Top International Players Starring in 2014 NBA Playoffs

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistApril 20, 2014

Top International Players Starring in 2014 NBA Playoffs

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    While the vast majority of NBA talent still originates in the NCAA ranks, an increasing number of big names hail from overseas. They grew up and developed their skills in countries such as Germany, France, Spain and Argentina, infusing the American game with distinct styles and backgrounds.

    The same has certainly been true for the playoffs, including the 2014 iteration. 

    That's why we're ranking the top international talent in the postseason, highlighting some of the foreign players who make the NBA a far more competitive league.

    A couple of honorable mentions are in order. 

    Tim Duncan would rank near the top of the list on account of being from the Virgin Islands, but he played four years of college ball at Wake Forest, so it's hard to put him in the same category as other foreign players.

    Andrew Bogut would have made the list too, but he's sidelined at the moment with a fractured right rib. He could miss the entirety of the postseason.

    It's also worth giving a shout-out to the Atlanta Hawks' Pero Antic. Though not yet a household name, he could be due for a big series against the Indian Pacers, according to IndyStar's Michael Pointer:

    The Atlanta Hawks' 31-year-old rookie center from Macedonia averaged 17 points, shot 72 percent from the field — including 60 percent from 3-point range — in two games against Indiana this year. The Hawks won both games. 

    He's been something of a nightmare for Pacers 7-2 center Roy Hibbert, who has been forced to guard Antic on the perimeter instead of Hibbert's preferred spot near the basket.

    Next year's list might have just gotten longer.

7. Jonas Valanciunas

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    The Toronto Raptors' big man has played well of late, helping propel the team to the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Valanciunas is becoming a double-double machine, using his body and skilled post moves to do most of his damage.

    The 21-year-old has become a focal point of Toronto's offense at times, adding a dimension Dwane Casey previously lacked in the paint. Thanks to his solid rebounding and all-around game, Valanciunas ranks with Andre Drummond as one of the most intriguing young centers in the game.

    If the Raptors have any hope of staving off the veteran Brooklyn Nets in the first round, Valanciunas will have a lot to do with it. His size has the potential to overwhelm Kevin Garnett.

    In Game 1 of the first round, Valanciunas had 17 points and 18 rebounds.

    The strong first step means we may see even more touches for Valanciunas going forward, according to the National Post's Eric Koreen:

    What a playoff debut for Jonas Valanciunas: 17 points and 18 rebounds, the latter of which was a Raptors playoff record. Dwane Casey said they would have to look for Valanciunas more if the Nets continued to put pressure on the guards. Valanciunas’s numbers could have been even gaudier if he had not missed a few easy shots in the paint.

    The young Lithuanian certainly appears up to the task.

6. Marcin Gortat and Nene

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    Marcin Gortat and Nene get to share a slide since they're really two sides of the same coin for the Washington Wizards. Both big men have diversified skill sets, thriving in the high and low post alike.

    Gortat comes from Poland, and Nene comes from Brazil, but their on-court chemistry has grown quickly on the Wizards. Gortat averaged 13.2 points and 9.5 rebounds this season, while Nene averaged 14.2 points and 5.5 rebounds in 53 games.

    The two bigs have been pivotal to Washington's scoring attack, allowing the Wizards to occasionally take the ball out of John Wall's hands and play inside-out.

    Those kinds of options will be essential against the Chicago Bulls' vaunted defense in the first round. Gortat and Nene will keep Noah's hands full and prevent him from helping on defense as much as he'd like.

    Even with an inside edge offensively, even Gortat knows many will favor the Bulls to win, per The Washington Post's Brandon Parker: "Why would they pick us? First of all, Chicago is a experienced team. They have a lot of good players every year.

    "The pressure is on them. I don’t understand why should we be mad. At the end of the day, this is a good team and we’ve just got to beat them. We’ve got to focus on our team."

5. Nic Batum

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    The Portland Trail Blazers knew Nic Batum was a keeper all along, eventually matching the Minnesota Timberwolves' four-year, $45 million contract in 2012. The Frenchman is one of the league's most versatile forwards.

    And that means, as he explains, he's also become one of its valuable defenders, per The Oregonian's Tim Brown: "Playing against the other team's best offensive players has been my job since I arrived in the NBA, so there you have it. ... It's a challenge every night ... Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, James Harden, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul ... the list is long. That's just always been my job."

    Batum averaged 13 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists this season for the Blazers, proving he can produce and defend alike. His length and touch make him a dangerous two-way player who could one day be an all-star.

    The Trail Blazers will need him to play like one to have a chance against the fourth-seeded Houston Rockets. Batum's defense will be important as ever against Harden and small forward Chandler Parsons.

4. Manu Ginobili

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    The San Antonio Spurs' pivotal sixth man had a resurgent season, especially in terms of his efficiency. The 36-year-old has a 20.06 PER, averaging 12.3 points and 4.3 assists in 22.8 minutes per game. He led a deep second unit that was first league-wide in scoring and assists.

    The team doesn't rely on Ginobili like it once did, but he's still one of the best in the business at what he does. He's often praised for being influencial, especially for players with crafty footwork (like James Harden). Ginobili has made a living weaving and slashing to the basket.

    He also has an outstanding long-range game, cashing in on 35 percent of his three-point attempts.

    The question will be how well Ginobili holds up in the playoffs, given his age and penchant for picking up bumps and bruises. The Spurs will need him to match Vince Carter's production for the Dallas Mavericks, giving San Antonio its third or fourth scoring option and a candidate to take big shots in late-game situations.

    Ginobili comes from Argentina.

3. Marc Gasol

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    Marc Gasol is a very big man, at 7'1", 265 pounds, but it's his skill that sets him apart from so many other fine centers. The 29-year-old has already established himself as an all-around talent, notably winning the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year award.

    Gasol anchors one the league's best defenses in Memphis, cutting off penetration and bodying up against post scorers.

    He's a two-way player, though. He has a passing acuity possessed by few big men, especially from the high post. Gasol gives Memphis the luxury of running offense through him in addition to point guard Mike Conley.

    The Washington Post's John Romero cites Gasol's importance to Memphis turning its season around and making the playoffs, noting that, "Since Jan. 14, when reigning defensive player of the year Marc Gasol returned from a 23-game absence after spraining his medial collateral ligament, the Grizzlies have 27 victories [as of April 4], third in the league over that time to the Spurs (29) and Clippers (28).

    "Gasol has been the reason why."

    And he'll continue to be the reason Memphis has a chance to upset the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. OKC doesn't have a strong answer to Gasol's size.

2. Tony Parker

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    Tony Parker's production sank a little bit this season, but he remains the San Antonio Spurs' leading scorer and most valuable all-around player. He also coordinates the team's motion-based system, serving as the floor general for one of the league's elite offenses.

    The 31-year-old Frenchman was NBA Finals MVP in 2007 and is a six-time All-Star.

    He's become an excellent decision-maker, making him the perfect fit for San Antonio's pick-and-roll heavy attack. Parker can pull up for mid-range jumpers, facilitate for his bigs or pitch the ball out to usually reliable shooters.

    Though Parker's allowed others to pick up some of the scoring slack throughout the season, he'll be vital against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. 

    He said he and his teammates aren't taking anything for granted on Saturday, per's Dave McMenamin: "It shows a lot of character on our team, but at the same time, it doesn't mean anything if we don't win the whole thing. We have home court. We did a good job. But we know it doesn't guarantee anything. We just have to stay focused and we know we have a long way to go."

1. Dirk Nowitzki

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    Dirk Nowitzki remains the league's most dominate international player. The German import averaged 21.7 points and 6.2 rebounds this season, propelling the Mavericks to the playoffs as the eighth seed. 

    He stands out as perhaps the best shooting big man ever to play the game, a unique scorer who uses an array of moves in the post and isolation to create space for his lethal shot. Even at age 35, he remains one of the most difficult players to check. 

    Though he didn't shoot especially well against San Antonio during the regular season, look for him to play inspired ball in the first round against the San Antonio Spurs. This is the sixth time Nowitzki's faced the team in the playoffs, so he knows exactly what they'll throw at him.

    Of their last series in 2010, Nowitzki said, per's Tim Tim MacMahon, "We made some mistakes, but they were good. They were healthy at the right time."

    The Spurs are once again good and healthy at the right time, so will we see history repeating itself? Not if Dirk has his way.