The 2016 NBA Draft saw a host of internationally born talents join the greatest basketball league on the planet (including number one overall pick Ben Simmons who hails from Australia) and each of them hope to one day prove that they are indeed worthy of joining not only the ranks of the NBA’s greatest all-time players but the illustrious group of international talent that have helped turn basketball into a truly global game. Players like Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili and Steve Nash have proven that the globe is teeming with international basketball talent capable of forever changing the game.
However, not every foreign NBA player is quite so lucky. Every now and then, the NBA collectively becomes obsessed with a particular piece of foreign talent that seems to be a rare prospect. Though some came up through the college ranks in America, others never set foot in the country a day in their lives much less ever competed against American talent. What all of these players have in common, though, is that they ultimately proved that sometimes the term “international sensation” is just code for “international sensationalism.” They are the 15 worst foreign NBA players of all time.
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15 Oleksiy Pecherov
Although a player’s looks have no bearing on their actual ability (if they did, then the human toothpick Kevin Durant would probably have been a major bust) and it’s generally inadvisable to harp on someone’s physical appearance unless you’d like them to do the same, it still must be said that Oleksiy Pecherov looks exactly like Family Guy’s Stewie Griffin. Somewhere early in his NBA career, Pecherov was plagued with this comparison and it refused to go away. While Pecherov could have turned the joke around through stellar NBA play, this Ukranian power forward didn’t exactly set the court on fire.
As the 18th pick in the 2006 draft, Pecherov was supposed to be a dominating presence for the Washington Wizards. Instead, he spent a few seasons struggling to reach single digit stats before quietly exiting the league and returning to the European system.
14 Uwe Blab
Born in West Germany, Uwe Blab made a name for himself throughout his high school years in Illinois and his college days in Indiana as the guy you want on your team if you happen to like having a dominating center. As dominating centers were all the rage back in the ‘80s (along with synthesizers, Ninja Turtles and shoulder pads), the Dallas Mavericks decided to pick up Blab with the seventeenth pick in the 1985 draft. At the time, it was seen as a brilliant steal by the Mavericks. What nobody could have seen coming, however, was Blab’s general lack of interest in really being a professional basketball player. Though he exhibited this trait on the court by putting up paltry 2.1 PPG and 1.8 RPG stats, off the court Blab later admitted that he just kind of fell into the basketball world and never really considered it to be a great passion.
13 D.J. Mbenga
D.J. Mbenga’s off the court life is a fascinating story. Born Didier Ilunga-Mbenga, D.J. grew up in the present day Republic of Congo when it was known as Kinshasa. His father worked as a government employee which turned out to be a rather unfortunate position to hold when the new regime took power and imprisoned Mbenga’s entire family. Eventually, D.J. and his family would escape to Belgium where D.J. learned to play basketball. Unfortunately, Mbenga’s on the court career is a significantly less enthralling tale.
After he was signed by the Dallas Mavericks in 2004, Mbenga immediately got bit by the injury bug and missed much of his first season. In the handful of games he played in, Mbenga managed to scrape together 1 PPG. In fact, Mbenga’s only memorable in-game moment came in 2006 when he went into the stands to help the wife of coach Avery Johnson who was being harassed by some fans. You can’t argue that Mbenga is a class act, but he was a pretty awful NBA player.
12 Hasheem Thabeet
To be perfectly clear, Hasheem Thabeet was an absolute beast before making it into the NBA. Though he did not start playing basketball until he was 15 (at which point recruiters became wise to this imposing center from Tanzanian) Thabeet quickly garnered a reputation as a true defensive powerhouse during his high school years in Texas. His legacy would only be cemented further by a stop over at UConn, where Thabeet made a name for himself as a master of the shot block who could put up double-digit points as well. As the second overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, Thabeet was widely expected to continue putting up impressive defensive numbers for the Memphis Grizzlies. It wasn’t long into his NBA career, however, before everyone realized that Thabeet just seemed lost on an NBA court. He would sporadically show signs of his former self, but for the most part struggled to even keep up with the pace of a game.
11 Yaroslav Korolev
When a player earns the “high-risk, high-reward” tag as a prospect, many people take that to mean that you’ve got about a 50/50 shot of them turning into a bust or an all-time great. In reality, that tag more often translates into “Theoretically good, but probably not.” For an example, consider the case of Yaroslav Korolev. Many coaches fell in love with Korolev who was touted as a five-tool player during his days in the European system. Everyone knew the warning signs surrounding this player (too young, no real competition, unproven in an NBA system, etc.) but there were just some coaches that couldn’t help but believe they were the ones that could mold this player into greatness.
Ultimately, it was the Clippers that bit on him and the Clippers that suffered because of it. In his first season, Korolev put up 0.5 RPG, 0.4 APG and 1.1 PPG. Things wouldn’t really get better from there, and Korolev would be out of the NBA after just a couple short years.
10 Stojko Vrankovic
When you talk about the full career of Stojko Vrankovic, it’s almost as if you are talking about the career of two different men entirely. Vrankovic’s international work is a spectacular tale of athletic achievement and dazzling moments. Early on in his playing days, this Croation sensation established himself as one of the best shot blockers in the world, period. He not only put up incredible defensive numbers during his EuroBasket days but created a series of moments that will forever be etched into the minds of the fans who witnessed him during this time. The man is a bonafide international hero.
As for his NBA stats…well, they’re not great. Vrankovic got two chances to work his magic in the NBA during the ‘90s, and both time he exhibited a lethargic style of play that made scouts wonder if the tales of his international exploits were some sort of folk myth that everyone bought into.
9 Jerome Moiso
If you’re scratching your head right now wondering who Jerome Moiso is, then you’ve essentially answered why he is on this list. Once upon a time this power forward/center from France was another in a line of highly-touted international stars that everyone thought was going to be the next big thing. The popular theory was that Moiso was such an athletic talent that it was almost impossible for him to not develop into a capable NBA player. The Boston Celtics felt the same and took Moiso with the 11th pick in the 2000 NBA draft (which was, admittedly, kind of a weak year anyway).
Moiso’s name being called out at the draft was the last time many Celtics fans heard it said by an announcer, as NBA commentators rarely found a reason to use it in-game. Moiso spent the rest of his career bouncing between NBA and European teams as a “why not?” utility guy.
8 Maciej Lampe
You have to give the New York Knicks some credit when it comes to Maciej Lampe. Even though that franchise has made some legendary bad picks over the years, they were determined to not let Lampe be one of them. Lampe was touted as a lottery pick kind of talent, but the Knicks held off until the first pick of the second round to get him. Lampe tore apart the summer league season, but the Knicks decided to trade him away in 2004.
Once this Poland-born center finally took the court, the Knicks’ hesitation started to make a lot more sense. Lampe may have been 6-foot-11, but he was regularly abused by players a foot less than his size. Lampe lacked the kind of hustle you need to keep up with the best NBA shooters and quickly found that his “be tall and block the ball” style of defense was just never going to work.
7 Mouhamed Sene
Do you think that there will ever come a day when NBA scouts stop fawning over tape measure heroes? Will there ever be enough red flags surrounding a really large player to finally convince these professionals talent appraisers that just because someone is large does not mean that they will automatically be in charge? Honestly, it’s highly doubtful that would ever be the case as there will always be players like Mouhamed Sene out there. It didn’t matter that Sene was able to coast in his early career by having an impressive 7-foot plus wingspan; NBA teams still felt that his raw size would apply regardless of the competition. As you may imagine, they were proven wrong.
The Seattle SuperSonics bit on Sene with the 10th overall pick in the 2006 draft and rarely found a reason to promote him past the development system. Even there, Sene was not able to post any numbers that you’d associate with a professional basketball player.
6 Darko Milicic
There are a host of players on this list that you may have, rightfully, forgotten about. Even though they were major sensations at the time, many of these foreign players were just never able to make a name for themselves when it came time to actually take the court. That is not the case with Darko Milicic. We know Darko Milicic not necessarily because of his name, but because of the names Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. These were the players that Milicic was taken ahead of in the legendary 2003 NBA draft. Every one of those players, and many more taken after Milicic, were substantially better than this Serbian wonder.
Milicic has often blamed his youth and the NBA system for his failure to become a star. While that may be the case to a degree, his failure probably has more to do with his generic style of play of that never translated into anything more than an occasional decent performance.
5 Michael Olowokandi
Michael Olowokandi has been branded with a lot of tags over the years. The first was “amazing.” As a 7-foot tall center from Nigerian, Olowokandi blew everyone’s minds collegiate star at the University of the Pacific. The kid was simply unstoppable. This led to his next tag of “can’t miss.” You’d have a hard time finding anyone back then that thought Olowokandi was anything less than a sure thing. He not only had the size and the numbers, but he had proven himself in the NCAA system as a guy that could get it done.
When Olowokandi made his way into the NBA, however, he would receive his final tag of “uncoachable.” This one was assigned to him by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who was brought in to help Olowokandi adapt to the NBA. Apparently, Olowokandi refused to believe that he had flaws and rarely took advice on how to improve his game. He might have gotten away with that if it weren’t for the fact that his game was awful.
4 Sun Yue
Did you know that Sun Yue is the name of a dominant Chinese warlord who rose to power via a military coup that allowed him to exercise his strategic brilliance? If not, then you only associate the name with the basketball player Sun Yue who was anything but a dominant force in the NBA. While many foreign prospects are renowned for their sheer size, Sun Yue was a Chinese star who was praised for his incredible point guard abilities (although the fact he was 6-foot-9 probably didn’t hurt). He looked like the kind of generally good player that could be a bench asset at worst, but Yue’s NBA career would form a different legacy for the man.
Even when he wasn’t battling a series of illnesses and injuries, Yue just could not put up numbers in any single category even as a development player. Amusingly, Yue still technically won an NBA championship as a technical member of the Lakers.
3 Frederic Weis
Although it may not seem like it, just being in the NBA doesn’t make you famous. There are a legion of NBA players over the years that have come and gone without even hardcore NBA fans being able to recognize them as professional basketball players. Instead, a player has to be involved in something special for his name to ring out through the world. Most of the time, this involves exceptional skills. In the case of Frederic Weis, it involves him being posterized by Vince Carter. Yes, this is the man who infamously received the most savage offensive visual imaginable when Vince Carter soared over him during a Summer Olympics game. It was dubbed the “Dunk of Death” by the French media. Had that dunk not defined Weis’ career, his brief stint as a member of the New York Knicks would have been easily forgotten.
2 Yi Jianlian
Here’s a good rule when scouting potential NBA talent: if they tell the world that they do not feel they are ready to competitively play in the NBA one year and then reverse their stance the next year despite showing no substantial growth in talent, then perhaps it's best to consider the possibility that they are not, in fact, ready to enter the NBA. Such was the case with Yi Jianlian. After withdrawing from the 2006 NBA draft due to his personal worries that he wasn’t ready, Jianlian reversed his position the very next year. As he was an international star who checked-in at over 7 feet tall, NBA scouts were ready to believe him.
They would have been better off listening to him as Yi Jianlian quickly proved he was no Yao Ming despite the obvious comparisons. Yi actually started his career fairly strong, which only served to prolong the misery that was the rest of his unimpressive career. Yi could just never assert himself the way a man this size is supposed to.
1 Nikoloz Tskitishvili
We’ve seen a lot of trends throughout this list when it comes to identifying major foreign busts before they can plague your team, but the number one cause of this problem always seems to be the “fame by association” issue. This is when a foreign prospect gains a lot of attention not necessarily because they enjoyed a career of domination in their respective countries, but because they are easily compared to another major superstar and everyone assumes they’ll be able to fill the same role. Nikoloz Tskitishvili is the perfect example of this phenomenon. Even though everyone recognized that this kid wasn’t ready for the NBA, the Denver Nuggets felt that he compared so favorably to Dirk Nowitzki that they would be fools to possibly pass up on him with the fifth pick in the 2002 NBA draft. The result was a disaster. Tskitishvili averaged 2.9 PPG and 1.8 RPG over four NBA seasons and was once dubbed by Bill Simmons as the “worst-case scenario for any foreign pick.” Ouch.
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