It was 2011 when Dirk Nowitzki led the Dallas Mavericks to their first NBA championship in franchise history. What made it sweeter was that it was won against the Miami Heat, who in 2006 seemingly stole the championship from the Mavs with free-throw attempts lopsidedly increased in favor of the Heat. Additionally, Dirk showed that he was the best player in that 2011 Finals series and throughout the playoffs, one that included the heavily favored LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Dirk, born and raised in Germany, showed that international players did truly belong in the biggest stage of basketball – that they weren’t just appendages on a team looking to add shooters and seven-footers. Dirk was both – a giant and a sharpshooter – which made him one of the most unique players of his time. Thanks to players like Dirk who stretched the boundaries of an NBA big man, stretch 4s and 5s are commonplace in the NBA with some teams preferring to have at least one big man in their rotation who can shoot from the outside thus making the floor wider for penetrating guards.
But it’s worthy to note that Dirk was the exception, rather than the rule. The Americans playing in their American soil were still the best players in the league, and the ‘face’ of the league was always an American-born player. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Shaq, Kobe, and LeBron – these have been the players whom we might consider as the ‘face of the NBA’ during their time, in the last thirty years. Now, with LeBron James entering the twilight of his career, could we still count on an American-born player being the poster boy for the NBA?
Before we get into Giannis, Luka, and Jokic – all legitimate candidates for this unofficial position and all European born players – let’s take a quick rewind to honor some of the more recent international NBA players whom we basketball fans may have forgotten.
International Players: Then
Let me start by talking about Peja Stojakovic, because pre-Steph Curry, Ray Allen seems get all the praise as being the NBA’s best shooter. But let’s not forget that the Sacramento Kings drafted one of the greatest shooters in NBA history in Peja Stojakovic. Fun fact: he was in that 2011 Mavs championship team that upset LeBron and the Heat. Peja’s unorthodox shooting motion made him more distinctive, plus he was part of that Sacramento Kings team that almost ruined the 2000’s Lakers dynasty.
A discussion about international NBA greats wouldn’t be complete without talking about Steve Nash. Does he count as a non-American NBA player? Of course, he does. Just because the two-time, back-to-back regular season MVP doesn’t have a noticeable accent doesn’t mean he doesn’t belong to anyone’s list of the NBA’s greatest international players of all time. International players seem to be known as elite shooters, and Steve Nash falls into this category. He coupled his elite shooting with elite playmaking skills, making him one of the greatest point guards of all time.
We’ve already talked about three international NBA greats, and all of them are on legendary status when it comes to outside shooting. Here’s one who might not be: Tony Parker. Although Tony Parker wasn’t known as a prolific outside shooter, he was one of the fastest NBA players alive and was almost automatic in his floater and layup game. Had he not played for the team-centric San Antonio Spurs, he could easily have averaged 20-plus points a game throughout his career.
And finally, we can’t talk about international players without talking about the player who led his country in the 2004 Olympics and whooped Team USA’s ass – Manu Ginobili. Tony Parker’s lifetime backcourt partner with the Spurs, Manu was one of the savviest players in the league, probably an early prototype of James Harden. Like Parker, he could easily have been a top-ten scorer every year if he was on another team.
International Players: Now
Since we’re done giving tribute to the old, let’s talk about the new. And this new group of international players is one we can never take lightly, especially in this new era of NBA basketball. Last season, 3 of the 5 players who made the All-NBA 1st team were non-American players. The same goes for the All-NBA Defensive 1st team, Giannis making both lists in the same year. Additionally, Giannis, the Greek Freak, led his team to NBA Finals and won Finals MVP.
Despite Giannis taking most of the spotlight this year, Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic have their own stories to tell. Luka showed last year that he could outplay both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard in a playoff series, and Nikola Jokic was the one who beat them in the semis, coming back from a 3-1 deficit. Both Doncic and Jokic are two players who put up insane numbers on the box score (like Giannis).
This new breed of international players is far more compelling than those from Dirk’s and Nash’s generation. While we considered Dirk, Nash, Ginobili, and Parker to be mainstay All-Stars in the NBA – Giannis, Doncic, and Jokic are each constantly knocking on the door for being an NBA superstar. And we can legitimately say that Giannis and Doncic are true NBA superstars, with Jokic right there on most nights (especially on those triple double nights).
Dirk was the exception, rather than the rule. In today’s NBA, Giannis and these other international greats are the norm. I haven’t even brought Joel Embiid into the discussion – and the underappreciated ones like Rudy Gobert, Nikola Vucevic, Pascal Siakam, and Domantas Sabonis. It really seems like the NBA will have more diversity in its rosters. International players will no longer be the token spot-up shooters or backup centers – they will the superstars of the new NBA.
The rest of the world catching up
Had Team USA faltered in this year’s Olympics, everyone would have started to freak out about the rest of the world catching up to America’s talented basketball pool. But to USA’s advantage, these talented international players aren’t necessarily concentrated in one geographical area. The United States still has the best collection of basketball talent, and if you’re not interested in the Euroleague, you will migrate to the USA to have a chance to either play in an American college or the G-League in the hopes of one day making it to the best basketball league in the world.
Team USA, led by arguably today’s best NBA player in Kevin Durant, almost faltered in the Olympics and in fact lost the first game in the tournament to the would-be silver medalists French. France has its own players who have been in the NBA for several years now – Nicolas Batum, Evan Fourner, and multi-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert – all rotational players in the NBA.
A changed game
You could easily make the argument that the international style of play has made it into the NBA – more outside shots, more ball movement, team-oriented basketball, big men who shoot 3-pointers, and some elements that I forget to mention. Steph Curry, the American basketball player, has much to do with how the NBA game has evolved but let’s not discount what international players have done to change the way the game is played.
Giannis, Luka, Jokic, Embiid, and Gobert might take most of the awards again for the next NBA season – and we’re all just going to have to deal with it. I was a big Miami Heat fan in 2011 and it broke my heart that a German-born player who couldn’t jump beat a generational athlete, an American, in LeBron James.