• No categories
May 22, 2024

The Top 25 Greatest Foreign-Born NBA Players of All-Time

The Top 25 Greatest Foreign-Born NBA Players of All-Time

The FIBA World Cup is heading into its quarterfinal round this week.  There have been many outstanding players that have represented their countries in this tournament.  It got me thinking about some of the best international players in the game.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, and Luka Doncic. Those three men are among the top basketball players in the NBA today. These three basketball stars also have a lot in common. The Greek Freak, The Joker, and Cool Hand Luka (the guy has like 9 nicknames) were also All-NBA selections last season.  All three men were All-Stars and are under 30 years old. There is another thing that all three men have in common:

They were born outside of the United States.

In fact, Antetokounmpo (Greece), Jokic (Serbia), and Doncic (Slovenia) all hail from Europe. They are the among the best players in an American sports league. Those three aren’t the only international stars in the NBA either. Other notable foreign-born players include Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam from Cameroon. Domantas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas are from Lithuania. Kristaps Porzingis is from Latvia.  France produced 3-time NBA Defensive Player of the year Rudy Gobert.  Bojan Bogdanovic is from Croatia. There are even several good Canadian players including Jamal Murray and Shai Gigeous-Alexander. The list goes on. In total, the NBA had 109 international players from 39 different countries on rosters to start last season.

Please note that this is my GREATEST foreign-born player list. To me “greatest” and “best” can be two different things. I think of “greatest” as a combination of talent, impact, legacy, and accomplishment. I think of “best” as most talented and the first guy you would select for a pick-up game. Here’s are the factors that I pieced together to come up with my Top 25.

The Criteria

  • Players must be born AND raised outside of the United States.
  • NBA Career Resume
  • Did they win?
  • International career play will be taken into partial consideration (Olympics, FIBA World Championships, EuroBasket)
  • Talent

One thing to note: I did not consider Dominque Wilkins, Kyrie Irving, nor Tim Duncan for this list. All three men would rank high on this list. Wilkins was born in France but that was because his father, an American, was serving the U.S. Air Force at the time. Irving was born in Australia but his father, originally from the Bronx, was playing pro ball in Australia at the time. Duncan was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Enough said.

Numbers #21-25:

25. Andrei Kirilenko, Russia

24. Sarunas Marciulionis, Lithuania

23. Domantas Sabonis, Lithuania

22. Al Horford, Dominican Republic

21. Goran Dragic, Slovenia

Four of these five men have appeared in at least one NBA All-Star Game. Three of these five have won a EuroBasket MVP award. Andrei Kirilenko has been named an NBA All-Star and won a EuroBasket MVP – and he’s #25 on this list!  Marciulionis was one of the first Europeans and former Soviets to come to the NBA.  He was also among the most accomplished European players of his generation.

Domantas Sabonis made two NBA All-Star games in his young career – something that his father never did. Horford has five NBA All-Star selections and won two National Championships while at the University of Florida. Dragic, like Kirilenko has an All-Star selection and EuroBasket MVP to his name. His lengthy NBA career puts him ahead of others here.

Numbers #16-20:

20. Detlef Schrempf, Germany – Detlef Schrempf may be one of the more underrated players of his generation. He is revered in the Pacific Northwest for his time at both the University of Washington and his six seasons with the Seattle Supersonics. His NBA resume over a 16-year NBA career includes scoring over 15,000 career points, grabbing 7,000 rebounds, and dishing out just under 4,000 assists. Schrempf also appeared in three 3 NBA All-Star games and won back-to-back NBA Sixth Man of the Year awards in 1992 and 1993.

19. Arvydas Sabonis, Lithuania – Portland selected him in the FIRST ROUND of the 1986 NBA Draft, but Sabonis didn’t make his debut with the team until 1995 – when he was 30 years old. The 7’3’’ Lithuanian center was an All-World player in his prime. Sabonis won multiple FIBA awards which included being named EuroBasket MVP in 1985, in addition to being a three-time Olympic medalist. Injuries over his Hall-of Fame career affected his athleticism before he entered the NBA.  Portland made the NBA playoffs in each of Sabonis’ 7 NBA Seasons, reaching the Western Conference Finals twice. Imagine if a prime-Sabonis joined the Trail Blazers in the mid-1980s and teamed with Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter!

18. Vlade Divac, Serbia – What’s the first thought most fans have when Vlade Divac is brought up? Flopping. The guy flopped ALL THE TIME and even admitted to turning into a skill. However, Divac was a skilled 7-footer that could do it all on the court. Divac was a key cog of the Yugoslavian basketball juggernaut who took the world by storm in the mid-to-late 1980s. That led him to becoming a first-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989. The two-time Olympic medalist is one of seven players in the history of the NBA to score 13,000 points, grab 9,000 boards, dish 3,000 assists, and block 1,500 shots. Who are the six others? Oh, just guys named Abdul-Jabbar, Duncan, Shaq, Garnett, Pau Gasol, and Olajuwon. Not too shabby for a flopper.

17. Peja Stojakovic, Serbia – Thank you Peja for being such a great shooter in NBA Live in the early 2000s! He got me several dubs on NBA Live back in the day. In addition to him being a video game cheat code, Stojakovic was a three-time NBA All-Star, two-time Three-Point Shooting champ, and the 2001 EuroBasket MVP. Stojakovic was a Euroleague standout while playing for PAOK Thessaloniki in the Greek League. That led him to being drafted 14th overall by the Sacramento Kings in 1996. He then starred for those fun Kings teams in the early 2000s, which many believe are among the best teams never to win an NBA title. Stojakovic was among the game’s deadliest shooters and shot nearly 90% from the free-throw line during his NBA 14-year career.

16. Rudy Gobert, France – The 7’3’’ Frenchman owns an impressive basketball resume from both an NBA and international perspective. He is a three-time NBA All-Star and a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Gobert was a member of the 2020 French Men’s Olympic National Team that won the silver medal. He has been part of two bronze-medal winning French teams in the FIBA World Championships. His French team was recently the European runner-up in EuroBasket, losing to Spain last month. Oh, and the dude hasn’t turned 30 years old yet!

Numbers #11-15:

15. Drazen Petrovic, Croatia – The “Mozart of Basketball” is arguably the most TALENTED basketball player to come out of Europe. EVER. The man once scored 112 points in a single Euroleague game! He teamed with Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, and others on the great Yugoslavian National teams mentioned earlier. Petrovic was named MVP of the 1986 FIBA World Championships, MVP of EuroBasket 1989, and is a three-time Olympic medalist. The Hall-of-Famer made his NBA debut in 1989 with the Portland Trail Blazers, before being traded to the New Jersey Nets in 1991.

Drazen Petrovic was probably the happiest person in the history of the world to be sent to New Jersey.  In each of his two full seasons with the Nets, Petrovic averaged over 20 points per game, shot over 50% from the field, 44% from three and shot over 80% from the charity stripe. Unfortunately, he would only play four seasons in the NBA. Petrovic was involved in a tragic auto accident in Germany that claimed his life in 1993 at only 28 years old.

14. Joel Embiid, Cameroon – Former Philadelphia 76ers General Manager Sam Hinkie famously told the team’s fanbase to “trust the process” while tearing down and rebuilding the team’s roster.  The reigning NBA MVP is the posterchild of that strategy.  Embiid even nicknamed himself “The Process!” The 7-footer spent one season at the University of Kansas before the 76ers made him the 3rd overall pick in the 2014 draft.  

Embiid modeled his game after Hakeem Olajuwon. He can put the ball on the floor, shoot from three, and possess a solid post-game. He’s also strong on the defensive end. Embiid is arguably one of the Top 10 players in the NBA today. He is a 5-Time NBA All-Star and became the first center since Shaq to win a scoring title in 2021-22. Embiid will surely add to his NBA resume in the coming years.

13. Luke Doncic, Slovenia – Referring to Doncic as basketball’s “Doogie House” is not necessarily a stretch. He has played professionally since 2015 since he was sixteen years old (2015) and for his native Slovenia before his eighteenth birthday. In 2018, Doncic was named the MVP of the Euroleague and MVP of its Final Four.

Doncic joined the Dallas Mavericks in 2018 and was later named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year.  This was all before he was legally allowed to drink in the states! Doncic has since been selected as an NBA All-Star and earned a spot on the All-NBA FIRST Team the past four seasons in a row. He is a 6’7’’ point guard that can do everything on the court and plays at his pace. You find his name among both the NBA’s scoring and assist leaders. Doncic has said playing in the NBA is easy compared to Europe. Doncic will surely shoot up this list as the years go by.

12. Yao Ming, China– Yao was the #1 Overall Pick of the 2002 NBA Draft and was an 8-time NBA All-Star, but there were many doubters when Yao first entered the league. Charles Barkley bet he would “kiss Kenny Smith’s ass” if Yao scored more than 19 points in a game during Yao’s rookie year. Chuck had to pay his bet…by kissing a donkey Smith brought to TNT’s Inside the NBA set. Remember the first time Yao played against Shaq? I had never seen anyone block Shaq. Yao did it twice in the game’s opening minutes! One was a dunk!

Yao was 7’6’’ but was agile, had a shooting touch, and was a good passer. Yao Ming is undoubtedly the best basketball player ever from China. Those Chinese National teams would not have qualified for the FIBA Worlds or the Olympics if it wasn’t for Yao. Unfortunately, several foot injuries cut his career short but did not prevent him from entering the Hall of Fame in 2016 alongside Shaquille O’Neal.

11. Marc Gasol, Spain – Here’s the list of players who have won a FIBA World Championship and NBA Championship in the same year. Lamar Odom and Marc Gasol. That’s it. The younger Gasol is a 3-time NBA All-Star and won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in the 2012-13 season. Fun fact: Marc Gasol was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in the Second Round of the 2007 NBA Draft. He was later traded to the Memphis Grizzlies for his older brother Pau! Sibling rivalry, anyone?

The Grizzlies made a franchise out of cycling through Gasols. Marc and Pau Gasol are the second and fourth leading scorers in Memphis Grizzlies history. Marc Gasol is a two-time Olympic medalist and two-time FIBA World Champ while representing his home country of Spain. The recently retired Gasol was also a key piece of the Toronto Raptors’ first NBA Championship team in 2019.

The Top Ten

10. Dikembe Mutombo, Republic of the Congo – Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo (real name) came to the U.S. to attend Georgetown University on a USAID scholarship. He was planning on becoming a doctor, but Hoyas legendary head coach John Thompson had other ideas. The 7’2’’ Mutombo choosing to play basketball turned out to be an excellent choice. He entered the NBA in 1991 and played in the NBA until 2009.

He’s one of the best defensive players in NBA history and the owner of the sharpest elbows this side of Bill Cartwright. Mutombo was an 8-time NBA All-Star and won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award a record four times, a record that’s shared with Ben Wallace. He’s known for taunting his opponents after every shot blocked with a no-no-no finger wag…and GEICO those commercials.

“Mount Mutombo” is second in NBA history with 3,289 career blocked shots. That’s 3,289 finger wags. He also scored over 10,000 points and grabbed 10,000 rebounds during his career. Mutombo was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015, but it should be noted that he is also a Hall of Fame person. His humanitarian work is legendary. Mutombo has financed and helped build hospitals in his native Congo. He still participates in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program and supports the Special Olympics. That, and he could serve of the voice of Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster if needed.

9. Toni Kukoc, Croatia – The late, former-Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause was obsessed with bringing Toni Kukoc to the Bulls. He (probably) salivated at the thought of teaming Kukoc with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. “The Waiter” was a talented 6’10’’ point guard known for his passing ability and outside shooting touch. The Chicago Bulls drafted Kukoc in the Second Round of the 1990 NBA Draft but didn’t make his NBA debut until the 1993-94 season.

Prior to joining the Bulls, Kukoc was a two-time Olympic Medalist, a FIBA World Championship MVP in 1990, a Eurobasket MVP in 1991, and is one of two players (Greece’s Vassilis Spanoulis is the other) to be named Euroleague MVP three times. Kukoc was also part of the 1990 FIBA World Championship winning Yugoslavian National team.

Kukoc was named to the NBA All-Rookie 2nd Team in his rookie season with the Bulls. He also displayed his clutch gene by hitting multiple game-winning shots.  Kukoc was a vital part of the Bulls teams that won three straight NBA Championships from 1996-1998. He was the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in 1995-96. After the Bulls dynasty was broken up following the 1998 season Kukoc became the Bulls’ main man averaging over 18 points per game. He also played with the Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, and Milwaukee Bucks before retiring in 2006.

8. Steve Nash, Canada – How good was the 1996 NBA Draft? Steve Nash was drafted 15th overall by the Phoenix Suns. That draft brought Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, and Kobe Bryant to the NBA. Nash was born in South Africa and grew up in Canada. It took a white for Nash to earn starter’s minutes, but his chance when he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks in 1998. Nash teamed with a young German named Dirk Nowitzki to lead an up-and-coming Mavericks team.

He became an All-Star in Dallas and was one of the league’s best point guards. When his contract expired following the 2003-04 season Mavericks owner Mark Cuban decided he didn’t want to pay a point guard entering his age-30 season. Oops. Nash returned to Phoenix to lead Suns head coach Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” offense.

The Hall-of-Fame point guard immediately made an impact leading the Suns to an NBA-best 62-20 record in 2004-05 and was named the NBA’s MVP. Overall, Steve Nash was an 8-time NBA All-Star and a 2-time NBA MVP. He is one of eight players in league history to be in the 50-40-90 club (shoot 50% overall, 40% on three-pointers, and 90% from the free-throw line for a season). Nash and Larry Bird are the only players to accomplish this more than once. Nash had FOUR 50-40-90 seasons. Bird? Two. Steve Nash retired in 2014 after an 18-year NBA Career and ranks fourth in NBA history in career assists.

7. Nikola Jokic, Croatia – “The Joker” joined the Denver Nuggets in 2015 after being the team’s second-round NBA draft pick the previous season. I think the Nuggets are glad they selected Jokic. He is currently one of the NBA’s Top 5 players and is neck-and-neck with Joel Embiid as the league’s best center. The Serbian stand-out is basically a scoring point guard from the high-post. He’s a threat both in the low-post and from the outside. Even then Jokic’s best skill may be his passing.

“The Joker” has been an All-Star and selected to the All-NBA Team (three times on the First Team) in each of the past four seasons. He’s also a two-time MVP.  Only three foreign-born players have won the NBA’s MVP Award twice: Steve Nash, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Jokic. He’s also a 2016 Olympic Silver Medalist having been part of the Serbian National Team that was runner up to the U.S. during the Rio de Janeiro games.

Most importantly, Jokic is now an NBA Champion.  His Nuggets climbed the NBA’s mountaintop last season, and he was named Finals MVP.  Jokic will move up even higher on this list when his career is over.

6. Manu Ginobili, Argentina – Manu Ginobili is one of a kind. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich certainly thought so. Popovich had told Spurs superstar Tim Duncan that they found a diamond in the rough before Ginobili joined the Spurs right before the 2002-03 season. Duncan’s response: an eye-roll. Ginobili quickly made a believer out of Duncan and the rest of the NBA as he helped the Spurs to their second ever NBA Championship in 2003. Manu became an instant fan-favorite with his two-way play, hustle, and flair. Stats didn’t matter nor did it matter whether he started or came off the bench. Ginobili just wanted to win. Did he ever.

Ginobili went on to win four NBA Championships with the Spurs, was a twice an NBA-All Star, and won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award for the 2007-08 season. The godfather of “The Eurostep” also once caught a flying bat out of the air during a game! Ginobili too had a decorated career in the Euroleague before coming to the NBA. He’s a two-time Olympic Medalist (Gold in 2004) and a Silver medalist at the 2002 FIBA World Championships. The Hall-of-Famer is one of two players in the history of the game to win a Euroleague title, an Olympic Gold Medal, AND an NBA Championship. Hall of Famer Bill Bradley is the other. Did anyone know that Bill Bradley once played pro-ball in Europe?

5. Tony Parker, France – What if I told you that Parker’s NBA career almost never happened? The San Antonio Spurs invited him for a pre-draft workout in 2001 and Parker proceeded to stink up the joint. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich took a chance and invited Parker back for a second workout. That turned out to be a good decision as Parker took full advantage of the opportunity. The Spurs ended up making him their first-round draft pick in 2001.

The Spurs attempted to trade for Jason Kidd to replace Parker in 2004, but Popovich again pushed the right buttons in choosing to stick with the French point guard. Parker would go on to have an 18-year NBA career that included 17 seasons with the Spurs.

Tony Parker was a 6-time NBA All-Star, 4-time NBA Champion (teaming with Ginobili and Duncan), the Spurs all-time assists leader, and was the 2007 NBA Finals MVP. Parker is arguably the best basketball player to come out of France. He led the French National Team to the 2013 EuroBasket title and was named that tournament’s Most Valuable Player. In 2015, Parker passed Nikos Galis of Greece as the EuroBasket’s all-time leading scorer in tournament play. Tony Parker retired from basketball following the 2018-19 NBA season and was just enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

And to think the Spurs almost gave up on him. Twice.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Greece – They don’t call him “Greek Freak” for nothing. He’s a skilled 6’11’’ player with a 7’3’’ wingspan. Antetokounmpo improved his scoring AND rebounding averages in each of his first seven NBA seasons after joining the Milwaukee Bucks in 2013. Giannis’ resume includes being a 6-time NBA All-Star, the 2016-17 NBA Most Improved Player, and he overtook Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the Bucks all-time scoring leader.

During the 2016-17 season, Antetokounmpo led the Bucks in each of the five major statistical categories (points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks) becoming only the fifth player in the history of the NBA to do so. The others are Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett, and LeBron James. Of the five players to achieve this feat, Giannis is the first and ONLY player to finish in the Top 20 in each of those categories in the same season.

During the 2018-19 season, Giannis led the Bucks to an NBA best 60-22 regular season record and was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. Giannis then won the MVP for a second year in a row but also won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Only two others have won the MVP and the DPOY awards in the same year – Michael Jordan (1988) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1994). Antetokounmpo then led the Bucks to the 2020-21 NBA Championship, scoring 50 points in the title-clinching game and was named Finals MVP.

Antetokounmpo COULD eventually go down as the best international player to ever play in the NBA.

3. Pau Gasol, Spain – Becoming a professional basketball player was not Gasol’s first career choice. His wanted to become a doctor and find a cure for AIDS. Gasol even enrolled in the University of Barcelona’s medical school and only left because his basketball career was taking off. I think the basketball thing worked out for him just fine, especially since he was just elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Gasol debuted in the NBA with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2001 and was the first ever foreign player to be named NBA Rookie of the Year. The talented 7-footer led the Grizzlies to the franchise’s first ever NBA playoff appearance in 2004. In 2008, Pau was traded to the Lakers for his younger brother Marc. He then teamed with the great Kobe Bryant to win back-to-back NBA titles in 2009 and 2010.

Gasol was a 6-time NBA All-Star and one of four players in the league’s history with 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 3,500 assists, and 1,500 blocks. The Spaniard’s accomplishments in international play are just as impressive. Gasol is a 3-time Olympic Medalist and was part of the Spanish National Team winning the FIBA World Championships in 2006 (the tournament’s MVP). He is also one of two men to have been named EuroBasket MVP twice (2009 and 2015). In 2017, Pau Gasol broke Tony Parker’s two-year record for most career points in EuroBasket competition and remains the record holder today.

2. Dirk Nowitzki, Germany – His one-legged fadeaway has become one of THE signature moves in the NBA.  We have seen other NBA stars such as Kevin Durant add this shot to their arsenal, but no one did it like Dirk Nowitzki. He was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 9th overall pick of the 1998 draft and was quickly traded to the Dallas Mavericks for Robert “Tractor” Traylor. One guy was compared to Larry Bird. The other was compared to a tractor. I’ll give you one guess as to who won that trade. It didn’t take long for the future Hall-of-Famer to make an impact in Dallas.

Nowitzki became a 14-time NBA All-Star and played 21 seasons for the Mavericks. For every trivia question that starts with the words, “Who holds the Dallas Mavericks franchise record for,” the answer is probably Dirk Nowitzki. Every NBA general manager is STILL looking to draft the next Dirk.

Nowitzki was named NBA MVP in 2007 season, but his 2010-11 season was his most memorable one. He led the Mavericks to the franchise’s only NBA Championship over a heavily favored Miami Heat team and was named Finals MVP.

Nowitzki was a matchup nightmare as a 7-foot shooting forward whose shot was impossible to block. He is one of eight players in the league’s 50-40-90 club and one of only seven players in the history of the NBA with at least 30,000 points. Nowitzki is the only player in NBA History with 30,000 career points, 10,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists, 1,000 steals and 1,000 made three-point field goals. While playing for his native Germany, he was named MVP of the 2002 FIBA World Championships and EuroBasket MVP in 2005.

Nowitzki is arguably far and away the greatest European player to play in the NBA.  However, the best foreign player to play in the NBA in my opinion is…

1. Hakeem Olajuwon, Nigeria – Surprised Nowitzki wasn’t #1?  Don’t be. Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon emigrated from Nigeria in 1980 and teamed up with fellow Hall-of-Famer Clyde Drexler at the University of Houston to help form “Phi Slama Jamma.” Olajuwon had an ability to make moves look effortless due to his athleticism and agility earning him “The Dream” nickname.

Olajuwon was the #1 overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets. During his 17 seasons with the Rockets Olajuwon was a 12-time NBA All-Star, a 2-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and one of four players in NBA history to record a Quadruple-Double in a game. He’s the only player in NBA history with 200 blocks and 200 steals in a season. “The Dream” was the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for the 1993-94 season in which he became the only player to be named NBA MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, AND NBA Finals MVP in the same season.

Olajuwon led the Rockets to the franchise’s only two NBA Titles in 1994 and 1995. He was NBA Finals MVP both times being matched up against Hall of Fame Centers Patrick Ewing (1994) and Shaquille O’Neal (1995). After watching David Robinson receive the 1995 NBA MVP trophy prior to tipoff of Game 2 of the 1995 Western Conference Finals, Olajuwon went on to thoroughly embarrass Robinson with a series of fakes, spin moves, and “The Dream Shake.” Robinson is no defensive slouch and a Hall of Famer himself, but the Rockets legend destroyed him. Olajuwon’s highlight reel from that series alone is legendary.

 In 1996, he won an Olympic Gold medal with Dream Team II and was named of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players. After playing one season with the Toronto Raptors in 2001-02, Olajuwon retired with over 26,000 career points, over 13,000 rebounds, and is the NBA’s career leader in blocked shots with 3,830.

There you have it. That’s my Top 25 Greatest Foreign-Born NBA Players of All-Time list. I’m sure that it will change as the careers of Antetokounmpo, Doncic, Jokic, and Embiid continue.

Where do you rank these guys?

Photo Credit: Envato Elements