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Missing NBA Stars?

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Missing NBA Stars?"

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Tyler Cowen wonders “What are the odds that the best chess player in the world has never played chess?” Or more generally raises the issue of “how well the modern world allocates talent and how much exposure you need to something you eventually will be very good at.”

I think about this sometimes in terms of the NBA. Obviously, when playing basketball it helps to be tall. And the tallest people, on average, are generally found in northern Europe. But basketball isn’t a popular sport in the Netherlands and Scandinavia so a tall, athletic young man (especially if he’s, say, 6’6″ rather than 7’1″) isn’t particularly likely to be seriously trained to play. In Spain basketball is popular so there’s a bunch of Spanish players. But if it were equally popular in northern Europe, I bet you’d see more Scandinavians in the NBA than Spaniards.

Somewhat similarly, if you look at top American basketball players they’re obviously mostly people of African descent. The country with the second-most players in the NBA is France, and ten-out-of-ten are black. There’s also players from the US Virgin Islands, St Vincent and Grenadines, the Dominican Republic, and guys like Thabo Sefolosha from Switzerland and Kelenna Azubuike, Luol Deng, and Pops Mensah-Bonsu from the UK. And yet relatively few Africans are playing in the league. Presumably that’s some combination of the sport not being popular in Africa, the recruiting infrastructure not existing in Africa, and the low standard of living retarding growth.

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