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The 30 best international players in the NBA

4/27/2007

Yes, it's a global game. We've been hearing it for years now, as basketball's increasing popularity overseas has borne fruit in recent years in the form of international players who are capable of playing at the NBA level.

Yet recently, there's been another shift. Although teams have looked overseas for big men for years, owing to the challenge of finding somebody who is 7 feet tall and coordinated in any corner of the world, now the quality of international play is good enough to supply good guards, too.

In fact, four of the game's most daring and exciting little guys -- Steve Nash, Jose Calderon, Tony Parker and Leandro Barbosa -- were born on another continent, and there's plenty more where that came from. File away the name Ricky Rubio, for instance -- you'll be needing it in a couple of years.

And with that, we're seeing one more chink in the armor of American basketball dominance. Yes, the losses in international tournaments have been mounting for years, but nobody is totally sold on that as defining evidence of the decline in U.S. dominance -- not when the rules are different and the refs, in some cases, seem openly biased.

But the fact is, foreign guys aren't just dominating in the tournaments with the funny-shaped lane. They're coming over here and kicking butt too.

The latest reminder came when I looked at my MVP nominations and noticed that three of the top four names on my list -- Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and Nash -- were born in distant lands. (And actually, the other guy on my list was Kobe Bryant, who spent much of his youth in Italy.) Believe it or not, of the top 12 players in PER this season, half were internationals.

For more evidence, here's another exercise: Make a list of the best player at each position. If your list looks like mine, three of the five names will be non-American -- Nash at point guard, Yao Ming at center, and either Duncan or Nowitzki at power forward. Only at the wings does American talent have a choke hold on the top spot.

So perhaps it's no accident that the NBA's last bastions of Americanness are struggling. Only two teams had an all-American roster this year, and both are wobbling. The Knicks struggled to a 33-win season despite a bloated payroll, and the defending champion Heat find themselves halfway to elimination against a Chicago team whose three key international players have torn them to shreds.

Overall, 85 players from overseas were on NBA rosters this season, and though some made only brief cameos (nice knowing you, Andrea Glyniadakis), many others have made huge impacts. Duncan, Nash and Nowitzki are the most obvious examples -- if you pencil in Nowitzki as this year's winner, they've accounted for five of the past six MVP trophies.

But there are plenty of others. A scan of NBA lineups reveals at least 30 internationals making major impacts for their respective clubs. And that doesn't include the ones who are more than capable, but for either contractual or personal reasons have declined the invitation to join the NBA, including Argentina's Luis Scola, Spain's Fran Vazquez and Greece's Theodoros Papaloukas.

That's why I've chosen to shine a light on all the internationals making a mark on the league, by giving you one man's look at the best 30 players from overseas.

But before we get to the list, as always, I must explain the ground rules.

Several players could plausibly be defined as being from multiple countries -- Chicago's Luol Deng, for instance, could be described as Sudanese or English.

The growing market for "ringers" to join international teams in the Olympics and World Championships only complicates matters -- witness Portland, Ore., native Ime Udoka suiting up for Nigeria this past August, for instance. Thus, to simplify matters, I'm using the "birth certificate rule" -- I'll count anyone who was born outside the U.S.

As for the rankings: I'm not basing the rankings solely on a player's performance this past season; instead, I'm looking at the big picture. Andrei Kirilenko's play, for instance, has plummeted this year. But nobody denies his talent level because of his previous production, and a lot of people suspect that being forced to play on the perimeter is crushing his productivity.

OK, let's get down to business with the top 30. As you'll see, ranking them gets difficult almost immediately.


John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.