The NBA has always had a distinctly international flavor. From European imports such as Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc and Dirk Nowitzki, to African superstars Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon, the league has a proud history of international players.
Over the past decade, what was a trickle of international talent has transformed into a flood. On opening night of the 2017/18 season, 108 international players from a record 42 countries and territories suited up and prepared to play NBA ball.
Over the past month, we have analyzed the best 20 international players in the NBA. Our first edition focussed on numbers 16-20 and then we counted down 11-15. Last week numbers 6-10 were highlighted and now we are down to the final five, the best international stars in the NBA. Keep in mind that this list includes players for both current and past achievements.
5. Kristaps Porzingis (Latvia)
Despite his obvious talent, Kristaps Porzingis’ first two seasons in the NBA have not been straight forward. The messy divorce between New York, Phil Jackson, and Carmelo Anthony has cast a shadow over the Knicks and Porzingis was evidently unhappy under the Jackson regime.
Now free from the suffocating presence of Anthony and Jackson’s triangle offense, we are seeing the potential that had scouts referring to the Latvian as a basketball unicorn. Averaging 27 points, 7 rebounds and shooting 40% from deep, Porzingis has led the Knicks to a surprisingly strong start this season.
Porzingis came into the NBA with a reputation as a big man with a silky shooting stroke and he has lived up to these expectations. Where he has surpassed all predictions is in his ability to be effective inside the paint, crashing the offensive boards and swatting away shots on the defensive end. For the first time in a long time there is positivity surrounding the New York Knicks, and that is all to do with Kristaps Porzingis.
Porzingis drops 40 on the Pacers
4. Joel Embiid (Cameroon)
It has taken a while for us to believe it, but my, oh my are we trusting the ‘process’ right now. After three injury plagued seasons Joel Embiid is finally dominating in the NBA and looking worth everything the 76ers gave up to get him.
Embiid is a hybrid between an old school powerful center who dominates the paint with sheer strength and the new breed of big man who can score from outside the paint. It is terrifying to think but if Embiid can stay healthy and keep developing he could end up being Shaq with a three-point shot.
Despite all his tantalizing offensive potential, it is on the defensive end that Embiid impresses most. He has a fantastic feel for the game and uses his unusual speed for his size to guard the paint with menace. Along with Ben Simmons, Embiid is propelling the Sixers to a playoff berth that seemed impossibly far away two seasons ago.
Embiid dominates the Lakers
3. Rudy Gobert (France)
The best defensive big man the league has seen since Ben Wallace, Rudy Gobert has been making NBA players feel small for over four seasons. His enormous wingspan saw Gobert lead the league in blocked shots last season whilst anchoring one of the NBA's toughest defenses.
With the departure of Gordon Hayward to the Celtics in the offseason Gobert has taken on more offensive responsibility. He is never likely to develop a mid-range game but his height will always make him a dominant force in the paint and he is developing a light touch around the basket.
Injury has seen him miss the last eight games, and he is expected to miss more time due to a bruised knee. However, if he can stay injury free the rest of the season, Gobert will be one of the favorites to take home Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Gobert's emphatic rejection
2. Marc Gasol (Spain)
There has been an explosion of talented centers in the NBA over the past three seasons. However, for my money the best of the bunch is still Marc Gasol. No longer in the shadow of his older brother, Marc has perhaps even surpassed Pau in terms of pure talent.
Along with Mike Conley, Gasol has formed one of the most devastating pick and roll combinations in the NBA. The Spanish big man is so intelligent with his movement off the ball and his impeccable footwork make him a nightmare to guard in the paint.
As Memphis have moved away from the ‘Grit & Grind’ era into a more up-tempo offense, Gasol has thrived. He has developed a reliable three-point shot and is averaging a career-high 20 points per game. Reliable on defense, Gasol is a complete center who gives Memphis a chance to win on any given night.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece)
The Greek Freak has exploded at the start of the 2017/18 season. Averaging a frankly ridiculous 30 points and 10 rebounds a game, not to mention 2 blocks and 1.6 steals, Antetokounmpo is genuinely doing it all for the young Bucks.
What makes Giannis’ start to the season even more incredible is that he is dominating as a perimeter player with nothing close to resembling a reliable three-point shot. Such is his athleticism that, although defenders know exactly what he is going to do, they are utterly powerless to stop him.
When you can move from the three-point line to the hoop in a single step there isn’t really a need to develop an outside game. However, don’t be surprised to see Giannis become more reliable from deep to take his game to the next level. It will only be a matter of time before Antetokounmpo is an MVP winner, and that’s why he had to be top of this list.
Giannis explodes for 44 vs the Blazers
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