The NBA is the most competitive basketball league in the world, making it difficult to stand out unless you’re a superstar player in a big market. It’s even harder to make a mark in the NBA as an international player. However, today’s NBA is the most international in history, with some of the league’s top players coming from overseas. Nikola Jokic winning the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for the second consecutive year has brought attention to the impact of international players on the league.
Although international players like Luka Dončić, Joel Embiid, and Rudy Gobert are household names, surprisingly few international players have taken home the NBA’s most coveted award. In the run-up to the MVP announcements, many fans bet on who they feel has the best chance of taking home the prize. Many sportsbooks offer free bets to new customers, allowing fans to place a wager on the NBA MVP, Finals MVP, and even the Finals winner. The smart money would have been on Jokic this year, but what about in the past?
Here we take a look at the international players who’ve won the NBA MVP award in years gone by.
How Many International Players Have Won the NBA MVP Award?
There are many stats to keep track of if you’re an NBA fan. Since the NBA instituted the MVP award in 1955, only six players born outside the continental United States have won the award. Only five have won the league’s most prestigious distinction if Tim Duncan (born in the US Virgin Islands) is left out. Winners of the MVP award join an exclusive club with very few international members. However, we expect that to change, given the influx of talented players from overseas.
Nikola Jokic (2020-21, 2021-2022)
Jokic was visiting his hometown in Sombor, Serbia, when he learned he’d won the NBA’s MVP award for the second year in a row. The Denver Nuggets flew to Sombor to surprise the player, who teared up when he learned the news. What’s surprising is the top three vote-getters in this year’s competition were foreign-born. Jokic’s win also marks the fourth consecutive year an international player has won the league’s award. His coach praised his performance this season, saying Jokic had consistently improved his game, had proven his doubters wrong, and was the best player on the floor.
This season the 27-year-old player averaged 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 7.9 assists without the team’s other top players, Jamal Murry (ACL injury) and Michael Porter Jr. (back injury). Even with those missing pieces, the center led his team to a 48-34 record. He now holds the distinction of being only the 13th player in NBA history to win back-to-back MVP awards.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (2018-19, 2019-20)
Before he led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first NBA Championship in 50 years in 2021, the NBA and fans knew Giannis Antetokounmpo was special. When he won the MVP award for the first time in 2018, he became the fifth international player to hold the honor. When he won the award again in 2019, he became the third international player to win it in back-to-back seasons.
Dirk Nowitzki (2006-07)
The year he won the NBA’s MVP award Dirk Nowitzki averaged 24.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 3.4 assists. After the German-born superstar was named MVP, he went on to win an NBA Championship with the Dallas Mavericks and was named the NBA Finals MVP. He has scored the sixth-most points in NBA history.
Steve Nash (2004-05, 2005-06)
Canadian Steve Nash was the first international player to win the back-to-back NBA MVP awards. When he won in 2004, he beat Shaquille O’Neal by only a few points. The second time he won, he beat some of the best players in basketball history to win the award, including LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, and Chauncey Billups.
Hakeem Olajuwon (1993-94)
Hakeem “the dream” Olajuwon was born in Nigeria and was the first overall pick in the 1984 draft. He quickly established himself as the league’s top two-way player, winning defensive player of the year during the 1993-1994 season. He averaged an impressive 27.3 points (shooting 52.8% from the floor), 11.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 3.7 blocks, and 1.6 steals for the Houston rockets when he won the MVP award.