Ever since the 1992 Olympics and the introduction of the Dream Team, the NBA has exploded on an international scale. Nations that once only produced soccer players were now producing some of the best basketball players in the world. It wasn’t only the Americans that wanted to “Be Like Mike,” it was the Chinese, French, and Croatians as well.
The 1980’s had a handful of international players, the 1990’s a bit more, but at the turn of the century, there was an explosion of international players from all over the world in the NBA. Today, more than one-fourth of the NBA are foreign born players. The San Antonio Spurs, for example, are the most international team with more non-Americans than Americans. It is also the reason why they play more of a European brand of basketball than an American brand of basketball.
The United States may still produce the best basketball players in the world, but the inclusion of international players has made the game of basketball better overall. FIBA basketball promotes a lot more passing, cutting, and physicality than American basketball, which promotes more one-on-one and isolation plays.
This is a case for the International Mt. Rushmore or the top four international players in NBA history. There are other international players that could be included on this list, but if they played college ball in the States or had some type of training in the States prior to the NBA, they were excluded from being on this list. So, Hakeem Olajuwon (University of Houston), Dikembe Mutombo (Georgetown), and Steve Nash (Santa Clara University) do not qualify for the Mt. Rushmore because they were trained in the United States. This is a list exclusively of international players that did not play in America until they got into the NBA. They are players that never played for AAU when they were in high school, nor were they coached by some of the elite college coaches in America today. These are the players that learned how to play basketball overseas prior to the NBA in no particular order.
1. Tony Parker – France
The San Antonio Spurs stole Tony Parker in the 2001 Draft with the 28th pick. Parker’s father had played for the NBA very briefly, but eventually ended up playing in France, which is where Tony grew up.
A few games into Tony’s rookie season, the nineteen-year old took the starting job over Antonio Daniels and was eventually named to the All Rookie Team in 2002.
Eventually, Tony would go on to be a six-time NBA All-Star (2006, 2007, 2009, 2012-2014) and made the first team All-NBA in 2009. It is very possible that Tony may win another title, but the Frenchman already has three NBA Championships (2003, 2005, 2007) and was NBA Finals MVP in 2007 – the first European to ever win the award.
Tony was Gregg Popovich’s whipping boy for the majority of his younger years, but today, he is an extension of Pop on the floor. Parker is still only 32-years of age and if he continues to add on to the mountain of accolades that he has already achieved, he could go down as the best international player of all-time.
2. Arvydas Sabonis – Lithuania
The big Lithuanian was 7’3” and weighed 291 pounds. Yet, Arvydas Sabonis had the soft hands, full court vision, and passing abilities of a point guard. To this day, he is still regarded as the best passing big man that the NBA has ever seen.
Overseas, Sabonis won the Euroscar Award six times (1984-1985, 1988, 1995, 1997, 1999) and the Mr. Europa Award twice (1985, 1997). Additionally, Sabonis won the Gold Medal in the 1988 Olympics in South Korea for the Soviet Union and the Bronze Medals in 1992 and 1996.
Although Sabonis spent most of his prime years in Europe, he wasn’t exactly chump change when he entered the NBA. Sabonis was drafted by the Portland Trailblazers in 1986 with the 24th pick in the first round, but he didn’t play in the NBA until a decade later. By the time Sabonis arrived to the NBA, he was already 31-years old. However, the big man made the All-Rookie First Team in 1996 and was runner-up for Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year.
Sabonis was inducted into the Hall of Fame on August 12th, 2011 and is still regarded as one of the most dominant big men that the world of basketball has ever seen.
3. Manu Ginobili – Argentina
First thing is first, Manu Ginobili is not European. Ginobili is South American. The herky-jerky Argentinian grew up in a nation dominated by soccer, but was raised in a small town called Bahia Blanca that loved basketball. Ginobili, however, did play in Europe and won a Euroleague title and was the Finals MVP in 2001. He also won two MVP awards in the Italian League in 2001 and 2002.
In 1999, the scrawny shooting guard was selected in the second round with the 57th pick. The Spurs stashed him in Europe for a few years to develop more and he eventually joined the Spurs in 2002.
During Ginobili’s NBA career – one that is still going – he became a two-time NBA All-Star in 2005 and 2011. He also won the Sixth Man of the Year in 2008. Ginobili has always been a NBA starter, but he willingly chose to come off the bench for the sake of his team. It was Ginobili’s offensive punch off the bench and team centered attitude that gave the Spurs the three NBA Championships he won in 2003, 2005, and 2007. In fact, Ginobili is the reason why many teams started to copycat the Spurs blueprint of putting a high-powered offensive player as the sixth man.
But perhaps, Ginobili’s biggest accolade was his Gold Medal during the Athens Olympics in 2004. Ginobili led the Argentinians past the United States and then cruised to win the gold. Ginobili was the reason why American basketball looked mortal for the first time and the reason why he is on the International Mt. Rushmore.
4. Dirk Nowitzki – Germany
The seven foot jump shooting German, Dirk Nowitzki, was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1998, but was traded to the Dallas Mavericks on draft day, a team that he has been with his entire career.
Generally speaking, seven footers are not supposed to shoot three pointers; they are supposed to bang in the paint. But Dirk didn’t learn how to play in America, he learned how to play in Germany. Had Dirk learned how to play an American brand of basketball, he would have never blossomed into the player that he is today. In fact, he would probably be out of the NBA, since he has always been more of a finesse player.
But it was his German coach that taught him how to shoot jumpers off of one foot and the non-conventional coaching of Don Nelson that allowed Dirk to develop into the best shooting big man in NBA history. It is no coincidence that Dirk won the 3-Point Contest in 2006.
Dirk is also the first international player to ever start in an All-Star Game and the first to ever win the MVP (2007). Dirk has played in twelve All Star Games total and has made it to the All-NBA First Team four different times. Dirk has appeared in the NBA Finals twice, but finally won the title in 2011, where he was also named Finals MVP.