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Bob Ryan

International players have made a world of difference in the NBA

Denver's Nikola Jokic, a Serbian, has won the last two NBA MVP awards.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Remember Georgi Glouchkov?

Probably not. But he was a prime conversational curiosity during the 1985-86 NBA season. Glouchkov was a 6-foot-8-inch Phoenix Suns rookie forward from Tryavna, Bulgaria. OK, so where did he go to college? The answer was that he didn’t.

He was a 100 percent European-bred prospect trying to make it in the world’s best basketball league. No one had ever heard of such a thing. We writers all wanted to do this borderline-crazy story. I know I surely did.

In 772 minutes of play (49 games), Glouchkov averaged 4.9 points and 3.3 rebounds a game while shooting 40.2 percent from the floor. And that was it. He never played in the NBA again, and he remains the sole Bulgarian ever to suit up in the league. One thing he can do is brag to the grandchildren that he retired as a 1.000 percent 3-point shooter, having made his only attempt.

Let the record show that German-born Detlef Schrempf also began his distinguished NBA career that season. But he had spent his senior year of high school in Centralia, Wash., prior to a sparkling career at the University of Washington. In the eyes of the NBA, and the American basketball public, he had been sufficiently Americanized.

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Wow, have we come a long way. NBA teams began the 2022-23 season with 120 players born outside the United States, hailing from six continents. (Hey, Antarctica, get with it!)

As was the case with Schrempf almost four decades ago, many of the foreign-born players honed their craft in America before entering the NBA. Gonzaga, for example, has risen to prominence during the past 20 years by recruiting all over the globe. The big rise over the past four decades has been in rosters populated by players who came directly to the NBA without the benefit of any American experience.

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Start with the fact that we have successive back-to-back NBA Most Valuable Players from Greece (Giannis Antetokounmpo) and Serbia (Nikola Jokic). No one could argue either man’s place on any list of top-five current NBA players, nor could anyone dispute the inclusion of Slovenian Luka Doncic on such a tally. None of these gentlemen had set foot on an American high school or college campus before entering the NBA.

We all know that Major League Baseball would be severely diminished without its endless list of great Latin American players. The NBA of the last 30 years likewise would have been a lesser competitive entity absent its great international contributors.

Think about it: Hakeem Olajuwon. Dikembe Mutombo. Arvydas Sabonis. Yao Ming. Tony Parker. Manu Ginobili. Pau Gasol. Sarunas Marciulionis. And, sadly, Drazen Petrovic, who died in a car crash at age 28 following a season scoring 22 points a game for the Nets.

The aforementioned Schrempf, Olajuwon (Houston), and Mutombo (Georgetown) played college ball here, but none of the others did.

Dirk Nowitzki played 21 seasons with Dallas, leading the Mavericks to the NBA championship in 2011. Ronald Martinez

And let us not forget the greatest European-born player of them all, Dirk Nowitzki. He came directly from Germany without passing Go, collecting the $200, or playing pre-NBA basketball in America.

You can’t really imagine the current NBA without the international players. You start with Messrs. Antetokounmpo, Jokic, and Doncic. Utah’s Lauri Markkanen is clearly the best player ever to come out of Finland. The same can be said for San Antonio’s Jakob Poeltl and Austria. Atlanta’s Clint Capela and Switzerland makes three. Oops, almost forgot Philadelphia’s loquacious Joel Embiid (Cameroon).

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Once upon a time, Canada gave us Hall of Famer Steve Nash. Now we have Oklahoma City’s rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who did his time for John Calipari at Kentucky before coming into the league. New York’s R.J. Barrett is another Canadian-born star in the making.

Europe continues to be a breeding ground for big men, both new- and old-fashioned. Hence we have the Pelicans’ Jonas Valanciunas (Lithuania), the Bulls’ Nikola Vucevic (Montenegro), the Clippers’ Ivica Zubac (Croatia), the Trail Blazers’ Jusuf Nurkic (Bosnia), and the Timberwolves’ Rudy Gobert (France).

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a rising star with the Oklahoma City Thunder.Nick Wass/Associated Press

Now I admit you go to the head of the class if you know the difference between the Bogdanovic boys, who are not related. Bojan is a 33-year-old Croatian. He is a career 15-points-a-game scorer now playing for the Pistons, his fifth team. Bogdan is a 6-5 30-year-old Serbian and career 14-points-per-game career scorer who started out with Sacramento and is now with Atlanta.

We have reached the point for the first prominent father-son story. Sacramento’s Domantas Sabonis is the son of Hall of Famer Arvydas. The father was a forerunner of the modern big guys in that, at 7-3 or so, he was a superb passer who could both post up and hit a three in your face. The 6-11 son puts on a nightly forward clinic.

And in case you haven’t heard, the Second Coming is on the way. The name is Victor Wembanyama. He’s 18. He’s French. He’s 7-2/3/4? (He’s very big, OK?) He shoots threes. He passes. They all want him. No college for him.

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My goodness. What Georgi Glouchkov hath wrought!?


Bob Ryan can be reached at robert.ryan@globe.com.