When most NBA fans from the United States think of European players, it’s the big man with good hands but rarely someone who could be considered one of the league’s elite. From the early days of Arvydas Sabonis, Detlef Schrempf and the late Drazen Petrovic to the modern day players such as the Gasol brothers, Tony Parker and the evergreen Dirk Nowitzki, all made their move from Europe to the USA and become stars. But what the league has seen in recent years has been a new generation of European stars, some of whom could well go on and even more than those great players whose footsteps they are following in.
So, let’s take a look at some of those players who are making a name for themselves in the NBA, and who may well further open the door for even more European players in the game’s best league.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: Perhaps not the most well known European player in the league, there is a growing feeling that Antetokounmpo may well be the most exciting player to have made the move from Europe in recent year. The 23-year old is coming off the back of a sensational campaign in which he posted a career-high 23 points per game during the regular season, and a frankly incredible 25 points per game during the postseason, the Greek international is a beast at both ends of the court, and the Milwaukee Bucks star has all the tools to become a true great of the modern era. Blessed with both natural talent and the physical attributes needed to be a success in the NBA, Antetokounmop is a player who can achieve anything he wants, as long as he can stay fit and focused.
Kristaps Porzingis: Joining a New York Knicks team enduring one of their worst ever periods, Porzingis has done a remarkable job in almost single-handily turning the franchise’s fortunes around. The 22-year old showed just what he is capable of during his rookie season, including a brilliant performance against the Houston Rockets, scoring 24 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocked shots. Standing seven-foot-three feet tall, Porzingis is so much more than your average big man. Averaging 18.1 points a game last season, the Latvian’s shooting is getting better and better, and the Knicks star has already established himself as the leader of this New York team and a player who is going to be essential to the franchise’s hopes of returning to the big time.
Rudy Gobert: Another European big man, Gobert really caught the eye last season after a modest start to life in the NBA. Drafted 27th overall by the Denver Nuggets, before being traded to the Utah Jazz, the Frenchman followed up his huge contract extension by recording career-high figures with his points per game and rebounds, proving himself to be one of the best defensive players in the NBA. The 25-year old led the league in blocks, also enhancing his reputation for his shooting and offensive talents. While the Jazz’s postseason didn’t go as planned, Gobert showed just why he is so important to the franchise moving forward, and the France international will be a crucial part of the team’s hopes in the 2017/18 campaign, already starting the season with eight double-doubles.
Dennis Schroder: Last season was a big one for Schroder but one in which he really cemented himself as one of the best point guards in the league, certainly one of the smartest. Having been handed a starting role by Atlanta, the German proved the Hawks management were right to trust him, producing an outstanding campaign. Capable of mixing up his speed of foot and hand, Schroder has really worked on his shooting from all areas of the court, also one of the best floaters in the league. And it isn’t just his offense where Schroder has improved, with his defending also now an extremely useful attribute. The 24-year old showed he is also more than happy with the pressure of a postseason, averaging 24.7 points during the Hawks six appearances.
Evan Fournier: The second Frenchman on the list, Fournier has slowly established himself as a key part of this Orlando Magic team, averaging career-high figures in almost every category last season, including points, rebounds, assists and free throw attempts. Perhaps not one of the most naturally gifted players to have come out of Europe in recent years, the Frenchman makes up for this with a real work ethic and a determination to succeed. For the Magic, whose slow start to the season means their betting bitcoin value is dropping in terms of reaching the playoffs, Fournier could well be someone who helps but the team back on the map in the future, as long as he can continue to work on his consistency and weaknesses.
Jusuf Nurkic: The 23-year old Bosnian is really finding his feet with the Portland Trail Blazers since making the move from Denver. While he might not have the same eye-catching stats as other European centres, he averaged 10.4 rebounds and 15.2 points a game after making the switch from the Nuggets to Portland last season. What he does bring to the team, though, is huge, both in terms of team dynamic and on-court threat. The seven-footer has struggled with injuries throughout his career, though, and the battle will be to keep Nurkic out on the court this season, with Portland in a very decent position to mount a charge towards the postseason.
Nikola Jokic: Another player making huge strides, both literally and metaphorically, is Denver’s Jokic. The Serbian big man racked up the fourth most triple-doubles in the league in just his second season, averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds a game in an impressive year for the Nuggets. Blessed with all the physical attributes you could want from centre/power forward, the 22-year old combines that with a remarkable basketball brain, which he uses to not only create chances for himself, but also his teammates. His second place finish in last season’s Most Improved Player Award only highlights the progress Jokic has continued to make, and the versatile youngster has an extremely bright future ahead of him in the NBA.
Goran Dragic: Not as young as others on this list, Dragic is arguably playing the best ball of his career. Having struggled with his form and fitness over the past couple of years, the Slovenian enjoyed an excellent season in 2016/17, one he will be hoping to replicate again. The early signs from this season have been encouraging for the 31-year old. The Miami Heat point guard is currently averaging over 17.3 points a game, helping put the franchise in a strong position and proving he is still a very useful weapon to have in Miami’s arsenal. While he may never be a player who is going to average the 25-plus points some can, what he brings to a team is still something not many others in his position can.
Dario Saric: Despite being drafted in 2014, last year was the first time many NBA fans had the chance to see Saric competing on a regular basis. And it’s fair to say the Croatian more than lived up to the hype for the Sixers, showing more than enough to prove he has all the tools to not only hang in the NBA, but also become an elite power forward. Not only a skilful player with some incredible decision making, the six-foot-ten Croatian also possesses the energy and hustle needed to reach the next level. The fact he finished second in the Rookie of the Year standings, earning a place in the All-Rookie Team of the Year. As long as he can improve his shooting from distance, we may well be looking at a genuine top level player in the years to come.
Marc Gasol: While Gasol will always find himself in the shadow of his older brother Pau, Marc has done a lot during his NBA career to prove he is a player in his own right. While he might not have won the individual or team honors his brother has, Gasol has enhanced his own reputation significantly in recent years, establishing himself as a very important part of a Memphis Grizzles team that were one of the surprise packages last season. The Spaniard’s form saw him earn All Star honors last year, the third time he has achieved the feat, averaging almost 20 points a game during his team’s six postseason appearances. At 32, Gasol may never win a championship, but he will still go down as one of the best European players to have competed in the NBA in recent years.
One thing is for sure, as the NBA becomes more popular globally, more and more players from overseas are going to be given a chance in the game’s biggest league, from Europe and further afield. And as those European players from the 1980s played a role in many of today’s players taking up the game, this generation of players will inspire another wave of talent from Europe to try and succeed in the NBA.