Toni Kukoč was an exceptional ball player especially in a time where European talent was skim. Kukoč brought the NBA fan base a great european talent that rivaled the best in the game and replicated success similar to Vlade Divac and Dražen Petrović years before he entered the league. Toni Kukoč was to many of the most knowledgable NBA fans the guy who opened the window for European’s premier talent to participate in the NBA.
I’m willing to pay homage for Kukoč as one of the biggest patrons in promoting the game outside of the United States. With that kept in mind, I’m going to list who I believe are the top five best European players since his brilliant seasons in the latter 1990’s.
Note: I am only going to consider players that did not attend a university in the United States and came directly into the NBA from a country in Europe and were citizens of that country. This would disqualify players such as Luol Deng, Brandon Jennings, Joakim Noah, etc.
5. Žydrūnas Ilgauskas (Lithuania)
Žydrūnas Ilgauskas, or in the sense of avoiding the very long name, will be referenced as “Big Z”. Well Ilgauskas, will forever be known as the most beloved Cleveland Cavalier of all time. He brought the city relevance especially after the dismal performances of their city’s other sports teams: the Indians and Browns.
“Big Z” was never in the discussion of the game’s great big men in any point of his career, but the way he carried himself and the legacy he left for the Cleveland Cavalier earns him the spot of the being the fifth best European player of the 2000’s.
In his best seasons with the Cavaliers, he was part of a struggling franchise or was upstaged by then young phenomenon, LeBron James. With LeBron James, he was part of starting line-up that made the Finals one year and held the best regular-season record in the NBA for two years.
Ilgauskas had, in my opinion one of the most devastating mid range shots in the NBA. He would virtually just stand up, lift his arms up and shot. It was virtually impossible to block and it was near automatic coming of a screen and pop. Big Z, did have that one forgettable year where he joined LeBron James and the Miami Heat. However his character and presence was greatly appreciated by the Cleveland fans when the Heat took on the Cavs for the first time. The anger and hatred of LeBron James, couldn’t stop the Cleveland fanatics to stand up and give their hero of many years a much-deserved round of applause. Admittedly, there are better European player who could have slipped ahead of Big Z in the top five of this list.
However, everyone in the NBA has talent, but respect is given to only the best players and people. Žydrūnas Ilgauskas was easily one of the most revered players of the previous decade.
4. Andrei Kirilenko (Russia)
I think this may come as a stunner for some people on how Andrei Kirilenko made my top five. However I say why not.
Kirilenko was an All-Star. He learned from two hall of famers, John Stockton and Karl Malone, when he was in his early years with the Utah Jazz.
Kirilenko grew to be in my mind a defensive force who had the equivalent input in the defensive similar to Ben Wallace. Let’s not forget he may of the coolest sensible nickname in all of sports, “AK-47″. Well, the name holds very fittingly because they both can really pack a punch. Kirilenko is virtually a beast when it comes to the defensive end.
I personally feel that defensive specialists are just better than lights out shooters. When it comes to the NBA, pretty much any wingman can shoot the ball, but its really special to see someone just block shots at his height with such ease. The only player in the NBA right now that I can think off from the top of my head that has the same defensive ability at the small forward ability is Josh Smith.
That pretty much sums up my argument on why AK-47 deserves to be mentioned as one of the great European basketball players of all time. The man plays 50% of basketball at the highest of levels and he did average double-digit points per game in every season except one in his career. Hopefully he can continue playing at an equivalent level with the T-wolves.
3. Tony Parker (France)
Now we get to the next tier of European talent in the NBA. These next three guys are perennial All-Stars and were continuously big portions of their team’s success, even winning championships.
First off, lets start with Tony Parker. Tony Parker will never blow you away with his stats or his shooting ability. However if you want a terrific point guard with leadership. Look no further, as the former Finals MVP will give you that and much more.
Everyone tries to bring up who is the best point guard in the league debate…You have the CP3’s, the D-Rose’s, the Deron’s, the Rondo’s, however only one point guard in the last few years has won a Final’s MVP, Tony Parker.
Parker is one of those guys who can simply get past you with his speed and has a good enough touch mid range to burn any defender who backs off. The French mastermind is the leader of a Spurs team that always seems to succeed in the regular season and not so much recently but the playoffs as well.
However, to add-on to Parker’s résumé: He was a four time all star who led the Spurs to three championships. Parker averages close to 17 points per game in his career and is still at his prime at the age of 30. Expect a lot more from Parker in the coming years as he and Kawhi Leonard will be the faces of the Spurs once Tim Duncan leaves.
2. Pau Gasol (Spain)
Pau Gasol, to many (including myself) is one of the softer players in the league. Yes, he tends to flail within the paint and isn’t as aggressive as most of the other star power forwards. However, his skill as a complete big man in the league can not be questioned. Gasol might have one of the best post offensive games in the league.
Europe teaches its players how to shoot. To no one’s surprise, Gasol’s jumper is deadly, and his footwork, advanced. As an NBA fan, it was relevant that he would be a big time player while he was playing with the Memphis Grizzlies in the beginning of his career. However, his rise to stardom was propelled by his move to the Los Angeles Lakers
With Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol helped give the scoring punch down low to compete against teams like the Celtics, Spurs, Cavaliers, and Magic. In fact, with Gasol, the Lakers skyrocketed to three straight Finals’ appearances and two championships. Pau Gasol to many, during the title runs, was considered to be the best power forward in the game including beating out the number one player on this list.
Gasol is a prime example of the best of what Europe has to offer for big men. He brings the extremely plentiful basketball knowledge to be effective on both ends of the floor. Pau Gasol is a clear Hall of Famer.
Dirk Nowitzki (Germany)
Now to talk about one of the greatest power forwards to ever play the game. Dirk Nowitzki is a clear first ballot hall of famer. Nowitzki is the best Dallas Maverick in history statistically and he led the franchise to its only championship last year.
Talking about last year in the Finals, the Dallas Mavericks were the underdogs going in. They were facing the pre-season favorite to win it all, the Miami Heat. LeBron James had his own legacy and Dirk Nowitzki was supposed to play like the third best player in the series compared to Dwyane Wade and James. Well, coming from a LeBron fanatic, Nowitzki played at a legendary level and easily trumped Wade and James in the Finals. He often made Bosh look like a terrible defender. Dirk was clutch and played like the former MVP-self and won the championship for Mark Cuban and the Mavs by essentially carrying them.
What makes Dirk so effective his is incomparable offensive ability. The towering German is simply the greatest shooting-seven footer of all time. It is impossible to guard Dirk. Impossible to contest. If a defender were playing tight on Dirk, he would just slip by him. Defenders can’t foul, because Nowitzki is automatic from the free throw line. Nowitzki might be the hardest guard in the entire league.
Let’s mark all the accolades that Dirk has accomplished throughout the last several years. Dirk is an eleven time all-star and is participated in the mid-year game of the best, every year since 2002. Dirk has made an all-NBA team an astonishing twelve times. Nowitzki became the first European to win the NBA’s most valuable player award when he led the Dallas Mavericks to a stellar record of 67-15. To put the icing on the cake, he is an NBA champion something that some of the greats to ever play the game can’t call themselves.
Dirk Nowitzki is the best European player to ever play the game.
- Danilo Gallinari
- Andrea Bargnani
- Timofey Mozgov (for Michael Handel)
- Peja Stojakovic
- Arvydas Sabonis
- Marc Gasol
- Boris Diaw
- Goran Dragic
- Zaza Pachulia
- Ricky Rubio
- Marc Gasol