While there are several reasons for basketball’s failings in Britain, one of them definitely is not a lack of popularity. More than a million British citizens play basketball on a regular basis, and 14% of those between the ages of 18 and 34 do so on a weekly basis. It is now tied with cricket, netball, and softball for the second-most popular team sport among young people in Britain, only after football, of course, and ahead of rugby union and rugby league.
Basketball also feeds into a transoceanic youth culture that is already well-established in Britain and carries a cultural cachet that is absent from more mainstream sports like rugby and cricket. Basketball is heavily referenced in American pop culture, the sport’s headgear, jerseys, and footwear dominate the runway, and British fans quickly sell out the yearly NBA London game.
There is undoubtedly a passion for basketball in Britain, but what is stopping it? Money, to put it briefly. The issue that underlying all others has always been a two-fold shortage of finance; British basketball experiences a serious lack of investment at both the top and community levels. That is why talented British players often seek opportunities to compete in the US colleges through which they want to find the way to the NBA – a place some managed to reach and presented themselves pretty much successfully.
Despite not being well renowned for basketball, the UK has produced a number of players with strong NBA résumés, including one NBA champion. These are the top five…
Number of NBA games: 902 Regular Season, 62 Playoffs
Average stats: 14.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists
Luol Deng, who was born and raised in south London, rose to prominence as an athlete by representing England in competitions across Europe. As a result, he immigrated to the USA at the age of 14. He then established himself as the most talented high school player, second only to Lebron James.
Following a one-year stay with the Duke Blue Devils, one of the best teams in college basketball, four picks after Ben Gordon, the Phoenix Suns selected Deng with the seventh overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft; however, Gordon and Deng became teammates as part of a pre-arranged trade.
Deng made a name for himself in Chicago as a fierce defensive player with a great motor. He even led the league in minutes played per game in the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 seasons in which he earned back-to-back All-Star honors. Deng excelled with averages of 26.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.8 steals in the 2006-2007 first-round playoff series versus Miami, but his longest playoff runs came later. The Miami Heat ‘Big Three’ of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh defeated the Bulls in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals with Deng serving as MVP Derrick Rose’s sidekick.
After playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, and Cleveland Cavaliers, Deng finished his career with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Deng was the ideal role model for aspiring British athletes because of his career earnings in the NBA, which are estimated to have totaled around $158 million in addition to his playing honors.
Number of NBA games: 957 Regular Season, 51 Playoffs
Average stats: 8.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.3 blocks
With 957 games played throughout the regular season, James Donaldson holds the record for most NBA appearances by a British player. Donaldson, who was raised in Heacham, Norfolk, played in the NBA for 14 seasons with the Seattle Supersonics, Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks, Utah Jazz, and San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers.
Donaldson was able to make the All-Star team in 1988, but his best season may have been the one before that. In that year, he recorded stats of 10.8 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks on 65.8% true shooting (58.6% from the field, 81.2% from the free throw line), helping the Mavs finish in second place in the Western Conference. Unfortunately for Donaldson, his team lost to the Los Angeles Lakers, the ultimate winners, in Game 7 of the finals of the Western Conference playoffs despite his 15 points and 14 rebounds.
His NBA career was concluded in Utah following the trade to the Knicks from Mavericks for which he competed until February 1992. Donaldson is currently ranked 86th in the NBA in terms of total rebounds, 55th in terms of blocks, 13th in terms of field goal percentage, and 7th in terms of true shooting percentage.
A successful career, to put it mildly.
Number of NBA games: 744 Regular Season, 29 Playoffs
Average stats: 14.9 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists
Gordon, another Londoner, rose to fame while playing for the UConn Huskies, who won the NCAA title in 2004. As a result, the Chicago Bulls picked him third overall in that year’s NBA Draft. As the first player to earn Sixth Man of the Year as a rookie, Gordon lit up the league in his maiden season by averaging 15 points per game and an incredible 3-point percentage of 40.5 off the bench.
For the very first time after Michael Jordan left in 1998, his acquisition helped the Bulls finish the season with a winning record.
Gordon’s career was at the peak in 2006-2007, his third NBA season, as he produced an efficient 21.4 points per game, along with 3.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists. Gordon averaged 25.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 5.5 assists on 44.3/40.0/86.7 shooting split as he helped the Bulls along with another player from this list, Luol Deng, sweep the defending champion Miami Heat, making a huge upset and beating the odds at online casino sportsbooks back then, in the first round of the playoffs.
Gordon’s performance decreased after he left the Bulls to agree to a nearly $60 million contract with the Detroit Pistons, and he was forced to retire from the NBA in 2015. But during his prime, Gordon established himself as a fantastic scorer and the best British player in NBA history to date.
Number of NBA games: 301 Regular Season, 27 Playoffs
Average stats: 10.4 points, 4.1 rebounds
Anunoby, who is currently in the NBA at such a young age and has the potential to become the best UK basketball player to ever play there, comes in fourth.
Four years after arriving in America from London, Anunoby spent two years playing basketball at Indiana University before being chosen as the 23rd overall choice in the 2017 NBA Draft.
Anunoby’s Toronto Raptors won the 2018–2019 NBA championship in just his second season in the league, but he was unable to participate because of an urgent appendectomy. Nevertheless, the 23-year-old received a four-year, $72 million contract from the Raptors in December 2020, demonstrating their commitment to him. Anunoby has soon started to pay back the team’s faith in him, averaging 17.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.6 assists last season.
Number of NBA games: 294 Regular Season, 7 Playoffs
Average stats: 6.2 points, 2.6 rebounds
Amaechi, who was born in Boston but raised up in Stockport, Greater Manchester, began his NBA career as an undrafted rookie after a five-year collegiate career divided between Penn State and Vanderbilt.
Amaechi, who was 6 feet 10 inches tall, could play as a center or a forward. He spent the three seasons playing in Greece, the UK, Italy, and France after only appearing in 28 games during his first campaign with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1995-1996. His greatest success came with the Orlando Magic when he played 80, then 82 regular season games in 1999-2000 and 2000-2001, with the former season featuring a statistical high of 10.5 points and 3.3 rebounds.
Following that, he spent two years playing more than 100 games with the Utah Jazz. After being traded to the Houston Rockets in 2003–2004, Amaechi’s career came to an end since he was far from the coach’s eyes there.