Where Does Dirk Nowitzki Fit Among the Greatest European Players in NBA History?

Ross Bentley@@imrossbentleySenior Analyst IMay 1, 2013

Where Does Dirk Nowitzki Fit Among the Greatest European Players in NBA History?

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    There is no doubt that Dirk Nowitzki is the greatest shooting big man of all time.

    Nowitzki is a surefire NBA Hall of Famer when he decides to hang it up, and few players have revolutionized the game quite like Nowitzki has been able to do during his 14-year career.

    But where does Nowitzki rank among the best European players in NBA history? There have been some legendary Europeans to come into the NBA game over the last 30 or so years, and there are many, still today, who continue to make a significant impact.

    Ranking the best European players in league history is no easy task, considering the influx of talent that has come in from overseas. Is Nowitzki the greatest of all time? Or is there another European who tops him?

    With so many players who could be on this list, it's hard to narrow it down to just 10, but here is my best shot at the top European basketball players to have played in the NBA.


    Note: Only players who were born in Europe AND spent a significant amount of their childhood are deemed eligible. So no Kobe Bryant, Dominique Wilkins, Carlos Boozer, etc. Also we are only basing this off the players' accomplishments in the NBA. Their performance in international play or in other pro leagues have no bearing on their rank.

Honorable Mention

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    Although these guys just missed the cut, their contributions to the league certainly merit them being mentioned in a list of the greatest Europeans to ever play in the NBA.


    Vlade Divac (Serbia)

    Vlade Divac was a major contributor during his career, primarily with the L.A. Lakers and Sacramento Kings. He was the first-ever Serbian NBA draft pick, and over the course of his 15-year NBA career, he averaged over 12 points per game and over eight rebounds.

    Divac also is famous for bringing "flopping" to the NBA game and is often regarded as possibly the best flopper of all time.


    Sarunas Marciulionis (Lithuania)

    After being drafted by the Golden State Warriors in the late 1980s, Sarunas Marciulionis became one the first European player to get significant minutes in an NBA uniform. For his career, he averaged 12.8 PPG and finished runner-up in the voting for NBA Sixth Man of the Year—twice in both 1992 and 1993.


    Andrei Kirilenko (Russia)

    Andrei Kirilenko just continues to be a consistently solid player in the NBA, something he has been doing for over a decade.

    This season with Minnesota, Kirilenko averaged over 12 points a game and shot over 50 percent from the field.

    Kirilenko, though, is particularly known for his defensive prowess. He has been selected to an All-NBA defensive team three times and even led the NBA in blocked shots in 2005.

    Arvydas Sabonis (Lithuania)

    If this list was expanded to include players' performances in European leagues, Arvydas Sabonis would likely be in the top five (his accolades from his Euro career are countless).

    Although he didn't quite have as much success in the NBA, he was still a solid contributor in the late '90s to the Portland Trail Blazers, having averaged over 12 points and seven rebounds per game in his career.

10. Drazen Petrovic: Croatia

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    Who knows how high Drazen Petrovic could be on this list if he had played a full career in the NBA.

    Tragically, Petrovic's career, and his life, were cut short in an automobile accident in June 1993.

    However, Petrovic still had a Hall of Fame NBA career, despite playing just six NBA seasons.

    Petrovic made the All-NBA third team in 1993, having averaged over 22 points a game and shooting well above 50 percent for the New Jersey Nets.

    Petrovic had really come into his game for New Jersey after having been traded from Portland, and it seemed as though he was on his way to superstardom in the NBA.

    Although Petrovic's life was cut short, he still left a significant impact on the NBA, and there have been few European players who have been able to score the ball better than Petrovic could at the NBA level.

9. Rik Smits: Netherlands

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    On a team that featured the likes of Reggie Miller, Jalen Rose and Chris Mullin, Rik Smits oftentimes seems to be the forgotten man of the 2000 Indiana Pacers squad that reached the NBA Finals.

    However, Smits was, perhaps, the second-best player on that team and was solid all throughout his NBA career.

    Smits played 12 NBA seasons for Indiana and never averaged below double digits in points, going as high as 18.5 during the 1995-96 season.

    Smits had a smooth offensive game and could shoot from mid-range as well as score inside. He was a one-time NBA All-Star in 1998.

    Although foot injuries cut his career short, Smits still has to be considered the best Dutch basketball player of all time, finishing his NBA career averaging 14.8 PPG and seven rebounds.

8. Marc Gasol: Spain

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    Look back at this list in 10, heck even five years, and you will likely see Marc Gasol jump up even higher on these rankings.

    Even in only his fifth NBA season, Marc Gasol has done enough to be considered a top-10 European player in the NBA.

    When traded for his brother Pau in 2008, many believed that it was a robbery on the part of the L.A. Lakers. However, now the Memphis Grizzlies have one of the best big men in the NBA on their roster. He could easily end up surpassing his brother's storied career in a Grizzlies uniform.

    The younger Gasol is already an NBA All-Star, winning NBA Defensive Player of the Year award for the 2012-13 season.

    Gasol is a difference-maker inside for the Grizzlies, impacting the game with both his defense and his offensive game.

    Gasol's career averages are 13.3 PPG and 8.0 RPG to go along with 2.7 APG and 1.6 blocks.

7. Zydrunas Ilgauskas: Lithuania

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    Throughout his 15 NBA seasons, Zydrunas Ilgauskas was consistently one of the best centers in the NBA.

    The 7'3'' Lithuanian spent 14 of his 15 years with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and although he struggled throughout his career with lower-body injuries, Ilgauskas has to go down as one of the best Cavs of all time.

    "Big Z" was a two-time NBA All-Star in both 2000 and 2003 and made the All-Rookie First Team in 1998.

    Ilgauskas was a solid scoring presence for the Cavs inside for the entirety of his career. Early on in LeBron James' career, it was Ilgauskas who was his No. 2, as he helped turn around the direction of the franchise.

    By the time he retired in 2011, Ilgauskas finished his pro career averaging 13.6 PPG and 7.3 RPG.

6. Peja Stojakovic: Serbia

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    That is the absolute best way to describe Peja Stojakovic during his NBA career. Stojakovic shot over 40 percent from three-point range during his career and was one of the best shooters ever, much less European. Peja ranks seventh all time in three-pointers made with over 1,700.

    Stojakovic was another international player to play his best years in Sacramento as he was a major part of the Kings run in the 2000s.

    Stojakovic could do more than just shoot threes, however, he was a highly effective scorer in all areas, averaging as much as 24.2 points in the 2003-04 season.

    Although he never quite got there during his time in Sacramento, Peja won an NBA championship with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011.

    He finished his NBA career with an average of 17 points per game after he retired in 2011.

5. Toni Kukoc: Croatia

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    Toni Kukoc played a pivotal role in three Chicago Bulls championship teams in the mid-1990s and won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award in 1996. 

    Although Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen get remembered as the great players from those championship teams, it was Kukoc who anchored Chicago's second unit and was the third-leading scorer on the Bulls in each of those seasons.

    Over the course of 13 NBA seasons, Kukoc averaged 11.6 PPG, 4.2 RPG and 3.7 APG. Kukoc could do it all on the offensive end, and when he left the Bulls, he had a season in which he scored nearly 20 PPG in Atlanta.

4. Detlef Schrempf: Germany

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    For 16 NBA seasons, Detlef Schrempf was a continuously solid small forward for the Dallas Mavericks, Indiana Pacers, Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers.

    Schrempf was a two-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year award winner while playing for Indiana in 1991 and 1992 and made three All-Star teams during his career. 

    Schrempf was an extremely well-rounded player, and in 1993, he was the only NBA player to finish in the top 25 in the league in scoring, assists and rebounds.

    Perhaps, what he is best known for, however, is his deadly ability to shoot the long ball. Scrempf shot as high as 51.4 percent from deep during his career.

    He was also part of the Seattle SuperSonics team in 1995 that reached the NBA Finals and was the first German-born player to play in a finals game.

3. Pau Gasol: Spain

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    Maybe in a dozen years, Marc Gasol may be higher on these rankings, but for now, Pau Gasol has the edge over his little brother as well as almost every European ever to play in the NBA.

    Gasol's accomplishments often get overlooked, but the trade to acquire him allowed the Los Angeles Lakers to win back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010, and he is—simply put—the greatest Spaniard ever to play, and depending on who you speak to, he could easily be considered the best European player or one of the top two European players—ever.

    Gasol is a four-time NBA All-Star, a two-time NBA champion, was Rookie of the Year in 2002 and has been selected to the All-NBA squad three different times.

    The seven-foot Gasol is fundamentally sound and can eat up defenders in the post. He is also an underrated defender and rebounder. 

    Gasol still has to be considered the greatest Memphis Grizzlie of all time after leading them to their first-ever playoff appearance.

    Gasol still has something left in the tank, but as of today, his career averages are 18.4 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists. 

2. Tony Parker: France

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    When talking about the greatest point guards ever to play the game, Tony Parker's name often gets overlooked, but perhaps, it's time to look again.

    Parker has been one of the most underrated players in the NBA since arriving on the scene in 2001-02 with San Antonio.

    Parker has won three NBA championships with the Spurs and has only seemed to get better as the years go on. In 2007, Parker was the Finals MVP after beating LeBron James and the Cavaliers. 

    He also has been an All-Star five times and has been named to an All-NBA squad twice. 

    Parker's ability to finish in the lane is what allows him to score in bunches at the NBA level. Despite never having the best jump shot, Parker also seems to be in total control of the game and seems like he can get two at any time. 

    He also is a great passer at the point guard spot and is, overall, one of the most complete guards in the NBA today. 

    For his career, Parker averages 18.9 PPG and 5.1 APG, and at age 30, Parker has barely hit his prime. 

1. Dirk Nowitzki: Germany

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    Was there ever really any doubt?

    No matter what way you look at it, there has never been a European in the NBA better than Dirk Nowitzki.

    An 11-time All-Star, NBA and NBA Finals MVP, 12-time All-NBA selection and named to the Sports Illustrated All-Decade Second Team for the 2000s, Nowitzki has had an unparalleled career amongst Europeans. 

    In fact, only Patrick Ewing, Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon can claim to be more successful international players than Nowitzki.

    He not only revolutionized the game, but he is still practically impossible to stop with his seven-foot frame and ability to knock down jumpers from all angles.

    Other than his rookie season, Nowitzki has never averaged below 17 points in a season, and he has averaged as high as 26.1 in 2005-2006.

    In 2011, Nowitzki was finally able to lead the Mavericks to an NBA championship to cement his legacy after coming short in the playoffs every previous seasons.

    To date, Nowitzki averages 22.6 PPG, 8.2 RPG and 2.6 APG.