The NBA is rife with international talent, with a large percentage of this talent coming from the European countries. At the start of the season it was proudly announced that an NBA record was set, with 101 international players from 37 different countries and territories set to play this campaign. There was a time when European players and players from other areas around the world were not as prominent, and if a team did have a player from a country such as Russia then it was a large talking point. Fast forward to today, and most teams have at least one key international player on their roster, and the San Antonio Spurs will sometimes have five non-American players on the court. Whether they like it or not, the rest of the world is catching up with the United States, and European countries such as Spain, Turkey, Russia, Lithuania, France and Germany all having high quality international teams and setups which produce top talent.
Many of the European faces that we see in the NBA today will develop like American prospects by attending college in the States before entering the draft, but it is becoming more and more common for teams to scout leagues in Europe (and other areas) to find the top talent and import them stateside. It is not just an expansion of talent that we have seen. The globalization of the NBA has resulted in games now being played outside of the U.S. and Canada, which have proven to be a huge success and have helped attract new international fans. The NBA is now broadcast in 215 countries and territories and available in 47 different languages.
The future is bright for the NBA as basketball becomes a global game, and a simple look at any NBA roster and you are sure to see a handful of European players or players from other areas of the world. Europe is a key area and somewhere that some of the NBA’s finest has come from, so it is worth taking a look at who the top European players are in the NBA right now. Honorable mentions for Andrei Kirilenko and Hedo Turkoglu, who have both been excellent throughout their careers but are now in decline.
20. Donatas Motiejunas (Lithuania)
The arrival of Josh Smith and the upcoming return of Terrence Jones will see Motiejunas have less playing time, but expect the Lithuanian to fight for his spot and still provide valuable contributions for the Rockets. He is in just his third year but he has made great strides of late, and provides a real handful for opposing teams. He can play both power forward and center, but can also step outside on both ends of the floor.
He is 7 feet tall and has the ability to knock down the threes but he also has excellent footwork in the post, which will always create issues for teams trying to match up. He is a solid defender both inside and out, and has a fantastic habit of altering and contesting opponents’ shots. Provided he gets the opportunity to get game experience, Motiejunas look set to have a bright future in this league.
19. Beno Udrih (Slovenia)
Beno Udrih has enjoyed a successful career in the NBA, and the veteran is now providing a very reliable backup role for Michael Conley on an impressive Grizzlies team. Udrih played his first three seasons for the Spurs which has clearly helped him develop into the solid player he is today, and here he also picked up two rings and gained invaluable experience (although in a small role).
He has bounced around the league since then with his most impressive season coming in 2010-11 with the Kings, where he averaged 13.7 PPG, 3.4 RPG and 4.9 APG, shooting 50% from the floor. This season Udrih can provide the Grizzlies with much needed experience, he can run the offense, score and play defense. It will be interesting to see how he and the Grizzlies fare come the post-season.
18. Jose Calderon (Spain)
Although this season he finds himself on a woeful and possibly tanking Knicks team and consequently his numbers are down, Calderon has proven himself to be a very reliable point guard since he entered the league back in 2005. The 33-year-old may be past his prime, but he still earns a spot on this list for his intelligent play and 3-point shooting. This season he has averages of 9.2 PPG, 3.3 RPG and 4.2 APG, shooting an impressive 41.5% from behind the arc. Calderon could be the next Knick out the door as they look to clear the decks, and he could be a valuable pickup for a team looking to add a reliable shooter and experienced guard to their ranks.
17. Evan Fournier (France)
Now playing a larger role for the Magic, Evan Fournier appears to be flourishing under Jacque Vaughn. The 6-foot-7 guard from France was used sparingly in Denver, but now in Orlando, Fournier is playing around 30 minutes a game and both learning and impressing on the job. This season he is averaging 13.6 PPG and has 16 games with 15 points or more. He even poured in a career high 28 against the Knicks in November. Fournier appears to be in the perfect learning environment, and expect his play to continue to improve as he gains valuable experience with the Magic.
16. Omer Asik (Turkey)
Although project “Asik and Destroy” isn’t working out quite as well as the Pelicans would like, Omer Asik is still an excellent defender and rebounder. He was brought in from Houston to play alongside Anthony Davis and improve the team’s defense. Whether he has or not is debatable, but his rebounding has certainly helped with 9.8 per game. He impressed in his Pelicans debut with 14 points, 17 boards and 5 blocked shots, but he has yet to put up similar numbers. He is very limited offensively and a poor free-throw shooter and these are areas where he needs to improve. Despite these limitations, Asik is still a great import from the Turkish League.
15. Nikola Mirotic (Spain/Montenegro)
Before heading stateside, Nikola Mirotic enjoyed a stellar few years in the Euroleague with Real Madrid. He is now in his rookie year with the Bulls, but it has not taken him long to adjust to the NBA and he took home the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month award for December. At 6-foot-10 he is capable of playing both small and power forward, and his ability to step behind the arc to knock down threes has been key in helping the Bulls to their impressive start.
Last month he dropped 27 points and pulled down 8 boards, proving that he can be another weapon in what is shaping up to be a Chicago team brimming with talent, but more importantly a group of players with a team based mentality.
14. Mirza Teletovic (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Mirza Teletovic has steadily improved since entering the association in 2012, and at times he has shown that he can be deadly. His main weapon has been his 3-point shot, and playing the power forward position, this always creates problems. He has not been shooting as well this season, but this has seen him begin to develop other aspects of his game. His top performance this season came against the Spurs, where he scored 26 points on 9 of 13 (5 of 7 from deep), while pulling down an impressive 15 boards. If he continues to develop other aspects of his game and regain his stroke then he will become a very valuable asset.
13. Nikola Pekovic (Montenegro)
The departure of Kevin Love in the off-season meant that Nikola Pekovic would need to step up his game if the Timberwolves were to challenge for the playoffs, but injuries have held Pekovic to just nine games this season. He was excellent playing alongside Love last season, averaging 17.4 PPG and 8.7 RPG to create a formidable and bruising front court. He will be eager to get back on the court, but it seems unlikely that the Timberwolves will make the playoffs anytime soon and this could hold Pekovic back in terms of his reputation and development.
12. Marco Belinelli (Italy)
After bouncing around the league for a few years it seems like 28-year-old Marco Belinelli has found a home in San Antonio. Since being drafted in 2007, Belinelli has played for Golden State, Toronto, New Orleans and Chicago before landing in San Antonio in 2013. This season has seen him post some of his best averages, and he also plays an important role in Gregg Popovich’s system.
Last season Belinelli shot a career high 43% from behind the arc and won the 3-point shoot-out, plus he chipped in 11.4 PPG, providing valuable firepower off the bench. He became the first Italian to win an NBA championship, and will be eager to help the Spurs repeat.
11. Nicolas Batum (France)
Although his numbers are down this year, Nicolas Batum is an important part of a very young and exciting Blazers team. He has been with Portland since entering the league in the 2008-09 season, and in this time he has proven that he can fill up the statsheet in all departments. His defensive play is an important asset to the Blazers, as he has exceptional length and a fantastic shot blocking ability, particularly when chasing on a fast break. Portland is enjoying a phenomenal season, but will need Batum back to his best if they are to make a deep playoff run.
10. Ricky Rubio (Spain)
Spain’s 24-year-old Ricky Rubio is somewhat of a prodigy, making his first appearance in a Euroleague game at just 15 years old and going on to dominate just a few years later. The pass-first point guard is a joy to watch and has extraordinary vision and passing ability, but has yet to reach his potential in the NBA and he has struggled to adjust at times. He appeared to be coming into his own earlier this season, averaging 9.4 PPG on a career high 42.6% from the floor and an impressive 10 APG, but an unfortunate ankle injury he suffered in November keeps him out indefinitely. The Timberwolves desperately need his wizardry, but it is important not to rush back a youngster that has such high potential.
9. Marcin Gortat (Poland)
When your team designs your own action figure and hands them out as a promotional tool, then you know you have made it in the NBA. Lucky Wizards fans will get to take home their own Marcin Gortat action figure at the end of the month, and it’s a testament to how important he is to an improving Washington team. At 6-foot-11, Gortat is an imposing force in the paint, and this year he has impressed with 12.3 PPG, 8.1 RBG and 1.3 BPG. He also has an infectious positive attitude on the court which rubs off on his teammates, and it will be interesting to see how he and the Wizards do in the postseason where Gortat’s size and presence could be key in the East.
8. Luol Deng (Great Britain)
Luol Deng is a coach’s dream and was a key part of the Bulls a few years ago, as he is a hard worker who understands the importance of defense. He improved his offensive game to become a formidable player, and deservedly became a two time All-Star. The Sudanese born but British citizen is now in his first season in Miami, averaging 13.8 PPG and 4.8 RPG. Deng is also one of the better lockdown defenders in the league, and his length and speed has been a thorn in LeBron’s side anytime the two face off. This could be a fascinating story should LeBron face his former team in the postseason.
7. Goran Dragic (Slovenia)
As 2014’s Most Improved Player, 2nd round pick Goran Dragic has been a revelation for the Suns and they have a fantastic guard on their hands that will remind many Phoenix fans of Steve Nash. He had a breakout game in the 2010 playoffs against the Spurs, helping the Suns to overturn an early 18-point deficit to win the game. Dragic poured in 23 of his 26 points in the fourth, connecting on all four attempts from downtown. He has not looked back since then, and last season he averaged an impressive 20.3 PPG, 5.9 APG, 3.2 RPG and 1.4 SPG. He is one of the brightest guards in the league and very entertaining to watch.
6. Boris Diaw (France)
Like a fine French wine, Boris Diaw just seems to get better with age. In last year’s playoffs and this season he has played like that infuriatingly crafty old guy in a pick-up game who plays in slow motion, yet his intelligence and creativity make him unstoppable and a little bit cheeky. He passes like a PG (which he previously played), and his passing was one of the difference makers in an unforgettable finals series last season. He can play and defend a number of positions, post up or shoot the 3-pointer when he needs to, making him a valuable asset to the Spurs team and a joy to watch.
5. Joakim Noah (France)
Last year Joakim Noah took home the Defensive Player of the Year award, and this was well deserved as he spearheaded the defensive effort for the Bulls who frustrated every team with their stingy play. He is also a fantastic leader and knows how to get the crowd fired up, making him a fan favorite with many.
Noah has a reduced role this year, but he is still an essential weapon and will not mind playing a reduced role if it benefits the team. He is limited offensively and possesses one of the strangest shots you will see, but he has clearly worked at his shot and he has the ability to knock down an open 18 footer. His knack for getting under opponents’ skin, firing up his team and the crowd, as well as his defensive play will be crucial come the playoffs.
4. Pau Gasol (Spain)
While it appeared that Pau Gasol’s career was floundering during his last few seasons in Los Angeles, his move to Chicago has revitalized the Spaniard who is back to his best. The 34-year-old is averaging a double double with 19 PPG, 11.4 RPG and 2.6 APG and appears to be the missing piece of the puzzle for a Bulls team that has lacked offensive firepower, and especially from in the post.
He has fit in seamlessly with the team and looks set to get his first start in the All Star game this season. Provided they stay fit, the Bulls have a great shot at making the finals this year, and what a fascinating and fierce series it would be if he went up against his younger brother…
3. Marc Gasol (Spain)
Marc Gasol personifies the burly Memphis Grizzlies, a team that has emerged as a serious contender this year and play a blue collar brand of basketball. Marc Gasol was in his brother’s shadow for many years, but after shedding some weight (but not too much) and working on his offensive game which now includes an 18-foot jump shot, a range of post moves and great awareness, he has emerged as one of the best centers in the league.
His averages have improved this year, where he contributes 19.5 PPG, 8.1 RPG and 3.6 APG. He has become a leader for Memphis, and playing alongside Zach Randolph the Grizzlies dominate under the basket and will cause great problems in the playoffs for any team.
2. Tony Parker (France)
Not only is Tony Parker one of the greatest Europeans in the NBA at the moment, he is one of the greatest international players of all time. Under Gregg Popovich’s guidance, Parker has emerged as an elite point guard and an integral part of San Antonio’s dominance. He can perfectly run the offense, he is still lighting quick at 32 years old, he has an incredible ability to finish amongst taller opponents despite his size and he has worked hard to become a reliable shooter.
He has four Championship rings and was the Finals MVP in 2007, and after last year it would not be a surprise to see the Spurs win again. Injuries have hampered his play this season, but provided he and his partners in crime are fit for the playoffs then you wouldn’t bet against Parker and co.
1. Dirk Nowitzki (Germany)
He’s 7th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list and still climbing, he’s a regular season MVP, NBA champion, NBA Finals MVP, 12 time All-Star and one team man. Dirk Nowitzki is one of the greatest to play the game. Nowitzki has played an important role in how the NBA has evolved since he entered the league in 1998, as a 7-foot power forward who could step behind the 3-point line had not been seen before. This caused havoc for defenders, but crucially Nowitzki also possesses a crafty post up game and has an enormous array of shots in his arsenal. Nowitzki has inspired a generation of big men to become high percentage shooters. It is now common to see big boys comfortably knock down threes and mid range jump shots, and particularly players coming out of Europe as this list demonstrates.
This year, 36-year-old has been surrounded by talent and continues to dazzle, and he will be hungry to add a second ring to his collection and possibly climb the ladder a few spots before he hangs up his shoes as one of the greatest and most revolutionary players to play the game.
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