It used to be a novelty if an NBA team had a European player in their squad, but it is now almost expected. Many European countries have been catching up with the standard of play in the United States, but also revolutionizing the game through playing in different styles and by producing players with different attributes. Teams must now scout countries all around the world to find the top talent. There is currently a crop of elite European players in the NBA, and some of these will go down as some of the finest players to grace the hardwood.
12. Ricky Rubio
Ricky Rubio may have spent a large chunk of his NBA career out injured, but when he is fit, he looks like one of the most promising young point guards in the league. The 24-year-old from Spain is an exciting pass first point guard (PG) with exceptional vision, and you do not get many PGs like this anymore. He was the 5th pick in the 2009 draft after an astonishing early career in Europe, which led many to believe he is the best European guard prospect ever. He did not play his first NBA game until 2011, and he made an immediate impact with his unselfish play. Injuries have held him back, however, with just 22 games played last season. Provided he can stay healthy, and improve his shooting, he could become an elite player in the NBA. In four seasons, Rubio averaged 10.2 PPG, 8.2 APG and 4.3 RPG.
11. Boris Diaw
San Antonio Spurs forward Boris Diaw has proven himself to be a handful throughout his career, but like a fine French wine, he appears to get better with age. He is listed at 6’8″ and plays power forward, but he spent much of his pre-NBA career playing as PG. He has incredible vision and passing ability for a Big Man, and this makes him the perfect fit for the San Antonio Spurs. He was integral in their dismantling of the Heat in the 2014 Finals, with his passing and size causing complete havoc. He may not be fast or explosive, but he is incredibly crafty and can post up smaller players or knock down an open three if left alone. At 33 years old he plays on limited minutes and does not fill the stat-sheet, but he is a brilliant secret weapon for Popovich and also a joy to watch.
10. Marcin Gortat
Whilst Marcin Gortat has impressed throughout his career, he seems to have found a home at Washington, since arriving in 2013, and he has been key in their success. Drafted by the Phoenix Suns in 2005 with the 57th pick, the Polish 6’11” center is a skilled Big Man who averaged 12.2 PPG and 7.6 RPG last season, but his contributions are much more than this. He is not afraid to do the dirty work and he has an infectious positive attitude, and consequently is a favorite with his teammates, the coaching staff and the fans (the Wizards handed out Gortat action figures as a promotional tool last season). The Wizards were agonizingly eliminated by the top-seeded Hawks in the second round (despite some clutch shooting from Paul Pierce), and the Wizards and Gortat will be desperate to advance further this season (although they will have to do this without Pierce).
9. Luol Deng
It has been a challenging few seasons for Luol Deng, who is Sudanese-born but a British citizen. Coming out of Duke, Deng was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 2004 where he seemed to be a perfect fit for their defensive style. He became an All-Star in 2012 and 2013, and had developed into an excellent two-way player. He shouldered plenty of the scoring in Derrick Rose’s absence, but was then traded to the struggling and ill-disciplined Cleveland Cavaliers. Last summer he signed with the Miami Heat and finished with 14 PPG and 5.2 RPG, but he has since exercised his player option for the upcoming season. Deng is an elite defender and always proves to be a thorn in LeBron’s side due to his length and speed, and he would be a great asset for any team. He now needs to find a new home to prove himself again.
8. Nikola Vucevic
Whilst it has been a terrible few years for the Orlando Magic, they have one thing to be positive about, and that is the impressive play of 24-year-old center Nikola Vucevic. After joining from the Philadelphia 76ers, Vucevic started to show his potential and set an Magic franchise record with 29 rebounds in a game in 2012 (he would average 11.9 RPG that season). The Montenegrin has been steadily improving ever since then, and signed a four-year, $53 million contract extension in 2014. He is coming off the back of an excellent season which saw him average 19.3 PPG, 10.9 RPG and 2 APG, and he also scored a career high 37 points in a victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Due to playing for the Magic he is sometimes overlooked, but he is one of the most skilled Big Men in the league and looks to be steadily improving.
7. Serge Ibaka
When discussing the Oklahoma City Thunder, it is usually Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook that people will attribute their success to (aside from last season). Although both are phenomenally talented and integral, it is criminal to overlook the importance of Serge Ibaka. Born in the Republic of Congo, he is a Spanish citizen and plays for their national team. He is an elite defender who has come up just short of winning Defensive Player of the Year on a number of occasions, and he is also the best shot blocker right now and led the league in that category for four straight seasons. He has steadily improved his scoring over the years, and even added a reliable three-point shot to his arsenal which makes him a real handful at 6’10”. The Thunder will be relying on Ibaka this year to fire them back to being an elite team in the West.
6. Goran Dragic
Slovenian-born point guard Goran Dragic started his professional career at the Phoenix Suns, where he played and learned under Steve Nash (this is noticeable when watching him play). He showed glimpses of his potential early on, including a stunning game in the 2010 playoffs against the Spurs, where he helped to overturn an 18-point deficit to win the game. Dragic caught fire with 23 of his 26 points coming in the fourth quarter, shooting 10/13 from the floor and 5/5 from the three-point line (including a four-point play). He returned to Phoenix after a stint in Houston, and this is when he flourished into an elite PG. He won the 2013/14 Most Improved Player award with averages of 20.3 PPG and 5.9 APG, and that season also joined the 20-50-40 club and became just the sixth player to do so. He was traded to the Heat in February of this year.
5. Joakim Noah
There are few players that can ruffle feathers quite like Bulls centre Joakim Noah, who is also a two-time All-Star and 2014 Defensive Player of the Year. He holds American, French and Swedish citizenship, and plays for the French national team. He has been a fantastic leader for a defense-orientated Bulls team in recent years, spearheading their efforts each game, as well as irritating opponents and getting the crowd fired up. He is limited offensively but has worked at knocking down open shots (although an extremely ugly shot), but he makes up for this with his excellent passing ability. Statistically he never stuffs the stat-sheet (particularly after playing a reduced role last season), but his is a great asset and you won’t find a more loyal teammate. Due to his fiery personality (and dislike for LeBron James), he is a fan favorite with many and particularly amongst Chicago fans.
4. Tony Parker
It may not have been the best season for Tony Parker and the Spurs, but he is still an elite PG and the perfect person to run Gregg Popovich’s system. The French PG has spent his entire career at the Spurs under the guidance of Popovich and Duncan, and he has helped them to four NBA titles and picked up the Finals MVP award in 2007. As you would expect of a Spurs PG, he is extremely bright, level-headed and rarely makes a bad decision. He will go down as one of the greatest European players of all time, and although he is aging (33), he is still lightning quick and capable of taking over games. He has a brilliant ability to score in the paint despite being just 6’2″, and has worked tirelessly to become a reliable shooter. He will be desperate to add a fifth ring this season.
3. Pau Gasol
Pau Gasol has been an elite Big Man in the league for many years, and it all began in 2002 with the Memphis Grizzlies (where he won Rookie of the Year). He is their franchise leader in points, rebounds, blocks and field goals made, and after seven years he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he won two NBA titles. The Spanish two-time All-Star was traded to the Bulls last summer, and this appears to have rejuvenated him and provided the Bulls with some much needed firepower. At 34 years old, Gasol poured in a career-high 46 points and finished the season as the league leader in double-doubles whilst averaging 18.5 PPG, 11.8 RPG (career high), 2.7 APG and 1.9 BPG. Although a great fit for the Bulls, he and the team will be disappointed with how their last season finished and will be hungry to advance this year.
2. Marc Gasol
Last season was a special one for the Gasol family, with both Pau and younger brother Marc (30) being voted starters for the All-Star game (first brothers to be voted in). Marc Gasol has been superb for the Grizzlies in recent years, and he has worked tirelessly to get in better shape and become a more complete scorer. Gasol took home the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year award, and he is now one of the most dominant and skilled Big Men in the game, averaging 17.4 PPG, 7.8 RPG and 3.8 APG last year. The blue-collared Grizzlies are the perfect fit for Gasol, and he forms a formidable frontcourt duo with Zach Randolph that proves to be a huge handful for opposing teams. Spirited by an impressive season that saw them knocked out by the eventual champs, Gasol has signed a new five-year max deal with the Grizzlies.
1. Dirk Nowitzki
Not only will Dirk retire as one of the greatest international players, but he will go down as one of the greatest to ever grace the hardwood. Although his production has slowed, it was a landmark year for Nowitzki as he surpassed Elvin Hayes and Moses Malone on the all-time scoring list, putting him in 7th place (he also became top foreign-born scorer). It has been a dazzling career which is highlighted by 13 All-Star selections, an MVP award, NBA Championship and Finals MVP. It is not just his resume, however, as he has also had an enormous impact on the NBA and inspired an entire generation of Big Men to become shooters. At 7’0″, Dirk can score from the post, mid-range and outside, and this caused complete mayhem for defenses. This makes him a revolutionary and important figure, who can still get it done at 37.