The NBA is where the best players in the world congregate and compete against one another to achieve personal and career success. Players can break onto the NBA scene from their performance in college or while playing at the professional level internationally. The NBA is the perfect blend of mixing the play styles of both the international talent with the way basketball is played in the states. There have been several international players who were able to find tremendous success while playing in the NBA, and in doing so have paved the way for the international stars of the future.
Criteria for the Top 10
This top 10 list is strictly for those international players who jumped straight from playing overseas to being picked up by an NBA team. This excludes international players that are foreign born but attended a college in the United States. So players like Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, and Hakeem Olajuwon are being left off of this lists.
The list was broken down by the player’s performance as well as their contribution to the game. That means players who came into the league and expanded the global market for the NBA. The player’s performance, however, will be weighted more heavily than the contributions that the player had made.
So without further ado, the top 10 international players of All-time.
1. Dirk Nowitzki – Germany
What can be said of the seven-foot German power forward that hasn’t been said already? Dirk Nowitzki has solidified his right to be mentioned amongst the all-time greats. Nowitzki is 6th currently on the all-time scoring list and has done so with his own personal shot that many have tried to imitate. He has revolutionized the stretch-forward position into what it is today. Nowitzki proved that an NBA franchise can hitch their wagon to an international born player and lead them to a title.
Nowitzki has climbed into the upper echelon of greats by gathering accolades throughout his career that is all too important to hide. In his 19 year career, Nowitzki has 1 NBA title, 13 All-star appearances, 4-time All-NBA First-Team honors, 5-time-All NBA Second-Team honors, 3-time All-NBA Third-Team honors, and a league MVP. Nowitzki has altered the perception held by many towards international players. Nowitzki has remained with the Mavericks organization throughout his career and remains the last of a generation. It is almost impossible to imagine an international player having a career like Nowitzki’s. He is the mold in which foreign born players try to follow and a career that one can only dream of having.
2. Yao Ming – China
When Yao Ming entered the NBA in 2002, there was an astronomical buzz that he brought. His size of 7’6″ and 310 pounds was enough to generate excitement within itself, but Yao could play. Dwarfing other NBA seven-footers, making them appear as if they were small children guarding an unstoppable force. It was the versatility at his size that made him such a dominant player. He was able to step out and hit from mid-range on some pick-and-pop opportunities, to go along with a hook shot that Kareem himself would have been proud of. His play spoke for itself but it was his role both during and after his playing days as a global ambassador to the NBA which make him an even more prominent figure. Being a top player in the league helped the NBA grow its popularity in not only China but worldwide.
His shortened playing days hindered what could have been a career that saw him as one of the most dominant big men to play the game. In the 8 seasons for which he did play, Yao averaged career totals of 19.0 points per game and 9.2 rebounds per game. He was able to achieve an All-Star appearance in every year in which he played, NBA First-Team honors one time, NBA Second-Team honors two times, and NBA Third-Team honors three times. It goes without saying that Yao deserves to be at the top of this list, and if not for the spectacular longevity of Nowitzki he would have cracked the top spot on this list.
3. Tony Parker – France
The always reliable and at times overlooked Tony Parker was and still is to this day the heartbeat of the San Antonio Spurs franchise. The 16-year veteran has achieved a plethora of accomplishments in his playing days in the NBA. Coming into the NBA in 2001 as a 19-year-old, he had a lot to prove himself to the strong willed Gregg Popovich. However, Parker and Popovich meshed very well together and were able to combine their styles and take home four NBA titles.
Parker gained immediate respect playing amongst some of the toughest opponents from early in his playing days to the young stars of today. His quickness and ability to be comfortable inside the paint and finish were pivotal to him having such a such a successful career. Parker was able to achieve All-NBA Second-Team honors three times, All-NBA Third-Team honors once, and the All-Rookie First team. To go along with his All-NBA honors was six All-Star appearances as well as being named the Most Valuable Player in the 2007 NBA Finals. His sheer passion for the game, as well as his ability to transfer the international style of play into the NBA and do it at such a high level, is what warrants Parker to rank at the three spot on this list.
4. Pau Gasol – Spain
The seven-foot tall Spaniard really burst out onto the scene when he was selected with the third overall pick by the Atlanta Hawks who would trade his draft rights to the Memphis Grizzlies. In his early days in Memphis, he was just this wiry athlete who could at the blink of an eye bring a ferocity inside the paint. To go along with his passing abilities (ranked 142nd all-time) and ball-handling, it didn’t take long for Gasol to show his full skill set.
Gasol got the spotlight shined on him when he was traded from the Grizzlies to the Los Angelas Lakers halfway through the 2007-2008 NBA season. It was in Los Angeles where his stardom really began. Playing in the triangle offense under the “Zen Master” himself Phil Jackson as well as NBA All-Time great Kobe Bryant. Gasol would capitalize on his opportunity, winning two NBA titles and playing a huge factor in those championship victories.
In his 16 seasons, Gasol has posted career totals of 17.9 points per game to go along with 9.4 rebounds per game. Gasol would collect a mass amount of achievements in his playing years such as: winning the Rookie of the Year Award in the 2001-2002 season, the All-Rookie team that same year, six All-Star appearances, All-NBA Second-Team honors twice, and All-NBA Third-Team honors twice. It goes without saying that in terms of European big men, Gasol and Nowitzki rank at the top of the list and for good reason. Gasol offers more versatility than Nowitzki but his numbers do not match Nowitzki’s. Gasol has etched his name into the NBA history books and did so in a location under the heaviest of scrutinies. His body of work has landed him at the fourth spot on this list.
5. Manu Ginobili – Argentina
Joining career-long teammate Tony Parker on this list, Manu Ginobili has brought about a craftiness to the NBA that players look to emulate. Ginobili was selected with the 57th overall pick by the San Antonio Spurs back in the 1999 NBA Draft. Ginobili would soon show the Spurs why it was smart to select him in the draft, and to 29 other teams why they would soon regret it. Ginobili’s style of play became artistic and near majestic to watch. The use of his famous euro step when attacking the rim and his mean pump fakes to get opponents to bite made him an electrifying playmaker. To be placed under the tutelage of coach Popovich was nothing short of perfect, as the trust that Popovich had in Ginobili led them to build a dynasty based off of winning, four times if I might add.
Although Ginobili came off the bench for much of his career as the sixth man for San Antonio, he thrived tremendously in that role. With the offensive repertoire he has, it would have been easy for him to become disgruntled at the fact of not starting. That wasn’t Ginobili’s mentality though, he was team first all the way.
Ginobili has totaled career averages of 13.6 points per game as well as 3.9 assists per game. As far as accolades go, Ginobili made two All-Star Appearances, All-NBA Third-Team honors twice, All-Rookie Second-team honors in 2002-2003, and to top it all off the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award in the 2008-2009 season. There are not many international players who have done more with less of an opportunity than Ginobili. For him to have the success for which he has had throughout his career makes him an easy selection at number five.
6. Arvydas Sabonis – Lithuania
What do you get when you combine a player who is 7’3″ but has the passing abilities of a point guard and can also shoot the ball from deep? The answer, Lithuanian big man Arvydas Sabonis. While Dirk Nowitzki perfected his craft, it was Sabonis who gave people a first glimpse of how seven-footers could break away from the mold of just being post players. Sabonis could do it all: play in the post, he could bang down low defensively, but more notably he was one of if not best passing big men this game has seen. He was almost mythical with how short he was in the league for. Just as we wanted more of Sabonis, he was gone.
Drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1986 draft, he would not take the floor for Portland until the 1995-1996 season. Due to the U.S.S.R being in control of Lithuania, they wanted to keep Sabonis’ amateur status for the upcoming 1988 Olympics. When Sabonis got to Portland he was 31 years of age, an age where players are thinking of exiting the league, not so much entering it.
Hobbled by a foot injury that significantly limited him, Sabonis was still able to create the intrigue brought about by international players. Portland got seven seasons out of Sabonis, in his short time there, he made the All-Rookie First-Team and put up career averages of 12.0 points per game and 7.0 rebounds per game. Currently a member of the basketball Hall of Fame, Sabonis is deserving of the 6th position on this list for his evolution of the position to go along with the production that we got from the Lithuanian legend.
7. Vlade Divac – Serbia
Much like Sabonis, Serbian big man Vlade Divac was a dynamic big man who had a hidden craft in the art of passing. Divac got his first taste of the NBA when he was selected by the Los Angeles Lakers with the 26th overall pick in the 1989 NBA draft. After 8 seasons, he was ousted out of Los Angeles in a draft day trade that involved NBA legend, Kobe Bryant.
After a short stint with Charlotte, he would end up in Sacramento. It was in those days when Divac really got to play loose and free under head coach Rick Adelman’s system. Divac would scan the floor constantly for areas of weakness to exploit. Granted he was not the most athletically gifted player, the wherewithal to find ways around defenders made him a match-up nightmare.
Divac is the current Kings Vice President of basketball operations, when he is not making the Kings roster better he is working with international players, to make sure they find the same level of success that he had in his playing days. Divac’s ended his career averaging 11.8 points per game and 8.2 rebounds per game. Divac may not have achieved as much as some of the other players on this list after only collecting one All-Star game appearance and making the All-Rookie First-Team in 1989-1990. Nonetheless, Divac emphasized a clearer vision of how international bigs possess a basketball IQ that makes them a valuable asset to have on a roster. His play, as well as his contribution to the game of basketball, has made him a deserving player to be on the list.
8. Marc Gasol – Spain
Much like his older sibling Pau, Marc Gasol has found tremendous success in his time in the NBA. Marc came into the league a bit more physically imposing than Pau did. While some areas are different between the two Gasol’s, a lot of the areas remain the same. For example, their comfortability with either facing away or towards the basket, the ability to pass the ball, and the ability to be a rim protector. Gasol’s jump shot has been something that seems to improve each season, making him a legitimate threat on the perimeter. Gasol has supplanted himself amongst one of the best centers we have in today’s game both on offense as well as defense. He is a blend of the old school style of play along with his own dash of international versatility.
Selected by the Los Angelas Lakers with the 48th overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft and then to later have his draft rights traded to the Memphis Grizzlies. One knock that can put on Gasol is his lack of post-season success. Despite that, Gasol has managed to gather a plethora of overall career success so far. Winning Defensive Player of the Year for the 2012-2013 season, Defensive First-Team honors that same year, making three All-Star Appearances, All-Defensive First-Team honors once, All-NBA First-Team honors once, and All-NBA Second Team honors once. All of these achievements may warrant Gasol to be higher on this list, but seeing as how his career is still ongoing he will continue to surpass the players ahead of him when his career is all said and done.
9. Drazen Petrovic – Croatia
It would be a shame if one of the most electrifying international players ever was left off this list. Drazen Petrovic’s story is one of utter dominance followed by immediate tragedy. He was selected by the Trail Blazers with the 60th pick in the 1986 draft. Despite limited minutes while there, it wasn’t until a trade to the New Jersey Nets where we got to see Petrovic shine brightest. In his second season with New Jersey, he would take over as the Nets full-time starter in all 82 games.
His knack for scoring in almost every way possible is what made him so well-respected by his peers. Whether it be coming off screens both with and without the ball, Petrovic knew he was going to score and there was nothing the defense could do to stop him. He had a killer’s instinct that wanted the opponent to play perfect defense only to be bested by his offensive ability. Spotting up on the perimeter, not a problem for Petrovic, as he was a lethal shooter. He was in a word ‘unstoppable’.
The NBA world was brought to its knees when Petrovic passed away at 28 years of age in an automobile accident in Germany. Just as his career was about to take off to heights that were looking to be insurmountable, it was over in the blink of an eye. In his shortened career, Petrovic still found his way on the All-NBA Third-team in 1992-1993. After only four seasons Petrovic averaged 15.4 points per game and 2.4 assists, numbers that were on the uptick before his sudden death. International dominance was first held by Petrovic, had he continued to perform like he was, might have granted him the top spot on this list.
10. Toni Kukoc – Croatia
Just sneaking onto this list is Croatian playmaker Toni Kukoc. Playing alongside his Airness Michael Jordan certainly raises a players popularity, but it was Kukoc’s play that really caught people off guard. His ability to shoot the ball as well as put the ball on the floor and take his opponents off the dribble gave Kukoc an edge on some of the laterally challenge opponents he faced. It was the height and dexterity that allowed Kukoc offensively to get to the spots he wanted and pour in buckets at a high clip. With his high level of success coming off the bench for the Bulls, he won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award in 1995-1996.
After his glorious Bulls seasons where he captured three NBA championships, Kukoc moved on to join aboard three other NBA teams where he would look to capture similar success. Unfortunately, that was not the case, his numbers took a bit of a dive, but he still remained valuable as a role player to those teams. Kukoc retired after the 2005-2006 season with career averages of 11.6 points per game and 4.2 rebounds per game, while also achieving the All-Rookie second team in his debut season. There has been a heavy influx of international players to play in the NBA with players like Kukoc who can find their own personal niche in this game. Kukoc proved he had belonged in the NBA and his play spoke for himself. A solid contributor to the game gifts Kukoc with the 10th and final spot on this very talented list of international players.
International players who just missed the cut:
Kristaps Porzningis – Latvia
While he may be deserving of being on this list with his dominance in his first few seasons, he needs to continue this level of success to climb his away atop some of these players on the list.
Dennis Schroder – Germany
While he may not have been an immediate starter once drafted, Schroder has continued to improve each year and be labeled as one of the tougher guards to defend in today’s NBA. Much like Porzingis, if he can continue his success, expect him to end up on this list.
Peja Stojakovic – Croatia
While some may be surprised at the Croatian sharpshooter being left off of this list, being a one-trick pony led to other international players surpassing him. That being said Stojakovic had tremendous success in his time in the NBA, becoming a three time NBA All-Star and achieving All-NBA second-team honors once in his career.