The NBA is considered the most elite basketball league in the world. But, as time progresses, there’s one thing that certainly sticks out; the NBA is full of foreign players. Overseas basketball (referencing Europe) is a powerhouse in itself. Euroleague is the top tier of basketball followed by EuroCup, the newly formed Basketball Champions League, VTB United League and FIBA Cup. This all adds to the melting pot that the NBA has become.
While superstars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James declared for the draft at age 18, players hailing from overseas potentially have three years experience of playing professionally.
But most players don’t make the draft and continue playing in Europe. Even American players even find themselves overseas for the competitive professional basketball. Some of the biggest names in the NBA have started their careers overseas and then came to the league. Here’s a list of 20 NBA Players You Might Not Know Started Their Careers Overseas.
20. Marcin Gortat
The 6’11” Poland native who now plays for the Wizards, didn’t jump at the chance to play in the NBA. Beginning his professional career in 2002 in Germany, the 18 year-old Gortat had the chance to work on his game and get much needed minutes to mature as a player. Then being 57th overall draft pick in 2005 by the Phoenix Suns, Gortat opted to keep playing in Cologne, Germany, where his team won the domestic championship and played in Euroleague. Later having his rights traded to the Orlando Magic, Gortat signed with the Magic in August of 2007. Playing for Orlando meant being a backup to Dwight Howard, but Gortat has since made his way off the bench and into starting positions with the Phoenix Suns and is currently the starting center for the Washington Wizards.
19. Rudy Gobert
Hailing from France, Rudy Gobert’s new home has been with the Utah Jazz for the past three years. But before being the 27th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, Gobert started playing professional in France. Being the son of a former professional basketball player, big things were expected of Gobert in his native town. Joining Cholet basketball club at just 15 years old, Gobert played mostly for the junior team, but still put up impressive enough numbers to declare for the NBA Draft. Since his rookie season, when he went back and forth between the Utah Jazz and their development team, the Bakersfield Jam, Gobert has been steadily improving to show he’s a force on the floor. While he still hasn’t become a dominant offensive player, he’s a monster around the rim, averaging 11.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game last year. The sky is truly the limit for the talented French center.
18. Timofey Mozgov
If you’re an avid NBA fan, then you’ve seen “Mozgov” on the back of three jerseys over the past six seasons. Timofey Mozgov, a Russian native, started his career there as well. Mozgov started in the Russian second tier division back in 2004, playing for St. Petersburg, then moving to another second division team in Samara in 2006. But before the season started, Mozgov signed with Khimki Moscow Region, a top level team that plays in the VTB United League and Euroleague. Mosgov actually went undrafted in the 2008 NBA draft, but was picked up in 2010 by the New York Knicks. Since then, the 7’1” center has played for the Denver Nuggets, Cleveland Cavaliers and recently signed a four year, $64 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.
17. Giannis Antetokounmpo
It’s okay if you can’t pronounce his last name, as neither can we. What we can do is tell you that the 21 year old star of the Milwaukee Bucks started his journey across the pond in Greece, where he was born and raised. Antetokounmpo first picked up a ball in 2007 and by 2009 he was playing competitively for Filathlitikos’ youth squad. In 2012, Antetokounmpo played for the senior squad of Filathlitikos, in the Greek second tier division (Greek A2). In 2013, Antetokounmpo made himself eligible for the NBA Draft and was picked 15th overall to the Milwaukee Bucks based on his massive potential. Since the draft Antetokounmpo has made a name for himself in Milwaukee and at just 21 years old he’s just getting started.
16. Dennis Schröder
At just 6’1″, this point guard is making a name for himself in the NBA. Dennis Schröder hasn’t been a starter for the Atlanta Hawks, though that’s likely to change as Jeff Teague was traded this summer, but he’s been a value bench player and extremely entertaining to watch. Schröder was born in Germany and started his professional career there at the ripe age of 16 in 2010. Schröder played for a second division team in Germany and made his way to the first division by the 2011-2012 season, playing 30 games for Phantoms Braunschweig. After being named to play in the Nike Hoop Summit game in 2013, Schröder declared for the draft where he was 17th pick overall by the Atlanta Hawks. Just this past season, Schröder averaged 20 minutes, 11 points, 4.4 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game. Oh and did we mention he’s only 22?
15. Danilo Gallinari
Talk about starting from the bottom. This Italian superstar started his career in the third division of Italy’s league in 2004. After one season, Gallinari found his way to the second division, then one season after that, a first division team that played internationally in the ULEB Cup (a second tier European-wide competition). In the 2007-2008 season, Gallinari played in Euroleague, posting impressive stats and was even awarded the Rising Star of the league. After that phenomenal season, Gallinari declared for the 2008 NBA Draft where he was the 6th overall pick. Drafted by the New York Knicks, Gallinari spent three seasons in the Big Apple before being traded to the Denver Nuggets in 2011. Since 2011, the 6’10” small forward seems to have some bad luck with injuries, but despite that still puts up solid numbers for the Nuggets.
14. Kristaps Porzingis
Putting Latvia on the map, the 21 year old New York Knicks star started his professional playing career like many others on this list, at very young age. At just 15 years old, Porzingis was off to Spain after playing for his hometown since the age of 6. Porzingis played for a youth team in Spain to face more intense competition. From there he played professionally in Spain with a top level team. Not to say the road was easy, as Porzingis played limited minutes, if any, with Cajasol Sevilla during his rookie season in 2012. He stayed with Sevilla for two seasons before declaring, but then withdrew his name from the 2014 NBA Draft. The 7’3″ Latvian wanted more time to develop his game and declared for the draft the following year. It turned out to be a good decision as he became the 4th overall pick in the 2015 draft and a terrific rookie season. Porzingis’ not-so-warm-welcome by fans booing at the draft has surely turned around for the rookie.
13. Goran Dragić
Starting in Slovenia and now in Miami, it’s been quite the ride for Goran Dragić. Beginning his professional basketball career at 17, Dragić played for a second division team in Slovenia for one season before making his way up to the Premier A League. He spent two years with club Slovan of Slovenia, one year playing professionally in Spain and then went back to Slovenia where Dragić won the domestic championship and played in Euroleague. Declaring for the NBA Draft in 2008, the point guard was selected in the second round (45th overall) by the San Antonio Spurs, before he was quickly traded to the Phoenix Suns. He played for the Suns and Rockets before making his way to South Beach to lead the Heat into the post-Dwyane Wade era.
12. Serge Ibaka
Born in the Republic of Congo, but representing Spain, Serge Ibaka didn’t spend much time overseas, but it was still the stepping stone he needed to be drafted to the NBA. At the age of 17, Ibaka moved to France to play professionally, where he then decided to teach himself Spanish and move to Spain to pursue basketball. Playing in the second division of Spain, Ibaka put up 10.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game before entering himself in international showcases where he got the attention of NBA scouts. The 6’10” power forward entered the 2008 Draft where he was selected 24th overall by the Seattle SuperSonics, who are now the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder agreed to keep Ibaka in Europe, where he signed a three year contract in Spain with the option to leave for the NBA after each season. But just after one season, the Thunder paid the buyout and signed Serge to a two year contract. Since then, Ibaka has been blocking shots and putting up big numbers for the Thunder. At the end of the 2015-2016 season, Ibaka was traded to the Orlando Magic, where he’ll hope to keep up his elite play.
11. Andrei Kirilenko
Recently retired from playing, Andrei Kirilenko, famously nicknamed AK-47 for his initials and jersey number, began professionally playing basketball at age 15 in Russia, as Kirilenko became the youngest player to ever compete in the Russian Basketball Super League. Playing for CSKA Moscow for three seasons (1998-2001) and putting up impressive stats along with winning league MVP in 2000, Kirilenko joined the Utah Jazz two years later when he was drafted 24th overall in the 1999 NBA Draft. In his 10 years with the Jazz, he proved himself as a top defender in the league and clutch scorer. Although his stints with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers didn’t pan out, Kirilenko made his way back to Russia for a final year of basketball. After retiring, the 35 year-old became the head of the Russian Basketball Federation.
10. Hedo Türkoglu
The Turkish forward started his career in Turkey, where from 1996-2000 he played in the most elite league overseas, the Euroleague. Türkoglu shot 58% during his time in Turkey and even made it to the final four of the Euroleague in 2000. Declaring for the NBA Draft in 2000, Hedo was selected in the first round, 16th overall by the Sacramento Kings. Türkoglu holds the honor of being the first Turkish-born NBA player. From there, Türkoglu received the NBA All-Rookie Second Team honor in 2001 and the NBA Most Improved Player award in 2008. Türkoglu played for the Kings, Spurs, Magic(x2), Raptors Suns and Clippers. Since his retirement, the 6’10” forward now is the CEO and senior advisor for the Turkish Basketball Federation.
9. Vlade Divac
This list wouldn’t be complete without adding a few legends to it. Vlade Divac began his professional playing career in Yugoslavia for three seasons, then he moved to Belgrade for another three. In the European basketball world, Serbian teams are known for their grueling practices and high level of play. Divac didn’t disappoint during his time there, competing in Euroleague and becoming a top player in all of Europe. That attention caught the eye of the LA Lakers, who drafted Divac in the first round of the 1989 draft. Over his career, he played with the Lakers, Hornets and Kings, making a huge impact on the court. His jersey (21) is now retired by the Kings and after 16 years in the NBA, he is now the general manager of the Kings.
8. Ricky Rubio
If there was ever a player to make you feel like your teenage years were wasted, it’s definitely Ricky Rubio. The Minnesota Timberwolves star started his professional career at age 14. YES, 14 years old. From 2005-2009, Rubio played for in the Spanish ACB League. At age 16, while most of us were popping pimples, Rubio made his first appearance in Euroleague. Drafted in 2009 (1st round, 5th pick) by the Timberwolves, Rubio’s high buyout clause caused him to continue to play in Europe. During his professional career in Europe, Rubio managed to win the FIBA Europe Under-16 Champion(’06), EuroChallenge Champion(’06), 3x FIBA Young Player of the Year (’07-’09), Mister Europa Player of the Year (’08), EuroCup Champion (’08), ACB Defensive Player of the Year (’09), ACB Most Spectacular Player of the Year (’10), Euroleague Rising Star (’10), Euroleague Champion (’10) and finally Spanish League Champion (’11). It feels like Ricky Rubio has been around forever, but he’s only 25 years old.
7. Marc Gasol
The Spanish center for the Memphis Grizzlies, Marc Gasol is no stranger to the professional basketball spotlight. Coming to America as a teenager for his older brother’s NBA career, Gasol played high school basketball in the states. Right after graduation, he returned to Spain to play professionally. From 2003-2006, Gasol played for FC Barcelona, and from 2006-2008 played for Akasvayu Girona. In those years, he acquired the Liga ACB Championship (’04), Spanish SuperCup Championship (’04), EuroChallenge Championship (’07) and Spanish League MVP (’08). Playing for the Spanish National Team, Gasol also has 3 gold, 3 silver, and 1 bronze medals. The 7’1″ center has been with the Grizzlies since signing in 2008 after being drafted 48th overall in the 2007 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers, who traded Gasol’s draft rights to Memphis.
6. Predrag “Peja” Stojaković
Starting his career in Belgrade, Serbia, Peja Stojaković was able to cross national champion off his list before hitting 16 years old. From then, he moved to Greece where he played professionally under PAOK from 1994-1998. While playing in Greece, Stojaković was averaging well over 20 points in Euroleague games, which resulted in being the 14th overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft. Signing with the Sacramento Kings in ’98, Stojaković had a subpar two seasons before showing the league what he’s truly made of in the 2000-2001 season; which solidified him as one of the greatest players to ever step foot on the court. The 6’9″ small forward played 13 seasons in the NBA before his retirement in 2011 and during his years in the league, Stojaković was an NBA 3-Point Shootout Champion (’02, ’03), All NBA Second Teamer (’04), NBA All Star (’02, ’03, ’04) and ended his career with an NBA Championship with the Dallas Mavericks. His number 16 is retired by the Sacramento Kings, where Stojaković now works as director of player personnel.
5. Dražen Petrović
This top 20 wouldn’t be possible without Dražen Petrović, the Yugoslavian guard who paved the way for many athletes on this list today. Petrović started his professional career at age 15 in Croatia, playing four years with Sibenka (’79-’83) before moving to Cioban (Zagreb, Croatia) for the next four seasons. While playing for Cioban, Petrović would post ridiculous stats, sometimes scoring up to 60 points a game. During his professional career overseas, Petrović was decorated in many awards and championships, as he won Best Athlete of Yugoslavia (’85), Yugoslav Sportsman of the Year (’85), Croatian Sportsman of the Year (’85,’86), 2x Euroleague Championship (’85,’86), FIBA World Championship MVP (’86), 2x Mr. Europa Award (’86,’93), 4x Eurostar Award (’86,’89,’92,’93), and FIBA Eurobasket MVP (’89). Petrović was selected in the 3rd round of the 1986 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers, but continued playing overseas and signed with Real Madrid in Spain. In 1989, he signed with the Trail Blazers, where his style of play did not match. A trade with the New Jersey Nets started Petrović’s legacy in the NBA, where he averaged 19.5 points per game. Unfortunately, he was killed in a car crash after the ’92-’93 season, at just 28 years old. Now his memory lives on in the Basketball Hall of Fame and the FIBA Hall of Fame.
4. Manu Ginóbili
Emanuel David Ginóbili Maccari, or as the sports world knows him Manu Ginóbili, started his professional career in Argentina. Ginóbili is no stranger to the grind that is overseas basketball, spending the first three years of his career in his native country, then moving to Italy for the game. Ginóbili spent the 1998-1999 season in the second division in Italy. After that, Manu entered the draft and was the 57th overall pick to the San Antonio Spurs. But, Ginóbili didn’t pack up and head to the NBA, his team had moved up to the first division and he had business to tend to, which is exactly what he did. Over the next three years, Ginobili was a Euroleague Champion (’01), Euroleague Finals MVP (’01), FIBA Americas Championship MVP (’01), 2x Italian League MVP (’01, ’02), Italian Cup MVP (’02), and All-Euroleague First Teamer (’02). Now considered one of the greatest overseas players to ever come to the NBA, his elite play in the NBA would’t have been possible without his overseas experience.
3. Pau Gasol
Beginning his professional career at 16 years old with the junior team in Barcelona, Pau Gasol is now a 20 year veteran in the basketball world. The 36 year-old is widely known for his two NBA Championships with the Lakers, his NBA Rookie of the Year Award, and his six NBA All Star selections. But, before all of this, the 7-footer was just trying to get minutes in the ACB Spanish League with FC Barcelona. From 1998-2001, Gasol played professionally in Spain, not getting many minutes during his rookie season, just 25 to be exact. However, by the end of 2001, Gasol was a Spanish League Finals MVP (’01), Spanish King’s Cup MVP (’01) and a 2x Spanish League Champion (’99, ’01). Entering the 2001 NBA draft, Gasol was picked third overall by the Atlanta Hawks who traded his draft rights to the Memphis Grizzlies. Gasol still remains the Grizzlies all-time leading scorer and a force in the NBA.
2. Tony Parker
At just 6’2″, Tony Parker has dominated the point guard position for the San Antonio Spurs since they drafted him in 2001. Parker, who grew up in France, started his professional career there as well. Playing in amateur leagues from ’97-’99, Parker signed professionally with Paris Basket Racing where he remained for two seasons. The frenchman showed his versatility at the Nike Hoop Summit in 2000, where many college scouts took an interest, but Parker returned to France for one more season before entering the draft. Receiving the French League Rising Star Award in 2001, it was just the beginning of the long list of awards that Tony Parker has on his resume. Drafted 28th overall, he has led the Spurs to four NBA Championships (’03,’05,’07,’14), is a 6x NBA All-Star (’06,’07,’09,’12-’14), NBA Finals MVP (’07), 3x All-NBA Second Team (’12-’14), All-NBA Third Team (’09), NBA All-Rookie First Team (’02), NBA Shooting Stars Champion (’06), and NBA Skills Challenge Champion (’12). It’s hard to imagine the Spurs without Parker, but it doesn’t look like that day is coming soon as the 33 year-old remains one of the most efficient guards in the league.
1. Dirk Nowitzki
The German basketball player began his career and training at just 15 years old and by 16 had already made a professional team. During his four seasons in Germany, Dirk Nowitzki was deemed the best professional player in the country,and praised for his ball handling and shooting skills; something worth noting since the power forward stands at 7 feet tall. Nowitzki played in the 1998 Nike Hoop Summit game, where he managed 33 points and 14 rebounds. That game jumpstarted his exposure to the NBA. Entering the 1998 draft, Nowitzki was chosen ninth overall by the Bucks before he was traded to the Mavericks. Since thenm the Dallas Mavericks all-time leading scorer has led them to a championship in 2011, where he was the MVP. The 13x NBA All-Star (’02-’12, ’14, ’15) was also named the league’s MVP in ’07, he is a 4x All-NBA First Team (’05-’07, ’09), 5x All-NBA Second Team (’02, ’03, ’08, ’10, ’11), 3x All-NBA Third Team (’01, ’04, ’12), the NBA Three-Point Shoot Champion of ’06, and the NBA Shooting Stars Champion of 2010. The 38 year-old just resigned with the Mavericks this past summer for the next two seasons and is showing the world that age is just a number.
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