Hank Biasatti scored an unremarkable total of six points in the six games he played for the Toronto Huskies (of the BAA, which evolved into the NBA) in the 1946-47 season. What was remarkable, however, was that, having been born in Italy, Biasatti was the league’s first international player.
For the next 45 years or so, several other foreign-born players followed Biasatti. Some of them had meaningful careers — Swen Nater, Mychal Thompson, Detlef Schrempf — but the vast majority were unsuccessful.
Anybody remember the likes of Joao Vianna or Rolando Ferreira from Brazil? Or Jeff Nordgaard (Poland)? How about Russia’s Sergei Bazarevich, or Serbia’s Radisav Curcic and Milos Babic?
Even so, in the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, NBA teams signed more and more internationals.
And why were so many below-par international players signed during this period?
According to several prominent agents there were three reasons:
- They didn’t demand much money.
- Players from countries ruled by dictators and/or communist regimes played hard and never caused any problems.
- Since the NBA was so dominated by black players, teams were eager to balance their rosters with white players.
However, once “The Dream Team” appeared on the Olympic scene in 1992, there has been a tidal wave of internationals in the NBA. And a much larger percentage of these outliers have been exceptional performers.
So, then, not counting the many Canadians who have played in the NBA, here are my admittedly subjective picks for the league’s top 15 international players of all time (place of birth in parentheses).
1. HAKEEM OLAJUWON (NIGERIA)
No contest here. He could run, sky, shoot, defend, rebound — everything but pass. Plus, Olajuwon was a totally admirable human being.
2. DIRK NOWITZKI (GERMANY)
Early on, Nowitzki ran wild, making numerous mistakes and even more spectacular plays. Once he settled down and perfected his patented step-back jumper (the most unblockable shot since Kareem’s sky hook), Nowitzki became a high-volume scorer, especially whenever he received the ball anywhere near the foul line.
3. STEVE NASH (SOUTH AFRICA)
The motor/transmission/steering wheel in Mike D’Antoni’s high-octane offense in Phoenix, Nash only shot when he had to, and also was instrumental in pioneering what became the small-ball revolution.
4. MANU GINOBILI (ARGENTINA)
He provided instant points, clutch shooting and perpetual hustle for many of San Antonio’s championship teams. In his prime, Ginobili was always a game-changer.
5. YAO MING (CHINA)
Hindered by several physical limitations that eventually led to his body breaking down, nevertheless, during his peak seasons Yao Ming was always a force to be reckoned with in the low post.
6. PAU GASOL (SPAIN)
Pau ranks ahead of his younger brother because the elder Gasol has always been a smoother and more versatile scorer, as well as a better mid-range shooter.
7. MARC GASOL (SPAIN)
Stronger than Pau, Marc was (and still is) a slightly better pass and rebounder. On a team that featured him more, the junior Gasol would have routinely been a 20-plus scorer.
8. TONY PARKER (FRANCE)
Quick to the hoop where he’d finish with a dazzling arsenal of flips, twists and derring-do, TP became even more of a superb point guard when he developed an accurate pull-up jumper.
9. DIKEMBE MUTOMBO (DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO)
A dynamic shot-blocker who made opponents shoot jumpers instead of layups, Mutombo could also score some with a lanky, herky-jerky jump hook. Then, as now, Mutombo has also been a generous humanitarian who is devoted to his homeland.
10. TONI KUKOC (CROATIA)
The hot-shot scorer off the bench for the latter half of the Bulls’ Dynasty, Kukoc was a 6’11” wing-cum-powerless-forward who could out-quick bigger opponents and simply shoot over smaller ones.
11. RIK SMITS (THE NETHERLANDS)
A surprisingly athletic 7’4”, Smits couldn’t be stopped whenever he had at least one foot in the paint when he received an incoming pass.
12. DRAZEN PETROVIC (CROATIA)
His shot-release was even quicker than Stephen Curry’s, and Petrovic was never afraid to shoot. An unfortunate car accident made for a tragic end to his NBA career and life.
13. PATRICK EWING (JAMAICA)
He always played hard and could score with a galloping jump-hook, but once Ewing escaped from John Thompson’s defense-oriented game plan at Georgetown, he focused on offense. And, for the first 46 minutes of a game, Ewing could rack up the points. Too bad he was a habitual choker in the endgame.
14. SARUNAS MARCIULIONIS (LITHUANIA)
Fiercely competitive, his powerhouse lefty drives and pop-shots made Marciulionis a potent scorer off the Warriors’ bench — until debilitating injuries limited his effectiveness.
15. ARVYDAS SABONIS (LITHUANIA)
He was 31 and his knees were shot when he joined the Trail Blazers in 1995. Even though he was relatively immobile, Sabonis could still shoot, pass and set body-crunching screens better than the majority of his peers. He was also the only defender who could sufficiently match mass and strength with Shaq, to the point where Shaq had to shoot low-percentage turnaround jumpers instead of powering his way into the paint.