Something unprecedented happened this season in the Korean Basketball League (KBL). Suwon KT’s Paris Bass (29-USA) was named the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the third round of the KBL on March 8. This is the first time in KBL history that a foreigner has been named MVP in three consecutive rounds. In the first round, it was Wonju DB Dedrick Lawson (27-USA), and in the second round, Changwon LG’s Assem Marey (32-Egypt). There is a sense of crisis in the basketball world that “who will watch professional basketball where only foreign players shine?”
The high reliance on foreign players is a problem that has been with the KBL since its inception in 1997. In 1997, the only Korean player in the top 10 in terms of average points per game was current Seoul SK coach Jeon Hee-chul (51), who finished ninth with 23.1 points per game. Since then, the 2010-2011 season has been the only one in which Koreans accounted for half of the top 10. Even then, there were three naturalized mixed-race players (Moon Tae-young, Moon Tae-young, and Lee Seung-jun), with eighth-place Seo Jang-hoon and ninth-place Yang Dong-geun barely defending their native pride. Even this season, only Goyang Sono’s Lee Jung-hyun (25-20.3 points) in sixth place and Suwon KT’s Ha Yoon-ki (25-16.3 points) in 10th place are Korean. There has never been a season in which a Korean player was ranked first.
That’s why KBL coaches clear their schedules in May, the time of year right after the season ends, no matter what. They have to travel to Europe and the United States to find foreign players for the next season. A former professional basketball team manager said, “What you do at this time can make or break your season.” “It’s an informal gathering of the managers of the 10 KBL teams that happens almost once a year.”
This season, there are teams whose fate was determined by ‘foreign player farming’. Wonju DB, which finished seventh last season, signed foreigner Didoric Lawson ahead of the season. Lawson led Goyang Carot (now Sono) to the top four of the playoffs on his own last season, when the team was in financial turmoil. In a DB uniform this season, Lawson is averaging 22.3 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 4.8 assists this season. Thanks to him, DB (25-6) hasn’t missed a beat all season. On the other hand, Sono, last season’s upset victor, has lost Lawson and is tied for eighth place (10-20). This is despite retaining all of their key Korean players, including Jeon Seong-hyun (33) and Lee Jung-hyun.
The KBL hasn’t been idle. It changed the selection of foreign players from free agency to the draft, and reduced the number of players on the court from two to one. In 2018, the league imposed a 200-centimeter height limit on foreign players, only to scrap it a year later after receiving criticism. Still, the league is struggling with a high percentage of foreign players.
The reliance on foreign players is similarly high in most Asian professional basketball leagues. Japan has chosen to go head-to-head. Starting in 2026, the Nippon Professional Basketball B League will allow up to four foreign players to play at the same time. Previously, it was two. “A league that forces a lot of Japanese players to play is just a frog in the well, and I don’t believe it makes Japanese basketball stronger,” said B-League president Shinji Shimada, explaining the reasoning behind the change, “We can’t expect Japanese basketball to be a force in the world without being able to beat foreign players in the B-League.” China’s professional basketball league is also using its huge capital to recruit NBA stars who have faded into obscurity.
“The top scorers change every season, and none of them are domestic players,” said Lee Sang-yoon, a SPOTV commentator. Tactics centered on foreign players are also a problem.” “In the end, it has reached a level where there are few basketball stars that the general public can recognize. This is a problem that the basketball world, including the KBL, needs to solve somehow instead of sitting on its hands.”