9 Foreign Stars Who Are Lighting Up the NBA This Season

Mike Walsh@WalshWritesCorrespondent IJanuary 5, 2013

9 Foreign Stars Who Are Lighting Up the NBA This Season

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    There are around 100 basketball players employed in the NBA that were born on foreign soil. A select few have been pushing the envelope with their production this season.

    The NBA went through a recent run of grabbing up foreign stars with early picks. This was the Dirk Nowitzki effect and led to such draft failures as Andrea Bargnani and Darko Milicic. 

    Instead, the higher-ups seem to have learned from their mistakes and begun using foreign players as value picks. This has bred some up-and-coming stars like Omer Asik. By using these later picks, there is far less pressure placed on players to develop rapidly.

    Coming to play in the USA after spending much of their lives speaking a different language and operating under different customs can be stressful. When the pressure of a high pick and big money is added, some players get snuffed out.

    The players here represent the cream of the foreign crop in 2012-'13. They are lighting up the NBA this season and representing their homelands with a great deal of success.

    All statistics used in this story are accurate as of Jan. 4, 2013.

Nikola Peković

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    Nationality: Montenegrin
    2012-13 Statistics: 15.7 points and 8.1 rebounds

    Minnesota is a team with numerous foreign-born players. Their roster is teeming with ballers from vastly different backgrounds and countries. 

    Nikola Peković has been playing better than any of them, not to mention the majority of the centers in the league. He has been a borderline all-star at the center position, posting 15.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. 

    The Yugoslavian-born big man has been a steady influence in the paint for the Timberwolves throughout the season. He is a major reason for them being the league's fourth-highest ranked rebounding team, as well as the No. 6 team in points allowed.

    Pekovic's 18.5 PER is tops on Minnesota. He was really coming on strong at the end of 2012, tallying 17.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game in December.

Anderson Varejão

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    Nationality: Brazilian
    2012-13 Statistics: 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds

    Unfortunately Anderson Varejao has missed his last seven games with an injury. 

    Otherwise, the Cleveland Cavaliers' center has been virtually unstoppable. In his ninth NBA season he has totally taken the league by storm. 

    Varejao leads the NBA in rebounding. His 14.4 per game mark is a full two boards more a night than second-place Zach Randolph (12.3). Varejao has been a force on the glass all season, grabbing 18 or more rebounds on eight different occasions. A shocking 5.5 of those rebounds per game are coming on the offensive end.

    The big-haired Brazilian has also brought it on offense. He is averaging a career-high 14.1 points per game. A lot of those points are coming off of his 5.5 offensive rebounds. He shoots 48 percent from the field and has even turned himself into a good free-throw shooter. After never shooting better than 67 percent from the line, he has made 76 percent of his freebies this season.

    Most players have their breakout season early on, but Varejao is already 30 years old. His story may be the most interesting subplot of 2012-13.

Tony Parker

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    Nationality: French
    2012-13 Statistics: 19.1 points and 7.4 assists per game

    While it has surprised no one, Tony Parker is once again lighting up the NBA from the point guard position.

    He has been the best player on the 26-9 San Antonio Spurs, leading them in scoring and assists. He picked up right where he left off after a stellar 2011-12 campaign that had him on the verge of MVP consideration. His 19.1 points and 7.4 assists per game are both near career highs in his 12th NBA season.

    Parker has been incredibly efficient even for his lofty standards. He is getting closer and closer to that celebratory 50-40-90 shooting percentage mark that few ever even sniff. The Frenchman is shooting 51 percent from the field, 41 percent from long-range and 83 percent from the line.

    Parker's scoring is not only amazingly efficient, but it comes at the right times. When the Spurs need him, he can be one of the best offensive players in the league. In seven games this season, Parker has breached 25 points. The Spurs are 7-0 in those games.

Al Horford

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    Nationality: Dominican
    2012-13 Statistics: 16.1 points and 9.7 rebounds

    Al Horford has returned from an injury-plagued 2011-12 season to once again light up the NBA from the center position.

    This year, he has truly upped his game with Joe Johnson's offense gone. Horford is scoring a career-high 16.1 points per game, while taking charge with 13.3 shots a night. He is 54 percent on those attempts and has helped the Hawks to an impressive 20-11 record.

    He is Atlanta's leading rebounder at 9.7 per game and their second-leading scorer behind Josh Smith (17). Hovering also around 3.3 assists per game, the only thing missing from this being a truly dominant season has been his free-throw shooting. A career 74 percent free throw shooter, Horford has sunk to a shocking 57 percent this season

    Still, the Dominican big man is proving his mettle in the NBA all over again with 16 double-doubles and a surprisingly good Hawks team.

Luol Deng

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    Nationality: British
    2012-13 Statistics: 17.4 points and 6.9 rebounds 

    A Sudanese-born, British player leads the NBA in minutes this season, because he is just that important to the Chicago Bulls.

    Luol Deng has done more than light it up for the Bulls this season. He has been a steadying influence on a team badly missing its superstar. Until Derrick Rose returns fully, Deng is the man in Chicago. He leads the team in scoring by a wide margin with 17.4 points per game. His 6.9 rebounds a night put him third on the team.

    It is his defense where Deng really makes a mark, though. In Tom Thibodeau's expansive schemes, the focal point is Deng eliminating the opposition's No. 1 option. He is responsible for limiting Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, and he does a good job of it.

    The Bulls are 18-13 and surprising a lot of teams. They remain a top defense, surrendering the third-fewest points per game in the league. Luol Deng is one of the biggest men behind that ranking and record.

Nikola Vucevic

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    Nationality: Swiss/Montenegrin
    2012-13 Statistics: 11.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game

    In just his second season in the NBA, Nikola Vucevic has put the NBA on notice.

    He is one of the few players on this list averaging a true double-double, with 11.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. Playing in relative obscurity for the 12-20 Orlando Magic, not a lot of national attention will be shown to Vucevic in his sophomore season, but down the line he could transform into a great NBA big man.

    The Swiss-born seven-footer leads his team and is seventh in the NBA in rebounding. He made a lot of noise recently, going for 20 points and 29 boards in a two-point loss to the Miami Heat. Vucevic has posted 14 double-doubles this season.

    Despite playing state-side for USC in college, that was the first time the 22-year-old left his native land.

Marc Gasol

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    Nationality: Spanish
    2012-13 Statistics: 13.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game

    While his stats won't impress anyone, Marc Gasol is the best all-around center in the Western Conference and maybe the NBA. 

    His points and rebounding only tell a portion of the story that is the Spanish seven-footer's influence on one of the league's top teams. The Memphis Grizzlies are 20-10 this season and Gasol's play has been a major factor. 

    Gasol is an excellent free-throw shooter for a big man, connecting on 108-of-123 freebies this season, good for 88 percent. He is also a fantastic passer from the low post, dishing out 3.8 assists per game. His 1.9 blocks a night also place him just outside the top-10 in the league.

    Gasol's overall weight on the Grizzlies' success allows him the platform to be recognized by the league. He'll never really be seen as "lighting it up," but still deserves to be mentioned on this list, nonetheless.

Serge Ibaka

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    Nationality: Congolese/Spanish
    2012-13 Statistics: 14.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game

    Serge Ibaka's points and rebounds aren't what has landed him on this list. Instead, it is his superior shot-blocking that has lit up the NBA this season.

    Ibaka's 2.9 blocks per game place him second in the league behind Larry Sanders, but his 94 total blocks are the most in the NBA. Couple that with 14.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game and we have one of the best foreign bigs playing in the USA.

    At just 23, Ibaka has taken on a very meaningful role with the defending Western Conference Champion Oklahoma City Thunder. With his team currently 25-7 on the season, Ibaka's presence is getting a lot of attention.

    The Congolese-born power forward has played a huge part in making the Thunder not just an efficient offensive team, (56 percent shooting) but also a top-10 rebounding unit and the No. 11-ranked defense in the league.

Omer Asik

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    Nationality: Turkish
    2012-13 Statistics: 10.8 points and 11.6 rebounds per game

    Omer Asik has shocked the league with his play while not "lighting it up." However, his prolific rebounding skills and efficient offense are enough to land him here.

    Asik has posted 14 double-doubles this season for the Houston Rockets in his first year with the franchise. It is also his first season as a starting center in the NBA, and he has proven his worth in nearly every game. He shoots 53 percent from the floor and plays within himself offensively.

    He has become one of the league's best rebounders right off the bat, grabbing 10-plus in 21-of-33 games. His 11.6 rebounds per game rank him fourth in the NBA, behind veteran names like Dwight Howard, Zach Randolph and Anderson Varejao.

    The Turkish big is just 26 and a member of one of the youngest teams in the league. Still, his great play has helped them to a 19-14 record in the tough Western Conference.