Giannis Antetokounmpo and the top five international players ever, ranked
The NBA has truly become an international league in the past decade. Serbian-born Nikola Jokic claiming the 2020-21 MVP a few months back marked the second time in NBA history that two different players from non-U.S. countries won the MVP in back-to-back seasons (Giannis Antetokounmpo won it the year prior, and Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki won the award in ’06 and ’07 respectively). Last season also tied a record number (set the previous season) of foreign-born players making All-NBA with five (Antetokounmpo, Jokic, Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert).
Speaking of the Greek Freak, he had himself quite a summer. He claimed his first title for the Milwaukee Bucks along with a Finals MVP award, capping off a breathtaking Finals series with a 50-point, 14-rebound, five-block masterpiece to finish off the Phoenix Suns. Like so many, earning that elusive championship vaulted him up the all-time rankings, but where exactly does he rank among other international stars? Let’s sort out the top five international players of all time, and see where Antetokounmpo falls.
5. Patrick Ewing (Jamaica)
Arguably the greatest New York Knick ever, Ewing leads the team in all-time games, minutes, points, field goals, free throws, rebounds, steals and blocks just to name a few. He was one of the unlucky souls to be born around the same time as Michael Jordan, and as a result was probably robbed of a championship. He also played in an era that was booming with historically great centers like Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson. While Ewing was probably the worst of that bunch, his career averages of 21 points and 9.8 rebounds are impressive in a vacuum.
4. Steve Nash (Canada)
Nash’s influence on the game can be felt throughout the league today. Stephen Curry took Nash’s shooting ability and use of screens and amplified it. Nash has said he wishes he would’ve taken on more of a scoring burden the way Curry did, as he was clearly capable of dominating as a scorer as well as a facilitator. Even so, he won back-to-back MVPs with the Suns and orchestrated a seven-seconds-or-less offense that would be mimicked for years to come. He ranks third all-time in career assists, and is considered one of the greatest point guards of all time despite never winning a championship or even making the NBA Finals.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece)
His championship run moved him up quite a few notches, but Antetokounmpo still has a ways to go in terms of all-time numbers. Based on his current trajectory (two MVPs, one Defensive Player of the Year, one championship, one Finals MVP, 5x All-Star, 5x All-NBA, 4x All-Defense, all before his 27th birthday), he should surpass those ahead of him eventually if he can sustain this level of greatness, but longevity is not a given for anyone in the NBA.
The question of whether he can be a no. 1 option on a championship team was answered in the affirmative last season, as long as he’s given shooters and ball-handlers around him. However, if he truly wants to separate himself (and prolong his career once his athleticism fades), a consistent jump shot is still necessary. The player directly ahead of him on this list built a 20-year legacy off of one.
2. Dirk Nowitzki (Germany)
A great way to measure a player’s impact on the game (particularly an international influence like Nowitzki) is by how often their signature move is imitated. The Dirk one-legged fadeaway might be the most copied move in modern basketball (apologies to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook), whether it be by old men at the gym or Kevin Durant in the playoffs. No one could do it better or more consistently than Nowitzki, though. “Every time,” a sidelined Kobe Bryant told Julius Randle after a 37-year-old Nowitzki hit a game-winning jumper over him with 2.1 seconds to go back in 2016.
As previously stated, it’s the longevity that separates the best of the best. Sure, Nowitzki won a championship and Finals MVP in 2011 and a regular-season MVP in 2007, but it’s the fact that he played for 21 seasons and currently sits as the sixth-leading scorer in NBA history with 31,419 points that makes him a living legend.
1. Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria)
The only player other than Antetokounmpo and Michael Jordan to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season, The Dream is arguably the greatest two-way player of all time. He anchored a stout Houston Rockets defense for years while being their go-to threat in the post (he had his own often-copied move, the Dream Shake). He’s got every accolade in the book, winning back-to-back titles, back-to-back Finals MVPs, back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, and ranks in the top-20 all-time in points, rebounds, steals and blocks (no. 1 in that final catagory, though blocks weren’t recorded while Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were dominating way back in the day). He’s also the all-time leader in five-by-fives (five or more points, rebounds, assists, steals AND blocks in a single game), accomplishing the unique feat six times.
Unless Antetokounmpo knocks off two or three more titles in the next handful of years (it’s not an impossible task) he’ll have to remain effective for close to two decades if he hopes to pass up these last two international legends.