Prior to 1946, international NBA players weren’t a thing – it had never happened before. That all changed when Hank Biasatti, an Italian-born and Canadian-raised athlete, joined the Toronto Huskies of the Basketball Association of America (BAA) – a league that merged with the NBL to form the NBA in 1949.
The next three decades saw several international basketball players receive their opportunity in the NBA, but they struggled to find their footing and eventually faded out of the league. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the NBA started to gain global interest and that’s when we started to see international NBA players rise.
By the 1991-92 regular season, there were 23 international NBA players – representing 18 countries – on opening-day rosters. Nearly two decades later, there were regularly 100+ international NBA players playing in the league and several of them proved to be some of the greatest basketball players of all-time.
Introducing the Greatest International NBA Players of All-Time
It’s no secret that the NBA is the greatest basketball league in the world and it has been that way ever since the creation of the NBA in 1946 (as the BAA). While there are other respected leagues in countries around the world, international players make it a goal to one day make their way onto an NBA court.
With that said, making it into the NBA and thriving in the NBA are two completely different things. Most international NBA players either struggle to receive playing time or struggle to maintain playing time over a long career. Basketball players that thrive internationally are often humbled upon entering the NBA.
Of course, that’s not the case for everyone. In fact, some international NBA players are quick to humble their American counterparts and that’s why some of the greatest NBA players of all-time were born outside of the United States. Below, we’re going to highlight some of those names worth remembering.
(The following international NBA players are in no particular order, as you can make a case for most of them to be the greatest of all-time. We’re also not including Tim Duncan, Patrick Ewing, Dominique Wilkins, and others typically associated with the United States)
15. Detlef Schrempf – West Germany
Detlef Schrempf was born in Leverkusen, Germany, but attended the University of Washington after graduating from high school in Washington. He was eventually drafted by the Dallas Mavericks with the No. 8 overall pick in the 1985 NBA Draft. He represented West Germany in the 1984 and 1992 Olympics.
Schrempf spent 16 seasons in the NBA and averaged 13.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 0.8 steals in 1,136 games played for the SuperSonics, Pacers, Mavericks, and Trail Blazers. He was a 3-time All-Star, one-time All-NBA forward (1994-95), and won the Sixth Man of the Year award in 1991 and 1992.
14. Rudy Gobert – France
Rudy Gobert was born in Saint-Quentin, France and began his professional basketball career with Cholet Basket in the LNB Pro A (the top-tier league in France). He was eventually drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the No. 27 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, but was immediately traded to the Utah Jazz.
Gobert is currently playing in his 10th season in the NBA and is averaging 12.6 points, 11.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.7 steals, and 2.1 blocks through 673 career games with the Jazz and Timberwolves. He’s a 3-time All-Star, 4-time All-NBA, 6-time All-Defensive, and 3-time Defensive Player of the Year thus far.
13. Manu Ginobili – Argentina
Manu Ginobili was born in Bahía Blanca, Argentina and spent the first seven years of his professional basketball career in Argentina and Italy. He was eventually drafted by the San Antonio Spurs with the No. 57 overall (2nd round) pick in the 1999 NBA Draft, but didn’t make his NBA debut until October 29, 2002.
He spent his entire 16-year career with the Spurs between 2002 and 2018 and averaged 13.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 1.3 steals in 1,057 career games. He was a 2-time All-Star, 2-time All-NBA, 2007-08 Sixth Man of the Year, and 4-time champion before being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2022.
12. Tony Parker – Belgium / France
Tony Parker was born in Bruges, Belgium and raised in France. He began his professional basketball career in France with Paris Basket Racing between 1999 and 2001. He was eventually drafted by the San Antonio Spurs with the No. 28 overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft – officially beginning his NBA career.
Parker spent the next 17 seasons with the Spurs before playing one final season with the Hornets. He averaged 15.5 points, 2.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and 0.8 steals in 1,254 career games. He was a 6-time All-Star, 4-time All-NBA, 4-time champion, and 2006-07 Finals MVP, and 2023 Hall of Fame finalist.
11. Toni Kukoc – Croatia / Yugoslavia
Toni Kukoc was born in Split, Croatia and began his professional basketball career with Jugoplastika in Croatia and Benetton Treviso in Italy between 1985 and 1993. He was eventually drafted by the Chicago Bulls with the No. 29 overall (2nd round) in 1990, but didn’t make his debut until November 5, 1993.
Kukoc spent 13 seasons in the NBA, splitting time with the Bulls, Bucks, 76ers, and Hawks. He averaged 11.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.0 steals in 846 career games played. He was a 3-time NBA champion, was the Sixth Man of the Year in 1995-96, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2021.
10. Vlade Divac – Serbia / Yugoslavia
Vlade Divac was born in Prijepolje, Serbia and began his professional basketball career with Sloga and Partizan in Serbia between 1983 and 1989, and represented Yugoslavia in the 1988 and 1996 Olympics. He was eventually drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers with the No. 26 overall pick in the 1989 NBA Draft.
Divac spent 16 seasons in the NBA with the Lakers, Kings, and Hornets and averaged 11.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.4 blocks in 1,134 games played. He was named to the 1989-90 All-Rookie team, was an All-Star during the 2000-01 season, and inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2019.
9. Nikola Jokic – Serbia
Nikola Jokic was born in Sombor, Serbia and began his professional basketball career with Mega Basket of the Adriatic Basketball Association (ABA) in Serbia. He was drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the No. 41 overall (2nd round) pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, but didn’t make his debut until the following year.
Jokic is currently playing in his eighth season in the NBA – all of which with the Nuggets. He is averaging 20.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.2 steals, and 0.7 blocks in 593 career games played. He’s a 5-time All-Star, 4-time All-NBA, and 2-time defending MVP who might make it 3-time MVP this season.
8. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Greece / Nigeria
Giannis Antetokounmpo was born in Athens, Greece to two Nigerian immigrants. He began his pro basketball career with EFAO Zografou B.C. in the Greek B Basket League and represents the Greek national team. He was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks with the No. 15 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
Antetokounmpo is currently playing in his 10th season with the Bucks. He’s averaging 22.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.3 blocks in 715 career games. He’s a 7-time All-Star, 6-time All-NBA, 5-time All-Defensive, 2-time MVP, 2021 champion, 2021 Finals MVP, and former Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player of the Year.
7. Luka Doncic – Slovenia
Luka Doncic was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia and began his professional basketball career with Real Madrid in the Liga ACB in Spain. He was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, but had his rights traded to the Dallas Mavericks, where he continues to play to this day.
Doncic is currently in his fifth season with the Mavericks and is averaging 27.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 1.1 steals, and 0.4 blocks in 323 career games played. He’s a 4-time All-Star, 3-time All-NBA, and former Rookie of the Year. There’s no doubt in my mind that he will be a future MVP and Hall of Famer.
6. Steve Nash – South Africa / Canada / Britain
Steve Nash was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and raised in Victoria, British Columbia – his family also lived in Regina, Saskatchewan when he was young. He played college ball at Santa Clara University and was eventually drafted by the Phoenix Suns with the No. 15 overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft.
Nash spent 18 years in the NBA with the Suns, Mavericks, and Lakers. He averaged 14.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 8.5 assists, and 0.7 steals in 1,217 games played. He was an 8-time All-Star, 7-time All-NBA, and 2-time MVP who led the league in assists five times and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2018.
5. Dikembe Mutombo – Democratic Republic of Congo
Dikembe Mutombo was born in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, but eventually moved to the United States to play college basketball at Georgetown University. He was drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the No. 4 overall pick in the 1991 NBA Draft and made his debut on November 1, 1991.
Mutombo spent 18 seasons in the NBA with the Nuggets, Hawks, Rockets, 76ers, Knicks, and Nets. He averaged 9.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.4 steals, and 2.8 blocks in 1,196 games. He was an 8-time All-Star, 6-time All-Defensive, 4-time Defensive Player of the Year, and is now a Hall of Famer.
4. Pau Gasol – Spain
Pau Gasol was born in Barcelona, Spain and began his professional basketball career with FC Barcelona Basquet of the Liga ACB in Spain. He was eventually drafted by the Atlanta Hawks with the No. 3 overall pick in 2001, but had his rights traded to the Memphis Grizzlies, where he started his NBA career.
Gasol spent 18 seasons in the NBA with the Lakers, Grizzlies, Bulls, Spurs, and Bucks. He averaged 17.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.5 steals, and 1.6 blocks in 1,226 games played. He was a 6-time All-Star, 4-time All-NBA, 2001-02 Rookie of the Year, 2-time champion, and 2023 Hall of Fame finalist.
3. Yao Ming – China
Yao Ming was born in Shanghai, China and began his professional basketball career with the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) in China. He was drafted by the Houston Rockets with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft and made his NBA debut on October 30, 2002.
Ming spent just eight seasons with the Houston Rockets before injuries forced him to call it quits. He averaged 19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.4 steals, and 1.9 blocks in 486 games played. He was an 8-time All-Star, 5-time All-NBA center, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player in 2016.
2. Hakeem Olajuwon – Nigeria
Hakeem Olajuwon was born in Lagos, Nigeria, but emigrated from his home country to the United States in order to play college basketball at the University of Houston. He was eventually drafted by the Houston Rockets with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft and made his debut on October 27, 1984.
Olajuwon spent 17 seasons with the Rockets before playing one final season with the Raptors. He averaged 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.7 steals, and 3.1 blocks in 1,238 games. He was a 12-time All-Star, 12-time All-NBA, 9-time All-Defensive, 2-time champion, 2-time Finals MVP, 1993-94 MVP, 2-time Defensive Player of the Year, and current Hall of Famer.
1. Dirk Nowitzki – Germany
Dirk Nowitzki was born in Würzburg, West Germany and began his professional basketball career with DJK Würzburg – a sports club based in his hometown. He was eventually drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks with the No. 9 overall pick in the 1998 NBA Draft, but had his rights traded to the Dallas Mavericks.
Nowitzki spent his entire 21-year career with the Mavericks between 1998 and 2019. He averaged 20.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.8 steals, and 0.8 blocks in 1,522 games played. He was a 14-time All-Star, 12-time All-NBA, 2006-07 MVP, 2011 NBA champion, 2010-11 Finals MVP, and 2023 Hall of Fame finalist.
International NBA Players Continue to Dominate the League
Today, the NBA is overflowing with international talent as they continue to prove that basketball is growing outside of the United States. Just look at the 2022-23 opening-night rosters, which saw 120 international NBA players from 40 different countries – the second-straight season with at least 120 such players.
Canada continues to produce the most international NBA players with 22 on opening-night rosters – followed by Australia with 10 players, France with 9 players, and Germany with 6 players. Spain, Nigeria, and Serbia also have five players each in the NBA. Each NBA team has at least one international player.
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Not only that, but the past four MVP awards have been handed out to international NBA players – Nikola Jokic (2022, 2021) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (2020, 2019). That trend will likely continue as the top-3 NBA players are currently Jokic, Antetokounmpo, and Luka Doncic – and more are currently on the rise.
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