Remember the days when foreign players in the NBA were labeled "soft" until proven otherwise? And how it seemed American players took delight in serving as quality-control inspectors, sometimes even if they were teammates? (Example: Michael Jordan and Toni Kukoc.)
The basketball imports all too often were the exact opposite of the luxury cars flooding the U.S. market—not particularly fast or powerful. They couldn't handle contact going to the rim and didn't like to grind defensively. Or at least that's how they were viewed until they proved otherwise.
Whatever happened to those days?
Look around at the current rosters. Enes Kanter. Jonas Valanciunas. Marcin Gortat, if not Nene. Omer Asik. Nikola Pekovic. Nikola Vucevic. Andrew Bogut. Timofey Mozgov. Serge Ibaka. Or if not Ibaka, Steven Adams. Zaza Pachulia, if not Al Horford. The most rugged players on nearly half the teams in the league were all born elsewhere.
Peruse the list of 101 international players—a record number—who started the season on an NBA roster, and there are no more than a dozen who would be categorized as purely finesse players. Percentage-wise, the subset of NBA players most comfortable with getting down and dirty is the foreign one.
How did this happen?
As with most transformations, there are a host of contributing factors. Let's break them down, starting with the accuracy of that original description. For every Predrag Danilovic or Nikoloz Tskitishvili, who got a taste of the NBA and decided they'd be better off back across the pond, there was a Sarunas Marciulionis or Arvydas Sabonis, who not only could handle the game's physicality but thrived on it. But there were always enough washouts for the perception to hold: Most Euros aren't built for the NBA game.
"I don't think the players were ever soft," said one Eastern Conference executive. "It was that the NBA was so superior. Now the separation isn't as great."
That brings us to…
Changes in rules and rule interpretations have swung the NBA game from an isolation and big-man-on-the-block game to a ball-movement drive-and-kick one. Banging in the post is now a—forgive the term—foreign concept for some teams and players and, yes, young officials. The nuance of what is acceptable contact and what is too much is no longer universally understood.
Kobe Bryant wouldn't go so far as to say international players are more physical than U.S.-born players, but he has seen a sea change in how the world plays basketball compared to the NBA now.
"The World [Cup] and Olympics are more physical than a regular-season NBA game," he texted.
Eduardo Najera, one of what was then a record 14 international players taken in the 2000 draft, agrees. "When I was drafted it was a little tougher because every time you went to the paint you were going to be checked in the chest by the big guys," Najera said. "Kobe's right. The international game now is the way the NBA was when I came in. The NBA, being softer, has opened it up for a lot of European players to use their skills."
That wasn't the case 15 years ago. Back then, between arm-barring and hand-checking and gaining leverage with your legs to ride a player out of the post, a year in the weight room was a prerequisite for a player to be able to reach his favorite shooting spots on an NBA floor.
"They let more stuff go in their game now," said one Eastern Conference scout of foreign leagues. "A Euro guy being overly soft doesn't stand out as much in our game anymore. You don't have to be the guy who bounces up from a hard hit going to the basket because there are no more hard hits like that. Too many lawyers have got involved in the NBA game. They're afraid of something happening. That kind of intimidation, knocking a guy down going to the hoop, is hard to pull off now. Guys are getting thrown out of games for talking too much."
Thanks to Frederic Weis and Fran Vazquez, the perception that some foreign players might be afraid to enter the NBA arose. Weis, of course, is the 7'2" French center who Vince Carter literally leaped over and dunked on in the 2000 Olympics, a moment described by the French as "le dunk de la mort," or "the dunk of death." Weis had been drafted a year earlier by the Knicks with the 15th pick but never played in the NBA. Some believe whatever thoughts he had about coming over were replaced by thoughts of dying by dunk all over again.
The Orlando Magic wasted an even higher pick on Vazquez in 2005, taking the Spanish center at No. 11. He is still playing overseas and the Magic still hold his rights, but he never so much as showed up for a training camp.
"I went over to see him," the Eastern Conference scout said. "A [foreign-based] scout told me, 'He's never going to the NBA. It's not that important to him.' But not every scout was like that. You had some who were over there getting a cut of the money if a player was drafted. They've cleaned that up. Scouts are a little more honest."
NBA scouting departments not only have a better grasp of who to trust, they have a better sense of where to look for players capable of dealing with a new language, culture and climate on and off the court. "Scouting staffs have become more savvy at picking out the pockets in Europe where the guys may be tougher or figuring out who really wants to be here," the scout said. "The weeding-out process, as far as 'Does this guy really want to be in the NBA?', is better."
The economic crash overseas has helped as well. Some foreign players—and their agents—wanted to be drafted by an NBA team as much for the leverage it created to extract more money from their European team to stay. Greece, once a great market, has completely dried up because of that country's fiscal woes. China has taken up a considerable amount of slack, but it has paid former NBA players more handsomely than unknowns from Europe or anywhere else. Overall, there are far fewer clubs anywhere in Europe offering money that comes close to what the NBA can offer.
"The international players that came over here before had an option of going back in their hip pocket," the scout said. "If they were struggling or didn't like their role, they could always just bail. That helped lead to the softer image, too. That option isn't there for most of them the way it was."
U.S. Players Are Softer, Too
There are still a good number of NBA players who have had to escape tough environments in the U.S.; the difference is that if they show pro-caliber size and potential, they're being extricated from those surroundings earlier and earlier. "A kid coming up from a tough neighborhood today is not going through the same grind as Isiah Thomas did," said the scout, referring to the Pistons star who grew up on Chicago's rough West Side. "Those kids are being pulled away to a prep school. That wasn't available 15 years ago. That's commonplace now."
Thomas, of course, did make a 90-minute commute to a high school outside of Chicago, St. Joseph High (Westchester, Illinois), but he still lived in Chicago's North Lawndale. He also did not have an AAU team flying him around to tournaments, putting him in hotels and allowing him to eat in restaurants on a shoe company's dime.
For a talented U.S. player to replicate Isiah's experience, he'd have to move to know what that's like. To somewhere in Eastern Europe. You know, where they grow 'em tough.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.