What kind of influence can we expect from NBA players competing in this summer’s FIBA Basketball World Cup on the 2023-24 NBA season?
After representing their countries in international play, what happens to players is inevitably connected to that experience. That can be a good thing, as seen by Kevin Durant’s breakout as a playoff superstar after guiding the United States to victory in the 2010 World Championship (now known as the World Cup) at the age of 21.
On the other hand, when players have an injury-plagued NBA season, it might be attributed to the exhaustion of playing extra games throughout the summer. Both theories are susceptible to confirmation bias because prominent cases are far easier to recall than players who repeat the same NBA season after overseas play.
We looked back at players who competed in significant World Cup and Olympic games dating back to 2010 to grasp better the influence foreign events have on NBA performance. Let’s see what the findings reveal about Luka Doncic, Anthony Edwards, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and the other stars who competed in the 2023 FIBA World Cup.
Concerns about injuries?
It’s true: Players miss more games due to injury after competing in a significant international competition than the previous year. Since 2010, the average number of games missed due to injury after international play for the 213 NBA players who saw at least 250 minutes of action in the season before the World Cup or Olympics and returned to play at least 250 minutes the following season is 10.4 compared to 8.7 the previous season.
Before we draw any conclusions regarding the impact of the increased workload, it’s vital to note an essential factor: healthy players are significantly more likely to be selected for their national teams, especially given the USA’s huge talent pool.
During this time, just one U.S. player lost more than 31 games due to injury the season before being selected: Derrick Rose on the 2014 World Cup team. He participated in the tournament after missing the final 72 games of the 2013-14 season due to meniscus surgery.
As a result, freak injuries like Kevin Love fracturing the third and fourth metacarpal bones in his shooting hand after competing in the 2012 Olympics – an injury that recurred midseason, costing him 64 games – are likely to cause the total to rise by chance.
To get a more accurate comparison group, we must look at players who were similarly healthy before international competition and see what happened to them. I found the player who did not participate in the World Cup or the Olympics and had the most similar prior season in terms of games played minutes, points, rebounds, assists, and blocks per game for each player who did.
In Love’s case, Dwight Howard, who had played 54 games during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, was the most similar player in 2012. (Love played number 55.)
The average number of games missed the following season among this control group, which was generally equivalent in age and skill, was 10.5 – nearly identical to the 10.4 players who saw international action during the summer. The comparison group was likelier to miss at least 25 games the following season due to injury (13% vs. 11%).
Injuries are unavoidable in every competitive sport. My analysis excluded Paul George, who missed the first 76 games of the 2014-15 season after sustaining a compound lower leg fracture in a pre-World Cup practice.
Danilo Gallinari will miss the entire 2022-23 NBA season after tearing his ACL in a World Cup qualifying game last summer. Nonetheless, research does not support that players are more prone to injury after international competition.
Taking the following step
I was doubtful that playing international basketball over the summer would lead to better performance the following season. After all, the narrative of Durant’s FIBA stardom before his breakthrough is quite tortuous. Durant had already scored a league-high 30.1 points per game in 2009-10, earning first-team All-NBA accolades. Durant’s club advanced to the conference finals in 2010-11 after losing their first playoff appearance in Oklahoma City Thunders to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round the previous season.
Given that, I was astonished to discover that playing for the USA, in particular, appears to have an influence. My SCHOENE projection algorithm forecasts U.S. players from 2010 through 2021 will average 2.1 points per 100 possessions higher than the league average the following season, based on performance over the previous three seasons and the development of similar players at the same age. They outperformed that by a whole point, rating 3.1 points higher than normal.
There isn’t an apparent reason for this fluke. Non-US players did not benefit as much from international competition, while the control group utilized in the study had injuries virtually precisely as expected the following season.
Aside from the actual basketball experience, one of the primary advantages of representing the United States internationally is the opportunity to train with some of the league’s finest players. Durant has remarked about Kobe Bryant’s work ethic as a crucial experience playing for the USA Select squad before the 2008 Olympics. It’s hardly unexpected that competing in a tournament with the United States would be more valuable than competing with foreign national teams that tend to stay together for many years and are less deep in elite skill.
Biggest Out Performance of USA Players (2010-2021)
It’s fascinating that Durant’s 2010 season has emerged as the poster child for the benefits of playing for the USA. However, one of his colleagues in Turkey won MVP the following year: Rose, who improved the most in terms of performance after playing for the USA compared to his projection. After playing in the World Cup four years later, Stephen Curry went from All-NBA to MVP and title, while Klay Thompson did the same.
The chances of anyone on this year’s USA team following in their footsteps are slim. Slovenia’s Doncic and Canada’s Gilgeous-Alexander are the most likely World Cup MVP candidates. Still, Edwards has gained valuable experience as the go-to guy in critical circumstances, which could aid the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The ranking shows that playing for the United States provided the biggest benefit from 2010 to 2014, when even the younger World Cup rosters tended to be deeper in star potential, and the national team program had more consistency. Nonetheless, every set of USA players has outperformed their forecasts the following season on average, giving hope that this year’s team will carry lessons back to the NBA.