Dirk Nowitzki and the Top 20 European-Born NBA Players of the Decade

Mike IorfinoContributor IIIJune 17, 2011

Dirk Nowitzki and the Top 20 European-Born NBA Players of the Decade

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    Heading into the 2010-11 NBA season, Dirk Nowitzki was regarded by many as a great basketball player, one of the top-50 of all time—No. 39 according to Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball —who just couldn't get it done in the clutch and would most likely be remembered, along with Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing, as a talented player who couldn't win a championship

    Of course, that all changed when Nowitzki decided to play one of the greatest stretch of games in the history of the NBA playoffs, shooting 48.5 percent from the field, 46 percent from three-point range and an incredible 94 percent from the free throw line (175-186) en route the Dallas Mavericks first NBA Championship in their 31 years as a franchise.

    As a result, Nowitzki solidified his legacy as one of the best to ever play game. Here's a blurb from one of Simmons' articles on Grantland.com: "We'll remember him as one of the 20 best basketball players of all time, the best European player ever, one of the best shooters ever, someone who came through when it mattered." 

    So, if Nowitzki is the best European-born player of all-time, who are some of the European-born greats in the NBA? 

    In this article, I'll examine the top-20 European-born players of the last decade (2001-2011). 

    Before I start, here are the guidelines that I used to create this list:

    **NOTE: The players that were born in the part of Turkey that is considered to be a part of Asia don't qualify (Mehmet Okur and Ersan Ilyasova)**

    1. All players must be listed as born in a European country on ESPN.com.

    2. A player doesn't qualify is he was born in another country but now is considered as a European citizen.

    3. As long as a player was born in Europe, it doesn't matter how long he lived there for. 

20. Marcin Gortat (Lodz, Poland)

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    Marcin Gortat emerged as a solid backup in his second year in the NBA, averaging 3.8 points and 4.5 rebounds in limited minutes Orlando's Dwight Howard.  

    Thus, it took until he was traded to the Phoenix Suns for Gortat to reach his potential. 

    In his first year in Phoenix, Gortat played so well that he replaced Robin Lopez as the team's starting center with 11 games remaining in the season. 

    In those 11 games, Gortat finished with six double-doubles and averaged 15 points, 11 rebounds and 1.27 blocks per game. 

    I think it's safe to say that Gortat will have moved up on this list by the time his career is over. 

    Thus far, Gortat's best season came in 2010-11, when he averaged 13 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game.

19. Rudy Fernandez (Palma De Mallorca, Spain)

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    After drafting Rudy Fernandez with the No. 24 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, the Portland Trailblazers had to wait one year—Fernandez played for DKV Joventut in 2007-08—before they could see how their draft choice would pan out. 

    Well, their wait was well worth it. 

    In his first season with the Trailblazers, Fernandez displayed the athleticism and playmaking ability that the Trailblazers' scouts had seen from him in the 2002 European Junior Championships, when Fernandez was only 17 years old. 

    However, Fernandez added another dimension to his game since then: an improved three-point jump shot. 

    Fernandez displayed his improved jump shot throughout his rookie season, breaking three rookie records in the process: most three-point field goals made, making a three-pointer in 33 consecutive games and hitting a three-pointer in each of his first 20 games. 

    In addition to his records, Fernandez was also named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team. 

    However, since Fernandez's rookie season, his shooting percentages have been way down, and he finished the 2010-11 shooting a career low 37 percent from the field. 

    Despite his recent struggles, Fernandez remains a talented player, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him climb up this list in the future. 

    Thus far, Fernandez's best season came in 2008-09, when he averaged 10 points per game and shot 39 percent from three-point range and 84 percent from the free-throw line. 

18. Mickael Pietrus (Les Abymes, France)

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    In his five years with the Golden State Warriors, Mickael Pietrus established himself as a reliable option off the bench. During that time period, Pietrus developed a solid three-point jump shot and proved to be a great perimeter defender. 

    As a free agent in the summer of 2008, Pietrus signed with the Orlando Magic.

    In Pietrus' first season with the Magic, he averaged 9.4 points and 3.2 rebounds, but it was Pietrus' excellent defense that helped propel the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals. 

    However, last season, Pietrus' shooting percentages dropped significantly, and he was traded from the Magic to the Phoenix Suns. 

    Thus far, Pietrus' best season was the 2006-07 season, in which he averaged 11.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting 38 percent from behind the arc. 

17. Vladimir Radmanovic (Trebinje, Yugoslavia)

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    At 6'10", Vladimir Radmanovic is known for his three-point shooting ability. As a career 38 percent three-point shooter, Radmanovic forces teams to send their power forwards out to guard him on the perimeter, which opens up space on the inside for his teammates.

    In his first four years in the league, Radmanovic was the sixth man for the Seattle Supersonics, providing the Supersonics with instant offense off the bench and a deadly threat from three-point range. In those four years, Radmanovic averaged 10.1 points while shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc.

    However, Radmanovic was traded the following season, and since then, he has played for four more teams: Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Charlotte Bobcats and Golden State Warriors. 

    Thus far, Radmanovic's best season was the 2004-05 season in which he averaged 11.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game while shooting 38.9 percent from downtown. 

16. Beno Udrih (Celje, Yugoslavia)

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    Although he won two championships as a member of the San Antonio Spurs, Beno Udrih wasn't able to showcase his full potential until he landed with the Sacramento Kings in 2007. 

    In his first year with Sacramento, Udrih started 51 games and exhibited the tremendous vision and passing ability that made the Spurs draft him with the No. 28 pick in the 2004 NBA Draft

    In addition to his passing skills, Udrih has a respectable long-range jump shot, shooting 35.8 percent from three-point range in his career.

    Because Udrih doesn't have great speed, he uses his creativity to get by his defenders, utilizing hesitation dribbles, stutter-steps and shot or ball fakes. 

    Thus far, Udrih's best season was the 2010-11 season, in which he averaged 13.7 points, 4.9 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game. 

15. Nenad Krstic (Kraljevo, Yugoslavia)

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    Although he was drafted by the New Jersey Nets with the No. 24 pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, Nenad Krstic didn't make his Nets debut until the 2004-05 season. 

    Despite being a rookie, Krstic played a very important role on the Nets, starting 57 games and averaging 10 points and 5.3 rebounds per game en route to an All-Rookie NBA Second Team selection. 

    Not only is Krstic a great mid-range shooter, but also he has an array of post moves such as a drop-step toward the lane for a jump hook, a drop-step toward the baseline for a layup and a dribble-drop move. 

    After improving in each of his first two seasons, Krstic tore his ACL in a game vs. the Los Angeles Lakers only 28 games into the 2006 season. 

    Although Krstic recovered in time to play in the 2007-08 season, he never returned to the elite level that he was playing at before his injury. 

    With Krstic recently signing a deal to play for a Russian team next season, it looks as if his NBA career may be over. 

    In his his seven-year career, Krstic averaged 10 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. 

    Krstic was at his best during the 2006-07 season before he got injured, averaging career highs in points (16.4) and rebounds (6.8). 

14. Boris Diaw (Cormeille-En-Parisis, France)

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    Although he played for two seasons in Atlanta, Boris Diaw didn't emerge as a quality player until he was traded to the Phoenix Suns in the summer of 2005. 

    Alongside Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, Raja Bell and Eddie House, Diaw flourished in Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced offense, averaging 13.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists en route to winning the NBA's Most Improved Player award. 

    After three years in Phoenix, Diaw was traded to the Charlotte Bobcats in the middle of the 2008-09 season.

    During his time in Charlotte, Diaw has averaged 12.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. Diaw has also improved his three-point jump shot, hitting 34 percent of his three-point attempts last season. 

    Thus far, Diaw's best season was the 2005-06 season, in which he won the NBA's Most Improved Player award. 

13. Danilo Gallinari (Sant'Angelo Lodigian, Italy)

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    Danilo Gallinari has the potential to move much higher on this list before his career is over. 

    Not only does Gallinari posses a perfect stroke, but also he is finally learning how to take advantage of his size and athleticism, driving the ball hard to the rim rather than settling for shots on the perimeter, as evidenced by his increase in free throw attempts per game. 

    Because defenders have to respect Gallinari's ability to put the ball on the deck, they can't close out on him as hard, which, ultimately, gives him more space to shoot. 

    While everyone knew Gallinari could get it done offensively, it was his aggressive defense that surprised a lot of people. Although Gallinari might not be as quick as his opponents, his length combined with his intensity makes him an above average defender.  

    Thus far, Gallinari's best season was the 2009-10 season, in which he averaged 15.1 points and 4.9 rebounds while shooting 38 percent from three-point range.

12. Jose Calderon (Villanueva De La Ser, Spain)

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    I think of Jose Calderon as a poor man's Steve Nash. 

    Like Nash, Calderon is a tremendous shooter. In the 2007-08 season, Calderon shot 51.9 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from three-point range and 90.8 percent from the free-throw line; however, he didn't qualify for the 50-40-90 Club because he didn't attempt enough free throws throughout the season.

    Again, in the 2008-09 season, Calderon just missed joining Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Larry Bird, Reggie Miller and Mark Price as the only players in NBA history to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from beyond the arc and 90 percent from the foul line. This time, Calderon attempted and hit enough foul shots to qualify—he hit 151 out of 154—and he made 40.6 percent of his three-pointers; however, he shot just 49.7 percent from the field, narrowly missing the standard.

    In addition to his shooting ability, Calderon's creativity, court vision and passing efficiency are all traits that Nash possesses.

    Calderon's excellent passing ability was showcased throughout the 2007-08 and the 2008-09 season, in which he led the NBA in assists to turnovers rate with 5.38 and 4.24.

    Thus far, Calderon's best season was the 2008-09 season, in which he averaged 12.8 points and 8.9 assists. 

11. Andrea Bargnani (Rome, Italy)

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    In his first couple of seasons in the NBA, Andrea Bargnani largely disappointed, struggling to live up to the hype of being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NBA Draft.

    However, Bargnani progressed in the 2008-09 season, hitting a career-high 40.9 percent from downtown while gaining confidence in his ability to play down low. 

    Since entering the league, Bargnani has continued to work on improving his post defense as well as rebounding rate. As a result, he grabbed a career high 6.1 rebounds per game in the 2008-09 season. 

    Although I think that Bargnani is better suited to play at power forward, he has proven that he can be an effective center. 

    Thus far, Bargnani's best season was the 2010-11 season, in which he averaged 21.4 points and 5.2 rebounds.

10. Marc Gasol (Barcelona, Spain)

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    Before the 2011 NBA Playoffs, Marc Gasol was known as "Pau's brother." 

    That changed after Gasol dominated the paint in postseason, averaging 15 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 2.2 assists in Memphis' 13 games.

    Stop. Take a look at those stats again; they are that impressive.

    To further illustrate how well Gasol played, I want to focus in on one game: Game 4 of the Conference Semifinals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

    Here are some of Gasol's stats from Memphis' 3OT loss to OKC:

    57 minutes played: the most by any player on either team...Remember, Gasol is listed at 7'1", 265 pounds.

    21 rebounds: the most by any player on either team.

    26 points: the fourth most behind Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Zach Randolph.

    Although Memphis lost the series, Gasol proved that he is more than capable of being a dominant center in this league. 

    Thus far, Gasol's best season was the 2009-10 season, in which he averaged 14.6 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. 

9. Wally Szczerbiak (Madrid, Spain)

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    In his 10-year career, Wally Szczerbiak averaged double-digits in points eight times, shot 82 percent or better from the free throw line 10 times and hit 37 percent or better from three-point range seven times.

    So, to say that Szczerbiak was a good shooter would be a huge understatement.   

    In addition to his picture perfect stroke, Szczerbiak had a surprisingly quick first step, which allowed him to get by defenders who closed out too hard. 

    Szczerbiak often used his big frame—6'7", 240 pounds—as an advantage over smaller shooting guards by either posting them up or driving into their body and simply outmuscling them in the lane. 

    Szczerbiak's best season came in 2001-02 , in which he averaged 18.7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting 50.7 percent from the field, 45.5 percent from three-point range and 83.1 percent from the foul line. He also was voted by the coaches to play in the 2002 All-Star game. 

8. Ben Gordon (London, England)

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    It didn't take long for Ben Gordon to become acclimated to the NBA. Well, at least offensively.

    As a rookie, Gordon helped lead the Bulls to their first playoff appearance since 1998, averaging 15 points per game while shooting 40.5 percent from three-point range and 86.3 percent from the free throw line. In addition, Gordon finished second in the NBA for the most games in which a player scores 10 or more in the fourth quarter, finishing with 21 times. Gordon's performance in his rookie year earned him the Sixth Man of the Year award as well as a spot on the NBA All-Rookie First Team. 

    After his rookie season, Gordon played for four more years with the Bulls. In that four-year stretch, Gordon averaged more than 20 points per game twice ('06-'07, '08-'09) and broke Scottie Pippen's record for most three-pointers in franchise history, finishing with 770 career three-pointers  (Kirk Hinrich later broke Gordon's record).

    Since he was traded to the Detroit Pistons, Gordon's numbers have been down; however, he continues to great shooter and a threat to score any time he touches the ball.

    Thus far, Gordon's best season was the 2006-'07 season, in which Gordon averaged 21.4 points, 3.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game while shooting 41.3 percent from downtown and 86.4 percent from the free-throw line. 

7. Zydrunas Ilgauskas (Kaunas, USSR) – Lithuania

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    Early in his career, Zydrunas Ilgauskas suffered multiple foot and ankle injuries, which forced him to sit out two entire seasons. As a result, in his first five seasons, Ilgauskas only played in 111 games. 

    However, Ilgauskas' injury woes ended, as "Big Z" played in at least 60 games each season from 2001-2011. 

    Once healthy, it didn't take long for Ilgauskas to reach his potential. 

    In the 2002-03 season, Ilgauskas averaged 17.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game, which earned him a spot on the 2002 Eastern Conference All-Star team.

    Like Krstic, Ilgauskas has a great mid-range jump shot, which was an important part of his success with LeBron James. When opposing centers would go to double-team James, Ilgauskas would make them pay by hitting a wide-open baseline jumper. Thus, centers were forced to stay at home, allowing James a one-on-one with his defender.

    From 2001-2009, Ilgauskas' was remarkably consistent. In each of the eight seasons, Ilgauskas averaged more than 10 points and—aside from one season in which he averaged 5.4 rebounds per game—more than 7.4 rebounds per game.

    Ilgauskas' best season was the 2004-05 season, in which he earned his second trip the All-Star Game, and averaged 16.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. 

6. Andrei Kirilenko (Izhevsk, USSR)

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    Although he was drafted by the Utah Jazz during the 1999 NBA Draft, Andrei Kirilenko didn't suit up for the Jazz until the 2001 NBA season. 

    As a rookie, Kirilenko played alongside future Hall-of Famers in Karl Malone and John Stockton and averaged 10.7 points and 4.9 rebounds per game, earning him a spot on the NBA All-Rookie First Team. 

    In the following years, Kirilenko developed a reputation of being an elite defender, one who could shut down any player on the opposing team regardless of the player's position. As a result, Kirilenko was awarded with a spot on the All-Defensive First Team in 2006 as well as the All-Defensive Second Team in 2004 and 2005. 

    After the departures of Malone and Stockton, Kirilenko became the go-to scoring option on the Jazz. Despite his inconsistent jump shot, Kirilenko played well in the 2003-04 season, leading the Jazz in points per game, rebounds per game, blocks per game and steals per game, ultimately earning a spot the 2004 Western Conference All-Star team. 

    Thus far, Kirilenko's best season was the 2003-04 season, in which he averaged 16.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.8 blocks and 1.9 steals per game while shooting 33.8 percent from three-point range. 

5. Carlos Boozer (Aschaffenburg, West Germany)

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    Although it's easy to knock Carlos Boozer for his trouble in the 2011 NBA Playoffs, let's look at what he has accomplished in the past. 

    Throughout his nine-year career, Boozer has remained as one of the games top power-fowards, averaging 17. 3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while shooting an efficient 53 percent from the field.

    In addition to his impressive statistics, Boozer has been selected to two NBA All-Star Games (2007 and 2008) and was awarded with All-NBA Third Team in 2008.

    Despite his success, a common argument against Boozer is that he disappears in the big games.

    Well, to those who think so, take a look at this.

    In the four postseasons with the Utah Jazz, Boozer averaged 19.95 points and 12.72 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the field. So, aside from his struggles in Chicago, Boozer has actually improved his play in the past postseasons. 

    Thus far, Boozer's best season was the 2007-08 season, in which he averaged 21.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting 54.7 percent from the field. 

4. Peja Stojakovic (Pozega, Yugoslavia)

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    You know how you feel when you're playing basketball and you're in such a rhythm that no matter where you shoot from you feel like it's going in? 

    Well, that's how Peja Stojakovic feels all the time (Watch this video. Of his 42 points, I don't think a single one of his made baskets touched the rim).

    The 6'10" small forward is ranked fourth on the all time leaders for three-point field goals made with 1,760, behind only Ray Allen, Reggie Miller and Jason Kidd.

    Of the four, Stojakovic has the best three-point field goal percentage at 40.1 percent. 

    In addition to his impressive career statistics, Stojakovic is an NBA Champion (2011), a two-time winner of the NBA Three-Point Shootout competition (2002 and 2003), a three-time NBA All-Star (2002, 2003 and 2004) and a member of the All-NBA Second Team (2004). 

    He can also do this

    Thus far, Stojackovic's best season was the 2003-04 season in which he averaged 24.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from three-point range and 92.7 percent from the free-throw line. 

3. Tony Parker (Bruges, Belgium)

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    After being drafted by San Antonio in the 2001 NBA Draft, Tony Parker quickly found his niche as the playmaking point guard for the Spurs. In his rookie season, Parker started all but five of the games he played in and recorded 9.2 points and 4.3 assists per game, which earned him a spot on the NBA All-Rookie First Team.

    Parker continued to develop over the next few years, adding a solid mid-range jumper to go along with his dynamic ability to get into the lane and score over taller defenders. Parker's quickness, combined with his craftiness, created open shots for both him and his teammates. 

    From the 2002-03 season to the 2005-06 season, Parker helped the Spurs win two NBA Championships ('03 and '05), made one All-Star team ('06) and earned a reputation as being one of the best playmaking point guards in the league. 

    Then, in the 2007 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Tony Parker unleashed his best performances as a pro, averaging 24.5 points, five rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while shooting 56 percent from the field and an astonishing 57 percent from three-point range in the Spurs sweep of the Cavaliers.

    Needless to say, Parker was named the 2007 NBA Finals MVP for his performance. 

    After his performance in the NBA Finals, people started asking the question: what couldn't Parker do? (no one actually asked this, but it's a perfect set up for this.)

    Unfortunately, he decided to release this, and that's when we realized that maybe Parker's skills were limited to basketball. 

    Thus far, Parker's best season was the 2008-09 season, in which he averaged 22 points, 6.9 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game while shooting 50.6 percent from the field. 

2. Pau Gasol (Sant Boi De Llobrega, Spain)

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    Look, as a Los Angeles Lakers fan, no one is more disappointed in Pau Gasol's soft, passive and half-hearted performance in this year's postseason than me.

    But, despite how poor Gasol played, that doesn't change the fact that Gasol is easily the No. 2 best European-born player in the past decade. 

    Gasol is tremendously athletic for his frame, and his creativity and low-post moves are second to none. In addition to his arsenal of low-post moves, Gasol is a great elbow-shooter and loves to catch the ball at the elbow and either pull up for a jump shot or take his defender off the dribble. 

    Not only is Gasol very talented, but also he has a tremendous understanding of the game and what to do in certain situations. Like Shaquille O'Neal, Gasol is a great passing big man who can hit cutting teammates even with his back turned to them. 

    While Gasol has had plenty of great seasons, his best performance came in the 2010 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics. In the seven-game series, Gasol averaged 18.6 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.6 blocks per game, including 19 points and 18 rebounds in the series finale. 

    Thus far, Gasol's best season was the 2009-10 season, in which he averaged 18.3 points, 11.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. 

1. Dirk Nowitzki (Wurzburg, West Germany)

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    This selection shouldn't be much of a surprise. 

    If his performance in the 2011 NBA Playoffs didn't seal the deal, then this sure did. 

    But seriously, even before his unbelievable playoff run, Nowitzki had solidified his legacy as the best European-born player in the history of the NBA. 

    Take a look at the accolades that he has received throughout his career even before he won the 2011 Finals MVP:

    2007 NBA Regular Season MVP

    10-time NBA All-Star

    Four-time All-NBA First-Team

    Five-time All-NBA Second-Team

    Two-time All-NBA Third Team

    Now, by the 2011 NBA Finals, Nowitzki bolstered his chances of being mentioned as one of the top players to ever win the game.

    Thus far, Nowitzki's best season was the 2006-07 season, in which he averaged 24.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists while shooting 50.2 percent from the field, 41.6 percent from three-point range and 90.4 percent from the free-throw line, making him the fifth player in NBA history to join the 50-40-90 club.