Around the world in 20 players: The NBA’s most interesting internationals

Jonathan Raymond identifies 20 of the record 101 internationals on opening day NBA rosters this season, starting with a Chicago Bull from Real Madrid.
Nikola Mirotic scored 12.4 points per game for Real Madrid in Spain last season. Tannen Maury / EPA
Nikola Mirotic scored 12.4 points per game for Real Madrid in Spain last season. Tannen Maury / EPA

The NBA is, ever increasingly, an internationally-tinged league as basketball, more and more, becomes a global game.

The San Antonio Spurs showed how important drawing from the world’s talent pool is for a team last season, winning a championship with internationals from Italy, Argentina, France, Australia and Brazil among their 10 players with the most minutes played.

In that spirit, we look at 20 of the most interesting talents among the record 101 international players who made an NBA opening day roster this season. Not necessarily the best (spoiler alert: Dirk Nowitzki is still No 1), but rather the 20 who are most worth getting a look at.

Kind of in the same vein as the New York Times’ annual list of places in the world to see, these are 20 players, in no particular order, from around the world you should really make the effort to see this season.

Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls (Montenegro): The former Real Madrid star, 23, is a 6ft 10in power forward with strong skills around the basket and a good three-point shot. Appropriately enough, his game is somewhat reminiscent of Nowitzki’s, or, given his height, it might be more accurate to say he plays a bit like a European Kevin Love. The Bulls will bring him along slowly as he adapts to the new level of competition, but he was an integral part of a Real Madrid team that are consistently among the best in Europe and the skill set is there for him to be a star.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Greece): There might be no more tantalising a talent in the league. A 6ft 11in 19-year-old who wowed the NBA with his potential last year, the Greek of Nigerian heritage has a size/speed/skill combination that might be unmatched among young players in the NBA right now. His wingspan is crazy, his shot is getting better, he can run a fast break and jump out of the gym. Even when he’s not quite sure what he’s going to do with the ball, it’s a lot of fun to watch him figure it out.

Gorgui Dieng, Minnesota Timberwolves (Senegal): The 6ft 11in forward-centre, 24, is also in his second season. He’s a super defensive prospect with a knack for blocking shots that appears to be realising some of his offensive potential, flashing able moves at the rim and a decent mid-range jumper. Not afraid to work some off the dribble, also.

Festus Ezeli, Golden State Warriors (Nigeria): The hulking 6ft 11in centre has the size and strength to be a key contributor off the Warriors bench inside. Golden State will need his contributions, given Australian Andrew Bogut’s injury history, after he missed all last year with a knee injury. While his size makes him an able deterrent defensively, he also shows the occasional offensive spark inside, where he’s good spatially, awarely getting the ball and finding easy, open looks at the rim.

Omer Asik, New Orleans Pelicans (Turkey): An established player with a sterling defensive reputation, Asik does just enough on offence around the basket and teams up with Anthony Davis to give the Pelicans a fearsome inside presence. He’ll be a key ingredient on a team that could surprise some people.

Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (France): The 22-year-old 7ft 1in centre has obvious potential given his size and played well at the Fiba World Cup this summer. In Utah, he should be given a chance to develop his raw skills for a team that likely won’t threaten for a play-off spot.

Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors (Lithuania): The 7-foot 22-year-old scored 11 points a game for Toronto last year and grabbed nearly nine rebounds at just 21. Expectations are high more improvement is in the works as he improves his post-up ability inside. The fifth pick in the 2011 draft is another who impressed at the summer’s basketball World Cup.

Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns (Slovenia): The slithery playmaker broke out for Phoenix last year with an array of creative moves that allowed him to score over 20 points per game. His style is one of the most original in the NBA, with hesitations, changes of direction and a variety of fakes all peppered in to get him and his teammates open looks.

Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks (Dominican Republic): The two-time all-star’s return from injury problems last season makes the Hawks an outside contender in the East. If they keep him. He’s also the biggest name rumoured to be a trade candidate, and if they do, he could be the big difference for another team on the fringes of title contention.

Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder (DR Congo): With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook out to start the year, this team is, for the time being, Ibaka’s. In addition to being a terror inside defensively, he’s developed a very crafty offensive game, full of canny head fakes and pumps that give him a chance to use his improving mid-range jumper.

Mirza Teletovic, Brooklyn Nets (Bosnia): The lanky wing took a step forward last year as a scorer off the bench for the Nets, making 39 per cent of his threes. A dangerous shooter to leave open in the corner.

Tiago Splitter, San Antonio Spurs (Brazil): The centre-forward who used to play in Spain does all the little things that make a player a perfect fit for the Spurs: Good interior passer, comfortable with the ball in his hands, rebounds and defends well. All in all a key component for the defending champions.

Anthony Bennett, Minnesota Timberwolves (Canada): Perhaps it doesn’t make sense to include a Canadian (it’s still North America, after all), but Canada deserves credit nonetheless as a rising basketball nation. Bennett has only played one season, but he’s already something of a fascinating reclamation project, having been included in the Kevin Love trade after being 2013’s first overall pick and going on to have one of the worst rookie seasons from a No 1 in recent memory. He arrived in Minnesota in better shape and has already shown some of the things (decent shot, ability to attack the basket, some sneaky explosiveness) that made him the top pick last year.

Bojan Bogdanovic, Brooklyn Nets (Croatia): An all-star in Turkey two seasons ago, Bogdanovic arrived from Fenerbahce with a reputation for being one of Europe’s better scorers, which Brooklyn are hoping will translate to the NBA as they’ve made him their starting two-guard.

Evan Fournier, Orlando Magic (France): The third year guard tends to float around the perimeter, where he can get open and ably knock down a three. He’s also showed an improved ability to snake to the basket and should get plenty of chances to blossom into a better scorer after being traded to Orlando in the summer.

Dennis Schroder, Atlanta Hawks (Germany): Didn’t show a lot with the Hawks last year, but he’s already had a string of nice games coming off the bench to begin this season, showing off the speed and instinctive playmaking ability that made him a mid first round pick in last year’s draft.

Danilo Gallinari, Denver Nuggets (Italy): Gallinari is another case of an established player coming back from injury. His game, which had a smoothness to it that belied his aggressiveness at getting to the hoop, and gradually improving shot had him looking like he might make the leap to stardom before he missed all of last season. Will be interesting to see if he still has the same spring in his step.

Marcin Gortat, Washington Wizards (Poland): One of the smoothest passing and shooting big men in the league, Gortat’s presence is crucial for a Washington team that has a mind of of breaking into the East’s elite.

Enes Kanter, Utah Jazz (Turkey): The third pick in the 2011 draft has come along in fits and starts, but finally earned a larger role with the Jazz last year and showed he could be something approaching a reliable inside scoring option. The 6ft 11in, 262-pound big man has skills around the basket and his defence is improving, and, just 22 years old, this season will be another important marker in his development.

Nik Stauskas, Sacramento Kings (Canada): Another Canadian, the eighth pick in this year’s draft is, it seems, everything the Kings hoped Jimmer Fredette would actually be. He has the skills to be an elite three-point shooter and has a good nose for driving to the hoop. At 6ft 6ins, he also has the size to be a very good defender for a shooting guard. He’s also a lot of fun to watch dart around off the ball. Something kind of like Klay Thompson is probably his upside.

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Published: November 9, 2014 04:00 AM

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