10 Best International Players in the NBA: Where Does Dirk Rank?
Dirk Nowitzki has been described in many ways. "ReDirkulous" is one adjective that has been used far too often as of late. He is an artist on the basketball court, a seven-foot ballerina of sorts with his exceptional balance on those high-arcing, one-leg jumpers that more often than not snap cleanly through the net. His superlative play in these 2011 playoffs has drawn him comparisons to none other than Larry Legend.
The fact is, his game defies description and refuses to fit in any box that analysts, experts or casual commentators try to contain it in. He is simply a once-in-a-generation player, an impossibly agile giant that shoots the basketball as perfectly as anybody could.
With the big German possibly on the brink of winning his first championship and a premium being placed on international prospects in this year's draft, now is perhaps the ideal time to take a look at the best active non-American players in the NBA and their impact on the league.
10. Yao Ming, Center, China
This picture clearly illustrates the frustration that has characterized much of Yao's recent years in the NBA. Blessed with tremendous size and shooting touch, the 7'6" big man from China has had a very promising career derailed by a myriad of foot and ankle injuries. Many medical experts, including the Rockets' own team physician, believe that Yao's most recent foot injuries are severe enough to be "career-threatening."
When he has been able to stay on the court, Yao has produced elite center numbers, averaging more than 20 PPG and 10 RPG in his best seasons, while shooting a stellar 83 percent from the charity stripe over his career. Although slow on his feet, very few centers can match Yao's basketball IQ and fundamental skill level. Even though Yao's playing days may be numbered, basketball fans all over the world will appreciate what he managed to accomplish in the NBA.
9. Luis Scola, Power Forward, Argentina
He may not make the highlight reel very often, but Scola is as efficient a post scorer as they come. He has shown that he can get it done on the international level and in the NBA, using fantastic footwork, timely pump fakes and a soft touch around the rim to score at a very high rate. He can also use his deadly mid-range jumper to keep defenses honest.
When Scola gets on a roll, he can flat-out dominate, as he did against the Nets in a 2009-10 season matchup when he hung 44 points on them, making 20 of his 25 field goal attempts. A relative unknown to the NBA when he was drafted 27th by the Spurs in 2002, you can be sure that nowadays teams that play the Rockets will include a defensive strategy for Scola in the game plan.
8. Luol Deng, Small Forward, Sudan
Since first entering the NBA in 2004, the Duke product has developed into one of the most versatile players in the league. This has never been more on display than in these 2011 playoffs, during which Deng will guard the best player on the other team while also serving as the Bulls' secondary go-to scorer after Derrick Rose.
Deng can hurt you in a variety of ways—while most effective when slashing to the rim; he has also become a relatively consistent three-point shooter. Not to mention that his ability to move effectively off the ball makes him one of the best mid-range jump shooters in the game today.
While Deng may not be spectacular in any one area of the game, he is the consummate jack-of-all-trades type of player that any team with real championship aspirations should have.
7. Andrew Bogut, Center, Australia
A former No. 1 pick, the big Aussie has proven to be a late bloomer, and the Bucks are reaping the rewards. One of the premier interior defenders in the NBA, Bogut led all players last year with 2.6 blocks per game. A product of the Australian Institute of Sport, Bogut is fundamentally solid and a fierce finisher in the paint. The only glaring hole left in his game is free-throw shooting, where he shot a horrendous 44 percent in 2010-11.
After a breakout season in 2009-10 that saw him average an impressive 16 PPG and 10 RPG, Bogut came down to earth in 2010-11 due to a lingering elbow injury and also the absence of starting point guard Brandon Jennings for a good portion of the season. With another season to heal up and re-establish a rapport with Jennings, look for Bogut to return to his dominating ways this next season.
6. Manu Ginobili, Shooting Guard, Argentina
At age 33, Manu's best days are probably behind him. Durability has always proved to be a concern, leaving many observers wondering what he could have accomplished had he stayed healthy.
A consummate team player, Ginobili was arguably the most important player on a championship squad that included three-time finals MVP Tim Duncan and star point guard Tony Parker. Manu has always been the glue that held everything together, a player that personified the heart and soul of the team with his gritty play. He gave personality to a team that was too often accused of being "boring."
In his best season, Manu averaged 20 PPG, 5 RPG and 5 APG in 2007-2008. But the numbers don't indicate his true impact on the NBA. Perhaps no one, except for maybe Dwyane Wade, has ever done the "Euro-step" as artfully as Manu. His herky-jerky style of play that left defenders in his wake and ability to step up in clutch situations will leave an imprint on the league long after he's retired.
5. Al Horford, Center, Dominican Republic
As a two-time national champion with Florida University, Horford was seen as arguably the most NBA-ready draft prospect when he first arrived in the league in 2007. He did not disappoint, contributing immediately with almost 10 points and 10 rebounds a game as a rookie. He has raised his scoring average in every season since then, rounding out at 15.3 PPG in 2010-11.
Horford's style of play is a tribute to the traditional school of big men. His game is all about substance over flashiness. He scores at a highly efficient rate on short hooks and a distinctive jumper that almost looks like a set shot. Although not considered an above-the-rim player, Horford simply gets it done on both ends of the floor and can match up defensively on any big man in the league.
4. Nene Hilario, Center, Brazil
One of the great stories in the NBA, Nene fought through injuries early in his career and cancer in 2008 and has been a dominating force in the middle for the Nuggets ever since.
While the numbers may not pop out at you, Nene is one of the most underrated players in the NBA at his position. He changes the game on both ends of the floor, turning away shots on with regularity on defense and finishing pick-and-rolls with authority at the other end.
An imposing presence with his long hair and aggressive demeanor on the court, Nene consistently makes defenders who dare to challenge him at the rim look silly with his thunderous lefty dunks. Make no mistake, the Nuggets' immediate future depends on their ability to retain the 28-year-old center, who can elect to become a free agent this offseason.
3. Pau Gasol, Power Forward, Spain
Pau is always in the discussion when it comes to best power forward in the world. He plays the game with an instinctual ability and a skill level rarely seen at his position. Arguably the best passing big man in the game, Pau also boasts a very solid all-around skill set that makes him very hard to match up with defensively.
Surprisingly, it was his brother Marc that actually advanced further in the playoffs this year with the Memphis Grizzlies. Pau's recent struggles in the Lakers' elimination from the playoffs led many to question his toughness and desire to win but look for him to come back strong next season as the Lakers attempt to reclaim their title in 2011-12.
2. Steve Nash, Point Guard, Canada
A wizard on the court that finds impossible passing seams with ease, Steve Nash has managed to dominate at the highest level of basketball without possessing elite athleticism. As a skilled soccer player, Nash has found a way to translate that ability to change speeds and find gaps in the defense into success on the basketball court.
A two-time league MVP, Nash is the perfect example of a player that thrived in a system that fit seamlessly with his particular set of skills. His career only really took off in his ninth NBA season, in which he began his dominant play as a free-agent acquisition for the Phoenix Suns.
Nash is a joy to watch because he seems to play the game with such ease and fluidity. He is equally adept and shooting and passing with either hand and can pull up quickly for a deadly jump shot from seemingly any spot on the floor. With the exception of Dirk Nowitzki, no one in the NBA can shoot the one-leg fadeaway as well as Nash.
Dirk Nowitzki, Power Forward, Germany
Dirk's recent exploits on the court have a lot of people wondering if he should have gotten the MVP award this year. His 2011 playoff numbers tell the story: 28.4 PPG through 15 games on 51.7 percent overall field goal shooting and 51.6 percent from deep. Perhaps even more telling of how well Dirk is playing these days is that he has knocked down 130 of his 140 free-throw attempts during the playoffs. As the primary scorer for the Mavs and a focus point of opposing defenses, the production just doesn't get any better than that.
Many analysts seem to be noticing Dirk's superb play for the first time in these 2010-11 playoffs. Actually, he has been dominating at this level for many years now. The only difference is, this year he actually has the right supporting cast that could potentially win it all. Will it be Dirk's year, or will he join a long list of superstars that never won a ring?