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Nowitzki vs. Olajuwon: Who is NBA's top foreign player

Big men leave different legacies during long careers

POSTED: Jan 15, 2016 10:26 AM ET

By Kevin Cottrell Jr., Special to NBA.com

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Dirk and Hakeem's First Match-up

A quick look at Dirk Nowitzki and Hakeem Olajuwon's first game against each other on February, 11 1999.

For the second consecutive season, all 30 NBA teams feature at least one international player. It's also the second straight season opening night rosters featured 100 international players from 37 countries and territories. But there's one international player that stands above the rest, Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki.

Nowitzki is in the midst of his 18th season, all with the Mavericks. He's the franchise leader in points, rebounds, field goals, three-pointers and games played. His status as the greatest player in Dallas history has been cemented with an exclamation point, winning the 2011 NBA title. The German recently surpassed Shaquille O'Neal for sixth on the NBA's all-time scoring list, which leads many to wonder: Is Nowitzki the greatest international player in NBA history?

Nowitzki has a resume that not many players-American or otherwise- can present at the end of their career. Not only has he scored over 28,000 points but he led the Mavericks to 11 consecutive 50-win seasons and 12 total in his first 17 years of play. Prior to his arrival in Dallas, the Mavs made just six playoff appearances in the team's first 18 years. Needless to say Dirk shouldn't need another point or rebound to enhance his Hall-of-Fame resume.

PLAYERS WITH 28,000 POINTS AND 10,000 REBOUNDS
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Karl Malone
Wilt Chamberlain
Dirk Nowitzki*
Shaquille O'Neal
*Only player in NBA history with 28,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 1,600 made three-pointers

Dirk didn't enter the league as a MVP caliber player, nor did he walk away with rookie of the year honors. In his first season, he amassed a grand total of 385 points. However, his work ethic and God- given abilities helped him become the player he is today. Something former Mavericks guard Derek Harper believes puts him in a class of his own.

"When he came over from Germany, everybody had power forwards that played with their backs to the basket," said the Mavericks all-time leader in assists and steals. "Seven-foot guys were never interested in venturing out to the perimeter. I think he really has transformed the game, because now that's what everyone is looking for. They're looking for guys that can shoot it and take it off the dribble. Just more versatile bigs, and I think Dirk is the originator of that particular style of play."

Nowitzki may be the originator of the "Stretch 7-footer", but the NBA has been home to the game's best from around the globe for quite some time. The likes of Arvydas Sabonis, Drazen Petrovic, Patrick Ewing, Toni Kukoc, Yao Ming and Pau Gasol have all excelled at the highest level with their own style of play.

Despite the wealth of international talent to play in the NBA, the debate for best of all-time resides in the heart of Texas. Between Nowitzki and Houston Rockets center Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon. Olajuwon was born and raised in Nigeria and played collegiately at the University of Houston prior to being drafted first overall by the Rockets in 1984.

Like Dirk, Hakeem holds Houston franchise records in every major category and is the NBA's all-time leader in blocks. While their styles of play are different their overall impact as players are quite similar.

Dirk vs. The Dream
Categories Dirk Nowitzki Hakeem Olajuwon
NBA Title 1 2
NBA MVP 1 1
All-Star 13 12
1st Team All-NBA 4 6
NBA All-Time Points 6th 10th

Olajuwon's first love was soccer. A sport he focused all of his attention on until the age of 15. His footwork set him apart from all post players, past or present. His unique ability to play with his back to the basket as well as facing his opponents deemed him virtually unstoppable. Former Rockets teammate and NBA on TNT analyst, Kenny Smith, believes Dirk is great but players like Hakeem come around once in a lifetime.

"You can't look for [another] Hakeem, they don't exist," said the two-time champion. "It's funny because, when they say they're looking for the "next" that just shows how great you are. I would say that Dirk's greatness comes from his ability to adapt. That's what made him great. Hakeem didn't have to adapt, the game had to adapt to him. Are there offenses that replicate the Dallas Mavericks championship team? No. But there's a bunch that's tried to replicate what was built around Dream, one-in-four-out. It just shows his greatness."

There's no denying what both players have meant to the game of basketball and to their countries. Both have brought titles to their franchises and developed a winning culture around their organizations. Both are top-10 scorers and redefined the way big men develop their skills. Whether it's Hakeem's footwork and "Dream shake" or Dirk's jump shot off one leg, they've both left lasting impressions on the game.

Dirk Reaches 28,000 Points

Dirk Nowitzki connects on the triple and becomes the 7th player in NBA history to reach 28,000-point plateau.

Ultimately a decision has to be made. Who should be considered the best international player in NBA history? Dirk scored more points and paved the way for stretch seven-footers. Hakeem's impeccable footwork for a center was better than most guards, not to mention he defended the rim better than any player in league history. Harper played against Olajuwon and has served as the Mavericks color commentator for nearly a decade, so who would he choose? He takes a long pause.

"You've got to give a slight edge to Dream," said the 16-year-veteran. "You know they say 1a, 1b that's the way I would look at it. I want to be fair to both guys but I think Dirk has had an outstanding career and everybody knows what Dream did throughout his career. With his shot blocking ability, and just his ability to police the middle. I just think you can't overlook the overall part of what Olajuwon did as a player. When you think Dirk, you think getting buckets plain and simple. Against smalls, against bigs, whatever he had to do he could get buckets. Maybe 1a, 1b, Dream. I think both guys were great and had great careers."

On Tuesday, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Mavericks 110-107 in an overtime thriller. After the game, James stated that Dirk was "one of my favorite players to ever play the game."

Ultimately that's how both Olajuwon and Nowitzki will be remembered, as two of the greatest players in NBA history, no matter their place of origin.

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