Who are the best European basketball players of all time? Yes, James Naismith, a North American, invented the game. But basketball’s dynamism and development across the decades — and the numerous stars who’ve invigorated the sport — in all corners of Europe have made the sport a truly global game.
In Europe, basketball is watched and played and taught by millions. Without the European infusion of players and teams, the game and its supporters wouldn’t be as rich as it is today. The best European basketball players thrived during the Cold War era and beyond, and with the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, the national teams have splintered and showcased talents on the new national squads.
To concoct a list like this one, featuring the best European basketball players, big feats for national teams and pro clubs were weighed heavily, as well as accomplishments in international and global tournaments, including the Olympics.
Therefore, we have left out a couple of youngsters who are sure to be on this list in the future and possibly also in the Hall of Fame. Because the youngest generation of Europeans in the NBA is probably the best so far. Just look at these names; Kristaps Porzingis (Latvia), Lauri Markkanen (Finland), Dennis Schroeder (Germany), Clint Capela (Switzerland), Nikola Vucevic (Montenegro) and Enes Kanter (Turkey). All of them are impact players, but the two biggest standouts are Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece) and Nikola Jokic (Serbia). Then, of course, there is the 19-year old Slovenian sensation Luka Doncic. The potential no.1 NBA Draft pick of 2018.
The rising brilliance of the Milwaukee Bucks do-it-all Antetokounmpo, known as the “Greek Freak,” is a sight to behold. He was the leading vote-getter in the first round of fan voting for the 2018 All-Star Game. Last season, he became the first player in NBA history to finish in the top 20 in overall numbers in the five primary statistical categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. He averaged 22.9 points, 8.8 boards, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.9 blocks, leading the Bucks in all five categories, too.
Yes, the sky’s the limit for Giannis.
Similarly, Jokic hasn’t played enough years at the top level as an elite player to yet fit the bill for this list. Like Antetokounmpo, he’s on the right path. For instance, in a November 2017 game against the Brooklyn Nets, Jokic put a career-best 41 points on the board. In his third season with the Denver Nuggets, Jokic was averaging 15.9 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 5.0 assists a few days after the calendar flipped to January 2018.
HISTORICAL HONORABLE MENTIONS
There are other historical talents such as Dino Meneghin, Juan Carlos Navarro, Peja Stojakovic, Kresimir Cosic, Goran Dragic, Marc Gasol, Andrei Kirilenko, Hedo Turkoglu, Rik Smits, Boris Diaw and Zydrunas Ilgauskas who have played key roles on national, European club and NBA teams over the years. They must be recognized as well for the totality of their contributions to European basketball
Dino Meneghin|1950|204 cm|C|Italy
The Italian was a very physical, rough player, and sometimes considered dirty. His style of play combined elements from Bill Laimbeer, Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, and Dennis Rodman. Nobody can discount what Meneghin accomplished for Italy and in the Italian League throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
But, really, it started even earlier. Dino Meneghin was a part of Varese’s European Cup Winner’s Cup in 1967. An omen of things to come. With Varese, Olimpia Milano and Trieste, Meneghin helped nab 12 Italian League championships and six Italian Cup crowns. On September 5, 2003, Meneghin was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Juan Carlos Navarro|1980|192 cm|G|Spain
The accomplished scorer for FC Barcelona (1997-2007, 2008-present) had a one-season stint with the Memphis Grizzlies. He made the most of it, earning NBA All-Rookie Second Team honors in his time away from the Spanish League powerhouse. He averaged 10.9 ppg for the Grizzlies.
Most noteworthy, Navarro (“La Bomba”) also amassed points in Euroleague competition in quick succession. The prolific scorer tops the chart in games, points, field goals and 3s in EuroLeague competition since the 2000-01 season began.
Predrag Stojakovic|1977|207 cm|F|Serbia
He was Yugoslavia’s leading scorer on the 2002 world title team (18.8 ppg). The Serbian, one of the best European basketball players ever, competed in the NBA from 1998-2011. His perimeter shooting skills were especially effective at the outset of his career with Sacramento.
The Kings retired his jersey in 2014 and a year later “Peja” Stojaković was appointed the director of player personnel and development for the Sacramento Kings. There, he was reunited with his friend and former teammate in the Yugoslav National Team, Vlade Divac (GM and Vice President).
Kresimir Cosic|1948-1995|211 cm|C|Croatia
Kresimir Cosic played for Brigham Young University (1970-73). At the time, he was one of the best European basketball players and he was the first foreigner honored as a collegiate All-American in 1972 and 1973. In addition, he also made 303 appearances for the Yugoslavia national team, including four consecutive Olympiads starting in 1968. In 1996, Cosic became only the third international player ever elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In 2007 he was also inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame. BYU retired his jersey in 2006. Cosic died in Baltimore, Maryland in 1995 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Goran Dragic|1986|190 cm|G|Slovenia
The Slovenian southpaw, aka “The Dragon,” splits time between shooting guard and point guard in the NBA. One of the best European basketball players in the new millennium, Dragic made his debut with the Phoenix Suns in 2008. He currently plays for the Miami Heat. He’s topped the 20-ppg plateau twice (2013-14, Suns; 2016-17, Heat) and had a career average of 13-plus ppg entering 2018. Goran Dragic retired from the Slovenian National Team after the historical win at EuroBasket 2017.
Marc Gasol| 1985|216 cm|C|Spain
Pau’s younger brother and a fixture on the Spain national team for years, Marc Gasol is one of the best all-around centers in the NBA in the 2010s. Big Marc, a three-time All-Star, has spent his entire NBA career with the Memphis Grizzlies. Marc, already one of Europe’s greatest basketball players, scored a career-high 19.5 ppg in the 2016-17 campaign. He was the 2013 NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Andrei Kirilenko|1981|206 cm|F|Russia
A two-time FIBA Europe Player of the Year (2007, 2012) and four-time Russian player of the year. Kirilenko (“AK-47”) was a mainstay on the Utah Jazz for a decade (2001-2011) with later stints with the Timberwolves and Nets. In conclusion, Kirilenko led the NBA with 3.3 blocks in 2004-05, a reminder that he’s one of the most important basketball players from Europe,
Hidayet Turkoglu|1979|208 cm|F|Turkey
Turkoglu competed in the NBA from 2000-15, helping the Orlando Magic reach the Finals in 2009. He was the 2007-08 NBA Most Improved Player award recipient, averaging a career-best 19.5 ppg.
Rik Smits|1966|223 cm|C|Netherlands
Rik Smits was the No. 2 overall pick out of Marist College in the 1988 NBA Draft. Indiana selected the 224-cm Smits right after Kansas star Danny Manning’s name was called by the Clippers. From 1988 to 2000, Smits manned the middle for the Pacers. He posted a 14.8 ppg average in his career and helped push the Pacers into the 2000 Finals. However, his footprint on the old continent was not that significant since he played his whole career in the US.
Boris Diaw|1982|203 cm|F|France
The athletic Frenchman, playing in the France Pro A circuit for the Levallois in the 2017-18 campaign, won an NBA title in 2014 with the Spurs. In that series, he registered 29 assists (tops among all players) and was No. 2 in rebounds (43, seven behind the great Tim Duncan, his teammate). A year earlier, Diaw helped guide France to the 2013 EuroBasket crown in Slovenia.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas|1975|218 cm|C|Lithuania
Zydrunas Ilgauskas starred for the Cleveland Cavaliers from 1996 to 2010. The Cavaliers have retired the Lithuanian’s No. 11 jersey.
THE TOP 15 BEST EUROPEAN BASKETBALL PLAYERS
15.Dino Radja|1967|210 cm|C|Croatia
Alongside Toni Kukoc, Radja accomplished great things for KK Split early in his career, snatching back-to-back Euroleague titles in 1989, and 1990. This set him on the path to becoming one of the best European basketball players ever. The 210-cm Croatian earned Euroleague Final Four MVP honors in 1989, the same year he was the No. 40 pick (Celtics) in the NBA Draft. Boston later went to court in a legal tussle with KK Split over Radja’s rights. The latter team had refused to free him up.
Eventually, the Celtics shelled out cash to KK Split to hasten Radja’s exit — though he had already left to train in Boston in 1989. Nevertheless, Radja went back to KK Split for one more season. His NBA debut didn’t occur in 1990. Instead, he honed his game for three more seasons in Europe, moving on to the Italian League club Il Messaggero Roma. Radja’s NBA career was short-lived, but he proved that Euro centers could be a productive force in the world’s best circuit.
Dino Radja delivered 16.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 1.6 assists in his understated NBA career. Certainly, in Later stints with Panathinaikos and Cibona and KK Split in Croatia, he enhanced his reputation as a heady player and a winner. Dino Radja was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame.
14.Nikos Galis|1957|183 cm|G|Greece
Before his arrival, Greece was a mediocre team; with him, it became a powerhouse. Greece won the 1987 European championship. A four-time EuroBasket leading scorer (1983, 1987, 1989, 1991) and eight-time Euroleague top scorer, Galis was an offensive magician. For 11 straight seasons (1981-91), he was the Greek League top scorer.
In 757 games for Aris (1979-92) and Panathinaikos (1992-94), Galis averaged 32.8 points in his pro career, including 44.0 in 1980-81, a 26-game campaign.
For the Greek national team, Galis cemented his status as one of the all-time best European basketball players with a 30.6 ppg average. Against Panama in the 1986 FIBA World Championship, Galis had his best scoring performance for Greece, netting 53 points in a 110-81 win.
Nikos Galis played college ball at Seton Hall University in his native New Jersey. He averaged an incredible 27,5 ppg in his senior year. But he was injured before his NBA career had a chance to commence. (The Boston Celtics selected him in the fourth round of the 1979 NBA Draft.)
After retiring in 1995, Galis operated a popular summer basketball camp in Greece until 2006. He was the first torchbearer to enter the Olympic Stadium for the Closing Ceremony at the 2004 Athens Games. Galis was accepted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on the 9th of September 2017.
13.Detlef Schrempf|1963|208 cm|F|Germany
Before Dirk, there was Detlef. The German forward had staying power in the United States in his career. He attended Centralia (Washington) High School, for one year, winning a state championship. He also made the adjustment to life in the U.S. He attended the University of Washington from 1981-85 and established himself as a collegiate star.
The Dallas Mavericks nabbed Detlef Schrempf with the No. 8 pick in the 1985 NBA Draft, a year after legends Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan were part of a celebrated draft class. Schrempf lasted 16 seasons in the NBA with the Mavericks, Pacers, SuperSonics and Trail Blazers. He was a three-time All-Star and a two-time Sixth Man of the Year winner. Det;ef Schrempf definitively ranks among the best European NBA players ever.
12.Dimitris Diamantidis|1980|196 cm|G,F|Greece
Accolades rained down on the savvy southpaw like raindrops on a stormy afternoon. Wherever Diamantidis went, he accomplished big things on the basketball court for Iraklis Thessaloniki and Panathinaikos. His special career spanned from 1999 to 2016. In addition, Diamantidis is No. 1 in assists and steals in the Euroleague record books for the 21st century.
One of the most versatile and consistent basketball players ever from Europe, Diamantidis, had the uncanny ability to put his stamp on the game wherever he was assigned to play. Gifted with an extraordinary wingspan of 216 cm it made no difference if he were listed at point guard, shooting guard or small forward. Diamantidis was a great player who knew how to make his mark on every game and every tournament.
Case in point: He led all players in steals at the 2006 FIBA World Championship, a competition loaded with NBA stars, including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony. The feats tell volumes about his overall consistency and excellence.
Summing up Diamantidis’ career:
- EuroLeague MVP (2011)
- 4× All-EuroLeague First Team (2007, 2011–2013)
- 6× EuroLeague Best Defender (2005–2009, 2011)
- 2× EuroLeague assists leader (2011, 2014)
- EuroLeague Basketball Legend (2016)
- All-EuroBasket Team (2005)
- EuroBasket assists leader (2005)
- 6× Greek League MVP (2004, 2006–2008, 2011, 2014)
- Greek League Best Defender (2011)
- Mister Europa Player of The Year (2007)
- Greek Athlete of the Year (2007)
- All-Europe Player of the Year (2007)
- 11× All-Greek League Team (2004–2008, 2010–2014, 2016)
- 5× Greek League assists leader (2006, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2015)
- Greek League Most Popular Player (2016)
- EuroLeague all-time leader in Performance Index Rating
- EuroLeague all-time leader in assists
- EuroLeague all-time leader in steals
11.Sarunas Marciulionis|1964|196 cm|G|Lithuania
The wave of European players on NBA rosters became possible in part by the Lithuanian shooting guard receiving regular court time. In the late 1980s, as the world changed and morphed in many ways into the 1990s, Marciulionis left his imprint on the NBA landscape. How?
For him, it all started by becoming a Golden State Warriors regular, followed by stints with the SuperSonics, Kings, and Nuggets. From 1989-97, Marciulionis averaged 12.5 ppg in the NBA, including a career-best 18.9 ppg for the 1991-92 Warriors.
Marciulionis was the first Soviet-born player in the NBA. As a result, he opened the door for Eastern Europeans who followed. The MVP of the 1995 EuroBasket tournament, Marciulionis played a starring role on the Soviet Union’s 1988 gold medal-winning Olympic squad. And after Lithuania gained independence, he was a focal point of its bronze-medal finishes in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in ’96.
On August 8, 2014, Marciulionis was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and became a member of the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2015.
Marciulionis was famously generous with his time and money for friends, strangers, and charitable causes. He was also instrumental in keeping the Lithuanian national team financially afloat after the nation’s independence. Consequently, he reached out to prospective sponsors and donors and lined up funds to help pay for team supplies, including uniforms. Even classic rock ‘n’ roll band The Grateful Dead joined the fundraising efforts. Tie-dyed Dead shirts featuring Lithuania’s national colors became the team’s symbol (and a hot collector’s item) in the run-up to the 1992 Summer Games.
10.Vlade Divac|1968|216 cm|C|Serbia
The current GM and VP of basketball operations for the Sacramento Kings has filled important roles as a player and as an administrator. Months after legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career was winding down (he retired in 1989, Divac’s was heating up for the Los Angeles Lakers as a rookie in the 1989-90 NBA campaign. Year after year, the 216-cm Divac proved to be a workhorse in the NBA. He also developed into one of the all-time best European basketball players.
Divac averaged 11.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.1 steals in 1,134 NBA regular-season games. Furthermore, he became one of just 13 players in league history with more than 13,000 points, 9,000 boards, 3,000 assists and 1,500 blocks (an official NBA stat since the 1973-74 season). Vlade Divac is one of five Europeans to appear in 1,000 or more contests. The others are Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol and Boris Diaw.
The Kobe trade
The Lakers shipped Divac to the Charlotte Hornets in 1996 in exchange for Kobe Bryant. Lakers talent maven Jerry West coveted Kobe and completed the deal after the draft. And the rest is history.
Off the court
Divac’s impact extended beyond the basketball court before and after his playing days. He served as the President of the Serbian Olympic Committee from 2009-2017. Also, the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame has honored Divac for his humanitarian work, helping children around the globe and refugees. Divac also featured in an ESPN documentary called “Once Brothers”, which focuses on the Yugoslav wars and the broken friendship between Divac and Drazen Petrovic.
9.Toni Kukoc|1968|210 cm|F|Croatia
Blessed with versatility and a high basketball IQ, Kukoc made vital contributions to the Chicago Bulls’ second back-to-back title run in the ’90s.
One of the best European basketball players of the past century, Kukoc exhibited poise and calmness in the clutch moments of the biggest games. To those who truly paid attention, Kukoc’s role on the 72-10 Bulls in 1995-96 and in the years that followed was as solid as oak.
Former Bulls coach Phil Jackson said the following about Kukoc:
“Toni was instrumental in 1997-98 when Pip (Scottie Pippen) missed the first 30-some games. He was Sixth Man (winner) in 1995-96. He was a terrific player and has been overlooked.”
Finally, the Croatian sensation secured eternal fame with five Euroscar Player of the Year awards and four Mister Europa accolades. Kukoc retired from the NBA in 2006 while with Milwaukee Bucks.
8.Radivoj Korac|1938-1969|196 cm|F|Serbia
Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point masterpiece for the Philadelphia Warriors in March 1962 is arguably the most famous basketball performance ever by a North American. But for Europeans of a certain age and geographic location (the former Yugoslavia), the left-handed shooting “Zucko” (aka Ginger in English) had a comparable special game.
On Jan. 14, 1965, Korac, a power forward, had a 99-point performance against Alvik BK Stockholm in Belgrade. OKK Belgrade won 155-57. The Swedish squad trailed 60-17 at halftime. Korac torched Alvik BK Stockholm with 65 second-half points. Korac made 44 2-point shots (without the option of a 3-pointer) and canned 11 of 14 free throws. The Stockholm team shouldn’t have been shocked by what took place. After all, Korac finished with 71 points in their earlier encounter a week earlier in Sweden, a game OKK won 136-90.
One of the best basketball players from Europe, Korac produced sustained excellence as a scoring sensation in the Yugoslav League, including a career scoring average of 32.7 ppg for OKK Belgrade, Standard Liege and Petrarca Padova from 1954 to 1969. In addition, he was the No. 1 scorer at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
He was killed in a car accident on June 2, 1969, near Sarajevo. FIBA Europe created the Radivoj Korac Cup in 1971 to honor his legacy. The Korac Cup ended in 2002, but the Serbian Basketball Federation stepped in and renamed its national cup after Korac.
Fittingly, Korac was among the first honorees of the inaugural 2007 FIBA Hall of Fame class in Madrid in 2007. One of Korac’s nephews, Marko, accepted a trophy on his behalf at the festivities.
7.Sergei Belov|1944-2013|190 cm|G|Russia
In 1991, FIBA voters selected the late shooting guard as the best FIBA player ever. Equally impressive, he was the first international player inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1992.
Belov died in October 2013 at age 69.
In addition to being one of the best European basketball players, Belov was the consummate winner. He led CSKA Moscow to 11 USSR league crowns between 1969 and 1980. Sergei Belov also played a starring role on four Soviet national teams that claimed the EuroBasket gold (1967, 1969, 1971, 1979). He began his career with Uralmash Sverdlovsk in 1964 and remained with the club until 1967.
Representing the USSR, Belov had 20 points in the controversial gold-medal game (51-50 victory) against the United States in the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Belov lit the Olympic cauldron during the Opening Ceremony at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
His coaching career included two stints at CSKA Moscow (1981-82 and 1988-90), Basket Cassino (1990-93) and Ural Great Perm (1999-2004). He displayed his coaching chops across three decades, winning the USSR League title in 1982 and ’90, then the Russian League in 2001 and ’02. Furthermore, he guided Russia to FIBA World Cup silver medals in 1984 and ’98. Belov died on October 3, 2013, in Perm, Russia.
6.Tony Parker|1982|188 cm|G|France
The San Antonio Spurs once took a big gamble on the French teenager (No. 28 pick in the 2001 NBA Draft) and that gamble has paid off. Big time. How so? Because Parker has been a driving force of the team’s offensive attack ever since.
Throughout his career, the Spurs are a perennial title-chasing club with Parker at the point. They have climbed to the top of the summit four times during his career (2003, 2005, 2007, 2014).
Parker received the 2007 NBA Finals MVP honor, the first European to do so. He had a splendid performance against the Cavaliers. In the four-game Spurs sweep, scored team-high totals of 27 and 30 points in Games 1 and 2. Above all, it was a bold reminder that Parker is one of the best European players to ever play in the NBA. And he led all players with 24.5 ppg in the short series, including 57.1 percent shooting from 3-point range and 56.8 percent overall.
Parker, a six-time All-Star, takes great pride in winning. He once said:
“When there is talk about the best point guards, sometimes they don’t talk about me. But that’s not my main motivation. They can talk about Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Deron Williams and Chris Paul. I still have the most rings.”
Stepping up in Europe
Behind Pau Gasol, he is No. 2 on the all-time scoring chart in EuroBasket competitions. When France won the 2013 EuroBasket championship, the shifty 188-cm Parker was the tourney MVP and leading scorer (19.0 ppg). In addition, he was voted FIBA Player of The Year.
5.Pau Gasol|1980|213 cm|F,C|Spain
For two decades, the cerebral big man has been an integral part of his teams’ success and identity. Starring for FC Barcelona, the Spain national team and the NBA’s Grizzlies, Lakers, Bulls, and Spurs, he has improved his clubs. Employed by NBA clubs since 2001, Gasol is a perennial double-digit scorer. In fact, he’s always done it. A mark of consistency.
The 2002 NBA Rookie of the Year, Gasol was the first foreign player to earn that distinction. He appeared in all 82 games for the Grizzlies and posted 17.5 points 8.9 rebounds. Gasol’s NBA career totals are quite similar: 17.6 points and 9.4 rebounds plus 3.2 assists and 1.6 blocks.
Where it all began
The Atlanta Hawks chose Pau Gasol with the No. 3 pick in the 2001 Draft. They traded him to the Grizzlies for established veteran Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Since 2001, Gasol, one of the greatest basketball players from Europe, has amassed 20,000-plus points, more than 10,800 rebounds, 1,880-plus blocks and more than 3,750 assists in his illustrious NBA career.
Pau Gasol is a six-time NBA All-Star. Also, he was the 2012 winner of the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, recognizing his charitable work. He has been an active supporter of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
A winning legacy
With Pau Gasol in the lineup, the Lakers won NBA titles in 2009 and 2010. In addition, Spain claimed the same feat at the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan, and Gasol was named tourney MVP. Gasol’s leadership proved invaluable for title-winning Spain in 2009, 2011 and 2015 EuroBasket competitions. A fierce competitor, Gasol has been a longtime tone-setter for his club and country.
“All the stats don’t mean a thing if we don’t get the win. The most important stat is the win.”
4.Dejan Bodiroga|1973|204 cm|F|Serbia
He’s been called the best European player to never play in the NBA. But his absolute domination in European basketball without an NBA career does not water down his historical significance.
Simply put, Bodigorga was a stunningly great player whose powerful skills never shone on the NBA stage. Yes, this was the NBA’s loss, but Euro hoops’ gain. Why?
Because it put his greatness under the European microscope. Yugoslavia captured the 2002 world title in Indianapolis with Bodiroga playing a starring role, the No. 2 scorer (12.9 ppg). En route to the title, Yugoslavia defeated Team USA 81-78 in the quarterfinals. It was the Americans’ first loss in a knockout phase game.
At the height of his powers the Spanish League MVP in 1998 (for Real Madrid) and Greek League MVP in 1999 (for Panathinaikos) exuded confidence. One of the greatest basketball players in European history, Dejan Bodiroga was selected to the EuroLeague 2001-10 All-Decade Team. He was the EuroLeague Final Four MVP in 2002 and 2003 with FC Barcelona.
The splendid small forward brandished his lofty credentials with Panathinaikos in 2002, leading the team past future NBA star Manu Ginobili and Kinder Bologna. The Sacramento Kings tabbed him with the No. 51 pick in the 1995 NBA Draft. But Bodiroga decided to keep playing in Europe.
And he thrived by doing so, as well as piling up victories as a member of the Golden Generation of 1990s players during the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia during wars that broke up the republic. Operating at peak performance mode, Bodiroga chipped in as Yugoslavia racked up EuroBasket titles in 1995, 1997 and 2001. In addition, his contributions helped guide Yugoslavia to a silver medal at the 1996 Olympic Games.
3.Arvydas Sabonis|1964|223 cm|C|Lithuania
The unbelievably talented big man’s career will always be defined by the big “what if” questions. What if Sabonis had entered the NBA at an earlier age? And what if he had been healthier throughout his career?
Despite a slew of injuries, the massive 223-cm Sabonis shined as an offensive catalyst in the post and on the perimeter. He was an accomplished defender, too.
Praise from Walton
In a 2011 interview Hall of Famer, Bill Walton described the young Sabonis as a player with unbelievable talents.
“Sabonis could do everything. He had the skills of Larry Bird and Pete Maravich. He had the athleticism of Kareem, and he could shoot the 3-point shot. Sabonis could pass and run the floor, dribble. We should have carried out a plan in the early 1980s to kidnap him and bring him back right then.”
FIBA inducted Sabonis into its Hall of Fame in 2010. A year later, he was enshrined at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. He began playing pro ball at age 16 for Zalgiris Kaunas, starting in 1981 through ’89. Stints with CB Valladolid, Real Madrid, and the Portland Trail Blazers followed.
Sabonis scooped up six Euroscar (player of the year) Awards during his illustrious career, which ended with Zalgiris in 2004. While competing for Real Madrid during his prime, Sabonis collected Spanish League Finals MVP accolades in 1993 and ’94.
In 1995, Sabonis, one of the best European basketball players in history, became an NBA “rookie” at age 31. In his best season in the NBA, Sabonis averaged 16.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 1997-98, but by then he was only a shell of the player he was a decade before. Yet he still had rock-solid fundamentals and an innate sense of how to play every split second of the game.
Arvydas Sabonis helped carry the Soviet Union to the gold medal at the 1998 Olympics, then with Marciulionis guided Lithuania to back-to-back bronze medals in the next two Olympiads.
2.Drazen Petrovic|1964-1993|196 cm|G|Croatia
The great career of the Croatian shooting star came to a tragic end in June 1993, when he was killed in an automobile accident in Germany. He was only 28. Petrovic’s death was a tragic loss that sparked profound sadness in his homeland and beyond. He touched countless individuals with is infectious love for the game. His charisma shined through whenever he stepped onto the court for Sibenka, Cibona Zagreb, Real Madrid, Portland Trail Blazers and New Jersey Nets.
A snapshot of Drazen’s amazing ability: a jaw-dropping 112 points for Cibona on Oct. 5, 1985. He made 40 of 60 shots from the floor, including 10 of 20 3-pointers, and 22 of 22 free-throw attempts.
Longtime European basketball agent and observer Dejan Vidicki noted;
“Drazen Petrovic was bigger than the game itself. His flashy style had never been seen before outside of the NBA. Back in those days, everybody was scared of American players. Totally intimidated. Petrovic was not. He was showboating, provoking, and trash talking. He was flamboyant and cocky and backed that up with his talent. American players got mentally confused when they faced that attitude from a non-American player. Thanks to Petrovic, the Europeans got self-confidence and realized that they could beat the Americans. After that, nothing was ever the same again.”
Looking back at the Nets’ tenure at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, former New York Post columnist Peter Vecsey penned this memory of the Croatian legend:
“Drazen Petrovic’s pregame, jump-shooting absorption was worth the price of admission. Always emotional and commotional, his 44 points against the Hakeem-led Rockets is the highlight of Kenny Anderson’s time with him in New Jersey, says his former teammate.”
A true icon, Petrovic’s death shocked the NBA and the sports world. Former commissioner David Stern:
“Drazen Petrovic was an extraordinary young man and a true pioneer in the global sports of basketball. I know that a lasting part of his athletic legacy will be that he paved the way for other international players to compete successfully in the NBA. His contributions to the sport of basketball were enormous. We are all proud of the fact we knew him.”
“It was a thrill to play against Drazen. Every time we competed, he competed with an aggressive attitude. He wasn’t nervous; he came at me as hard as I came at him. So, we’ve had some great battles in the past and unfortunately, they were short battles.”
“I really respect him because he worked very, very hard. Each and every day in practice he would be the first guy to come and the last guy to leave the gym. So anybody with that kind of dedication … you have to have a lot of respect for him.”
Indeed, in the late ’80s and early ’90s when the Yugoslavian national team was invincible, Petrovic was the guts, Kukoc the brains, Radja the glue, and Divac the muscle. Petrovic was the spiritual leader. Cocky and arrogant, he was convinced that he would beat any opponent. Any time and any place. As a result, that mentality was contagious, and his teammates started to believe it as well.
Drazen Petrovic was posthumously enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Most noteworthy is the fact that in 2013, Petrovic was voted the best European basketball player in history, by players at the 2013 FIBA EuroBasket.
1.Dirk Nowitzki|1978|213 cm|F|Germany
The gold standard for European basketball players in contemporary times. His longevity, consistency, overall excellence and historical significance cannot be overstated. Furthermore, Nowitzki helped redefine what a modern big man can and should do. He is a shooting guard in a big man’s body.
Entering 2018, the “German Race Car” is posting double-digit scoring totals for a 19th straight season, including 12 straight with 20 or more points a game.
With over 1,430 regular-season games in the books, Nowitzki has now scored more than 30,750 points, placing him at No. 6 on the NBA’s all-time list. Up next: the Big Dipper, Wilt Chamberlain ( 31,419)
There’s never been another European player quite like Nowitzki. The 2007 NBA regular-season MVP, the first (and only) European to nab the award. A 13-time All-Star, he doesn’t even have an agent. A lottery pick in 1998 despite the fact that he was only 20 years old and played in the German second division! He had consistently rejected offers from top teams in Europe.
And he’s embarking on his 20th season in a Dallas Mavericks uniform. It’s a streak matching only by the one-team longevity of Kobe with the Lakers. Dirk once said:
“Off the floor, I’m really laid back: like nothing really fazes me too much. But on the floor, I do get emotional and a little carried away. However, I started playing when I was 13 to have fun with my teammates, and that never stopped. I enjoy traveling and having fun in the locker room with the guys. Life is too short to be miserable.”
To sum up how unique Dirk’s game is, listen to the words of former teammate Michael Finley:
“Being compared to Bird is not easy, but he certainly deserves it. It’s a big honor for Dirk, but it’s also a big honor for Bird because Dirk is really special.”
Fittingly, Nowitzki, who sports No. 41 for the Mavs, has also nabbed six Euroscar Awards, a total only matched by the great Sabonis.
Therefore, Nowitzki is the undisputed best European basketball player of all time.