When I found out that the NBA was going to play this year's Rising Stars game in a U.S. versus the World format, my first thought was that there was no way the World team could compete. The NHL used the international format for five years, and it was great in a league where European talent is ample and elite -- in hockey, they actually had the World play against North America, because the U.S. team would get destroyed if the Canadians played with the international side. But basketball? As much as it's become an international sport, it's still dominated by U.S.-born players, especially at the elite end of the spectrum.
Want proof? Look no further than the full rosters for the All Star game itself this season. Because of several injuries, 28 players were named 2015 All Stars. Of those there are only four international players: the Gasol brothers from Spain, Al Horford from the Dominican Republic and Dirk Nowitzki from Germany (the final addition to the roster and in some ways a lifetime achievement award as much as anything). Kyrie Irving was born in Australia and Tim Duncan was born in the Virgin Islands, but both have competed internationally for Team USA so one presumes they'd be on a U.S. team here. That's a 6-to-1 ratio of U.S. to the World in the big game, so you can see why my gut reaction was that this Rising Stars game would be a slaughter.
Instead it was the World team prevailing, 121-112. Of course in any single game, especially an exhibition, the final result is pretty random and meaningless. More telling is the composition of the rosters themselves.
With ten players on each side, it is the final few selections representing the U.S. that are most suspect. Robert Covington (a three point specialist on a terrible Sixers team)? Zach LaVine (a world of potential but 41% shooting for a terrible Minnesota team)? Compared to the last selection from the World team, Matthew Dellavedova who is playing significant minutes next to All Stars LeBron James and Irving in Cleveland, it's the U.S. team that looks contrived.
It doesn't help that so many U.S. rookies are (or have been) hurt this season. Jabari Parker, Aaron Gordon and Julius Randle (the second, fourth and seventh picks in the 2014 draft) are either out or have been out for much of the season. Then again, third pick Joel Embiid from Cameroon and last year's fifth pick Alex Len from Ukraine are also out.
The big question is, does this represent a broader trend in which the field of international players are truly catching up to the U.S. or is it a short term anomaly. It's worth noting that the U.S. is as dominant as ever, perhaps more so, in international competitions. That may be a different question though -- Argentina and Spain both had almost unimaginable collections of simultaneous talent that pushed those teams to incredibly competitive levels, but there does not appear to be anyone replacing Argentina's "Golden Generation" or Spain's Gasol-led cohort, at least not at the same level. The international talent pool can be (and almost certainly is) deeper but at the same time more spread out across the globe.
There are a couple of other factors that may contribute to the competitiveness of the World team in this sort of a game. First and foremost, a U.S. born rookie or second year player is, by and large, a one-and-done college player, somewhere around the age of 19 to 21. International rookies will include a few young phenoms (this one featured Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dante Exum), but will also include several seasoned pros who just happened to play in the European leagues before debuting in the NBA. World team members Nikola Mirotic (24), Kosta Papanikalaou (24) and Bojan Bogdanovic (25) were the proverbial men among boys in this game (Covington was the oldest U.S. player at 24).
It doesn't hurt the World team that Canada has begun producing players in the U.S. mold. Rising Stars MVP Andrew Wiggins is a product of U.S. basketball from his High School ball at a top prep school in West Virginia to his one-and-done season at Kansas -- but he happens to have been born in Toronto. (Speaking of which, Canada is probably the next Argentina on the international scene, having developed their own "Golden Generation" of basketball talent currently coming into its own.)
The best international players of the past have always tended to be very, very tall. There have been plenty of international centers in the NBA as compared to perimeter players, which makes sense from a supply and demand standpoint. If you think about it, a world class athlete growing up in Spain or Italy or Argentina is going to migrate towards the pitch or the clay courts before the blacktop, unless they're unusually tall and encouraged to play hoops. So it's the likes of Dennis Schroeder and Wiggins and Exum that are most interesting, if indeed there is a trend developing here.
In the end, I think the rosters for this game and the final result are more about a short term anomaly than a long term trend. Five years from now, I very much doubt that you'll see half or even a quarter of All Star Game and All NBA selections hailing from outside the United States. But the very fact that such a talented and deep roster of first and second year international players could be put together tells you something about the state of basketball outside the states.