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International Players to Watch in the NBA

Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki (41) goes for a layup against the Chicago Bulls' Pau Gasol (16) during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game in Lincoln, Neb., Friday, Oct. 23, 2015.

Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki (41) goes for a layup against the Chicago Bulls' Pau Gasol (16) during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game in Lincoln, Neb., Friday, Oct. 23, 2015.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) is arguably the best basketball league in the world. Some of the most famous teams are the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls.

There was a time when almost all the players were American.

But in the 1980s, that began to change. The sport grew popular around the world. Basketball scouts - the people who look for talented, new players – discovered prospects in other countries.

The NBA began taking players from outside the United States seriously in the 1980s. Some were discovered in Europe and Africa and then attended a university in the U.S. Once they proved themselves against other Americans, the players became good candidates for the NBA.

Hakeem Olajuwon, from Nigeria, was one of the players. He played for the University of Houston and then the Houston Rockets. He is considered one of the best players in NBA history.

In the 1990s, Toni Kukoc of Croatia went to the NBA after playing professional basketball in Europe. He won three NBA titles playing with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

One of the best teams in the last 20 years is the San Antonio Spurs. The team won multiple championships with several players born outside the U.S. Manu Ginobli from Argentina and Tony Parker from France each have four NBA titles playing together on the Spurs.

As the new NBA season “tips off” this week, VOA Learning English looks at some of the league’s most interesting international players and their outlook for the upcoming season.

Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks

German teeanger Dirk Nowitzki arrived in 1998. He played for a small German club team before coming to the NBA. Nowitzki turned into one of the best players in NBA history. He won a championship in 2011 with the Dallas Mavericks. He was also the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2007.

Nowitzki is now 37 and may only have one or two seasons left before he retires. He’s already played for 17 years.

Rob Mahoney is a writer for Sports Illustrated based in Dallas, Texas. He knows the Mavericks so well, he wrote a book about their championship in 2011.

He thinks Nowitzki can still be a good player in the NBA despite his age.

“It’s ultimately going to be up to him in terms of how long he decides to ride out his career. He’s still a very productive player, still very good in the NBA even on those terms. Still very good in the NBA, even on those terms. But every year is going to get a little bit harder.”

Pau Gasol of the Chicago Bulls

After Nowitzki, the international player with the best record might be Pau Gasol. He won three NBA championships playing for the Los Angeles Lakers with Kobe Bryant. He is now the center for the Chicago Bulls.

Gasol is one of the most consistent players in the league. He led the NBA last year with 54 “double-doubles.” A “double-double” is when a player has at least 10 points and at least 10 rebounds in the same game.

The Bulls are a strong team, but Mahoney says much of their success will depend on Gasol.

"Whether that team ultimately goes as far as it hopes to in a lot of ways depends on how healthy they are, because they have a lot of talent and that begins with Pau for sure."

Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks

One of the most interesting players in the NBA is Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks. His parents are from Nigeria, but he was born in Greece. Antetokounmpo is over two meters tall but he is fast for men of his height.

Highlights from the last two NBA seasons show him running, dribbling and flying through the air like a much smaller player.

Mahoney says Antetokounmpo should have an outstanding career in the NBA but he still needs to improve his game. As a 20-year-old, he has time.

"He’s an interesting player just because he’s already been good but you can certainly see that potential in him to be one of the great international players to come to the NBA. To be an All-Star-type talent. To be a guy a team would conceivably build around. And that’s certainly what the Milwaukee Bucks are hoping for, that he turns out to be that kind of player."

Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks

Kristaps Porzingis of Latvia stands well over two meters tall. He is known for blocking shots. It means he can stop the ball in the air and prevent opponents from scoring points.

His game is considered “raw” by most scouts. That means he still has a lot of room for improvement.

Last June, Porzingis was the third pick in the NBA draft by the New York Knicks. He is also only 20 years old. Mahoney and other observers are curious to see how he will adjust to both the NBA and living in New York.

"How all that stuff plays into how he performs on the court is definitely something that a lot of people in the NBA are watching this year. Because he has so many physical tools to perform in the NBA. A lot of people project him to be something similar to Dirk Nowitzki in terms of a 7-footer who can shoot really well, who can put the ball on the floor and attack the basket. Who can really leverage his skill set in interesting ways."

Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz

Mahoney says one player to watch this year is Rudy Gobert. He is a French player in his early 20s. Until this season he was a secondary player on the Utah Jazz. This year, the team expects him to be an important member.

"This is going to be his first season of high exposure, of attention from opposing coaches and players who now know who he is and know what he’s capable of. I’m interested to see if he can block as many shots. If he can have as much of an impact now that he’s a little bit more of a known quantity."

It’s difficult to find an NBA team without at least one or two key players born outside of the U.S. Thanks to so many trailblazers, the league is more international than ever.

I’m Dan Friedell

And I’m Jonathan Evans

Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

Who is your favorite NBA player born outside of the United States? We want to hear from you. Vote in our poll, write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

league – n. a group of sports teams that play against each other

prospects– n. a group of sports teams that play against each other

consistent– adj. of the same quality

rebound– n. basketball : the act of catching the ball after a shot has missed going in the basket

highlight– n. something (such as an event or a detail) that is very interesting, exciting, or important : the best part of something

dribble– v. to move a ball or puck forward by tapping, bouncing, or kicking it

potential– n. a quality that something has that can be developed to make it better

leverage – n. influence or power used to achieve a desired result

opponent– n. a person, team, group, etc., that is competing against another in a contest

trailblazer– n. a person who makes, does, or discovers something new and makes it acceptable or popular

scout– n. a person whose job is to search for talented performers, athletes, etc.

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