The NBA’s Greatest Foreign Players Revisited

Khel NowKhel Now

March 24 2023

The NBA has seen a wave of foreign-born players take the court and make an immediate impact since the late 1980s. Whether it be dominating the paint like Yao Ming or dominating the court like Steve Nash, there is no denying that international players have made their mark in the NBA.

In recent seasons, there has been more and more of an emphasis placed on foreign imports, especially thanks to three stars from the Balkans, namely Slovenia’s Luka Dončić, Serbia’s Nikola Jokić, and Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

The NBA’s Current Balkan Heroes 

Dončić has been in scintillating form ever since he was drafted as the third pick in the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft. In his second season with the Dallas Mavericks, the Slovenian superstar led the Texas-based franchise back to the postseason playoffs after a three-year absence. Last season, he took the Mavs all the way to the Western Conference finals, where they would ultimately come up short against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors. 

Nikola Jokić’s eight years in Denver have truly put both his franchise, the Nuggets, and his country, Serbia, on the map. The giant 27-year-old has picked up the MVP award in each of the last two seasons, and he’s gunning to become the first player since Larry Bird almost four decades ago to make it a trifecta this term. And we wouldn’t put it past him. 

The Nuggets have won their last six games on the spin, a run of form that has seen them power their way to the top of the Western Conference standings. Based on NBA odds, the Denver Nuggets are the underdogs with +700 odds in the upcoming NBA championship.  

The only player of the three to have picked up an NBA championship ring thus far however is, of course, Giannis Antetokounmpo. He was in unbelievable form two years ago as he led the Milwaukee Bucks to a first championship title in 40 years. Giannis has pipped to the MVP award that term, but he did pick up the coveted trophy in back-to-back seasons the two seasons prior. 

But it isn’t just these Balkan stars that have put foreign basketball on the map. The NBA has seen plenty of overseas stars in its time, and here are three of the best of them. And yes, we have included a Canadian. 

Hakeem Olajuwon

The first major international star in the NBA was arguably Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the most dominant centers of all time. Olajuwon was drafted by the Houston Rockets in 1984 and quickly became a sensation, leading the Rockets to two championships in 1994 and 1995. His basketball IQ and incredible footwork made him one of the best centers of all time, and he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.

Olajuwon was born in Lagos, Nigeria, but relocated to the States – specifically the University of Houston – during his teenage years. Unbelievably, the giant African star didn’t start playing basketball until the age of 15, instead playing soccer as a goalkeeper for the majority of his younger years. But once the University of Houston’s program got a hold of him, there was no turning back. 

After two championship rings, an MVP award, and 12 NBA all-star appearances, it looks like he made the right decision to switch sports. And if that wasn’t enough, the Houston Rockets even retired the number 34 jersey in his honor. 

Dirk Nowitzki

Dirk Nowitzki is another foreign-born superstar of the NBA. The German-born player was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks in 1998 and went on to play with the Mavericks for his entire career. His jump shot, footwork, and basketball IQ were legendary and he is regarded as one of the best players of his era. 

He won an NBA championship with the Mavericks in 2011 and was awarded the MVP award from the finals series. The German behemoth is a 14-time NBA all-star and he single-handedly put German basketball on the map. He twice top-scored for Die Mannschaft at the FIBA World Cup, as well as being awarded the European player of the year award on eight separate occasions by two different publications. 

The Mavericks haven’t reached the NBA finals since Nowitzki and his teammates led them to a maiden championship 12 years ago. In fact, in four of those 12 seasons, they didn’t even reach the postseason playoffs at all. But now, with a new European superstar leading the charge, could they be set to put over a decade of hurt behind them? 

Stephen Curry

The most recent foreign-born star to make an impact in the NBA is Stephen Curry, a point guard from Canada. Curry was drafted by the Golden State Warriors in 2009 and was instrumental in transforming the franchise into the dynasty that we know today. He has won four NBA championships including last seasons, where his Warriors beat the Boston Celtics through six, and two regular-season MVP awards (2015 and 2016). He is arguably the most dominant point guard of all time, and he has revolutionized the game of basketball with his shooting ability.

The NBA has seen countless international players make an impact on the court since the late 1980s. Olajuwon, Nowitzki, and Curry are just a few of the international stars that have taken the league by storm, and it’s safe to say that the NBA would not be what it is today without them.

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