The sport of basketball has experienced a rapid growth into a worldwide favorite. Like soccer, the game is popular in different countries and played at various levels. The NBA is the professional pinnacle of basketball, featuring the most talented players as well as some of the most gifted athletes in the world.
For a long period in the NBA’s history, players arrived in the league through U.S. colleges and universities. This meant that the fans were familiar with many names, having followed their careers prior to the draft. But beginning in the early 2000s, there came an influx of foreign-born players and others coming from leagues in places like China, France, and Spain. As the game of basketball grew, so too did the NBA’s pool of talent.
Even for casual NBA fans, a lot of these players are easy to name: Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginóbili. We know their stories because their championship seasons, record-breaking careers, or cultural impact helped shed light on their personal histories. There are plenty more examples of players who started their careers overseas and later arrived at the NBA to find success. With this growth of imported talent, it can also be difficult to keep track of who started where and how one made it to the NBA. So with that said, here are 15 players you may not know started their careers overseas:
15 Brandon Jennings
Brandon Jennings was an absolute stud player in high school, averaging over 35 points per game in his senior year at Oak Hill Academy and leading to countless awards and recognition as the top college prospect of 2008.
After initially considering USC and Arizona as potential college landing spots, Jennings decided to circumvent the NBA's rules on players' age minimum by playing professionally in Europe rather than the NCAA. He became the first player to do so when he signed with Lottomatica Roma in Italy's Lega Basket Serie A in 2008, averaging a little over five points and two assists per game in 27 appearances.
Jennings made it to the NBA the following year and was drafted 10th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks. In four seasons with the Bucks, Jennings never averaged less than 15 points per game but was later traded to the Detroit Pistons before also spending time with the Orlando Magic, New York Knicks, and now the Washington Wizards.
14 Serge Ibaka
Born in the Republic of Congo, Serge Ibaka has played eight seasons in the NBA with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, and Toronto Raptors, becoming known as a defensive force. He has led the league in blocks twice and was named to three consecutive All-Defensive teams.
But few only know how Ibaka's basketball career started or just how far back it goes prior to the NBA. While living in France as a teenager, the 6'10" Ibaka played for the second division team CB L'Hospitalet and averaged over ten points and eight rebounds per game. This brought the attention of NBA scouts, and he was selected 24th overall in the 2008 draft by the Thunder. OKC's decision to stash Ibaka in Europe led to his signing with Ricoh Manresa, a team in Spain's Liga ACB, where he played for one season before debuting at the NBA.
13 Nicolas Batum
Nicolas Batum established himself in the basketball world long before he was picked 25th overall at the 2008 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets. The native of Lisieux, France was part of the 2004 FIBA Europe Under-16 Championship team, MVP of the 2006 FIBA Europe Under-18 Championship tournament, and MVP of the 2006 Under-18 Albert Schweitzer Tournament.
Outside of these national tournaments, Batum's career started with Le Mans Sarthe of the French league. In the 2007-08 season, he averaged 12 points, five rebounds, and nearly four assists per game. It was only a matter of time before the NBA came calling, and Batum eventually became the well-known all-around player fans have watched play for the Portland Trail Blazers and Charlotte Hornets. Just goes to show you can find talent in Europe.
12 Alex Len
Most NBA fans may think that Ukrainian center Alex Len came to the NBA after two seasons at the University of Maryland. While this is true, few may recall that Len actually spent time playing professionally in his home country that resulted in a ten-game suspension at the US NCAA.
Following his emergence in FIBA under-16 and under-18 tournaments, the 7'1" Len signed a professional contract with BC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk of the Ukranian Basketball SuperLeague in 2010. From there, he went on to Maryland and had a productive two years before declaring for the 2013 draft, where he was selected fifth overall by the Phoenix Suns. In four seasons, Len has become a dependable backup center, averaging seven points and six rebounds per game.
11 Dennis Schröder
The Atlanta Hawks point guard and native of Braunschweig, Germany has been called "Dennis the Menace" by some and has been contrasted with Tony Parker and Rajon Rondo. Schröder may have validated some of those comparisons during the 2016-17 season, his first as a starter, by averaging career bests of 18 points, six assists, and three rebounds per game.
Prior to becoming the 17th overall pick at the 2013 NBA Draft, Schröder got his start in his native Germany in 2010. He first played in the second division before working his way up to Braunschweig's top team in the German league. In 2012-13, he was named the league's Most Improved Player and was recognized as Germany's Best Young Player. He's since grown to be a solid NBA player.
10 Jonas Jerebko
Born in Sweden, Jonas Jerebko is the son of former Syracuse University player Chris Jerebko, who himself played professional in Sweden for five years. Jonas was set to take the traditional route to the NBA, accepting a scholarship at the University of Buffalo before ultimately turning it down to start his career with second-tier Swedish team Borås Basket in 2005. From there, he played one season with top division Plannja Basket before moving to Angelico Biella in Italy's top league.
It was there where Jerebko raised his profile, developing into a solid all-around player at the forward position and gaining consideration as a top European talent ahead of the 2009 NBA Draft. He was eventually selected in the second round by the Detroit Pistons, and was a starter his rookie season, averaging nine points and six rebounds. After being acquired by the Boston Celtics in 2015, Jerebko has earned himself a spot in Brad Stevens' rotation primarily for his size and three-point shooting.
9 Goran Dragić
After getting his NBA career off to a slow start with the Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets, Goran Dragić turned things around when he returned to Phoenix as a free agent in 2012. His points and assists per game increased year by year, culminating in the point guard winning the 2014 NBA Most Improved Player award. He was later traded to the Miami Heat, where he has continued to find success as a scorer.
However, there are few fans that probably know how the Slovenian took his time coming stateside. Starting in 2003, his professional career took him from the Slovenian Second Basketball League with KD Ilirija to top-tiered Slovan, a transfer to Spain to play for Murcia, and finally a return to Slovenia with Union Olimpija. Goran Dragić is definitely an example of a player who paid his dues before making it to the NBA.
8 Ersan İlyasova
Ersan İlyasova became a bright spot for the Philadelphia 76ers this season, averaging a career high 14.8 points per game to go along with six rebounds, but still was dealt to the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks mark İlyasova's seventh NBA team since he entered the league in 2006.
Basketball fans might not know the full story of İlyasova's basketball career, or the controversy over his actual age and nationality. The 6'10" power forward started in Turkey's second division with Yeşilyurt in 2003 before making it to the top division the following season with Ülkerspor. His numbers were not exactly eye-popping, but the big man was still selected 36th overall in 2005 by the Milwaukee Bucks. He would go on to have a decent career in the NBA.
7 Tiago Splitter
The Brazilian-born Splitter spent a long, long time playing professional basketball before entering the NBA in 2010 with the San Antonio Spurs. That wait was worth it however, as Splitter played a significant role on the 2014 championship team, which eventually earned himself a salary as high as $10 million.
Outside of Spurs fans, few probably know of Splitter's extensive resume. Playing in Spain's top league, he was MVP of the 2010 season, won a championship in 2008 and 2010, when he was also named Finals MVP, and was an All-Euroleague Team selection. Despite being drafted in 2007 by the Spurs, Splitter stayed overseas and continued to dominate.
His time with San Antonio ended in 2015 when he was traded to the Atlanta Hawks, in turn sending him to the Philadelphia 76ers in 2017. Accustomed to winning no mater what country he is playing in, it will be interesting to see how Splitter's time in Philly progresses.
6 Timofey Mozgov
Most NBA fans probably know Timofey Mozgov for a couple reasons: His brief stint as a fan favorite for the New York Knicks before being part of the Carmelo Anthony trade with the Denver Nuggets, as well as his role, however limited, in helping the Cleveland Cavaliers win the 2016 championship.
But unlike a lot of international players, Mozgov was not drafted by an NBA team or brought into the league with a lot of hype, so his path to the league is not well known. His professional career started in 2004 in his native Russia, playing for the second division LenVo St. Petersburg and then CSK VVS Samara before joining the top division in 2006 with BC Khimki. Mozgov played limited minutes in Russia, so his numbers were relatively low. Still, it was enough for him to sign with the Knicks and start his NBA career.
5 Rudy Gobert
At only 24 years of age, it may be surprising to some to hear that Rudy Gobert has been playing basketball professionally since 2010. The center played for Cholet Basket in the French junior division before making the senior team in 2012.
Gobert declared for the draft in 2012 and gained attention for his height (7'1") and wingspan (7'8.5"), leading the Utah Jazz to select him 27th overall. At the NBA level, Gobert has improved steadily as a big man, and set his career high in points, rebounds, and blocks during the 2016-17 season. Gobert has been a big part of the Utah Jazz's resurgence and he's obviously in their long term plans as they keep trying to make a push toward becoming contenders.
4 Evan Fournier
Evan Fournier has consistently improved his game over his four NBA seasons, increasing his points per game average from 5.3 as a rookie to 17.2 this past season. He was rewarded in 2016 with a five year deal worth $85 million. Not bad for a kid who you may not know debuted at the French B league.
Fournier's professional career began in 2009 when he signed with JSF Nanterre. He then jumped up to the top tier in 2010 and played there for two years before declaring for the 2012 NBA Draft, where he was considered as the top international prospect. That forecast has proven correct as no other foreign player from the class of 2012 has made an impact at the NBA. The Magic are happy to have him.
3 Enes Kanter
Enes Kanter entered the NBA in 2011 and has become a dependable backup center, first for the Utah Jazz, and now the Oklahoma City Thunder. In his last three seasons with OKC, he has averaged 14 points and eight rebounds while only starting 27 of his 180 games.
Kanter had an interesting history prior to being drafted third overall in 2011 behind Kyrie Irving and Derrick Williams. Starting in 2006, he played for the youth squad of Fenerbahçe, a Turkish professional team, and then appeared in a handful of games with the senior squad in 2008. Kanter moved to the U.S. in 2009 with an intention of playing college basketball. However, the NCAA deemed him ineligible for receiving compensation at Fenerbahçe, and as a result, nullified his commitment to play at Kentucky.
2 Udonis Haslem
Udonis Haslem has had a 14-year NBA career with the Miami Heat, where he has won three championships, evolving from a starter to sixth man to veteran locker room presence. The fact that Haslem has stayed with the Heat his entire career is a testament to the type of player he is and his value to the organization on and off the court.
Prior to the NBA, he had a fantastic four-year college career at the University of Florida, where he finished in the school's top-ten all-time leaderboard in points and rebounds. Despite that production, Haslem did not have a direct transition to the NBA. Teams considered him undersized, a poor rebounder, and consistently out of shape. So Haslem headed overseas, signing with Chalon-sur-Saône in France. He played one season there before signing up with the Heat, and the rest is history.
1 Bruce Bowen
Basketball fans know Bruce Bowen for his reputation as a lockdown defender and three-time NBA champion with the San Antonio Spurs. He played in 873 games and another 135 playoff contests in 13 years in the league. Before his run with the Spurs, which culminated in his number being retired, Bowen played for the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers, and Boston Celtics.
If we go back a little further, it may surprise some that Bowen also played in France following his time in college. He went undrafted in 1993, despite 11 of those selected never appearing in an NBA game. Bowen tried his luck in Europe, playing for three teams in France: Le Havre, Évreux, and Besançon. It was 1997 when Bowen finally set foot at the NBA and never looked back, locking down his spot in the league.