Raptors without borders: Toronto’s significant international roster helps put Canada’s team on the map

Photo Credit: Japan Basketball Association

The NBA is arguably the top sports league in popular culture right now, especially in the United States.

From streetball to the pros, Americans have always dominated on the basketball court, which has been on display in almost every Olympic Games since basketball entered the Olympiads. Non-American-born basketball players have been in the league for ages now, but only a handful of those who played before the start of the 21st century have had All-Star-like success.

But there’s a new wave of international players who are changing the way NBA coaches evaluate players before the draft. Coaches, scouts and player agents have been flying out of the U.S. and even North America more and more to find their next batch of talent in recent years.

The 2020-21 All-NBA First Team was mostly international players — the first time in league history where the First Team wasn’t at least 50% American.

With the rise of Luca Dončić and Giannis Antetokounmpo, along with the lasting legacies of Hakeem Olajuwon and Yao Ming, the NBA should be taking a longer look at what the rest of the world is doing on the court — the Toronto Raptors have already been doing their homework.

Toronto has nine non-American players on their roster — the highest number of international players in the league since the Washington Wizards had seven last season.

Khem Birch and 2021 second-round pick Dalano Banton are both from Canada, Pascal Siakam and Precious Achiuwa were born in Africa — Siakam in Cameroon and Achiuwa in Nigeria — OG Anunoby comes from the United Kingdom, Chris Boucher was born in St. Lucia before immigrating to Montreal, Yuta Watanabe is from Japan and both Goran Dragić and Isaac Bonga are European — Dragić is from Slovenia and Bonga is from Germany.

Although he’s technically an American, Ishmail Wainright was signed by the Raptors in free agency after playing three years in France.

Siakam and Anunoby are the two focal points in this list but the others aren’t too far behind in regard to production.

Boucher has doubled his scoring average each year since getting to Toronto in 2018-19 and is starting to become a silent leader on the team — not unlike Anunoby. He was also voted 10th for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award last season.

Achiuwa was a pleasant surprise during the 2021 Summer League after coming to the Raptors in the sign-and-trade that sent Kyle Lowry to the Miami Heat. The new Raptor also shined for Nigeria in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

The Raptors are also the only team outside of the U.S., which could make non-Americans more comfortable to come to in the free agency. Toronto isn’t exactly a favoured vacation destination, but its location above the border and below the 49th parallel could be advantageous for this new wave of athletes and the Raptors front office trying to get them there.

There is a steady rise in international ballers in the league today, and pretty soon, Americans may not be the historical powerhouse they are now.

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