The Best Player in Europe: How Good Is He in the NBA?

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The Best Player in Europe: How Good Is He in the NBA?
Thank you, Darko Milicic and Nikoloz Tskitishvili. Because of guys like you two and your combined 8.5 career NBA points-per-game average, the NBA trend of drafting young, unproven European league players in the hopes of finding the next Dirk Nowitzki or Pau Gasol is nearly extinct.

Lately NBA teams have either drafted talent that they know will stay and develop for a few years in Europe or directly signed European vets who already have accomplished resumes.

This year, the Spurs eagerly anticipate the arrival of 2009 Liga ACB MVP Tiago Splitter. Rudy Fernandez, the 2007 Euroleague Rising Star and 2008 Eurocup Finals MVP, is commanding serious trade interest from Chicago, New York, and Boston as the most affordable young star on the trading block. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Timberwolves are still wringing their hands over when, if ever, 2007 ACB Rising Star and 2010 Euroleague Rising Star Ricky Rubio will come play for their maligned franchise.

Many of these players have been billed by the press with such unofficial, unauthoritative titles as The Best Player in Europe, The Best Young Prospect in Europe, or The Best Point Guard/Big Man/Etc. in Europe. Yet how do Europe's best translate when they come across the pond to play in Liga Americana?

To answer that, we examine the major award winners over the last decade from Liga ACB, considered by many to be the most talented basketball league outside the NBA, and the Euroleague tournament. These are players that arrived in the NBA at or approaching the top of their games. We're not talking about the Tony Parkers and Nicolas Batums of the world; we're looking at the players with real credentials on their European resumes only.

Manu Ginobili

Ginobiliiiiiiii!!!! (Photo Credit Unknown)
European Awards: 2001 Euroleague Final Four MVP

NBA Career, 2002-Present: Now this is some value. The San Antonio Spurs drafted him with the second to last spot in the second round of the 1999 draft. He received a lot of buzz before joining the Spurs in 2002, leading the Argentina team that beat Team USA on its way to a silver medal in that summer's FIBA world championships.

Ginobili did not disappoint in San Antonio, playing a crucial part in winning three NBA championships. He's been an All-Star, a Sixth Man of the Year, All-NBA Third Team, and Charles Barkley's favorite international player. ESPN's John Hollinger has even (crazily) argued Ginobili's output is comparable to Kobe Bryant's.

Also, if Tony Parker deserved to be Finals MVP of the 2007 Finals (he didn't), then Manu Ginobili should've been Finals MVP in 2005. And Ginobili was being guarded by Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, not Boobie Gibson and 34-year old Eric Snow.

Overshadowed By: Nobody. Alongside Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, Ginobili was part of the most successful Big Three of the 2000s.

Post-NBA Career: He will likely retire a Spur after his current contract, but he hasn't forgotten FIBA rules, leading Argentina to gold in Athens during the 2004 Olympics.

Andres Nocioni

The Red Bull (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
European Awards: 2004 ACB MVP

NBA Careers, 2004-Present: Fresh off winning the gold with Manu in 2004, Nocioni signed with the Chicago Bulls, where his aggressive, physical style of play earned him the nickname "Red Bull." He completely outshone the more hyped Luol Deng in the 2006 playoffs, averaging 22.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 1.6 assists in six games against Miami.

But the next year Deng came back with a vengeance and helped Chicago steamroll Miami before losing in six to Detroit. That, by the way, was the highest point the Chicago Bulls would ever reach in the decade. Meanwhile, various injuries derailed Nocioni's career as he bounced from Chicago to Sacramento to Philadelphia.

Overshadowed By: Luol Deng.

Post-NBA Career: Still in the league now, but these days he's showing a level of disgruntlement that usually precedes a contract paid out in euros.

Anthony Parker

The Other Tony Parker (Photo Credit Unknown)
European Awards: 2004 Euroleague Final Four MVP, 2005 & 2006 All-Euroleague MVP

NBA Career, 2007-Present: Signed by the Raptors in 2007, Parker had a decent run in Toronto before being stranded with other mediocre wings Jamario Moon, Danny Green, Joey Graham, and Jawad Williams on the post-LeBron Cavaliers. Still, he's been a consistent starting shooting guard, solid perimeter defender, and three-point specialist, averaging over 112 threes a season in his four NBA years after Europe.

Overshadowed By: Candace Parker, his much more famous little sister. She's the LeBron James of the WNBA, except she makes a hell of a lot less money, no one cares about her games, and she married a mangalore.

Candace Parker with husband Shelden Williams (Photo Credit Unknown)
Post-NBA Career: Still in the league now, but will probably be making Gatorade runs for his sister in a few years.

The Point Guards

Juan Carlos Navarro and his very unambiguous Euroleague trophies (Euroleague.net)
European Awards: 2005 ACB Rising Star (Rodriguez), 2005 Euroleague Final Four MVP (Jasikevicius), 2006 ACB MVP (Navarro)

NBA Careers, 2006-10: Several European point guards have come over billed as The Best Point Guard or Point Guard Prospect in Europe (Re: Ricky Rubio). When the Portland Trailblazers bought his draft rights from the cheapskate Sarver Suns in 2006, Sergio Rodriguez was a highly touted prospect with a cool if unoriginal nickname (Spanish Chocolate!). Portland waited for him to bloom and take over the point guard position for three years before bouncing him to Sacramento and New York. And he lasted the longest.

In 2005, Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas pushed hard to get his Lithuanian countryman Sarunas Jasikevicius to join the Cavs, but Jasikevicius felt the Indiana Pacers were closer to a title and signed with them. They certainly were deeper at point guard, as he struggled to get regular minutes before being traded to the Warriors the next year and perfectly playing the role of towel-waving 12th man during their historic 2007 playoff run.

Juan Carlos Navarro signed with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2007 to join his best friend Pau Gasol. That same season, Gasol was traded to the Lakers and joined Kobe to start their string of three straight Finals appearances. Meanwhile his best bud stayed in Memphis and hit 156 three-pointers. Woohoo!

Overshadowed By: Other point guards on their team. Despite their hype, none of them could ever seize the starting spot. Rodriguez was the third man in point guard battles between Juan Dixon and Jarrett Jack and then Jarret Jack and Steve Blake before Jerryd Bayless took over the point guard of the future mantle in Portland.

Similarly, Jasikevicius couldn't get regular minutes behind Jamaal Tinsley and Anthony Johnson in Indiana, and Navarro played in a three-headed rotation with Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry.

Post-NBA Career: After two NBA years, Jasikevicius signed with Panathinaikos, which immediately rode him and Vassilis Spanoulis (another Euro with a failed NBA career) to the Euroleague championship.

Navarro peaced out after just one year in Memphis, signed with FC Barcelona, won All-Euroleague MVP in 2009, and won Euroleague Final Four MVP in 2010 while taking Barcelona to the Euroleague championship.

Rodriguez signed a three-year deal with Real Madrid this summer, and, if history is any guide, they'll probably win Euroleague either this year or next.

The Big Men

The gritty Luis Scola (Photo Credit Unknown)
European Awards: 2006 Euroleague Rising Star (Bargnani), 2005 & 2007 ACB MVP (Scola), 2008 ACB MVP (Gasol)

NBA Career, 2006-Present: Good news for Tiago Splitter: unlike their point guard counterparts, the European big men have seen quite a bit more NBA success.

While Andrea Bargnani is cut from the same Darko/Skita mold of finesse big men, the former number one overall pick has shown an offensive aggressiveness the past two years that those two never possessed. His defense is still a work nonexistent, but so was Dirk's at this point in his career. Although, to be fair, Dirk was averaging 23/10 for a 57-win Mavericks team in his fourth year, not 17/6 for a Raptors team that couldn't make the playoffs after Chris Bosh quit on them.

The two ACB MVPs, on the other hand, are definitely bruisers. After five years waiting for Luis Scola to come to the NBA, the Spurs traded him to the Houston Rockets and watched him become a crucial power forward for that team, making the All-Rookie first team and signing a five-year $47 million contract after averaging 16.2 points and 8.6 rebounds last year.

Marc Gasol has made the Grizzlies actually look slightly less egregious in trading older brother Pau to the Lakers for his rights and Kwame Brown's remains, nearly averaging a double-double last year while teaming up with Zach Randolph to form a beefy and surprisingly effective low post tandem.

Overshadowed By: If the Raptors drafted LaMarcus Aldridge instead of Bargnani, they still could've gotten a jump-shooting, barely-rebounding big man, but also with the ability to play low post and a Texas connection that might've convinced Chris Bosh to stay.

While moving Carl Landry last year unfortunately put an end to the Carluis Scolandry era in Houston, it helped solidify Scola's position on the team.

Unless you count big brother Pau in L.A., the only shadow cast over Marc Gasol these days is Zach Randolph's when Gasol gets in his way to the buffet line.

Post-NBA Career: All still in the league and looking like they'll be staying for a while.

Rudy Fernandez

Rudy Fernandez in his glory days, pre-NBA (The Oregonian)
European Awards: 2007 Euroleague Rising Star, 2008 Eurocup Finals MVP

NBA Career, 2008-Present: After seeing him tear through the Team USA defense in the 2008 Olympics, USA assistant coach and Portland head coach Nate McMillan salivated at the thought of Fernandez playing alongside Brandon Roy on the wing in Portland.

Didn't quite work out the way he thought it would. Fernandez, known as an elite athlete and all-around player in Europe, somehow fell into the familiar European transplant role of three-point specialist. His rookie season was highlighted by setting the NBA rookie record for three-pointers (159) and embarrassing himself after getting voted into the dunk contest while Joe Alexander sat at home with nothing to do.

He actively joined this summer of player discontent by refusing to answer Portland's phone calls and threatening to sit out the remaining two years of his contract. Hopefully now McMillan realizes the only Spanish prospects worth drooling over are more like 5'10" and a C-cup.

Overshadowed By: Himself, 2008 version.

Post-NBA Career: If his demands are met, this could happen pretty soon. But we've seen this before with Andrei Kirilenko. He's not going to give up two years of his professional basketball career and paycheck just to be a prick.

Danillo Gallinari

Rooster (Photo Credit Unknown)
European Awards: 2008 Euroleague Rising Star

NBA Career, 2008-Present: The Rooster's rookie season was a wash, as back problems kept him out of basically the entire season. But Rooster came back strong the next season, becoming--what else?--a three-point specialist for the Knicks, hitting 186 three pointers at a 38.1% clip.

That apparently was good enough for the Knicks to include Rooster along with Wilson Chandler and Toney Douglas as part of their core team to pitch to LeBron this summer, which is like trying to pick up a supermodel while rolling in a Mazda Miata.

Neverthless, Rooster is the still best nickname in the league, in case you couldn't already tell how I felt about it. Rooster.

Overshadowed By: If the Knicks picked Brook Lopez instead of Gallinari in 2008, they still could've been in position to get Ty Lawson if not Brandon Jennings in 2009.

Knowing how effective Lawson was last year in his few games filling in for Chauncey Billups and how fantastic Brook Lopez is period, could the Knicks then have snagged LeBron? Who knows. They're certainly not Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but are they that far off from Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah? It would have at least given some sort of basketball legitimacy to the Knicks's pitch.

Post-NBA Career: He's signed through 2012, so unless he pulls a Rudy Fernandez, he'll be in the league for at least a couple more years.

The Best in Europe?

Despite the hype surrounding established European players entering the NBA, none of them have had the same type of success as their colleagues who came over younger and learned the American game earlier. The lone exception is Manu Ginobili. Otherwise, the results seem to be either a lot of grit or a lot of three pointers.

Does playing a different style of basketball ingrain these European players with instincts that are too difficult to shake? Is the option of returning to Europe where they know they can succeed preventing them from trying their hardest to adapt to the NBA game? Or is the sample size just too small, and we're bound to see another Manu Ginobili or better soon?


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