On Sunday night, Dirk Nowitzki, a 1998 international draft choice, led the Mavs to their first title a couple of days ago while 2003 draft alumni LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade wallowed in the misery of defeat. With that in mind, I thought it appropriate to look at NBA Draft first round picks from foreign lands.

The aforementioned trio were part of the 2003 draft class that saw, arguably, the most controversial and widely-panned international selection in a long time, Darko Milicic by the Detroit Pistons. However, he has something both LeBron and Bosh do not have — a championship ring. How do you like them scrutiny apples?

We’ll go back in time 25 years and start with a man that it seems appropriate to begin with.

1986

Arvydas Sabonis, Lithuania – 24th overall pick by the Portland Trail Blazers
Sabonis was considered the best player on the planet by some during his time overseas, but because he didn’t play in the NBA, this proclamation had its detractors. He didn’t begin his NBA career until the 1995-96 season at the age of 31, effectively missing out on hitting the American hardwood during his prime years, but in eight seasons proved that foreign players could get down in the NBA, averaging 12.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in only 24.2 minutes per game. Along with Drazen Petrovic, he is considered a pioneer in Euro-NBA relations.

1989

Vlade Divac, Serbia – 26th overall pick by the Los Angeles Lakers
Divac is known as the affable big man that Magic Johnson instantly fell in love with, which opened the door to more love from Lakers fans. He’s also known as one of the most histrionic players to ever set foot on an NBA court. Divac had a long 15-year career, which was solid, but compared to the youngster he was eventually traded for in 1996, it doesn’t compare. Though to be fair, not too many people compare well to Kobe Bryant.

1996

Peja Stojackovic, Serbia – 14th overall pick by the Sacramento Kings
Stojakovic had some great seasons with the Kings, averaging 20+ points in four of seven-and-a-half seasons he called Sactown home. He was a lethal outside shooter, and if injuries didn’t get the best of him, could have produced a lot more. Of course, he recently won a title with the Mavs, which in the end is all that matters.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Lithuania – 20th overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers
It took Ilgauskas a year before debuting on an NBA court, but when he did, he made his presence known in the post. He wasn’t as devastating as Shaquille O’Neal, but Big Z was consistent. Until this past season when he joined LeBron James in South Beach, Ilgaukas was a Cleveland lifer and is still much loved there.

Efthimi Rentzias, Greece – 23rd overall pick by the Denver Nuggets
Rentzias didn’t come to the NBA until 2002 when he played for the Philadelphia 76ers. He played 35 games, averaging 1.5 points and 0.7 rebounds. It was his only season in the NBA, which isn’t much compared to the man he was drafted immediately before — Derek Fisher.

Martin Muursepp, Estonia – 25th overall pick by the Utah Jazz
Muursepp played 83 total games over two seasons with the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks from 1996-98. He averaged 4.7 points and 2.2 rebounds in 11.5 minutes per game. His name makes you think your keyboard is stuck.

1997

Chris Anstey, Australia – 18th overall pick by the Portland Trail Blazers
Anstey was a solid contributor when he played for the Dallas Mavericks and Chicago Bulls from 1997-2000. He averaged 5.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in 13.9 minutes per game.

1998

Dirk Nowitzki, Germany – 9th overall pick by the Milwaukee Bucks
It could be argued that Nowitzki is the greatest foreign player that ever donned an NBA uniform. In fact, the Mavs’ title that was due in a significant way to Nowitzki, solidifies the notion. He’s a regular season MVP and an NBA Finals MVP, 10-time NBA All-Star and a guaranteed NBA Hall of Famer. Nowitzki is the paragon of the big man foreign player with shooting touch. He’ll also probably end up as that rare modern day player that only plays for one team during his career.

Rasho Nesterovic, Slovenia – 17th overall pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves
Nesterovic made a nice living in the NBA, playing for four teams in a dozen seasons. He even ended up with an NBA championship ring playing for the San Antonio Spurs 2005 title team. Nesterovic was a serviceable player, particularly adept at blocking shots.

Mirsad Turkcan, Serbia – 18th overall pick by the Houston Rockets
Turkcan played seven games for the New York Knicks and 10 for the Milwaukee Bucks during the 1999-2000 season, his lone NBA campaign. He averaged 1.9 points and 1.9 rebounds in 5.3 minutes of play.

Vladimir Stepania, Georgia – 27th overall pick by the Seattle SuperSonics
Stepania played six seasons for four NBA teams, averaging 4.1 points and 4.4 rebounds in 13.8 minutes per game.

1999

Frederic Weis, France – 15th overall pick by the New York Knicks
Weis never played in the NBA and many Knicks fans at the time will remember that the organization selected Weis over homegrown (Queensbridge and St. John’s University) Ron Artest. Weis is best known for feeling Vince Carter’s package on his head during one of the best dunks ever.

Andrei Kirilenko, Russian Federation – 24th overall pick by the Utah Jazz
Kirilenko is a jack-of-all-trades and master of none when it comes to basketball. He’s a very versatile player that contributed across the board statistically and and at one time was a superb defender. He’ll become a free agent this summer and there are rumors that he’ll join the New Jersey Nets and rejoin Mikhail Prokhorov, for whom Kirilenko played at CSKA Moscow.

Starting with this decade, we’ll collectively note the players for each draft followed by a quick paragraph afterwards. We’ll go up to the 2006 NBA Draft as the general rule to truly judge a draft is five years.

2000

Hedo Turkoglu, Turkey – 16th overall pick by the Sacramento Kings
Dalibor Bagaric, Croatia – 24th overall pick by the Chicago Bulls
Jake Tsakalidis, Georgia – 25th overall pick by the Phoenix Suns
Primo Brezec, Slovenia – 27th overall pick by the Indiana Pacers

Turkoglu is obviously the best of this foreign class, being an integral part of both the Sacramento Kings (off the bench) and Orlando Magic (as a starter/salary cap burden). Bagaric and Tsakalidis didn’t contribute significantly, while Brezec was serviceable, averaging double-digt points in two seasons over an eight-year career.

2001

Pau Gasol, Spain – 3rd overall pick by the Atlanta Hawks
Vladimir Radmanovic, Bosnia and Herzegovina – 12th overall pick by the Seattle SuperSonics
Raul Lopez, Spain – 24th overall pick by the Utah Jazz
Tony Parker, France – 28th overall pick by the San Antonio Spurs

Gasol and Parker are clearly the gems here. Both are multiple time NBA champions and considered to be one of the best at their position over the course of their NBA careers. Radmanovic is a three-point chucker, which is his only redeeming value as a player. Lopez only played 113 games over two seasons with the Jazz, despite his assumptive role as John Stockton’s replacement.

2002

Yao Ming, China – 1st overall pick by the Houston Rockets
Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Georgia – 5th overall pick by the Denver Nuggets
Nene Hilario, Brazil – 7th overall pick by the New York Knicks
Bostjan Nachbar, Slovenia – 15th overall pick by the Houston Rockets
Jiri Welsch, Czech Republic – 16th overall pick by the Philadephia 76ers
Nenad Krstic, Serbia – 24th overall pick by the New Jersey Nets

Yao and Nene stand out as the best foreign players for this draft class with Yao having a bit of an edge considering his consistent numbers for several seasons. Unfortunately, that includes injuries, which have derailed a potential Hall of Fame career for the first foreign No. 1 pick in NBA Draft history. Krstic is a solid bench player, while Welsch and Nachbar are only OK, though all three have now left the NBA. Finally, forget Darko Milicic being a bad pick — Tskitishvili has done nothing in the NBA. Milicic at least provided solid numbers in blocks and boards. Skita was horrible.

2003

Darko Milicic, Serbia – 2nd overall pick by the Detroit Pistons
Mickael Pietrus, Guadeloupe – 11th overall pick by the Golden State Warriors
Zarko Cabarkapa, Serbia – 17th overall pick by the Phoenix Suns
Sasha Pavlovic, Montenegro – 19th overall pick by the Utah Jazz
Boris Diaw, France – 21st overall pick by the Atlanta Hawks
Zoran Planinic, Bosnia and Herzegovina – 22nd overall pick by the New Jersey Nets
Carlos Delfino, Argentina – 25th overall pick by the Detroit Pistons
Leandro Barbosa, Brazil – 28th overall pick by the San Antonio Spurs

It’s valid that Milicic should be scrutinized because players such Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were available, but he at least could (eventually) do something on the court. Pietrus, Diaw, Delfino and Barbosa are all solid players that can do some special things from time-to-time and do international players proud. Cabarkapa, Pavlovic and Planinic, not so much.

2004

Andris Biedrins, Latvia – 11th overall pick by the Golden State Warriors
Pavel Podkolzin, Russian Federation – 21st overall pick by the Utah Jazz
Viktor Khryapa, Ukraine – 22nd overall pick by the New Jersey Nets
Sergei Monia, Russian Federation – 23rd overall pick by the Portland Trail Blazers
Sasha Vujacic, Slovenia – 27th overall pick by the Los Angeles Lakers
Beno Udrih, Slovenia – 28th overall pick by the San Antonio Spurs

No one really jumps off the page here, although Vujacic did win a couple of NBA titles with the Lakers. Udrih has also re-established himself as a very good player, while Biedrins still has some upside to do work down in the box, though playing in a very guard and wing-heavy offense does him no favors. Podkolzin, Khryapa and Monia are out of the league.

2005

Fran Vazquez, Spain – 11th overall pick by the Orlando Magic
Yaroslav Korolev, Russian Federation – 12th overall pick by the Los Angeles Clippers
Johan Petro, France – 25th overall pick by the Seattle SuperSonics
Ian Mahinmi, France – 28th overall pick by the San Antonio Spurs

Vazquez never played a game in the NBA and the rest of the ‘05 crew aren’t anything to write home about, although Mahinmi played some important minutes this past NBA Finals, spelling Tyson Chandler and hitting two big jumpers in Game 6.

2006

Andrea Bargnani, Italy – 1st overall pick by the Toronto Raptors
Mouhamed Sene, Senegal – 10th overall pick by the Seattle SuperSonics
Thabo Sefolosha, Switzerland – 13th overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers
Oleksiy Pecherov, Ukraine – 18th overall pick by the Washington Wizards
Sergio Rodriguez, Spain – 27th overall pick by the Phoenix Suns
Joel Freeland, England – 30th overall pick by the Portland Trail Blazers

Bargnani was lucky enough to became the second No. 1 overall pick in what is considered one of the weaker drafts in recent history. Sefolosha is a solid rotation player/starter for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Rodriguez had some ability, but never received a solid shot to show it off, and has since left the NBA. Sene and Pecherov didn’t do much in the Association while Freeland never played a game in the league.

The 2011 NBA Draft is expected to be rich in international selections, which means it’s safe to say that the invasion is coming! Close the borders! Kidding. What once was a passing thought amongst NBA fans has become a concrete idea that can help an NBA team win.

Ask that dude, Dirk.

Dennis encourages everyone around the world to be amazing like the NBA, so follow him on Twitter and this “amazingness” shall come. Yes, he just made up that word.

Comments (29)

  1. how could you forget GINOBILI????????

  2. Just a look at first round picks as stated. However, it does tell you how awesome Manu is!

  3. This article is very inaccurate Mr. Velasco. Peja is Serbian player not Croatian. Bagaric is from Croatia, not from Germany. What about Kukoc and Rada great croatian players you haven’t even mention?

    P.S. I am from Croatia believe it or not

  4. Peja might have been born in Croatia, but he’s a Serbian.

  5. Apologies if anyone was offended. I used Basketball-Reference.com as, well, a reference. Thanks for pointing out the inaccuracies.

  6. Sergio Rodriguez listed but not Rudy Fernandez (who happened to wear the jersey of Fernando Martin (another omission) in the ’09 dunk contest)? FTL, mang, FTL.

  7. Also, how about Wang ZhiZhi, who in 1999 was the first Chinese baller to be drafted? He helped pave the way for the eventual coming of Yao Ming.

  8. Fernandez was selected in the 2007 NBA Draft, but we limited the selections up to 2006. Thanks for reading though!

  9. ZhiZhi was a second round pick, but was a door opener for Yao’s eventual coming to the NBA.

  10. What about our one-armed man Bogut?

  11. Manu is form South America, not Europe

  12. Does Nash not count since he went to Santa Clara?

  13. Hakeem (or Akeem when he was drafted) and Manute? Luol Deng? Dikembe Mutombo?

  14. All of those players played at a college in the US.
    Bogut at Utah
    Nash at Santa Clara
    Hakeem at Houston
    Manute at Bridgeport
    Deng at Duke
    Mutombo at Georgetown

    Also, most forget/dont know that before he got injured Nenad Krstic was a very solid starter in Jersey. Never the same after though.

  15. Ah, there’s the draft and then there’s the free agent signings and who could forget the mighty Medvedenko?

  16. Kleiza was drafted 27th in 2005. guess he qualifies

  17. Only this single sentence of Drazen Petrovic? “Along with Drazen Petrovic, he is considered a pioneer in Euro-NBA relations.”

    THIS ARTICLE SUXX BIG TIME, MADÖRFACKAR.

    Go and read this, @sswhole:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dra%C5%BEen_Petrovi%C4%87
    http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/p/petrodr01.html

    go and watch this:
    http://30for30.espn.com/film/once-brothers.html

  18. You should have mentioned that Sabonis put up those nice stats without any legs. Seems to be a Blazers thing…

  19. hey, my comment did not make the cut.

    So, I wanted to let the community know, that it only mentions Drazen Petrovic in a mere half sentence (“Along with Drazen Petrovic, he is considered a pioneer in Euro-NBA relations”), which is a shame, and the post writer should include him in detail as well, and I also suggested him to watch this film:
    http://30for30.espn.com/film/once-brothers.html

    and read more (a lot more) about Petrovic.

  20. this article has let’s say like 30 lines about nonames such as muursepp, rentzias, nesterovic, anstey, weis, stepania, etc, and only a single line about Drazen Petrovic.

    Dude, you should go back to (basketball history) school.

  21. @flegman The article was about first round picks… either you didn’t read the premise or you didn’t know that Petrovic was a third round pick. Either way, I appreciate the oversight on your part and your clear man-love for Petrovic, who happened to be one of my favorite players back in the day. Obviously not as much as he was yours. And I did see the 30 for 30 doc… loved it. Thanks for reading!

    @kestas You’re right about Kleiza, but I didn’t want to include any players that took the court on American soil for any high school (which is why I don’t include someone like DeSagana Diop who played for prep powerhouse Oak Hill) or college, which eliminates Kleiza who played for Missouri.

    @Flotze Excellent point! Dude could do it all too… loved his court vision. I’ve seen some old tapes of him in international play and can’t help but wonder what he could have achieved if he played in his prime in the NBA.

    @Erdee Thanks for the list and getting the prerequisites!

  22. flegman, can you read? it says first round picks!!! drazen, manu, others mentioned in comments are not first rounders.

  23. are you retarded, manu is the second greatest European player OF ALL TIME (after Petrovic).

    he lead the spurs to 4 championships! he isn’t a second rounder…

  24. Nice article!
    You missed mentioning the first ever European player to get significant playing in the NBA which was Sarunas Marciulionis in 1987 from Basketball wonderland Lithuania…
    (…or was it the Sowjet Union at the time?) I love guys getting all uptight on Croatia, Serbia, Yougoslavia or whatever which region was called at which point in time…)

  25. Guadeloupe isn’t a country, dude, Pietrus is from Guadeloupe, which is France.

    And Tony Parker is half american, how come he makes the cut?

    Yeah, you guessed it, I’m french.

  26. @flegman Manu was a second round draft pick (the best value for a player ever in the past 20+ years) and he only won three titles with the Spurs, which was led by Tim Duncan and Tony Parker if you want to go by Finals MVP count. Basketball history school? :)

    @Breyzh Thanks for the clarification on Guadeloupe… actually read up about it on Wikipedia real quick just now. Regarding Parker, he didn’t play prep or college ball here in the US, so he qualifies as an overseas player.

  27. @defdun Thanks for the props! And, yeah, Sarunas! He filled in nicely when Mitch Richmond went to the Kings… still sort of had Run TMC going on (if you used the M for Marciulionis).

  28. You should probably have made it clear that going to college in the US disqualified you from contention. But that’s fine.

    However, one has to do a spit-take at the notion that Nowitzki, current status as St. George The Victorious notwithstanding, is the greatest foreign born player of all time. Perhaps on this list of non-US-college players, yes. And also one could say that he’s the greatest European player of all time. But Hakeem Olojuwon is still head and shoulders above Dirk.

    Also, @flegman, Ginobli isn’t European. He’s Argentinian, which is in South America in case you’d care to consult an atlas.

  29. @flegman please make more inaccurate/hilarious comments for people to reply to.

    DV, your first sentence doesn’t make sense – you’re using “Sunday night..” and “..a couple days ago” redundantly to establish the time, just delete the couple days ago reference and you’re good. Solid piece, but when can we expect the follow-up regarding players going the other way? Starbury in China.. The Answer flopping in Turkey… Jelly Bean Bryant…

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