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Tuesday, September 26, 2023


Craig’s List: NBA teams going international

Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Spain, Russia and Italy.

In case readers are wondering, this isn’t a list of favorites to win next summer’s World Cup.

These countries are producing NBA stars at an increasing rate.The interational NBA player is no longer the novelty he was during the ’90s. Once thought of as ‘projects’ or long-shot gambles, they are now becoming the face of today’s game.

Some people will argue this stems from the deterioration of the American game, but it is actually a byproduct of the world catching up to the sport Dr. Naismith and his peach basket gave birth to. Youngsters from around the globe were exposed for the first time to the American sport when they watched the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball ‘Dream Team.’

No longer would driveway emulations be reserved for ‘Any Town, USA.’ That generation and those to follow had new heroes, new outlets for their athletic ability and a new way to live the American Dream: make it to the NBA.

This regular season, there were 77 international players, hailing from 32 countries other than the U.S., on NBA rosters. This statistic begs the question: who are the greatest international players to lace ’em up in the NBA?

Tim Duncan is not included on this list because of his birthplace. The U.S. Virgin Islands is a U.S. territory. My list, my technicalities.

10. Manu Ginobli (Argentina)

Announcers should call Ginobli the ‘Argentinean Assassin’ because he will find a way to make things happen.

He has an unorthodox style of play, from the way he defends to the body-twisting shots in the lane that remind fans of those action figures with separate upper and lower halves of a body.

Rockets fans may not like this selection, but people have to give props when they’re due. Besides, three NBA championship rings, an Olympic Gold Medal and winning the 2007-2008 Sixth Man of the Year Award says enough.

9. Tony Kukoc (Croatia)

One of the earlier members of the initial migration, Kukoc was an award-winning player in his time in Europe before coming stateside.

The Chicago Bulls drafted Kukoc in 1990, but didn’t suit up until 1993. The wait was worth it, as the ‘Croation Sensation’ became a huge part of the Bulls’ six titles.

At 6-11, he still had the handles and soft touch to play multiple positions on the court, killing you from inside and outside. Because the Bulls teams he played on were so stacked, he was usually the first guy off the bench. This arrangement worked well, especially when Kukoc won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award in 1996.

8. Drazen Petrovic (Croatia)

Before readers start saying ‘Drazen who?’, do a little homework.

Before having his life cut short by a fatal car wreck, he was a rising star in the NBA. He averaged 20-plus points per game and was named to the All-NBA third team prior to the accident.

His skills and proficiency from beyond the arc alone warrant placement on this list, but had he lived, he would undoubtedly be higher.

7. Dikembe Mutombo (Congo)

He makes this list largely because of longevity.

Although Mutumbo was never the offensive player that most of the others on the list were, he more than made up for it with his defense. He ranks second on the all-time blocked shots list and was an outstanding rebounder.

Mutumbo gets a lot of extra points for his humanitarian efforts. He evolved into an ambassador for the NBA while paying, with his own money, for the construction of a hospital in the Congo. He is the polar opposite of today’s ‘me-first’ professional athletes.

6. Steve Nash

This point guard is probably the greatest thing (legally speaking) to come from our neighbors to the north since Canadian bacon.

Nash has been the new standard by which all of today’s point guards are measured. He’s a two-time MVP and the catalyst behind the always-entertaining, high-paced Phoenix Suns teams.

He runs the pick-and-roll as if he invented it and, defense aside, doesn’t have a real flaw in his game. If he continues his current pace, he may end up higher on future compilations and eclipse some of the game’s greatest point guards.

5. Detlef Schrempf (Germany)

Here is another one of those players who a lot of younger fans may not have heard of. But, once again, today’s international stars have Schrempf to thank for paving the way.

After a slow start to his career with the Dallas Mavericks in the mid-’80s, Schrempf made a name for himself in the early ’90s with the Indiana Pacers along with fellow import Rick Smits and American Reggie Miller. He possessed an outside jumper – seemingly a prerequisite for all international big men – and could post up on opponents.

Schrempf won back-to-back Sixth Man of the Year Awards in 1991 and 1992. By 1993, he had stepped up his game enough to be voted to his first All-Star team. After the 1992-93 season, Indiana traded Schrempf to the Seattle Supersonics, where he tormented the Rockets and the rest of the Western Conference for years to come.

4. Vlade Divac (Serbia)

Divac may have further advanced the cause for today’s international players than the others.

Divac possessed a skill set never before seen for a seven-footer. He could hit outside jumpers and he had a low-post game.

For big men, he was more adept at not only making the pass, but also making it at the right time.

Later in his career, he was known as the biggest flopper in the NBA, but even that was a byproduct of his frustrating style of defense. Getting those calls usually got under the skin of opposing players so much that they focused on Divac’s flopping, rather than their own game.

Many readers may have forgotten that during the 1996 draft, Divac was traded to the Charlotte Hornets for a skinny guard who had just finished high school. That skinny player, Kobe Bryant, became one of the greatest players to ever shoot hoops.

3. Yao Ming (China)

This isn’t a ‘homer’ pick by any stretch.

Even the staunchest of Yao haters has to admit he is one of the best all-around centers in the history of the NBA. Plus, his best years may still be ahead of him.

Since his NBA debut in 2002, he has been an All-Star and improved his scoring and rebounding each season. His most impressive stat may be his high free-throw percentage, something not too many of today’s big men can brag about.

Yao also has the added pressure of representing the most populated nation in the world, as well as living in the shadow of a certain Houston Rockets center who will remain nameless. If injuries, namely to the lower body, do not shorten his career ‘agrave; la Arvydas Sabonis, he may end up as the greatest international player to ever play the game.

2. Dirk Nowitzki (Germany)

Here is proof that this list is unbiased. How else could you explain a die-hard Rockets fan placing such a despised foe ahead of Yao?

Nowitzki quite possibly has the greatest shooting range for a 7-footer and has largely refined his low-post skills. He’s been a league MVP, perennial All-Star and guided his team to the NBA finals.

That trip to the Finals finally showed the killer instinct that detractors said he lacked early in his career. Like many of the other current players on the list, should he continue to dominate games and impose his will, his name will have to be included when discussing the ‘best-ever’ in the next five to 10 years.

1. Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria)

Like Yao’s inclusion, this is anything but a ‘homer’ pick.

Anyone with even a minimal amount of basketball knowledge cannot deny ‘The Dream’s’ greatness.

Olajuwon, who had a soft touch and ridiculous footwork, refined his game to become the greatest
center of his generation. Plus, he did this in an era when there was still an abundant amount of talent at the center position.

In 1994, he became the only player in NBA history to win the regular season MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and NBA Finals MVP.

After 18 years, 17 of which was spent with the Rockets, he retired as the NBA’s all-time leader in blocked shots in both the regular season and postseason. He was also the only player in NBA history to rank in the top 10 in blocks, scoring, rebounding and steals. Plus, he was one of only four players in NBA history to record a quadruple-double.

And let’s not forget that Olajuwon led ‘Clutch City’ to two NBA titles.

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