Traveling: An International Incident

Nemanja Bjelica began his rookie season in the NBA looking to be a positive contributor coming off his MVP award in the Euroleague the previous season. He started well, averaging about 9 points and 7 rebounds a game through his first nine contests. In that time he was also whistled for five traveling violations and one double dribble. I remember thinking of many of them as borderline calls at the time, and ones that probably wouldn’t have been called on the superstars of the league. Perhaps he was getting a tight whistle because he was a rookie, albeit being 27 years old, or maybe he was actually traveling and he needed to work on his footwork.

The FIBA rules on traveling are slightly different in their enforcement than in the NBA. The simplest explanation for the differences is explained here by Anthony Reimer:

NBA/WNBA rule is a little more liberal than the current NCAA and FIBA rules when a player is coming to a stop. The NBA/WNBA rule is identical to the pre-1994 FIBA rule; in essence, once you have come to a legal stop, you always have a foot to pivot with. NCAA and current FIBA rules can leave a player without a pivot foot. As well, if you land with a staggered stop (i.e. one foot, then the other, with one foot clearly in front of the other), the back foot is the pivot foot in NBA/WNBA. In NCAA/FIBA, the first foot to touch is the pivot.

TrueHoop did an informal survey of players back in 2009, and their definitions of traveling varied wildly, because the actual written rule is vague and hard to understand without the context of corresponding examples. Coach K spoke on the differences in enforcement before the 2016 Rio Olympics, saying that “in international play, they call traveling. In the NBA, not so much. That’s a big change and so [players] have to adjust.” This sentiment should theoretically mean that international players wouldn’t be called for traveling much at all in the NBA, given that they’re used to stricter enforcement under FIBA regulation; their transition from FIBA basketball to NBA basketball should be seamless in that respect. As the season went on, Bjelica became increasingly timid with the ball in his hands and was reluctant to shoot, transforming his boxscores from topline bench contributor into  frequent “DNP – coaches decision.”

It’s impossible to blame his confidence struggles directly on the rash of traveling violations; it also was certainly a challenge to move to a new country and ingratiate yourself into a new team and league. But it certainly didn’t help make his transition to the NBA any smoother. Another Timberwolves player who got called for traveling a lot was Gorgui Dieng, of Senegal. The explanation for Dieng was a lot simpler because he actually travels a lot, but it made me wonder if foreign players were held to a different standard than American-born players.

Phil Jackson made waves in June of 2015 when he called out LeBron James (seems to be a theme) for getting away with traveling, likely referencing this video that was getting play at the time:

Some of the clips featured are obvious traveling violations, while others aren’t, but the point stands that LeBron should probably be called for traveling more often than he does. Of course, the fans show up to watch LeBron do amazing things on the court, not get bogged down by an overzealous referee with an affinity for 1950s fundamental basketball.

Using Basketball-Reference’s Event Finder tool, I sought to find out if there was anything to the hypothesis that international players are held to a different standard for traveling. A cursory glance reveals that the team-leader for travels was a foreigner on 10 out of the 30 teams. For the 2015-16 season, there were 100 international players (this year there are a record 113) on NBA rosters. There are 450 players, so that means 22% of the league was made up of international players, while 33% of the team leaders in traveling violations were from outside of the U.S. That alone doesn’t prove or disprove anything. We need to get a little more scientific with our inquiry.

There were only two players called for more than 20 traveling violations in that season. They both had 26 and they were both international players – Gorgui Dieng (of course) and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Next, I set out to find who traveled at the highest rate (so we’ll use per 36 minutes, because #analytics). It turns out that Giannis’ raw total of 26 travels isn’t as bad compared to the amount of minutes he played. He travels at a rate of about .33 travels per 36 minutes, which is still bottom ten, but it’s not the absolute league-worst mark. I made a chart of players with the most travels, then sorted them by their travel rate. I also included Nemanja Bjelica as a test case from my earlier inquiry; Steph Curry for a relatively high number of travels, but low travel rate; and then added LeBron James and James Harden, two players who draw the ire of YouTube narcs everywhere, for comparison.


6 out of the 10 players with the highest travel rate in were international players, 2 were rookies, 1 played for the Sixers, and the other played in the Chinese Basketball League and the Lebanese Basketball League as recently as 2013. Most players average about .20 travels per 36, but I included Harden and James for the opposite extreme, while Curry sits just below average. All of the 10 most frequent travelers are 6’7″ or taller, and 7 out of 10 of them operate almost exclusively in the post. Perhaps these traveling calls are borne out of the positions they play; their delicate footwork on the low block can lead to some shuffling of the feet, for sure.

Perhaps there is also an implicit bias from referees against international players and rookies. Before I began looking at the data, I suspected that international players were called for it more often, and that does seem to be the case. Or, at least, the players called for it the most often just happen to be international players. It’s to be assumed that all NBA officials would vehemently deny that such a bias exists, and I’m not suggesting that they are being nefarious with their whistle and displaying a sort of xenophobia on the court, at least not intentionally.  This kind of American protectionism would mirror the political arena where  “globalists” are decried as anti-American, though. No matter how progressive the league purports to be, it’s impossible to detach it completely from the cultural conditions it exists in.


Thoughts About the Thoughts

Brian: I was my high school’s basketball announcer for two seasons with a friend, and I can’t remember a traveling call once despite the obvious implication that these players with a lesser skill ceiling than the NBA players mentioned above should be more prone to errors like that. It seems as if some of the #fundamentals like “don’t travel” become more of a formality when either a) the refs are not of the caliber as NBA refs or b) players have greater clout. All of this is a recipe for your findings – that youth and inexperience with the system the NBA uses means that refs who are actively searching for things to call (not in a persucatorial sense, but rather in the sense of simply doing their jobs) leads to a group more magnified than others.


Header Image Credit: Getty/somemillennials
Chart: Benjamin Swanson/somemillennials
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference

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