When NBA players were first allowed to participate in the 1992 Summer Olympics, the U.S. team became prohibitive favourites. With a team full of eleven future Hall-of-Famers, the U.S. team came to Barcelona to show an international community how far ahead the U.S. was when it came to playing basketball. The Dream Team’s pre-eminence was evident from the beginning, and their games soon devolved into one-sided spectacles akin to a show put on by the Harlem Globetrotters. The European public’s overwhelming excitement for the Dream Team marked their superiority, and the team’s opponents likewise seemed in awe. Some opposing players made deferential gestures to the U.S. players, shaking their hands mid-game or asking for autographs. Indeed, the international community witnessed the acme of basketball talent.
Since the Barcelona Games, however, the level of basketball talent outside the U.S.A. has increased. European leagues are not as weak as they once were in comparison to the NBA, and a host of countries have developed strong basketball programs. As a result, NBA scouts have been forced to look abroad for talented prospects. This international accretion of basketball talent has changed the face of the NBA. International players pervade the league, and three MVPs in the last ten years have gone to international players (Steve Nash in 2005 and 2006, and Dirk Nowitzki in 2007). With regard to international competitions, the U.S. team is no longer a shoo-in to win gold every time. In the 2004 Olympics, the U.S. team failed to capture the Gold medal, settling for Bronze instead. This increase of talented international basketball players is not a generational fluke either, as all signs point to an even greater depth of international talent in the coming years.
Although international NBA players hail from disparate parts of the globe, some of the league’s most talented internationals come from Europe. Basketball, as with most sports not named soccer (football?), has spread unevenly throughout Europe. While some countries have produced talented superstars, others seem indifferent to both basketball and the NBA. Nevertheless, European basketball continues to improve, and some NBA teams’ hopes and dreams rest on the shoulders of their respective European stars.
This list looks at the highest-paid European NBA players. The rankings are based on 2013-2014 salaries. To make this list, players must have been born in Europe and must have spent their formative years there. Thus, players like Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng, for instance, do not qualify for this list (Boozer was born in Germany but quickly moved to the U.S., and Luol Deng was born in Sudan and moved to England).
10 Omer Asik - Houston Rockets - $8,374,646 in 2013-14
Born in Turkey, Omer Asik made his NBA debut in 2010 for the Chicago Bulls. Though not a stat-stuffer, Asik’s 7-foot frame enabled him to make a positive impact on a talented and strong Bulls team. For the Houston Rockets, he continues to be a matchup nightmare for opposing teams, as the Rockets can have Asik spell Dwight Howard or play alongside him. This latter option will give the Rockets a formidable inside presence come playoff time. Asik is averaging 3.9 points and 6.2 rebounds per game this season, but, as mentioned, his contribution to his team’s success is less quantifiable than other players.
9 Andris Biedrins - Utah Jazz - $9 million in 2013-14
Andris Biedrins was born in Latvia, and Golden State drafted him eleventh overall in 2004. The 7-foot center eventually became an impact player for the Warriors, providing the Monta Ellis-led team with a dependable low-post option. From 2007-2009, over the course of two seasons, he shot over 60% from the floor, which led to the team offering him a lucrative contract. Unfortunately, injuries have since derailed Biedrins career, and he has only appeared in six games this season for his new team, the Utah Jazz. Nothing suggests that Biedrins will return to his previous form.
8 Danilo Gallinari - Denver Nuggets - $10,146,925 in 2013-14
Italy has recently produced a group of talented NBA players, not the least of which being Danilo Gallinari. This young forward was drafted by New York sixth overall in 2008. At 6’10, Gallinari possesses a rare combination of size and athleticism that enables him to be an effective scorer. Over his career, in which he has played with two teams, he has averaged 14.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, shooting over 40% from the floor. New York sent Gallinari to Denver as part of a blockbuster trade for Carmelo Anthony, and Gallinari initially played well. Unfortunately for Nuggets fans, injuries have sidelined Gallinari this entire season.
7 Nicolas Batum - Portland Trail Blazers - $11,295,250 in 2013-14
The French are known for their food, wine, fashion and romance—but don’t sleep on their basketball program. Nicolas Batum is another talented Frenchman who has emerged as a quality NBA player. The Houston Rockets drafted him twenty-fifth overall in 2008, and Batum has improved every year since. At 6’8, this young forward is a poor man’s Scottie Pippen, as he does a little bit of everything for the Portland Trail Blazers. This season, he is averaging 12.9 points, 5.2 assists and 7.0 rebounds per game, while shooting over 45% from the floor. Portland will need him come playoff time, as there might be a team in their path with an abnormally talented small-forward.
6 Andrea Bargnani - New York Knicks - $11,862,500 in 2013-14
You might recognize Andrea Bargnani from his stilted cameos in Primo Pasta commercials. Fans tend to forget that the Toronto Raptors drafted Bargnani first overall in 2006. As such, expectations were unreasonably high for Barganani in Toronto, and all his successes were met with equal parts praise and criticism. When the Raptors traded him to the Knicks in the offseason, it appeared that New York had fleeced the Raptors. The Raptors are a success this year, however, and the Knicks are currently playing leap frog with several teams at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. Unfortunately for his fans, Bargnani has done little to lift his new team this season. He is averaging 13.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, but he continues not to use his size—he’s 7’0—to his advantage. The future looks uncertain for this former first-overall pick.
5 Nikola Pekovic - Minnesota Timberwolves - $12,100,000 in 2013-14
A player like Nikola Pekovic forces one to wonder how good the Yugoslavian men’s team would be if the country was still intact. Born in Yugoslavia, but officially Montenegrin, Pekovic has improved every year he has been in the NBA. Minnesota drafted the mammoth center in the second round back in 2008. Back then, the franchise was rebuilding, having recently parted ways with Kevin Garnett, the franchise’s premier player. With Pekovic and Kevin Love, though, the team is respectable once again. This season, Pekovic is averaging 18 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, shooting over 50% from the floor. If the Timberwolves can secure one of the final playoff spots, Pekovic will be a valuable asset.
4 Tony Parker - Brooklyn Nets - $12,500,000 in 2013-14
Born in Belgium but raised in France, Tony Parker has been one of the NBA’s premier point guards for a decade now. If it wasn’t for Derrick Rose and Lebron James, Parker might have a MVP Award to his name. Nevertheless, Parker is one of the league’s craftiest players, and has worked hard over the years to develop an effective jump shot. The former Finals MVP is enjoying another stellar season, averaging 17.8 points, 6.2 assists, and 2.3 rebounds for the San Antonio Spurs. What impresses most is Parker’s efficiency, as he shoots over 50% from the floor despite being 6’2. If the Spurs get back to the NBA Finals, it will be due in large part to Parker’s play. Whether the team wins or loses, though, fans will probably witness a memorable exchange between Parker and his inscrutable coach, Greg Popovich.
3 Marc Gasol - Memphis Grizzlies - $14,860,523 in 2013-14
The younger brother of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol was born in Spain. The Los Angeles Lakers drafted him in the second round of the 2007 NBA Draft, but Gasol has played his entire NBA career in Memphis. For the Grizzlies, Gasol has been a reliable post player, and he forms a formidable inside tandem with teammate Zac Randolph. His work paid off last season, when he won the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Unfortunately, injuries have undermined his current season, limiting him to 39 games thus far. Gasol is still playing well, averaging 13.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. The Grizzlies will need him in the playoffs, as his ability to keep slashers out of the paint cannot be overstated.
2 Pau Gasol - LA Lakers - $19,285,850 in 2013-14
Pau Gasol has been an elite NBA player for over a decade. The Atlanta Hawks drafted him third overall in the 2001 NBA Draft, but he never played a game for the Hawks. Over his career, in which he has played with two teams, Gasol has averaged 18.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, while shooting over 50% from the floor. This season has been particularly tough on Gasol, though, as Kobe Bryant is hurt, and the Lakers are downright bad. Gasol is one of the few bright spots for the floundering Lakers, averaging 17.7 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. Given the size of his contract, the Lakers have entertained trade offers for Gasol, so he might be changing area codes this offseason.
1 Dirk Nowitzki - Dallas Mavericks - $22,721,381 in 2013-14
With regard to personal successes, Dirk Nowitzki is undoubtedly the most decorated and successful international player in NBA history. Milwaukee drafted the German-born forward ninth overall in 1998, but he never played a game for the Bucks. After Mark Cuban showed interest in him, Dirk came to the Dallas Mavericks, and he has been exceedingly dominant since. In 2007, Dirk won the league’s MVP Award, but the real mark of success came in 2011, when Dirk led the Mavericks to a championship. The team beat the Goliath-like Miami Heat in the Finals, and unsurprisingly, Dirk captured the Finals MVP. Over his career, Dirk has averaged 22.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. With Dirk playing well again, the Mavericks will be a tough team to beat in come playoff time.