After the sudden burst of popularity for basketball on the worldwide stage following the inaugural Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics, the NBA realized the global appeal of the game of basketball and began focusing on developing talent from overseas. Suddenly, foreign-born players were moving up the draft board. They were no longer just draft-and-stash lottery tickets, but legit prospects who, in many cases, were able to come to the U.S. and make an immediate impact. During the 2016 NBA Draft, almost half of the 30 players selected in the first round (14) were born outside the U.S. and eight of those players played internationally.
The NBA is a better, more diverse, ambassador to the basketball-loving world now because of this. But it’s more than that: the game and the competition is stronger. To put it plainly and absent hyperbole: the best in the world come to play in the NBA and some of those players become the best in the NBA.
In celebration of this fact as we head toward the preseason, we decided to take a closer look at the fruits of this revolution and make our picks for the 10 best foreign-born players in NBA history.
Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria)
Hakeem Olajuwon is a Hall of Famer with a closet full of trophies from his time in the NBA, including two championship rings. “The Dream” had incredible agility and a terrific basketball IQ and his career statistics show just how much of a force he was, averaging 21.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. He’s also the originator of the “Dream Shake,” a series of low-post spin moves that enabled him to dominate for the whole of his career. Dream’s even made an impact on today’s game by tutoring Kobe Bryant, while also working with LeBron James, Dwight Howard and more on their own low-post strategy.
Dirk Nowitzki (Germany)
Dirk Nowitzki is one of the best power forwards to ever play in the NBA, possessing rare range from the outside and a signature, one-legged fadeaway jumper that allows him to both stretch the floor and work inside. At 38, we might be in the middle of Dirk’s slowdown period, but he was still a reliable scorer and leader for the Dallas Mavericks last season, and there’s no reason to think that that won’t be the case next season.
Steve Nash (Johannesburg, South Africa and Canada)
Steve Nash is a two-time league MVP point guard who dished out, what feels like, millions of oh-so-pretty, oh-so-accurate passes, specifically in his prime when he ran the floor with the run-happy, seven seconds or less Phoenix Suns of the mid-aughts. Nash was a magician on the court, basically, and not just a selfless table setter. Nash could be counted on as a scoring option as well and he was pretty close to automatic at times from the free-throw line. He’s the career leader in 50-40-90 seasons with four years where he finished the year with over 50 percent shooting from the floor, 40 percent from the three-point line and 90 percent from the charity stripe.
If there’s a knock against him, it’s that he didn’t win any championships, but Nash gave everything to the game and then some, departing due to a back injury that robbed him of of his incredible pace and consistency with the ball his last two seasons. What more can you ask for?
Manu Ginobili (Argentina)
There’s a reason Raja Bell named Manu Ginobili the hardest player for him to guard — even more so than Kobe Bryant. One of the greatest Olympic players of all time, Manu’s 2004 Argentinian team is the only squad in history to capture gold since the United States started allowing professionals to compete. He’s also got four titles with the San Antonio Spurs, most recently with their incredible, impossible to duplicate 2014 team who ran LeBron’s Heat right off the court in their Finals retribution, and may have moved up LeBron James’ departure plans to Cleveland.
There will never be a trickier player, who used pace, his body, a diabolical left hand and some of the most genius passing angles in NBA history to be the greatest sixth man in NBA history, and certainly in playoff history. Manu is coming back next season, so we don’t have to sit through a Spurs campaign without him and Tim Duncan, but just read this Zach Lowe feature on Manu’s La Familia and tell us he’s not a once-in-a-lifetime talent who is the first and only of his kind. There will never be another like him.
Pau Gasol (Spain)
Pau Gasol’s consistently impressive numbers each season show why he’s such a force to be reckoned with, not just as a scorer, but as a facilitator from the four or five position. He’s also capable of reinvigorating a team. Everywhere Gasol goes, he makes his teammates better. Granted, he didn’t have the same effect on the Bulls as he did with the Lakers when he helped them win two rings after coming over from Memphis/Vancouver, but he did start his first All-Star game in his mid 30s during his first season in Chicago. There’s no reason to think he can’t be the missing piece for the Spurs as he tackles the unenviable task of trying to replace Tim Duncan.
Yao Ming (China)
There’s a lot to like and a lot to wince at when you think about Yao Ming’s Hall of Fame career. An eight-time All-Star, the 7-foot-6 center made an impact in the NBA following a dominant career in the Chinese Basketball Association, and he’ll forever be remembered for the impact he’s still making on the game as an ambassador. With that said, though, there’s still so much Ming could have done with his gargantuan size and skill that he wasn’t able to do, because he was barely fortunate enough to be able to play the game to the fullest without the risk of injury. We can’t let a few foot and ankle problems push Yao off this list, though. When he was healthy and on the floor, he was one of the best big men in the world.
Tony Parker (Belgium, raised in France)
Tony Parker is a four-time NBA Champion, a six-time All Star, and a Finals MVP. Yet, people seem to forget how good he is until, year after year, the Spurs quietly get themselves into the playoffs and compete for a championship due, in large part, to his contributions as the point guard for the squad and the pick-and-roll instigator with the now-retired Duncan. Parker’s been difficult to defend and there’s no guard in NBA history with a floater like his. His pick-and-roll game annoys defenders because he developed a difficult to defend pull-up jumper that didn’t allow defenders to go under the screen like they did against him in the past. Like David Robinson and Tim Duncan before him, Parker will probably retire a Spur, but that’s hopefully a few years away. Right now, he’ll be playing in his first season without the greatest power forward in NBA history, so it’ll be interesting to see how he leads them this season.
Dikembe Mutombo (Democratic Republic of Congo)
Mutombo never won a title and he was certainly the least offensively present among the (many) other dominant big men of his era, but with 10.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game, Mutombo was a difference maker on defense and his finger wag celebration made it cool to be a shot blocker. The Basketball Hall of Famer, eight-time All-Star and four-time Defensive Player of the Year’s impact is even more obvious when you realize the carnage he inflicted in his first eleven years in the league and take out his seven-year odyssey as a roving role player from age 36 to 42. If you do that, Mutombo’s numbers jump up to 12.3 point, 12.3 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks a game. Which is nothing to shake a finger at… I’m sorry.
Peja Stojakovic (Croatia, family fled to Belgrade)
Peja Stojakovic is a one-time NBA Champion, an All-NBA selection, three-time All Star, and back-to-back three-point shootout winner (’02 and ’03). He is perhaps best known for being an offensive machine, capable of knocking down triples for the pass-happy Kings early in the 2000s. His career averages are 17 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game, while shooting 45 percent from the field and 89.5 from the free throw line. During his best season, which was in 2003-04, he averaged 24.2 points, 2.1 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game, while shooting 92.7 from the free throw line and 48 percent from the field. He made it rain from the three-point line and was an absolute nightmare to stay with in Pete Carril’s spread offense for the Rick Adelman-coached Kings. He could’ve shot the ball blindfolded, with one hand and we’d still see the nylon whoosh. He was a huge part of the Sacramento Kings and became one of the best three-point shooters the league has ever seen. No matter what, you knew he’d get buckets on you, so you had to try to find some sort of way to defend that unique release on his jumper.
Arvydas Sabonis (Lithuania)
Arvydas Sabonis is a Hall of Famer, FIBA Hall of Famer and 1995-96 All-Rookie. He is regarded as one of the best passing big men in history. But he came late to the NBA after the most dominant European career in history. He won the Euroscar Award six times and the Mr. Europa Award twice. His career averages are 12 points, 1.1 blocks, 2.1 assists, and 7.3 rebounds per game, while shooting 78.6 percent from the free throw line, and 50 percent from the field. In his best season, which was ’97-98, he averaged 16 points, 1.1 blocks, 3 assists, 10 rebounds a game, while shooting 79.8 from the free throw line, and 49.3 from the field. When you think about the Blazers and all the players that have come from that team, one of the first names that’ll always be mentioned is Arvydas Sabonis, but it was his dominance overseas that puts him in special company. He will always be the greatest “What If” in the global game because we never got to see him anywhere near his prime in the highest league of the land.
Vlade Divac (Serbia)
This versatile Serbian-born big man showed up at the tail end of the Showtime era for the Lakers, but despite a solid run, his greatest contribution to the purple and gold may be that he brought Kobe Bryant to LA in a draft-day trade with the Hornets in 1996, simultaneously clearing the necessary cap space for the Lakers to be able to also sign Shaquille O’Neal as his replacement.
Divac went on to play nine more seasons in the NBA (including a return to the Lakers in his final season) and wound up averaging a good, but-not-spectacular 11.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game while earning one All-Star appearance in his career. Even though the Hornets traded away the opportunity to have a franchise-defining star in Bryant, Divac is probably best remembered as a mostly durable low-post running mate for Chris Webber with the Sacramento Kings of the late ’90s and early aughts. He’s still in Sacramento, serving as the team’s general manager.
Dražen Petrović (Croatia)
Petrović played only five seasons in the NBA before a car crash cut his life short in his prime. The New Jersey Nets shooting guard was coming off of his best season at the time, averaging 22.3 points per game when the accident happened. Clearly, he was on his way to being one of the NBA’s premier shooters and scorers. Had he had the benefit of a full career, it’s entirely possible that Petrović would have made a bigger impact than anyone on this list.