It used to be that if a player came from Europe, scouts expected him to be soft. If they were tall, coaches stuck them at center and confined them to the paint.
Then a kid from Germany came along that shattered the status quo.
German Dirk Nowitzki stepped onto the floor at the Nike Hoop Summit March 29, 1998, as a relatively unknown teenage prospect visiting San Antonio, Tex. with his international select team to take on a group of much ballyhooed American high school stars. Against the likes of future NBA talents Rashard Lewis, Al Harrington and Quentin Richardson, Nowitzki toasted the Western World for 33 points and 14 rebounds. He handled the ball on fast breaks, took opponents off the dribble, and knocked down 2-of-3 three-pointers. Nobody in attendance could believe a big man could be that adept from the perimeter, let alone so tough around the basket.
"I thought (at the time), 'Wow, he really is seven feet. If he's not, he's really close,'" Dallas Mavericks president of basketball operations Donn Nelson said in the Sporting News. "You couldn't not be impressed when you saw him. He was a very, very attractive player."
The jaws of Nelson and the other NBA scouts in attendance dropped, and although we didn't realize at the time, it was the beginning of the revolution that Nowitzki's career represents. Today, Nowitzki stands a four-time All-Star, having turned around Nelson's Maverick franchise and having played the game in a way that no athlete his size has ever exhibited. Take a look at some of his accomplishments:
-- In 2005, Nowitzki became first player in league history to be named All-NBA First Team who did not attend an American high school or university. Nowitzki has averaged over nine rebounds per game fives times and played in at least 76 contests in all six of his full seasons, not including his rookie year. So much for "soft European."
-- Nowitzki owns a .379 career three-point percentage, converting 824-of-2,176 collectively. He can get hot, too, as evidenced by his eight treys versus Seattle Jan. 27, 2004, or his 53 points versus Houston Dec. 2, 2004. Nowitzki's ability to shoot over the top of shorter forwards or outmaneuver less agile centers has enabled him to become one of the top scorers in the league, as he's boasted a 20-plus point per game average in each of the last six seasons. So much for the "plodding big man."
Most significantly, Nowitzki's inspired a generation of basketball players to be more than what the historical tradition says they can be. Sixteen of the NBA's top 50 three-point shooters stand 6-8 or greater; opening night team rosters for the 2005-06 season featured a record 82 international players from 36 countries and territories.
With an impact like that, it's no wonder why Dirk Nowitzki is our HANNspree Innovative Player of the Month for February.