, although he continues to represent his home country as a member of their national team. Though he’s nearly a decade into his NBA career, we have a feeling he isn’t hanging up his uniform anytime soon.
5 Tristan Thompson (Canadian)
Many associate Canadian athletes with hockey and while there are certainly countless Canadians tearing up the NHL, it seems the NBA has received its fair share of Canadians – even though you might not know it. That includes Tristan Thompson. Thompson’s stock is on the rise, as he won his first NBA championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers just this year. Thompson, like many current Canadian NBAers, was born in Toronto and grew up in Ontario. He played basketball throughout his school years, eventually attending Saint Benedict’s Preparatory School in New Jersey and then playing college ball at University of Texas at Austin. Thompson is just five years into his NBA career, all of them spent with the Cleveland Cavaliers and shows no signs of slowing down. And honestly, with someone like LeBron James as a teammate, as well as the countless other talents on the Cavaliers, it makes sense that Thompson would be getting better with every year.
4 Cory Joseph (Canadian)
Playing for the Toronto Raptors is probably a dream come true for Cory Joseph and not just because they’re a phenomenal team – because they’re likely the team that Joseph grew up cheering for. You see, Joseph was born in Toronto and spend his childhood in Ontario. His parents were student athletes who both played basketball, so Joseph was hitting the hoops at a young age with mom and dad likely giving him tips to nail those three pointers. He went down to the University of Texas at Austin to play college ball as a Longhorn and his Texas love continued when the San Antonio Spurs drafted him in the 2011 Draft. Joseph played for the Spurs for several years before heading back north to Toronto in 2015 to play with his hometown team. It probably felt great for him to return to his childhood stomping grounds – although the four year, $30 million contract likely sweetened the deal quite a bit as well.
3 Andrew Wiggins (Canadian)
While the majority of international basketball stars in the NBA come from far-off countries where the national basketball leagues are slightly less competitive than the NBA, Andrew Wiggins didn’t have to travel far to get started on his NBA dream – he was just one country above, in Canada. Wiggins started developing his skills at a young age, with his father, former NBA player Mitchell Wiggins, likely training him. He eventually went to a basketball school in West Virginia before heading to play college ball at the University of Kansas. And, he certainly wasn’t going to let anyone overshadow him – when he was eligible to be drafted in the 2014 Draft, he was snagged in the prestigious first overall slot by the Cleveland Cavaliers. He snagged the Rookie of the Year award and is currently a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves. At just 21, Wiggins has done some incredible things and you’ll definitely be seeing a lot more out of this Canadian star.
2 Walter Tavares (Cape Verdean)
Walter Tavares holds the distinction of being the first and only Cape Verdean basketball player to be drafted in the NBA – and given the fact that he’s a staggering 7’3 with a huge wingspan, that’s not really surprising. Tavares is a bit of an oddball when it comes to the world of basketball – whereas most of his other teammates started playing ball when they were just kids, developing their skills early, Tavares actually didn’t play basketball until he was 17 – an age when many other current NBA stars were already tearing up the court in the amateur leagues. Despite his physique, he had a little bit of developing to do and after being drafted by the Atlanta Hawks, he bounced around to some of the lower league teams including the Bakersfield Jam and the Canton Charge. As of this season, the Atlanta Hawks waived Tavares, so it’s a big question mark what’s going to happen next in his career.
1 Alex Len (Ukrainian)
Alex Len sounds like a typical American name, but here’s a secret – Alex isn’t actually the basketball star’s name, it’s originally Oleksiy Len. You see, Len grew up in Ukraine and was a diverse athlete growing up, before he hit that height. His mother used to run track and encouraged him to participate in sports, so he tried his hand at gymnastics before eventually hitting the basketball court in his teenage years. He showed some aptitude for the sport, obviously, and ended up playing for the Ukrainian national team and eventually joining BC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in the Ukrainian Basketball SuperLeague for one season. However, Len wanted to show his skills outside of his native Ukraine and went to college at the University of Maryland, where he played for the school team. He threw his hat in the ring for the 2013 NBA Draft and while many thought the Ukrainian phenom might be the number one pick, an ankle injury ended up pushing him down the list, where he was snagged by the Phoenix Suns as fifth overall.