It seems laughable now, with roughly one out of every four NBA players hailing from outside the United States in recent seasons.
But 30-plus years ago, even with a tiny handful of outliers like Hakeem Olajuwon proving otherwise, the notion that foreign players weren’t good enough for the world’s best basketball league was commonly held as fact.
Scarcely could those who propagated that myth have imagined the two-tiered flood that would permanently change the face of the league, first in the late 1980s with the lifting of the Iron Curtain, then again in the late 1990s with a second, even larger wave of players who grew up idolizing the Dream Team and saw the NBA not as a far-fetched fantasy but a legitimate possibility.
“It’s because of guys like Dirk Nowitzki,” Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee’s Nigerian-Greek superstar, recently told Sports Illustrated. “Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and those guys. Even older, Drazen Petrovic. They set the path for us.”
The NBA was far from the global brand it is today when, initially known as the Basketball Association of America, its first season tipped in 1946. But even then there was an international presence, with five foreign players seeing action during that inaugural campaign. One of them, Italian-Canadian Hank Biasatti, played in the NBA’s very first game, going scoreless for the Toronto Huskies in their 68-66 loss to the New York Knicks.
But despite the best efforts of rare standouts like the aforementioned Olajuwon, it would be roughly four decades before the NBA finally began pursuing and accepting foreign players in earnest. It happened in large part because the Soviet Union, heartened by its gold medal at the 1988 Olympics, began softening restrictions on elite players from hoops hotbeds like Lithuania and the former Yugoslavia. That brought Petrovic, Vlade Divac and a handful of other eastern European standouts stateside, where they overcome a host of obstacles (language barrier, homesickness, culture shock, etc.) to become valuable contributors.
Even more important for the sport itself, they served as inspiration to a bigger, even better generation that would follow.
Few could have imagined it at the time, but Nowitzki would lead this second charge, growing from an awkward 20-year-old who considered returning home to Germany late in his difficult rookie season to one of the most decorated and respected players in NBA history. But what truly set this second wave apart was sheer numbers, with the amount of foreign players surging from 30 in 1998-99, Nowitzki’s first campaign, to a record 113 in 2016-17.
That number has roughly held firm, with 108 foreign players participating in each of the past two seasons. And with the NBA’s popularity only continuing to grow around the globe, it’s hard to imagine a substantial drop any time soon.
The following is a selection of elite foreign players, listed alphabetically, who have helped shape the modern NBA. Some have been retired for years, while others are just getting started. All were or are impact players.
(Note: Defining what constitutes a foreign player isn’t always cut and dried. For the sake of simplicity, players like Tim Duncan, who grew up in a U.S. territory, or Patrick Ewing and Rolando Blackmon, who emigrated to the United States as children, are not included.)
Team: Milwaukee Bucks (2014-present)
Career averages: 18.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.3 spg, 1.5 bpg
Honors: 2018-19 Kia MVP, three-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA, two-time All-Defense
At just 24, the perfectly-nicknamed “Greek Freak” has already established himself among the most dynamic and entertaining players in NBA history. He became the third foreign player to win the MVP award after joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to average at least 27 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, one block and one steal.
Teams: Los Angeles Lakers (1989-96; 2004-05), Charlotte Hornets (1996-98), Sacramento Kings (1998-2004)
Career averages: 11.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.4 blocks
Honors: Naismith Hall of Fame, one-time All-Star
Divac was a leading member of the first wave of players in the late 1980s and early 1990s who helped dash the deeply-entrenched notion that non-Americans couldn’t hang in the NBA. He did so with an endearing personality and high-skill game that set the standard for the many Europeans who would soon follow the trail he helped blaze.
Team: Philadelphia 76ers (2016-present)
Career averages: 24.3 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 3.2 apg, 0.7 spg, 2.0 bpg
Honors: Two-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA, two-time All-Defense
Injuries have been an unfortunate plague on Embiid’s young career, forcing him to miss his first two seasons in their entirety and roughly a third of the past three combined. But few big men have been more productive than a healthy Embiid, who recently became the 11th player to ever average at least 27 points and 13 rebounds in a campaign.
Teams: Memphis Grizzlies (2009-2019), Toronto Raptors (2019-present)
Career averages: 15.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.5 blocks
Honors: One-time NBA champion, four-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA, 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year
Not as polished as his older brother Pau, Gasol nonetheless brought his own formidable package to the NBA, serving as the cornerstone of the Grizzlies’ beloved “Grit and Grind” teams with his high IQ and rugged style. When that era ran its course, Gasol brought his veteran skills to Toronto, where he helped the Raptors secure their first NBA championships.
Teams: Memphis Grizzlies (2001-08), Los Angeles Lakers (2008-14), Chicago Bulls (2014-16), San Antonio Spurs (2016-19), Milwaukee Bucks (2019), Portland Trail Blazers (2019-present)
Career averages: 17.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.6 blocks
Honors: Two-time NBA champion, six-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA, 2001-02 Rookie Of The Year
Said Kobe Bryant of the Spaniard with whom he teamed to lead the Lakers to a pair of championships: “You’d be hard-pressed to find a big with his skill set in the history of the game.” Indeed, Gasol was the embodiment of the modern center with his ability to stretch defenses from the outside, create for teammates and dominate in the post.
Team: San Antonio Spurs (2002-18)
Career averages: 13.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks
Honors: Four-time NBA champion, two-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA
Whether it meant dunking over multiple defenders, whipping an impossible pass through a thicket of legs or putting his often-aching body at risk by diving for a loose ball, Ginobili did whatever it took to win. As much success as he enjoyed in the NBA, his greatest moment came when he led his beloved Argentina past the U.S. for gold at the 2004 Olympics.
Team: Utah Jazz (2013-present)
Career averages: 11.1 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.2 blocks
Honors: Two-time All-NBA, three-time All-Defense, two-time Defensive Player of the Year
Gobert set records at the 2013 Draft Combine for wingspan (7-9) and standing reach (9-7). He’s used those assets to become one of the league’s best all-around defensive players. Indeed, his two Defensive Player of the Year awards are already tied for fourth all time. Gobert’s career 62.9 shooting percentage also ranks second in league history.
Team: Denver Nuggets (2015-present)
Career averages: 16.3 points, 9.6 rebounds, 5.1 apg, 1.1 spg, 0.7 bpg
Honors: One-time All-Star, one-time All-NBA
Jokic’s career has barely begun, but he’s already established a new paradigm for the modern NBA center with his ability to muscle inside, hit 3-pointers and run the offense. Indeed, in 2018-19 he became the first true center to average at least seven assists per game since Wilt Chamberlain did it in consecutive seasons in the late 1960s.
Teams: Utah Jazz (2001-11), Minnesota Timberwolves (2012-13), Brooklyn Nets (2013-15)
Career averages: 11.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.4 spg, 1.8 bpg
Honors: One-time All-Star, three-time All-Defense
The first 18-year-old foreigner drafted into the NBA, Kirilenko joined the Jazz in 2001 and spent the next decade terrorizing opposing players with his length and defensive instincts. “AK-47” was also known for his stat-stuffing performances, including three “5x5s” in which he recorded at least five points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
Teams: Chicago Bulls (1993-2000), Philadelphia 76ers (2000-01), Atlanta Hawks (2001-02), Milwaukee Bucks (2002-06)
Career averages: 11.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.0 spg, 0.3 bpg
Honors: Three-time NBA champion
Unlike several of his peers on the legendary Yugoslavian national team, Kukoc was content to remain overseas for several more seasons after he was drafted in 1990. When he finally did in 1993, “The Waiter” promptly became a key contributor on another dynasty, helping the Bulls win their fourth, fifth and sixth titles with his smooth all-around game.
Team: Houston Rockets (2002-11)
Career averages: 19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.4, 1.9 blocks
Honors: Naismith Hall of Fame, eight-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA
Yao’s endless battle with injuries finally caught up to him in 2011, forcing him to retire after just 486 games spread over nine seasons. The Chinese giant made the most of the time he did have, dominating on the court – only he could make Shaquille O’Neal look small -- while serving as one of the game’s most influential global ambassadors.
Teams: Denver Nuggets (1991-96), Atlanta Hawks (1996-2001), Philadelphia 76ers (2001-2002), New Jersey Nets (2002-03), New York Knicks (2003-04), Houston Rockets (2004-09)
Career averages: 11.5 points, 12.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.5 steals, 3.2 blocks
Honors: Naismith Hall of Fame, eight-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA, six-time All-Defense, four-time Defensive Player of the Year
It remains an indelible NBA image: The stern-faced, gravel-voiced Mutombo wagging his index finger at the hapless opponent whose shot he just denied. He had plenty of opportunities, finishing second to fellow African Hakeem Olajuwon with 3,289 career blocks on his way to a record-tying four Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Teams: Phoenix Suns (1996-98, 2004-12), Dallas Mavericks (1998-2004), Los Angeles Lakers (2012-14)
Career averages: 14.3 points, 8.5 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 0.7 steals, 0.1 blocks
Honors: Naismith Hall of Fame, two-time NBA MVP, eight-time All-Star, seven-time All-NBA
Nash had already enjoyed a respectable NBA career by the time he re-joined the Suns, the team that originally drafted him in 1996, as a 30-year-old free agent. He promptly became a legend, winning a pair of MVP awards while serving as the fulcrum of the thrilling “Seven Seconds or Less” offensive circus that continues to influence the league to this day.
Team: Dallas Mavericks (1999-2019)
Career averages: 20.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks
Honors: One-time NBA champion, one-time Finals MVP, 2006-07 NBA MVP, 14-time All-Star, 12-time All-NBA
Even Nowitzki had doubts about his NBA future after struggling as a rookie in 1998-99. The big German quickly eradicated any and all questions, revolutionizing the game with his unparalleled combination of size and perimeter shooting skills en route to 31,560 career points – sixth in NBA history, and No. 1 among non-Americans.
Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria)
Teams: Houston Rockets (1984-2001), Toronto Raptors (2001-02)
Career averages: 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.7 steals, 3.1 blocks
Honors: Naismith Hall of Fame, two-time NBA champion, two-time Finals MVP, 1993-94 NBA MVP, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, 12-time All-Star, 12-time All-NBA, 9-time All-Defense
There have been few sights more elegant in NBA history than Olajuwon working through his bottomless bag of tricks and feints in the low post. With freakish athleticism and brilliant instincts to match, “The Dream” established himself as not just one of the best foreign players to ever grace the NBA, but one of the very best players, period.
Teams: San Antonio Spurs (2001-18), Charlotte Hornets (2018-19)
Career averages: 15.5 points, 5.6 assists, 2.7 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 0.1 blocks
Honors: Four-time NBA champion, one-time Finals MVP, six-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA
Blessed with lightning quickness and cotton-soft touch around the rim, Parker teamed with Tim Duncan and fellow international star Manu Ginobili to form the cornerstone of a Spurs dynasty that made the playoffs in each of his 17 seasons. But Parker was also great in his own right, becoming the first European to win Finals MVP in 2007.
Teams: Portland Trail Blazers (1989-91), New Jersey Nets (1991-93)
Career averages: 15.4 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.1 blocks
Honors: Naismith Hall of Fame, one-time All-NBA
Petrovic remains a tragic figure, a player who was only just scratching the surface of his immense NBA potential with the Nets before his untimely death in 1993. A fierce competitor with deadly shooting touch, Petrovic was part of the first wave who proved to skeptical NBA teams that foreign players could thrive in the world’s most competitive league.
Team: Portland Trail Blazers (1995-2003)
Career averages: 12.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.1 apg, 0.8 spg, 1.1 bpg
Honors: Naismith Hall of Fame
Arguably the greatest European player of all time, “Sabas” would have made the Hall of Fame even if he’d never set foot on an NBA court. But while injuries and age had stolen most of his legendary athleticism by the time he finally arrived in 1995, Sabonis’ high IQ, versatile skill set and sheer bulk made him a formidable opponent even well past his prime.
Teams: Dallas Mavericks (1986-1989), Indiana Pacers (1989-1993), Seattle SuperSonics (1993-1999), Portland Trail Blazers (1999-2001)
Career averages: 13.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.4 apg, 0.8 spg, 0.3 bpg
Honors: Three-time All-Star, one-time All-NBA, two-time Sixth Man of the Year
Schrempf got his first taste of America as an exchange student in the early 1980s. He never left, going on to star at the University of Washington before becoming one of the most versatile players of his generation in the NBA. Whether that meant running the offense, spacing the floor or hitting the glass, Schrempf could pretty much do it all.
Teams: Sacramento Kings (1998-2006), Indiana Pacers (2006), New Orleans Hornets (2006-2010), Toronto Raptors (2010-11), Dallas Mavericks (2011)
Career averages: 17.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.8 apg, 0.9 spg, 0.1 bpg
Honors: One-time NBA champion, three-time All-Star, one-time All-NBA
One of the leading members of Croatia’s impressive hoops lineage, Stojakovic retired after 13 seasons in 2011 with 1,760 career 3-pointers (18th in NBA history) on 40.0-percent shooting (44th). His deadeye shooting was a key feature of the fearsome early ’00s Sacramento Kings teams that rank among the best to never win an NBA title.