Each year, the NBA is seeing more and more players that were born outside of the United States enter the league. Like any other group of players, these players have some duds (Darko Milicic, Hasheem Thabeet, Yi Jianlian, etc), but there have been a ton of standouts as well.
I'm going to take a look at the top 5 international born players heading into the 2013-2014 season. Keep in mind that I will be basing this on their current abilities, not their whole careers, as that would change the conversation completely.
Ricky Rubio- The Spanish-born point guard took the league by storm when he entered in 2011, dazzling everyone with his insane passing skills. He hasn't played quite enough to crack the top 5, however.
Nikola Pekovic- Born in Montenegro, Rubio's teammate in Minnesota was a highly sought after restricted free agent this offseason. He is a great all-around center, but has only seen full time starter's minutes for a year and a half, and he's also had limited playing time next to Kevin Love, so I will have to see how those 2 play together before I can put Pek in my top 5.
Dirk Nowitzki- This omission from the list may surprise many, but it really shouldn't. The German-born big man is 35 years old headed into this season, and although he may be the most talented internationally-born player of all-time, you just can't expect him to produce at the level he has in the past.
Nicolas Batum- This up-and-coming French-born wing for the Portland Trail Blazers is only 24, and has started each of his 5 years in the NBA. He is developing every year as well, but he just doesn't have one skill that stands out above the others, so it's hard to find a spot for him in the top 5.
Marcin Gortat- "The Polish Hammer" has found a way to develop into one of the best centers in the NBA, albeit on a lackluster Phoenix Suns team. He has proved that with more minutes, he can continue his improvement, but with the selection of Alex Len in this year's draft, I think his minutes could see a little bit of a dip as the Suns look towards their future.
5. Al Horford
The Atlanta Hawks big man, who was born in the Dominican Republic, has made a name for himself after being drafted number 3 overall in 2007. After a stellar career at the University of Florida, expectations were high, and he certainly has not disappointed.
In his first season, he nearly averaged a double-double, and since then, it's been all uphill. Even though he has spent most of his career playing out of position (he plays center, but is a natural power forward), he had his best season this past year, putting up 17.4 points and grabbing 10.2 rebounds per game, and given the team that Atlanta has surrounded him with this year, he may be expected to put more of the weight on his shoulders.
I expect the 27 year old Horford to be able to take the added responsibilities and run with them.
4. Tim Duncan
If you would ask a casual NBA fan, they probably wouldn't have known that Tim Duncan was not born in the United States. He was actually born in the US Virgin Islands, and didn't come to the United States until he had committed to play for Wake Forest.
We all know what happened after that; Duncan went on to become potentially the greatest power forward of all time, and has pulled in 4 NBA Championships with Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs.
He really has not lost a step, even though he is 37 years old. That could be because of how Pop handles his minutes, and because of that reason (the fact that he'll play 30 minutes or less per game this year), prevents me from putting him any higher.
3. Marc Gasol
I'm guessing that you didn't expect the Spanish-born Defensive Player of the Year to be anywhere but number 1 on the list of international-born players. I love Gasol's game, so don't take it as a disrespect to his game at all, you'll just have to see the rest of the list to see my reasoning.
Back to his game, Gasol is potentially the most well-rounded center in the NBA, like I previously mentioned, he won Defensive Player of the Year this past year, and showed a variety of post moves on his way to averaging 14 points per game next to Zach Randolph. He fits perfectly on the Grizzlies, as their team is all about defense, with two of the best perimeter defenders in the league in Mike Conley and Tony Allen, as well as Gasol and Randolph down low, and the long-armed Tayshaun Prince on the wing.
Since this will be the first full year without without Rudy Gay, I expect Gasol's offensive numbers to creep up a little bit, and he'll make the Grizz a team to watch out for.
2. Tony Parker
Since being drafted from France in 2001, Parker has really developed and made himself into one of the NBA's top point guards. He is great a getting to the hoop, he has shown an improved ability to shoot from 3, and he is also one of the best assist men in the league.
As with the last couple years, it is probably going to fall on him to pick up the load that Tim Duncan, and especially Manu Ginobili just can't do anymore because of their increased age, as well as decreased playing time. With role players like Danny Green, Gary Neal, the recently acquired Marco Belinelli, and fellow starters Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter, there is plenty of other talent that should make this year a little bit easier on Parker than it has been in past years, and he also might see his minutes decrease a little bit.
1. Kyrie Irving
Here's another player that many casual fans wouldn't know that he wasn't born in America. The young point guard was actually born in Australia, but then moved to the United States when he was two years old; although he is a dual citizen still.
With the knowledge that he is internationally-born, he definitely takes home the prize of being the best international player headed into next season. After just 110 games, he has already forced himself into the conversation of best point guards, and is a legitimate threat to hit superstar status this season.
He has one of the most complete offensive games that you will ever see in a 21-year old, scoring 22.5 points per game this past season, and also picking up nearly 6 assists. The Cavaliers continue to add solid talent around him, picking Anthony Bennett in this year's draft, as well as Dion Waiters last year, and Tristan Thompson in the same draft as Irving. All of these moves have been done to ensure that Irving has a good supporting cast, and now that it is clear that he does (especially with the intelligent pick-up of Andrew Bynum), he should be ready to breakout this year.
I want to thank Brendan Taylor and everyone at Tru School Sports for the opportunity to write a guest column for them, it's truly an honor to do some work for a great up and coming blog like Tru School.
I actually run my own NBA website called theleaguenews.com where you can find the latest NBA news, as well as a ton of other interesting topics. Brendan will be writing a guest column over there, so when you all check that out, take a look at the rest of the site, hopefully you'll like what you see!
Thanks for reading.