Sports

Led by Duke’s RJ Barrett, the ACC is getting a boost from an influx of international athletes

The N&O’s Duke beat writer Steve Wiseman speaks with Canadian TV about R.J. Barrett

Duke plays Kentucky in the Champions Classic and Canadian freshman R.J. Barrett should play a big part.
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Duke plays Kentucky in the Champions Classic and Canadian freshman R.J. Barrett should play a big part.

A caravan of international talent has quietly dispersed throughout the ACC, supplying more than one in six men’s basketball players (17.1 percent) listed on rosters at the start of the 2018-19 season. This infusion is not only significant, supplying several of the league’s top scorers, among them Duke star R.J. Barrett, it’s also largely – and happily -- escaped xenophobic comment.

The large international cast reflects an accelerating trend – as recently as 2015, when Louisville joined the ACC, imports accounted for only 10 percent of league players. Go back to 2010, when the conference had a dozen teams and Venezuela’s Greivis Vasquez was ACC Player of the Year at Maryland, and the proportion was 6 percent.

This season every ACC squad has at least one international contributor except, oddly, North Carolina and N.C. State in the cosmopolitan Triangle area. Pittsburgh and Virginia have five foreign-born players each, better than a third of their combined rosters.

Six teams each have three imports, including Duke and Wake Forest. Canada leads with eight ACC roster members, followed by Nigeria (5), Australia (4) and France (3). In all, 37 players from 21 countries are seamlessly represented on the league’s 15 squads.

“That’s the new phenomenon,” Tom Konchalski, a long-time recruiting expert, says of a shift across big-time basketball. “People, they’ve discovered the foreign market. (Other countries) have kids who are more coachable.”

International option

A rise in imports isn’t restricted to basketball. Six of 28 members of UNC’s 2018 national champion women’s field hockey squad (21.8 percent) came from the Netherlands, Germany and England. For Maryland, the national runnerup, it was five of 24 from overseas (20.8 percent). That’s about twice the average of foreign athletes on field hockey teams cited in a 2014 study of NCAA scholarships.

Most members of the dominant Duke women’s golf program routinely come from other countries. The non-U.S. proportion of participants in collegiate tennis approaches a third nationally, one in five in ice hockey and is growing significantly in soccer as MLS opportunity widens.

According to a 2017 USA Today article, the reason college coaches find international athletes an attractive option is very simple. Brace for it: “Coaches are paid to win. When the difference between winning and losing can be a matter of how good your best three or four players are, coaches are going to search far and wide.”

Well, sure. Fifty years ago the thirst to remain competitive similarly was as important an impetus for integrating Southern sports as any legal compulsion or notion of fairness. Basketball programs that for decades shunned black players in their backyards, leaving them to enroll at northern schools, suddenly saw the wisdom of inclusion irrespective of race.

So it is with national origin.

Bob McKillop

During the mid-80s TV analyst Billy Packer, at the height of his national visibility, sparked debate by decrying NCAA scholarships going to foreigners. “I think American coaches should do their recruiting in the United States,” he wrote in TV Guide. He also fretted that sharing our secret sauce would ultimately come back to leave a bad taste for American teams in international competition. ‘‘It’s my own little world, but why let them use it against us?” Packer asked on-air.

In those days Davidson coach Bob McKillop, a pioneer in recruiting outside the U.S., had little competition mining loads of talent in Europe and beyond. Now he finds players “all over the map” and encounters relative crowds of recruiters. Interest among European players has intensified as pay for youngsters to play professionally in their home countries has dried up.

“Now they’re looking at other options, and the U.S. is a great option,” says McKillop, who has six foreign-born Wildcats this season. “And of course with the number of guys who’ve come to the U.S. by way of college and gone on to the NBA, it’s further been feeding that fire.” This season 21.8 percent of NBA players, on all 30 squads, hail from other countries.

“We taught them how to play and now they play our game closer to the way we taught them than we do ourselves,” says Konchalski, whose brother, Steve Konchalski, is called “the Coach K” of Canada, with three national college titles and more wins than anyone else in that nation’s history. “Basketball is a universal language, especially if you can put in the basket, right?”

Jack White

Canadians Nickeil Alexander-Walker of Virginia Tech and Duke’s Barrett communicate ably by Konchalski’s standard, ranking among this year’s top early ACC scoring leaders. The Blue Devils also get regular contributions from feisty Australian Jack White, a versatile team captain and rare Duke veteran.

White’s continent of origin supplied two ACC starters – Miami’s DJ (Dejan) Vasiljevic, last season’s official conference leader in 3-point accuracy (.411), and Jack Salt, burly anchor of Virginia’s frontcourt.

Of course there may be more foreign-born players in the ACC than we realize. The best ACC player ever from Australia, one-year wonder and top 2011 NBA draft pick Kyrie Irving, was identified in Duke’s media guide as a product of New Jersey. For good reason, as he grew up in West Orange. But, like 2017 top-pick and fellow yearling Ben Simmons of LSU or Miami’s Vasiljevic, Irving was born in Melbourne.

Confusion between origins and hometowns isn’t uncommon – consider the Brooklyn native justifiably claimed by his boyhood home, Wilmington, N.C., where he was known as Mike Jordan.

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