It’s no secret that European basketball doesn’t have the same radiance and reputation as NBA. However, there are countless cases of great NBA players that spent some years of their careers on the European basketball courts.
For some of them Europe was the ticket to the magical world of NBA and for others was a very cozy and highly competitive shelter when things were going downhill in the best league of the world. Regardless of the reason, millions of basketball fans around the world were lucky enough to see some remarkable players performing under different circumstances in these two so different basketball galaxies.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at 10 of the greatest NBA stars that also played in Europe:
10. Deron Williams
After a great career in Utah Jazz and New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets Deron Williams took the big decision to move to Europe in 2011 for Besiktas. The European journey for Williams was the result of the NBA lockout of 2011. His presence in Besiktas was very short, as he immediately moved back to New Jersey as soon as the lockout ended. Nevertheless, Deron managed to offer some memorable performances to the Turkish fans. The night of November 22nd of 2011 Williams scored 50 points in a Eurochallenge game against Gottingen. Besiktas retired Deron’s jersey with #8 before he goes back to NBA. Certainly a unique experience for Williams!
9. Pau Gasol
A very different story in the number 9 of our list. Pau Gasol made the opposite journey in comparison to Deron Williams. He started his basketball career from his beloved Barcelona in 1998. He stayed in Catalunya for 3 years before he moved to the NBA to join the Memphis Grizzlies. Since then, he has managed to build a great career in the States with the jerseys of Grizzlies, Lakers, Bulls and Spurs. With two NBA rings in his admirable collection, he definitely is one of the best basketball players that we have watched playing both in Europe and America.
8. Manu Ginobili
The amazing Argentinian who simply refuses to lose the battle against time is in number 8. Similarly to Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili got transferred to the NBA after his great performances in Europe and most specifically in Italy. His first connection with the Italian basketball was in 1998 when he left from Estudiantes (Argentina) for Reggio Calabria. In 2000, he joins the Italian giant Virtus Bologna. His basketball life changed forever in 2002 when he was selected from San Antonio Spurs as a backup of the veteran Steve Smith. Sixteen years later Manu Ginobili still is an indispensable Spurs member and a NBA legend. One Euroleague championship in 2001 and four NBA championships are some of the most noticeable moments in Ginobili’s amazing basketball journey.
7. Byron Scott
After a spectacular NBA career, Byron Scott decided to play overseas for Panathinaikos B.C in 1997. It was – and still is- one of the greatest transfers in European basketball’s history, given the fact that Scott already was 3 times NBA champion with Los Angeles Lakers before he joins the Greens. He stayed in Greece only for one year, but he managed to offer great help to his team. With Byron Scott as his leading figure on court, Panathinaikos managed to win his first Greek championship after 14 years. His basketball career as a player finished in 1998 and since then he has been a coach in great NBA teams such as New Jersey Nets, New Orleans Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers.
6. Peja Stojakovic
Peja Stojakovic is another great NBA star with a remarkable career in both continents. He started playing basketball in Crvena Zvezda in Belgrade in 1992. After two years, he moved to Greece for PAOK. Despite his young age, he quickly became one of the leading stars for the team from Thessaloniki. His incredible buzzer-beater in the Greek League semi-finals against Olympiakos still is vividly remembered. His European career finished in 1998 when he was transferred to Sacramento Kings. A great NBA career had just began with the NBA championship of 2011 with Dallas Mavericks to be one of its greatest moments.
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7. Allen Iverson
When we are talking about Allen Iverson there is no need for further introductions. I know that most of you will disagree for placing Allen Iverson in the fifth place of the list but you have to take into account that he stayed in Europe for an awfully short period of time. Like Deron Williams, Allen Iverson found his European home in Besiktas. He stayed there only for a few months (October 2010 – January 2011). His first game was against Hemofarm from Serbia. He scored 15 points in 23 minutes but his team eventually lost (91-94). After his short adventure in Turkey, he returned to the States for calf surgery and he never player basketball professionally again.
4. Vlade Divac
Another great player that couldn’t be missing from our list is Vlade Divac. Divac started playing basketball in Yugoslavia for Sloga. He quickly was transferred to Partizan with which he won the Yugoslavian Championship in 1987. The years that followed he didn’t manage to win any more trophies with Partizan due to Toni Kukoc and his gang in Jugoplastika. However, after just four professional seasons in Europe, he already was considered the best center of the continent besides Arvydas Sabonis. In 1989, he eventually made the big overseas journey and started his NBA career in Los Angeles Lakers. In 1998-99, during the NBA lockout he played for two games in Crvena Zvezda but he immediately returned to NBA for the Sacramento Kings as soon as the lockout was over.
3. Toni Kukoc
The Croatian superstar who won three NBA championships side by side with Michael Jordan, started his career in Europe. His first team was, the Yugoslavian giants back then, Jugoplastika. It was the team of his hometown and he started playing there when he was just 17 years old. He won three consecutive Euroleague trophies (1989-91) and two consecutive triple crowns (1990-91). After his enormous success in Jugoplastika, he moved to Italy where he played for Benetton Treviso. In Trevizo, he won the Italian championship and the Italian Cup. He also got the opportunity to play another Euroleague final but he didn’t manage to win the trophy this time. Kukoc did manage, though, to be named as “The White Magic” and to be announced as the “The European Basketball Player of the Year” many times during the 90’s!
2. Arvydas Sabonis
One of the greatest European basketball players of all times. Ladies and gentlemen, Arvydas Sabonis! He started his spectacular career in his hometown (Kaunas). He played for Zalgiris from 1981 until 1989. Later on, he got transferred to Valladolid and in 1992 he became a Real Madrid player. In Madrid, he won the Spanish league twice and he also became a European champion in 1995. His last season in Spain, Sabonis had an average of 22.8 points and 13.2 rebounds per game. But it was time for him to join the Portland Blazers. He stayed there until 2001 when he signed with Zalgiris Kaunas again. After a last short staying in Portland in 2002-03, he eventually retired as a Zalgiris player in 2004. A unique player that he could have achieved even more, if it wasn’t for the severe injuries that affected his whole career.
1. Dominique Wilkins
The Human Highlight Film is in the first place of our list. Dominique Wilkins, after an astonishing NBA career, decided in 1995 to join Panathinaikos in Greece. The 9 times NBA All-Star is without doubt one of the greatest transfers in the history of European basketball. Despite his terrible relations with his coach Bozidar Malkovic, he was the Euroleague Final Four MVP and helped Panathinaikos to win his first Euroleague trophy. His Euroleague average that year was 20.1 points and 7.4 rebounds. After his Greek adventure, he shortly joined the San Antonio Spurs and the next season returned to Europe for Fortitudo Bologna. He retired in 1999 with the jersey of Orlando Magic.
That’s all folks! A list with some of the greatest NBA stars that played in Europe either in the beginning or the end of their admirable careers. Feel free to suggest your own top-10 in the comments! Until the next time…
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***From the list have been excluded players who never played in the top division of a European League (eg. Dirk Nowitzki, Giannis Antetokounmpo etc.).