While basketball may be one of the most popular sports in America, many of the most well-loved players in the game were born outside of our country’s borders. From young phenoms like Ben Simmons, to legendary players like Dirk Nowitzki, we’re here to tell the stories of a few of the most beloved foreign-born NBA players.
If you’re a basketball fan, you may recognize a lot of the names on this list. Learning a little more about some of these talented athletes can help you understand a little bit more about their life off the court, and how it shaped their unique playing style.
What Have Foreign Players Meant to the League?
Since it’s explosion in popularity in the 1980’s and 90’s basketball is considered to be one of the big four sports in America, joining baseball, football, and hockey. However, the game is hardly limited to the States. Just because a player isn't born in the USA doesn't mean he can't become eligible for the NBA draft.
Finding foreign-born talent is hardly a new idea, as players like Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria), Dikembe Mutombo (Congo), and Patrick Ewing (Jamaica) dominated the league for a period of time. However, all of these men played college ball in America, and gained exposure from it.
These players helped the NBA become stronger overall and have led scouts to not only look at the college ranks, but also professional leagues in other countries.
Alfred Joel Horford Reynoso: Dominican Republic
32-year-old Alfred Joel Horford Reynoso is better known as “Al Horford” to Boston Celtics fans. Born on June 3, 1986 in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, Horford came from a family heavily involved in sports. His father, Tito Horford, played in the NBA for 3 years.
Horford played college basketball as a center for the University of Florida. His efforts on the court helped the Gators win back-to-back NCAA national championships in 2006 and 2007.
Horford was drafted as the third overall pick in the 2007 NBA where he was taken by the Atlanta Hawks, a team he played nine seasons with before joining Celtics in 2016.
Horford may not be a flashy player, but his unique abilities have let him shine as a star center in the league. Horford has been a five-time NBA All-star with a career average of 14.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per match.
Emanuel David Ginóbili: Argentina
Born on July 28, 1977, Emanuel, better known as “Manu Ginóbili,” is a now retired professional NBA basketball player. Manu soon became a key player for the San Antonio Spurs. He was especially known for being one of the craftiest players on the court.
He has won a EuroLeague title, an NBA championship, and an Olympic gold medal. A four-time NBA champion, Ginóbili spent his entire NBA career with the San Antonio Spurs. He was known as one of the "Big Three" alongside with his teammates Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, coincidentally from the US Virgin Islands, and France respectively.
Ginóbili spent the early part of his career in Argentina and Italy, where he holds dual citizenship. He won two Italian League MVP awards, the EuroLeague Finals MVP in the 2001 EuroLeague championship, and Triple Crown.
Manu was selected as the 57th overall pick in the 1999 NBA draft. He opted to accept an offer with the San Antonio Spurs and joined them in 2002. Soon, Manu became a key player for the team.
Ginóbili was a two-time NBA All-Star and has been selected twice for the All-NBA Team. In two consecutive years, 2007–08, he was named the NBA Man of the Year.
Pau Gasol: Spain
One of the most recognizable names on this list is likely Spanish born star player Pau Gasol. Pau was born in 1980 in Barcelona, Spain.
Pau began his professional career in Barcelona, where he played until 2001. 2001 was a big year for Gasol as he became the number three pick for the Memphis Grizzlies. In 2002, Gasol became the NBA's Rookie of the Year.
In 2008, however, Gasol made another huge step in his career, accepting an offer to play for the Los Angeles Lakers. Gasol's star continued to rise as he became one of the most sought after players in the game.
Gasol will long be considered one of the most influential players in the became a 2× NBA champion, 6× NBA All-Star and the NBA Rookie of the Year in 2002.
After playing for the Lakers, Gasol joined the Chicago Bulls for their 2014-2016 seasons, and currently plays for the San Antonio Spurs.
Pau isn't the only member of his family in the league, however…
Marc Gasol: Spain
Pau Gasol's little brother Marc is also an NBA player. Marc Gasol, born in Barcelona, Spain in 1985. In his teenage years, he moved with his family to Memphis, Tennessee, where he completed high school.
Following in the footsteps of his older brother Pau, Marc became a second-round draft pick for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2008. However, his draft rights were traded to the Memphis Grizzlies in a deal that ironically involved his brother Pau.
Marc may not have the same star power as his brother, but he's well on his way. In 2018, he became the Grizzlies all-time rebound leader. This is one of the many career highlights he was enjoyed.
Other notable achievements include taking two silver medals for the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Summer Games.
Serge Ibaka: Congo
Serge Ibaka was born in the Republic of the Congo in 1989. One of 18 children born to his parents, his athletic ambitions started young. Serge Ibaka is a great example of an athlete who has survived incredible odds to become a star player in the NBA.
Both of Ibaka's parents were basketball players in the Republic of the Congo, where Ibaka's career would begin as well. After his mother's passing, Ibaka became even more bonded to the sport.
Shortly thereafter, his family suffered another hardship. Ibaka's father was imprisoned during the Second Congo War.
Ibaka was first drafted to the Oklahoma City Thunder where he played ball from 2009 to 2016. Ibaka has since gone on to play for the Orlando Magic from 2016-2017 before making the move north.
Ibaka is a 2x NBA Blocks leader and continues to play basketball today for the Toronto Raptors.
Ricky Rubio: Spain
Spanish basketball star Ricky Rubio has been making headlines in the sport for some time now. In 2005, his star was already rising as he became the youngest player in the Spanish ACB League.
At only 14 years old, his athletic ability was already evident. However, contracts he signed in Spain made his transition to the NBA difficult initially.
In 2009, Rubio became eligible for the NBA draft, however, his European contracts would not allow him to join until 2011. Because of his incredible talent and overall career potential, Rubio was able to beat the odds.
Rubio was a draft pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves who agreed to allow him to fulfill his obligations before moving to the states.
Kyrie Irving: Australia
Australian born player Kyrie Irving is an NBA star currently playing for the Boston Celtics. Born in 1992, this star player was not only the first overall draft pick in 2011 out of Duke University, he went on to win the coveted NBA Rookie of the Year award in the same year.
In 2016, Irving did his part to help the American Olympic team take home basketball gold. His career hasn't been limited to basketball, however, Irving has dabbled in acting and voiceover work on the side. He also plays baritone sax and subscribes to a plant-based diet.
Kyrie Irving has had his share of controversy for sharing some outlandish conspiracy theories over the years. Most notably he later claimed to have been joking when making comments about his theory that the earth is really flat.
That aside, Irving has been a star player, enjoys creative endeavors like writing and has even appeared in commercials endorsing mega-brands like Pepsi and Nike, most notably portraying the character Uncle Drew, which spawned its own movie in 2018.
Ben Simmons: Australia
Born in 1996, this young basketball phenom also hails from Australia. Ben Simmons is a name to remember, as this young star is sure to make his mark. In 2018, Simmons was named the NBA Rookie of the Year.
Simmons moved to the states during junior year of high school and settled into American life in Florida. He was soon picked up by the Philadelphia 76ers after spending a year at LSU for college.
Simmons suffered a fracture in his foot during a training camp scrimmage with the 76ers. This left him momentarily sidelined but ultimately had little effect on his rookie year.
Simmons announced that he intends to play in the 2020 Summer Olympics. While he's likely to play for the Australian team, he's sure to be one to watch for.
Nicolas Batum: France
Nicolas Batum is a French-born player currently playing for the Charlotte Hornets. In 2008, Batum began his NBA career as a first-round draft pick for the Houston Rockets. At 6 foot 8 inches tall, Batum is a skilled defensive player and has also played for the Portland Trail Blazers.
Nicolas made headlines for his controversial groin punch to Spain's Juan Carlos Navarro at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Initially, he commented that he wanted to give the player a good reason to flop, however, he has since apologized for his actions.
It has been suggested that Batum may soon return to his old stomping grounds, as it is rumored that the Houston Rockets may again be in need of his strong defensive skills.
Yao Ming: China
The Houston Rockets made headlines after drafting Yao Ming with the 1st overall draft pick in 2002. He went on to play for the Rockets from 2002 until 2011.
Ming was especially important to the field of international players, as he became the first international NBA player to be drafted first overall without playing college basketball. China is notoriously strict when it comes to allowing athletes to compete outside of the country, however, negotiations between Houston and China were able to end positively.
As long as Ming was allowed to compete for China in the Olympic games, he would be allowed to play basketball for the NBA. At 7 feet 6 inches tall, Yao Ming was a talented player and a strong pick for the Rockets.
Ming went on to become an 8-time NBA All-Star before announcing his retirement in 2011. Ming cited multiple injuries that had limited his playing in previous seasons.
In 2016, Ming was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame alongside many of the most heralded American born players. His number 11 jersey has since been retired by the Houston Rockets and he has since returned to China.
Now married and living in Shanghai, Ming continues to share his talents by working with young Chinese athletes eager to make their mark on the sport.
Dirk Nowitzki: Germany
Perhaps the most accomplished and well-known player on the list, Dirk Nowitzki has been an all-time great and the face of the Dallas Mavericks franchise for over 20 years.
Nowitzki made his mark at the Nike “Hero Hoops Tour” where he got a chance to play against, and thoroughly impress, NBA Hall-of-Famers Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen when he was just a teenager.
Taken 9th overall in the 1998 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks, Nowitzki was traded on draft day to the Mavericks for draft pick Robert “Tractor” Traylor. A trade that would also see future all-star and Canadian born Steve Nash join the Mavs.
Nowitzki would go on to become the best player in the history of the franchise, becoming the franchise all-time leader in pretty much every statistical category. He was a fourteen time all-star, NBA MVP, and NBA Finals MVP in 2011 when his Mavs shocked the world in defeating the “Big 3” of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh in Miami.
Nowitzki left an indelible mark on how the game is played today. At 7 feet tall, no one before him played the way he did at that height. He popularized the concept of a “Stretch 4,” meaning a power forward that can shoot from the outside and spread the offense out for those looking to drive the lane. Many teams even today are looking for power forwards with the same abilities.
Luka Doncic: Slovenia
From a Mavericks legend, to a player the Mavs hope to be the next star of the league.
Luka Doncic is a 19 year old phenom who has been impressing scouts his entire life, signing on to the Real Madrid club team of the Euro League at just 13 years old. He spent a few years on the junior squad but would make his professional debut at just 16.
It didn’t take long for him to make an impact. He has been a champion, an MVP, and a rising star for his team. Of course, you just know that NBA scouts were salivating over his talent.
With the ball handling and shooting ability of a guard, combined with the size of a forward, this 6’7” prodigy would go 3rd overall in the 2018 NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks. The Dallas Mavericks would trade for the draft rights of the 19 year old that very same night.
They are hoping under the tutelage of Nowitzki, Doncic will be able to surpass his teacher. Only time will tell, but so far so good for Mavs’ fans.
The Lasting Impact of Foreign-Born NBA Players
It’s hard to deny the fact that these legendary players have shaped the game of basketball forever. Their unique talents have brought thousands of NBA fans to their feet. Furthermore, their commitment and dedication have inspired millions both on and off the court.
The opportunities afforded to these talented young men have given them all a chance to share their talent and raise the bar for American born NBA players. To learn more about these athletes and check out our collection of sports memorabilia, visit our website. We’re here to help connect you to the game you love and the athletes who make it happen.
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