Who Will Be the NBA's Next Foreign Superstar?

Paul Knepper@@paulieknepContributor IIIFebruary 13, 2013

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 15:  Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks drives on Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers during a 112-108 Laker overtime win at Staples Center on April 15, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Yao Ming retired due to recurring leg injuries. Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginobili are in the twilight of their careers, and Tony Parker and Pau Gasol are on the wrong side of 30. Clearly, the NBA needs a new foreign superstar to sell its product.

The original Dream Team, led by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, is often credited with spreading basketball around the globe. However, nothing ignites a nation's passion for the game like the success of its native sons.

Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc captured the imagination of Croatians in a way that Jordan never could. They shared a language and culture with the people and made Croatian children believe that they too could be an NBA basketball player. They won the hearts of their people by representing their country in international competition.

Most importantly, both men were successful playing at the highest levels. It is not enough for an athlete from a foreign country to simply make an NBA team. He must thrive in the most competitive league in the world in order to galvanize his people.

Consider the growth of basketball in China this century. Wang Zhizhi played two seasons for the Dallas Mavericks—from 2000 to 2002—before Yao made his NBA debut, but he failed to create widespread excitement among the Chinese people because he was only a benchwarmer for Mark Cuban's team.

Yao was the first pick in the 2002 NBA draft and an eight-time NBA All-Star. His games were aired on Chinese television. In turn, basketball courts sprang up throughout the country.

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Several NBA players of African origin have cited Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo as inspirations. Argentinians rallied around their national team, led by Ginobili, that won the gold medal in 2004 in Athens. Europeans such as Parker, Nowitzki and Gasol have generated enthusiasm for basketball in their native countries by winning NBA championships.

It has been several years since an international player has reached superstar status in the NBA. Top draft picks, such as Darko Milicic of Serbia, Hasheem Thabeet of Tanzania, Andrea Bargnani of Italy and Yi Jianlian of China have not panned out.

Enes Kanter of the Utah Jazz and Jonas Valanciunas of the Toronto Raptors, both 20-year-old centers, are two of the most promising young foreign players in the league. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Kanter is averaging 16.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per 36 minutes, and Valanciunas recently posted back-to-back double-doubles after returning from a broken finger. 

But while both possess the skills to develop into great players, they are unlikely to rise to superstar status. The same can be said of Congolese-Spanish power forward Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Italian small forward Danilo Gallinari of the Denver Nuggets—two of the best young foreign players in the league. 

"Superstar" is a loaded word. It is used to describe the very best players in the game. In the present day, though, it is equally applicable to players a notch below who are highly marketable and put fans in the seats with their exciting style of play.

With that expanded definition in mind, Ricky Rubio of the Minnesota Timberwolves is the most likely candidate to be the next foreign superstar in the NBA.

Not since Jason Kidd has a player entered the league with such court vision and passing ability. He can deliver the pass with either hand, from any angle and makes excellent decisions with the ball.

Rubio's game is also tailor-made for the NBA—fast-paced and conducive to the pick-and-roll. He has an exceptional handle and quick hands defensively.

His biggest flaw, which may keep him from developing into an elite NBA player, is his poor shooting. The point guard has a slow, awkward release and shot an atrocious 36 percent from the field last year.

But the Spaniard's flare, along with his talent, will carry him to stardom. No-look passes result in Sportscenter highlights, which lead to endorsement deals and greater exposure. The point guard signed a lucrative contract with Adidas last summer and has been featured in the "Backyard Wrestler" commercial for Adidas and Foot Locker.

Rubio also has a boy next door charm to him. His floppy locks, scruffy facial hair and puppy dog eyes make him look younger than his 22 years, and he plays the game with a youthful exuberance that is endearing to fans.

At this point, Rubio's persona is miles ahead of his game. He has a lot to learn defensively and must improve his jump shot. There is no telling how he will respond to playoff pressure.

Due to his extensive career in Spain—he began playing professionally at 14—and years of anticipation for his NBA debut, it is easy to forget that this is just his second season in the league. He is essentially a rookie.

Due to the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 campaign and a torn ACL, which caused him to miss the end of last season and beginning of this one, Rubio has only played in 65 NBA games, started just 45 of them and has yet to participate in a training camp. 

He struggled mightily in his first several games after returning from injury on Dec. 15, though his play has improved significantly over the past few weeks. In his last five games, Rubio is averaging 14.4 points and 10 assists while shooting 43 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc.

Ricky Rubio is already a thrill to watch, and he should be one of the top five point guards in the league in a few years. His ascent to superstardom will attract the interest of not just the people of Spain, but citizens throughout Europe.

The NBA is banking on it.   


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