When the NBA draft first began in 1950, it was essentially a U.S. domestic event. Globalization began to creep into the draft in 1978 with the drafting of Mychal Thompson, who was of Bahamian nationality, although by that point he had already spent much of his life in the U.S. and played college basketball there. The first two foreign-born players to be drafted first overall were Hakeem Olajuwon of Nigeria in 1984 and Patrick Ewing of Jamaica in 1985. Again, however both of these draftees had played college basketball and Ewing had also played high-school basketball.
The year 1999 saw a dramatic upswing in the number of foreign players participating in the NBA draft. In general, however, they all had U.S. college experience and certainly the top picks were all U.S. college graduates. That all changed in 2002 with the arrival of Yao Ming.
Yao Ming was the first international player to be number one pick in the NBA draft in spite of having no U.S. college experience whatsoever. In addition to outstanding talent,he had a legion of Chinese fans and ratings for NBA games went soaring in China whenever he was playing for the Houston Rockets. While Yao Ming undoubtedly made an impact on the court, perhaps his greatest legacy is single-handedly popularizing basketball in China. His retirement from the game in 2011 (caused by injury) was a major media event in both the U.S. and China. He was nominated for induction in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, but felt that it was too soon for such an honour and requested that his induction be postponed. His induction finally happened in 2016. While some detractors questioned the introduction of such an injury-prone player who spent so much time on the bench, many more felt that the induction was more than justified by his prowess on the court when he was fit and by the contribution he made to raising the profile of the game in China, where the NBA has now become a major sporting force.
In 2006, Andrea Bargnani of Italy was picked number one. He was the second international player to be drafted in spite of lacking U.S. college experience and the first European to be picked number one. His career got off to a shaky start with an excellent first season for the Toronto Raptors being followed by a sudden loss of form in his second season. While some fans called for him to be traded, the Raptors opted for intense coaching, which brought the desired results. Bargnani continued to show impressive form over subsequent years and used the 2011 NBA lockout as an opportunity to take a break from competition and improve his game even more. Sadly since 2012, Bargnani has suffered a series of injury problems, but his overall mark on the NBA is unquestionable.
It's not just the top picks who have had a major impact on the NBA. In 2014, Simran “Sim” Bhullar signed for the Sacremento Kings the day after the official draft ended and in 2015 Satnam Singh Bhamara was drafted into the Dallas Mavericks as 52nd overall. Both of these players have connections to India. Bhullar is a Canadian of Indian descent, while Bhamara was actually born in India. With a population of over one billion people, India is a huge potential market for the NBA, which has worked hard to popularized the game of basketball there. Bhullar and Bhamara are both just at the start of their careers, but are widely tipped for future stardom.
The Minnesota Timberwolves has no less than three of the top-picked international players in its squad. Anthony Bennett was the first Canadian to be NBA drafted at number 1 in 2013, signing to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2014, the Cleveland Cavaliers picked first again and chose another Canadian, Andrew Wiggins. Both of these players were then traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who had first pick in 2015, choosing Karl-Anthony Towns of the Dominican Republic, who became the first Dominican player to join the NBA. While still very much a rookie, Towns has already achieved a number of records and honours which mark him out as a future star and one to bet on with Stan James. In particular, he has won the NBA All-Star Weekend Skills Challenge, becoming the youngest player ever to do so. In addition to his sporting ability, Towns is also something of a role model for younger people in that he also places strong emphasis on continued academic achievement alongside scoring points on the basketball court. Although he dropped out of the University of Kentucky after only one year, Towns has enrolled in online courses to continue his education and hopes to earn his degree and then become a doctor after his career as a player has come to an end.