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Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Updated: April 27, 2:10 PM ET
The 30 best international players in the NBA

By John Hollinger
ESPN Insider

Yes, it's a global game. We've been hearing it for years now, as basketball's increasing popularity overseas has borne fruit in recent years in the form of international players who are capable of playing at the NBA level.

Yet recently, there's been another shift. Although teams have looked overseas for big men for years, owing to the challenge of finding somebody who is 7 feet tall and coordinated in any corner of the world, now the quality of international play is good enough to supply good guards, too.

In fact, four of the game's most daring and exciting little guys -- Steve Nash, Jose Calderon, Tony Parker and Leandro Barbosa -- were born on another continent, and there's plenty more where that came from. File away the name Ricky Rubio, for instance -- you'll be needing it in a couple of years.

And with that, we're seeing one more chink in the armor of American basketball dominance. Yes, the losses in international tournaments have been mounting for years, but nobody is totally sold on that as defining evidence of the decline in U.S. dominance -- not when the rules are different and the refs, in some cases, seem openly biased.

But the fact is, foreign guys aren't just dominating in the tournaments with the funny-shaped lane. They're coming over here and kicking butt too.

The latest reminder came when I looked at my MVP nominations and noticed that three of the top four names on my list -- Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and Nash -- were born in distant lands. (And actually, the other guy on my list was Kobe Bryant, who spent much of his youth in Italy.) Believe it or not, of the top 12 players in PER this season, half were internationals.

For more evidence, here's another exercise: Make a list of the best player at each position. If your list looks like mine, three of the five names will be non-American -- Nash at point guard, Yao Ming at center, and either Duncan or Nowitzki at power forward. Only at the wings does American talent have a choke hold on the top spot.

So perhaps it's no accident that the NBA's last bastions of Americanness are struggling. Only two teams had an all-American roster this year, and both are wobbling. The Knicks struggled to a 33-win season despite a bloated payroll, and the defending champion Heat find themselves halfway to elimination against a Chicago team whose three key international players have torn them to shreds.

Overall, 85 players from overseas were on NBA rosters this season, and though some made only brief cameos (nice knowing you, Andrea Glyniadakis), many others have made huge impacts. Duncan, Nash and Nowitzki are the most obvious examples -- if you pencil in Nowitzki as this year's winner, they've accounted for five of the past six MVP trophies.

But there are plenty of others. A scan of NBA lineups reveals at least 30 internationals making major impacts for their respective clubs. And that doesn't include the ones who are more than capable, but for either contractual or personal reasons have declined the invitation to join the NBA, including Argentina's Luis Scola, Spain's Fran Vazquez and Greece's Theodoros Papaloukas.

That's why I've chosen to shine a light on all the internationals making a mark on the league, by giving you one man's look at the best 30 players from overseas.

But before we get to the list, as always, I must explain the ground rules.

Several players could plausibly be defined as being from multiple countries -- Chicago's Luol Deng, for instance, could be described as Sudanese or English.

The growing market for "ringers" to join international teams in the Olympics and World Championships only complicates matters -- witness Portland, Ore., native Ime Udoka suiting up for Nigeria this past August, for instance. Thus, to simplify matters, I'm using the "birth certificate rule" -- I'll count anyone who was born outside the U.S.

As for the rankings: I'm not basing the rankings solely on a player's performance this past season; instead, I'm looking at the big picture. Andrei Kirilenko's play, for instance, has plummeted this year. But nobody denies his talent level because of his previous production, and a lot of people suspect that being forced to play on the perimeter is crushing his productivity.

OK, let's get down to business with the top 30. As you'll see, ranking them gets difficult almost immediately.

1. DIRK NOWITZKI, DALLAS MAVERICKS

Age: 28 | Profile
Birth Date: 06/19/78
Born: Wurzburg, West Germany

Position: Power Forward
NBA experience: 9 years
2006-07 PER: 27.70
An almost total unknown when the Mavericks traded for him on draft day in 1998 in the now-infamous deal for Robert Traylor, Nowitzki has gone from an interesting prospect on a German club team to this year's likely MVP. He's become perhaps the game's most consistent player thanks to his sweet jumper and newfangled post-up game from the free-throw line. In doing so, he's done more than anyone to create the annual spring migration of scouts to Europe looking to uncover the next Nowitzki.

As much as it pains me to rank anyone ahead of Duncan, Nowitzki's results demand it. He was No. 1 in PER last year and No. 2 this year, plus he beat Duncan in last year's playoffs and led the Mavs to 67 wins. Amazingly, his success has had almost zero impact on basketball in his country, which hasn't produced a decent player since he arrived.


2. TIM DUNCAN, SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Age: 31 | Profile
Birth Date: 04/25/76
Born: St. Croix, Virgin Islands

Position: Power Forward
NBA experience: 10 years
2006-07 PER: 26.20
Talk about making lemonade from lemons: Duncan was an aspiring swimmer before Hurricane Hugo destroyed the only Olympic-sized swimming pool on the Caribbean island of St. Croix, where he grew up. So he took up basketball instead, and although a relatively low-wattage recruit out of high school he quickly turned Wake Forest into a powerhouse.

He's done the same as a pro, leading the Spurs to three championships with a fourth possibly in the offing this season. He's also won two MVP awards, made the All-Defense team every year he's been in the league, and refined the midrange bank shot to an art form.


3. STEVE NASH, PHOENIX SUNS

Age: 33 | Profile
Birth Date: 02/07/74
Born: Johannesburg, South Africa

Position: Point Guard
NBA experience: 11 years
2006-07 PER: 23.87
Though a Canadian citizen, Nash was born in Johannesburg, where his English father was playing soccer at the time. (Are you getting all this? By the way, his wife is South American, so if he can just adopt an Asian baby and make ex-Sun Luc Longley its godfather he'll have every inhabited continent covered.)

Nash was an unheralded high school player in Victoria, B.C., but tiny Santa Clara gave him a scholarship and he did enough there to become a first-round pick by the Suns. It took him awhile to reach NBA stardom, but since returning to Phoenix he's become a two-time MVP and, obviously, one of the great free-agent signings of all time.


4. YAO MING, HOUSTON ROCKETS

Age: 26 | Profile
Birth Date: 09/12/80
Born: Shanghai, China

Position: Center
NBA experience: 5 years
2006-07 PER: 26.54
China hasn't been a basketball hotbed, but it's tough to escape notice when you're 7-6. There would be no Nowitzki-like slips under the draft radar for Yao, not when he was dominating the Chinese league. The Rockets won the lottery to make him the first overall pick in 2002, and Yao quickly convinced a skeptical public that he was no Shawn Bradley.

Yao "Americanized" his game the past two years, becoming much more aggressive in the post and using his size and strength to attack smaller players. As a result he's become the game's best center, and has a real shot to lead Houston on a deep playoff run. The only drawback has been injuries. He's missed 59 games the past two years, which is a major reason his team hasn't been able to match the Mavs, Spurs and Suns in the standings.

By the way, if you're keeping track, we just named the best player on the four best teams in basketball … and none of them was American.


5. PAU GASOL, MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

Age: 26 | Profile
Birth Date: 07/06/80
Born: Barcelona, Spain

Position: Center
NBA experience: 6 years
2006-07 PER: 24.22
The international craze was just gaining steam when Gasol came out for the draft in 2001, which explains why he was the third overall pick and not the first. Gasol had played well for FC Barcelona in Europe, so he was a known quantity, but teams still felt safer drafting American high schoolers Kwame Brown and Tyson Chandler ahead of him. Oops.

Gasol almost immediately became the Grizzlies' best player and still remains oddly underrated considering his many talents. The 7-footer is quick, coordinated and can handle the ball and pass, but questions about his defensive intensity combined with playing in an NBA backwater have kept him from A-list superstar status.


6. MANU GINOBILI, SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Age: 29 | Profile
Birth Date: 07/28/77
Born: Bahia Blanca, Argentina

Position: Shooting guard
NBA experience: 5 years
2006-07 PER: 24.18
Unlike some of the other guys, Ginobili was widely respected when he came to San Antonio -- he was a Euroleague star whom most considered the continent's best player (Ginobili has dual Italian citizenship, as does fellow Argentine Andres Nocioni).

However, that wasn't the case when the Spurs drafted him with the 57th overall pick in 1999 -- one of the great draft heists of all time. Since then, many teams have copied the Spurs' model of drafting a developing European and holding on to his rights while his game blossoms overseas.

Ginobili is probably the flashiest foreign-born player in the league, often wrapping the ball behind his back or trying daring cross-court bounce passes. But he remains oddly underappreciated because of his limited minutes, playing just 27 per game this season. That's kept his scoring average in the teens and, except for one season, kept Ginobili off the All-Star team.


7. TONY PARKER, SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Age: 24 | Profile
Birth Date: 05/17/82
Born: Bruges, Belgium

Position: Point guard
NBA experience: 6 years
2006-07 PER: 21.46
Born in Belgium and raised in France, Parker is the son of an American basketball player by the same name but grew up overseas. Another European find by the Spurs, Parker was playing for a team in Paris and was viewed as a bit of a project when he came to the NBA as a 19-year-old. Some project -- he was starting within two weeks.

Still only 24, Parker is now an NBA vet who has established himself as one of the league's best point guards thanks to his blazing speed and ability to make quick stops and starts. Along with Duncan and Ginobili, he's made the Spurs a powerhouse without a single American star.


8. LUOL DENG, CHICAGO BULLS

Age: 22 | Profile
Birth Date: 04/16/85
Born: Wow, Sudan

Position: Forward
NBA experience: 3 years
2006-07 PER: 18.79
Deng fled war-torn Sudan as a youth for England, where he picked up basketball and soccer and thankfully chose the former. (Can you imagine a 6-9 guy on the soccer pitch? We need to get Marc Stein on this.) Though England isn't known for its hoops, he played well enough in European tournaments for scouts to take notice. That helped him land at a private high school in New Jersey, and from there to a year at Duke and his current spot with the Bulls.

Though in his third year, Deng is only 22 and his elevator is still going up, as witnessed by his demolition of the Heat in Games 1 and 2 this week. Chicago's rising star is likely to move up this list in the next few years.


9. MEHMET OKUR, UTAH JAZZ

Age: 27 | Profile
Birth Date: 05/26/79
Born: Yalova, Turkey

Position: Center
NBA experience: 5 years
2006-07 PER: 18.19
As with Ginobili, Okur was stolen in the draft before a lot of teams had caught on to the potential that was waiting in Europe. Detroit drafted Okur with the 38th pick in 2001, and after waiting a year, the Pistons got themselves a sweet-shooting big man who played an important role on the their 2004 championship team.

Okur made his first All-Star team with Utah this year as one of the game's most unconventional centers. Though nominally a post player, Okur likes to hang out at the 3-point line, and with good reason. Other than Nowitzki, he is probably the best shooting big man in basketball.


10. BEN GORDON, CHICAGO BULLS

Age: 24 | Profile
Birth Date: 04/04/83
Born: London, England

Position: Guard
NBA experience: 3 years
2006-07 PER: 18.31
Perhaps the most questionable "international" on this list, Gordon was born in London but his family is Jamaican, he grew up in New York and he played for the U.S. in the 2003 Pan Am Games. So don't expect to find him watching a cricket test match over a plate of bangers and mash. Nonetheless, he and Deng may join forces to play for Great Britain in the 2012 Olympics, if Gordon isn't invited to play for the U.S. first.

Back in the states, Gordon is one of the league's highest-scoring guards thanks to a beautiful, high-arcing release on his jumper and outstanding quickness going to his right. Along with Deng, he's helped put Miami on the ropes in the opening round of the playoffs.


11. LEANDRO BARBOSA, PHOENIX SUNS

Age: 24 | Profile
Birth Date: 11/28/82
Born: Sao Paulo, Brazil

Position: Guard
NBA experience: 4 years
2006-07 PER: 18.49
The most talented of an emerging group of players from South America, Barbosa won the league's Sixth Man award this year thanks to his blazing speed in transition and surprisingly accurate 3-point shot.

Like a lot of the players on this list, Barbosa was a draft-day steal, going 28th in 2003. Though his speed impressed everyone, a lot of teams were worried about his almost nonexistent English, his weird shot and the lack of competition he faced in the Brazilian league. He needed an adjustment period to learn the language and the NBA game, but at 24 he's one of the league's most devastating scorers and is still getting better.


12. NENE, DENVER NUGGETS

Age: 24 | Profile
Birth Date: 09/13/82
Born: Sao Carlos, Brazil

Position: Forward-Center
NBA experience: 5 years
2006-07 PER: 17.83
Though he came out a year earlier than Barbosa, Nene was far more coveted -- being 6-11 will do that. His first couple years with the Nuggets were up-and-down, and then he tore his ACL on opening day last season and missed the rest of the year. But he came back this year to establish himself as one of the league's best young post players, cemented by his solid efforts against Tim Duncan in the first two games of the Nuggets' playoff series against San Antonio.

13. ANDREI KIRILENKO, UTAH JAZZ

Age: 26 | Profile
Birth Date: 02/18/81
Born: Moscow, USSR

Position: Forward
NBA experience: 6 years
2006-07 PER:14.38
A virtual unknown from Russia when the Jazz picked him late in the first round in 1999, Kirilenko came to Utah two years later and almost immediately paid dividends as one of the game's premier stat-sheet stuffers. With his Inspector Gadget arms, blocking shots is his specialty -- he's sent back 2.5 per game for his career.

Kirilenko would have been several spots higher a year ago, but a disappointing season and disastrous playoffs have sent his stock tumbling. Nonetheless, few doubt the spry 26-year-old could be putting up better numbers if he were able to play in the frontcourt, and that's something he may get a chance to do if he's traded this summer.


14. ZYDRUNAS ILGAUSKAS, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

Age: 31 | Profile
Birth Date: 06/05/75
Born: Kaunas, Lithuania

Position: Center
NBA experience: 9 years
2006-07 PER: 17.98
Here's how out to lunch most teams were about European talent a decade ago: A 7-foot-3 guy who could shoot and score in the post lasted until the 20th pick in the draft. The Lithuanian big man joined the Cavs a year later and has been a double-digit scorer ever since, not to mention one of the game's best offensive rebounders. After surviving a series of foot surgeries early in his career, he's also become one of the game's most durable players, missing only 14 games in the past five years.

15. ANDRES NOCIONI, CHICAGO BULLS

Age: 27 | Profile
Birth Date: 11/30/79
Born: Santa Fe, Argentina

Position: Forward
NBA experience: 3 years
2006-07 PER: 15.69
After establishing himself as a star in Spain, the wild-eyed forward joined Chicago as a 25-year-old rookie in 2004 -- fresh on the heels of helping Argentina to an Olympic gold medal -- and almost immediately established himself as one of the game's most energetic forwards.

Though only 6-7, he seems to do his best work as an undersized power forward, as he's tough enough to take the pounding and has a sweet 3-point stroke (38.3 percent this year). Unfortunately, Deng's development has cut into his playing time, and he may need to find a different employer as a free agent this summer.


16. PEJA STOJAKOVIC, NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

Age: 29 | Profile
Birth Date: 06/07/77
Born: Belgrade, Serbia

Position: Forward
NBA experience: 9 years
2006-07 PER: 15.84
One of the deadliest shooters the game has seen, Stojakovic was another example of a mid-'90s risk on a European paying huge dividends. He was playing in Greece when Sacramento made him the 14th pick in 1996 -- the first time in six years a player outside the U.S. college system went in the first round. (Ilgauskas would be picked six spots later).

Stojakovic became an All-Star for the Kings and helped make them title contenders at the start of the decade. He missed most of this year with back trouble after signing a big free-agent contract with the Hornets, but remains feared for his long-range launches.


17. JOSE CALDERON, TORONTO RAPTORS

Age: 25 | Profile
Birth Date: 09/28/81
Born: Villanueva de la Serena, Spain

Position: Point guard
NBA experience: 2 years
2006-07 PER: 19.12
One of the league's most improved players, Calderon took his game up several notches in his second NBA season to help the Raptors to a surprise division title. The Spanish point guard was well-regarded for his play in the Euroleague before joining Toronto, but surprisingly slipped through the NBA draft cracks and joined the Raptors as a 24-year-old free agent.

18. ANDREW BOGUT, AUSTRALIA

Age: 22 | Profile
Birth Date: 11/28/84
Born: Melbourne, Australia

Position: Forward-Center
NBA experience: 2 years
2006-07 PER: 15.54
Bogut took an increasingly rare route for international players, opting to play two seasons at the NCAA level before turning pro. He dominated at Utah and won national player of the year honors before the Bucks made him the top overall pick in 2004, where he's had two solid but unspectacular seasons in the middle.

19. ANDRIS BIEDRINS, LATVIA

Age: 21 | Profile
Birth Date: 04/02/86
Born: Riga, Latvia

Position: Center
NBA experience: 3 years
2006-07 PER: 16.23
Call it the Darko/Tskitishvili backlash. After those two busts made GMs rethink their enthusiasm for European prospects, Biedrins fell to the 11th pick in 2004 despite dominating his league in Latvia as a 17-year-old. Since then he's established himself as one of the game's top percentage shooters -- 60.6 percent for his career -- and an elite shot-blocker. He's still only 21 years old, so he figures to be one of the next decade's better centers.

20. ZAZA PACHULIA, ATLANTA HAWKS

Age: 23 | Profile
Birth Date: 02/10/84
Born: Tbilisi, Georgia

Position: Center
NBA experience: 4 years
2006-07 PER: 16.90
A native of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, Pachulia now plays in the "other" Georgia for the Hawks. He drew notice by playing professionally in Turkey, becoming a second-round pick by the Magic in 2003 and making a pit stop in Milwaukee before joining Atlanta. Since then he's established himself as something of a poor man's Brad Miller, and at $4 million a year he's proved to be a bargain.

21. SAMUEL DALEMBERT, PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

Age: 25 | Profile
Birth Date: 05/10/81
Born: Port-Au-Prince, Haiti

Position: Center
NBA experience: 5 years
2006-07 PER: 16.11
Dalembert could also be listed as Canadian, as he spent much of his youth in Montreal and that's where he learned the game. Eventually Seton Hall took notice and recruited him, which led to his being a first-round pick by the Sixers in 2001. Like Biedrins he's established himself as a high-percentage shooter and shot-blocker, but he hasn't quite been able to live up to the six-year, $58 million deal he signed to stay with Philly in 2005.

22. ANDERSON VAREJAO, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

Age: 24 | Profile
Birth Date: 09/28/82
Born: Santa Teresa, Brazil

Position: Forward-Center
NBA experience: 5 years
2006-07 PER: 14.45
Like Pachulia, Varejao was a second-round steal the Magic let get away. After plucking him 30th overall in the Darko/Tskitishvili backlash draft of 2004, the Magic traded Varejao and Drew Gooden to Cleveland for Tony Battie. Varejao instantly became a crowd favorite because of his relentless hustle and aggressiveness, in addition to his giant mop of curly hair. He's only 24 and should have better days ahead, but he'll have to score more to move up the list.

23. NENAD KRSTIC, NEW JERSEY NETS

Age: 23 | Profile
Birth Date: 07/25/83
Born: Kraljevo, Serbia

Position: Center
NBA experience: 3 years
2006-07 PER: 16.97
A late first-round pick in 2002, Krstic waited two years before coming to New Jersey but rewarded the Nets' patience by showing off polished post moves and a nice midrange jumper. He was on his way to career-best numbers this season before tearing up his knee in December, missing the rest of the campaign.

24. BORIS DIAW, PHOENIX SUNS

Age: 25 | Profile
Birth Date: 04/13/82
Born: Cormeille-en-Parisis, France

Position: Forward-Center
NBA experience: 4 years
2006-07 PER: 13.10
Diaw showed promise in the French league but was a bust in Atlanta after the Hawks made him the 21st pick in 2003. He blossomed unexpectedly after a trade to Phoenix, winning the league's Most Improved Player award in 2006, only to regress again after showing up out of shape at the start of this season. Needless to say, he would have ranked much higher a year ago.

25. DARKO MILICIC, ORLANDO MAGIC

Age: 21 | Profile
Birth Date: 06/20/85
Born: Novi Sad, Serbia

Position: Forward-Center
NBA experience: 4 years
2006-07 PER: 13.88
Draftniks swooned over the 7-footer's potential after he wowed in workouts before the 2003 draft, but he hadn't seen a lot of game action in Europe and it showed when he got to the states. Though he's made a solid player of himself and is still young enough to get substantially better, Detroit made a serious mistake taking Milicic with the second overall pick that year instead of Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh.

26. HEDO TURKOGLU, ORLANDO MAGIC

Age: 28 | Profile
Birth Date: 03/19/79
Born: Istanbul, Turkey

Position: Guard-Forward
NBA experience: 7 years
2006-07 PER: 14.26
Another international success story for the Kings, Turkoglu was drafted at No. 16 in 2000 after he'd established himself as a star in the Turkish league. He played a key role in the Kings' playoff runs early in the decade before moving on to San Antonio and eventually Orlando, where he's been one of the few Magic players to have a strong series against Detroit.

27. RAJA BELL, PHOENIX SUNS

Age: 30 | Profile
Birth Date: 09/19/76
Born: St. Croix, Virgin Islands

Position: Shooting Guard
NBA experience: 7 years
2006-07 PER: 12.01
Bell was born in St. Croix but grew up in Miami; this exposure to American scouts didn't help him much, however, as he wasn't heavily recruited and went undrafted after playing college ball at Florida International. He burst onto the scene as a late-season addition to the Sixers' NBA Finals squad in 2001, giving him a foothold on NBA life. He's held on tenaciously ever since, helped by a steady jump shot and suffocating defense.

28. WALTER HERRMANN, CHARLOTTE BOBCATS

Age: 27 | Profile
Birth Date: 06/26/79
Born: Santa Fe, Argentina

Position: Forward
NBA experience: 1 year
2006-07 PER: 16.17
Although Herrmann was a key player in European leagues for years and helped Argentina to the 2004 gold medal, I was skeptical about his odds of NBA success. The long-haired forward proved me wrong, however, by claiming a starting job with Charlotte late in his rookie season and proving his repertoire of one-handed dipsy-dos could be just as effective in the NBA as it was in Europe.

29. JORGE GARBAJOSA, TORONTO RAPTORS

Age: 29 | Profile
Birth Date: 12/19/77
Born: Madrid, Spain

Position: Forward-Center
NBA experience: 1 year
2006-07 PER: 12.15
Like Herrmann, Garbajosa was a Euroleague veteran who decided to try life in the NBA this season. He quickly became an important ingredient in the Raptors' much-improved defense, using his size and smarts to become a quality defensive forward and keeping defenses honest with his outside shooting. Unfortunately, he suffered a gruesome ankle injury late in the season that has kept him out of the playoffs.

30. ANDREA BARGNANI, TORONTO RAPTORS

Age: 21 | Profile
Birth Date: 10/26/85
Born: Rome, Italy

Position: Forward
NBA experience: 1 year
2006-07 PER: 12.85
The first European player to be drafted No. 1 in the NBA draft, Bargnani makes for a fitting conclusion to the list. While he had some peaks and valleys in his rookie season, there's little doubt that this fluid, sweet-shooting 7-footer will move way up the list in coming years. The Raps picked him first in 2006 after he put up strong numbers in Italy as a 20-year-old -- including scoring 13 points when his team beat the Raptors in a 2005 exhibition game.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.