The NBA is rich with talent, arguably more so than at any other time in its history. Centers can shoot three-pointers, and guards deliver ankle breakers and lightning passes every other play. With the superteam era seemingly over and talent distributed all over the outskirts of the league, basketball fans are truly living in a nirvana of entertainment.
One of the main reasons for this is the popularity of the sport at an international level. More countries are playing basketball than ever before, and non-American players have dominated the NBA for a half-decade now. The last three MVPs are all from other countries outside the United States (Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo).
But where do these men rank amongst the 22 best international basketball players of all time? Let's find out!
1. Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeem the Dream obliterated opponents in the low post with a potpourri of moves taken straight from a ballerina's repertoire. Olajuwon ushered in the era of the big man in the mid-1990s during Michael Jordan's baseball sabbatical, swiftly defeating contemporary greats like David Robinson, Shaquille O'Neal, and Patrick Ewing. The Nigerian will always be a fan favorite in Houston after delivering two NBA championships to Southeast Texas.
2. Dirk Nowitzki
Dirk Nowitzki carried the Dallas Mavericks for over two decades without a clear second star, bringing pride and joy to Germany, and driving home the reality that some of the most skilled players in the world originate from Europe. Nowitzki's smooth offensive game was bolstered by strong leadership and kind fan interactions, making him beloved in Dallas and all over the NBA. No player has spent more time with one team than Nowitzki with the Mavs.
3. Nikola Jokić
Nikola Jokić's evolution into the NBA's first true point-center makes him one of the most inexplicable superstars in league history. Nobody has the toolbox of skills that Jokić possesses. From whirling passes to soft jump hooks and floaters, he is a threat to score or create for his teammates no matter where he is on the floor. The only thing more entertaining than watching him play for the Nuggets is seeing him ride horses in the offseason in his native Serbia!
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis Antetokounmpo entered the NBA as a raw talent, and through years of hard grind and tireless work, he became a physical presence like no other. A two-time MVP, the Greek Freak set Milwaukee ablaze when he led the Bucks to their first championship in 50 years in 2021. As he continues to add more to his game, such as free throw shooting and playmaking, there is no end in sight to the heights Giannis can reach.
5. Steve Nash
Steve Nash pioneered and orchestrated the high-octane offense of the Phoenix Suns that would eventually be the inspiration for more accomplished teams like the Golden State Warriors dynasty of the 2010s. The Canadian's whip-smart playmaking and dead-eye accuracy from beyond the three-point line would have been even more devastating in the 2020s with an even more wide-open floor and reliance on point guard play.
6. Pau Gasol
Much more than just Kobe Bryant's sidekick, Pau Gasol anchored the front line of two Los Angeles championship teams in the late 2000s with selfless play and finesse down low. The Spaniard's touch and skill combined with underrated toughness led the way for the types of European big men who would star in the 2010s such as Joel Embiid and Gasol's brother, Marc.
7. Joel Embiid
Speaking of Joel Embiid, the Cameroonian star overcame early injuries to become the head of the snake in Philadelphia for the last half-decade of 76ers basketball. Embiid is an MVP, but he's never gone to the Eastern Conference Finals. With his all-around skills on both ends of the court, it's time for Embiid to lead Philly to glory and move further up this list!
8. Manu Ginóbili
Manu Ginóbili's flashy, spastic game careened into living rooms all over Argentina and San Antonio, Texas. Ginobili may have flustered head coach Gregg Popovich with his random decisions on the court, but everyone with the Spurs knew that Manu was nearly as crucial to the championship success of the team as Tim Duncan. If given his own team, Ginóbili would have certainly stacked the box score totals like fellow left-hander James Harden.
9. Tony Parker
Tony Parker rounded out the “Big Three” in San Antonio which won four NBA championships between 2003 and 2014. Parker's deadly floater and super-hero speed were deadly in both the open floor and the half-court, slicing apart defenses with even the highest acumen in the league. The Frenchman's celebrity status didn't hurt his fame either, with his marriage to actress Eva Longoria making headlines at the height of the 2000s.
10. Luka Dončić
Luka Dončić is only 24 years old, yet he's already decorated his resume with the accomplishments of a ten-year veteran. In 2021, Luka led the Mavs back to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2011. His big frame and creative game make him a threat to beat defenses off the dribble, at the rim, or with the pass. Luka is clearly the best Slovenian player of all time.
11. Dikembe Mutombo
More than just a finger-wagging defensive menace in his later years, Dikembe Mutombo was also the offensive leader of the Denver Nuggets team that upset the Seattle SuperSonics in 1994 to become the first eight-seed to win a first-round playoff series. Mutombo is a four-time Defensive Player of the Year and does awesome charity work in his native Republic of the Congo and around the globe.
12. Yao Ming
Yao Ming's 7'6” stature seemed clownish and distracting at first glance, but his skills resembled that of a much more sleight-of-frame player. Yao single-handedly popularized NBA basketball in China, winning the All-Star fan vote for the starting center position most years over Shaquille O'Neal. If Yao stayed healthy, he teamed up well with forward Tracy McGrady, manifesting one of the best perimeter, big-man combos of the era.
13. Arvydas Sabonis
Arvydas Sabonis knifed through Lithuanian defenses for years with precision playmaking and intelligent decision-making. By the time he finally debuted in the NBA, his best years were behind him, but he provided many of his trademark skills for the Portland Trail Blazers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Sabonis almost certainly would have transitioned to the NBA sooner if born two decades later, much like his son, Domantas.
14. Marc Gasol
Marc Gasol's reputation was always sturdier than his older brother's. Gasol was physical, and bruising, and brought ample toughness to the Grit n' Grind Memphis Grizzlies. Gasol expanded his shooting range later in his career and played a key role in the 2019 Toronto Raptors championship season.
15. Dražen Petrović
Dražen Petrović impacted the NBA forever in just four short seasons before his tragic passing in 1993. The Croatian shooting guard pioneered the medium-bodied sniper that would become such a template in later decades of the NBA. Players like Ray Allen, Klay Thompson, and so many more have a little bit of Petrović in their games.
16. Peja Stojaković
Remember when the Sacramento Kings were good every year in the early 2000s? You can thank Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, and definitely Peja Stojaković for that success. Standing at 6'10”, he was an impossible player to guard due to his size and shooting abilities. The Serbian captured an NBA title with the Dallas Mavericks in his final season in the league.
17. Rudy Gobert
Rudy Gobert might be underrated at this point due to backlash towards his three Defensive Player of the Year Awards. While these accomplishments may not look deserving in hindsight, the Frenchman is a towering rim presence who has also tried to add to his offensive skillset in recent years. His combination with Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota will be put to the test again in 2023-2024.
18. Detlef Schrempf
Before Dirk Nowitzki dawned a new era for German basketball, Detlef Schrempf was the ultimate example of hoop talent in the country. Schrempf stood 6'10” and used that length and lank to get his shot off in a variety of ways. He was an important part of the Seattle SuperSonics team that went to the NBA Finals in 1996, complementing Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp exquisitely.
19. Al Horford
Al Horford does whatever is asked of him, whether that be starring for the Atlanta Hawks or playing a small role for the Boston Celtics. Horford's IQ and selfless nature represent his chameleon-like nature. The Dominican has made five All-Star teams because one night he can drop 30 points, and another 10 assists.
20. Toni Kukoč
Another Croatian sensation in the 1990s, Toni Kukoč brought a jolt to the Chicago Bulls dynasty in the late 1990s. Winning three championships with heady play and timely three-point shooting, he was just what Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen needed to complete the second set of rings in the Windy City. Fun fact: MJ and Pippen took quite a while to be won over by Kukoč; they thought he was all hype and no game.
21. Andrew Bogut
Andrew Bogut was drafted first overall by the Milwaukee Bucks with superstar expectations on his shoulders. The Australian fit in much better as a role player for the Golden State Warriors in 2015 when they won their first title in 40 years. Bogut passes seamlessly, rim-runs with force, and sets devastating screens for shooters.
22. Šarūnas Marčiulionis
Šarūnas Marčiulionis came over to the NBA earlier in his career than his Lithuanian teammate, Arvydas Sabonis, and helped to show the world how much talent there was in the European leagues. His flare and crafty moves in the open floor were a sign of what was to come from other non-American players in the 2000s and 2010s.
Shawn Laib is a writer who has loved all things pop culture from a young age. Growing up playing classic Nintendo games and being introduced to a variety of movies and shows, he always enjoyed analyzing and getting to the bottom of the point of a story. As he went into high school, basketball and sports in general became a main focus. Shawn decided to put his skills in English class to good use and majored in the subject area at the University of Washington, graduating with a B.A. in 2020. He began his freelance writing career after college with sites like SUPERJUMP, Den of Geek, and Quote.com. He now remains a fixture with publications like The Manual and Wealth of Geeks.