Beyond the NBA: The world's great basketball leagues
Basketball is truly a global game. These leagues showcase its world-class talent and athleticism.
The NBA is certainly the world's most well-known professional basketball league. However, in some parts of the globe, kids don't dream of playing for the Bulls, Lakers or Cavaliers, but for their country's top domestic pro club. The best of the basketball world's professional leagues are filled with skilled players and feature ultra-competitive games. The top talents often graduate to the NBA, earning millions for the skills they honed as young pros at home. Also, a number of U.S.-based players have gone abroad, choosing the top-paying international leagues over the pressures and demanding schedule of the NBA. Here are nine professional basketball leagues outside of the United States that have the highest quality of play.
Europe's best teams play in the Euroleague. (Photo: katatonia82/Shutterstock)
The Turkish Airlines Euroleague is the pinnacle of international club basketball. The best teams from each European pro league qualify to play in this annual competition, which is similar to soccer's UEFA Champions League. Teams from 18 European domestic competitions can qualify for the 24-team regular season. Qualification is partially based on the previous season's domestic ranking, so only the best teams make it each year, ensuring stiff competition in every single game. After round-robin play and a best-of-five quarterfinal series, the dramatic Final Four (semifinals and final) games are single-elimination. The Euroleague is unique in that the participating teams are also playing in their domestic leagues, so they're competing for multiple trophies during the same season. This is very different from the NBA, where the 82-game regular season and playoffs are all played in pursuit of a single championship.
The NBA's Ricky Rubio playing in Liga ACB. (Photo: Christian Bertrand/Shutterstock)
Widely considered to be the best domestic league in the world besides the NBA, Spain's Liga ACB dominates the European pro basketball scene. Four ACB teams are currently in the top 10 of Europe's continent-wide rankings. Soccer fans might be familiar with the names of some of top Spanish teams. Real Madrid and Barcelona, both run by the same athletic clubs that oversee the famed soccer franchises, are perennial champions in Liga ACB. Spanish NBA stars Ricky Rubio and the Gasol brothers got their start in the league, as did Argentine-born NBA star Luis Scola. Among American basketball journeymen, Liga ACB is considered one of the best places to play because of the relatively high salaries and the popularity of basketball in Spain.
Greece's HEBA A1 is one of Europe's top leagues (Photo: Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock)
Greek basketball's top league, HEBA A1, has long been on the radar for serious basketball fans. Its best clubs have had success in European competitions, and some of the NBA’s most famous players have crossed the Atlantic to play in Greece. NBA legends Dominique Wilkins and Byron Scott spent time in HEBA A1, playing for its top clubs, Panathinaikos. This club and its main rival, Olympiacos, are always highly rated in Europe's basketball rankings.
Israeli Super League
Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv celebrates a win during the 2014 Euroleague season. (Photo: noamgalai/Shutterstock)
The 12-team Israeli Super League includes one of the world's most successful basketball franchises, Maccabi Tel Aviv, which has won the Euroleague title six times, including this year, and taken the domestic championship an astonishing 51 times since the first Super League season in 1954. Because of its high profile and comparatively high player salaries, the Super League is a popular destination for overseas pros. Each team is allowed four international players, and many former college stars and journeymen pros from the United States have spent a majority of their careers in Israel. The reverse is also true, as the U.S.-born coach of this year's championship Maccabi Tel Aviv team will be the next coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Liga Nacional De Basquet
Basketball holds second place in the hearts of most soccer-mad Argentines, but the Liga Nacional De Basquet is arguably second to the NBA when it comes to pro hoops in the Americas. Argentina’s national basketball team is best known for knocking off the 2002 version of the U.S. “Dream Team” at the FIBA World Championships. They went on to win the gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. At that time, most of their best players were products of the Liga Nacional. NBA stars Manu Ginóbili and Luis Scola both started their careers in Argentina, and several other players have made the jump to the NBA after spending their formative years in the Liga Nacional.
Chinese Basketball Association
The Chinese Basketball Association, or CBA, has been the proving ground for Chinese players who have ambitions of moving on to the NBA. Center Yao Ming, one of the best-known Chinese athletes of all time, was selected first overall in the 2002 NBA draft after five successful years with the Shanghai Sharks in the CBA. Thanks to a major marketing push and generous salaries, the CBA attracts many famous NBA players: Stephon Marbury, Tracy McGrady and Gilbert Arenas are on the list of standouts who crossed the Pacific. The CBA has been so successful that players like Mengke Bateer and Yi Jianlian, both Chinese-born NBA journeymen, decided to return home to play rather than pursuing lucrative reserve roster spots in the NBA. Star CBA players enjoy name recognition and often supplement their salaries with endorsement deals.
Baloncesto Superior Nacional
Puerto Rico's 10-team professional league, Baloncesto Superior Nacional (BSN), has been around, in one form or another, since 1930. Throughout its history, this league has produced talented players who moved on to the NBA or to Europe's top clubs. The Puerto Rican National Team, filled mostly with players from the BSN, has had success on the international stage, medaling in the FIBA Americas tournament, qualifying for Olympic and World Championship competitions, and even beating the U.S. “Dream Team” at the 2004 Olympics. Despite having only 10 teams, the league features a 36-game regular season and a lengthy NBA-style postseason. During the playoffs, eight of the 10 clubs play each other in best-of-five and best-of-seven series. The BSN has produced a lot of NBA talent over the years, including current pro J.J. Barea, who started playing in the BSN at 17.
Lega Basket Serie A
Italy's Lega Basket Serie A features 16 teams and boasts a lengthy history. Established in 1920, the league now has a 30-game regular season, followed by best-of-five playoff matchups and a best-of-seven championship series. The top Serie A teams always do well in the Euroleague. Olimpia Milano, Montepaschi Siena and Fortitudo Bologna are well known to European basketball fans. Andrea Bargnani is probably the most famous NBA player to start his career in Serie A. He was the first overall selection in the 2006 NBA draft, coming to America after thriving in Italy as a teenage pro. Meanwhile, NBA players have been lured to Serie A's top clubs with multimillion-dollar contracts. Italy is the most popular destination for aging stars who want to enjoy success outside of the NBA. Shawn Kemp spent time in Italy before the end of his career, and there are ongoing rumors that future Hall-of-Famer Kobe Bryant will end his playing days in Italy, a country where he grew up while his father was playing in Serie A.
Turkish Premiere Basketball League
Efes Pilsen is one of Turkey's top pro clubs. (Photo: Faraways/Shutterstock)
Turkey has been a hotbed for basketball since the 1960s, when the first Turkish Premiere Basketball League games were played. Clubs Fenerbahçe and Anadolu Efes, both based in Istalbul, have dominated the domestic league in recent years and have also had success in the Euroleague. Thanks to a strong focus on player development, a number of Turkish pros have moved on to the NBA. Hidayet Türkoğlu has enjoyed a 15-year NBA run after starting his career at Efes as a teenager. Enes Kanter, a top NBA draft pick, had actually tried to play college basketball in the United States before losing his amateur status due to a year spent as a pro in the Premiere League. Former NBA star Allen Iverson is the most famous of the many U.S. players who have played in Turkey.
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