|15 March 2013|
EUROPEANS IN THE NBA
|A long time has passed since Fernando Martin was in the NBA and Pau Gasol now is a star for the LA Lakers|
Almost three decades have passed since Georgi Glouchkov and the late Fernando Martín became the first two European big men to join an NBA team without having gone through the college system.
The American adventure of the Bulgarian and the Spanish international only lasted one season, while their contemporary German center Uwe Blab, who had played a full four years in the NCAA championship, had a five-year long career in the NBA.
An enormous amount of things has changed in European and world basketball in the 28 years that have passed since then.
European players are no longer considered a rarity in the NBA and there is only a handful of teams in the league that do not have at least one player from our continent on their roster.
European big men in particular are especially valued since they bring a technical skill-set, versatility and vision for the game that their American colleagues are still often lacking, as physical attributes were traditionally considered the fundamental quality a center should possess in order to have a successful NBA career.
The recent success of reigning champions Miami Heat has challenged the decade-long conventional wisdom that no side could win the coveted championship ring if their center (or a Tim Duncan-style power forward) was not one of the best players on the team.
Not everyone has the necessary personnel to employ the same style of play as Miami though, and the majority of contenders will still rely on a more orthodox frontcourt line-up for the foreseeable future.
The end of the NBA Regular Season approaches fast and as the dust settles, we find several Europeans centers on teams that will definitely, or most probably, make the play-offs and consequently aspire to snatch the title away from Miami this season.
Perhaps the best-placed of all is a player that was not born in Europe, but would not have been the player he is today had he not moved to Spain at the age of 16.
|Blossoms in the Denver Nuggets' up-tempo style: Kostas Koufos|
Spanish international Serge Ibaka is an integral part of last season's runners-up Oklahoma City Thunder, who are aiming to go one better this year.
Ibaka averages 13.4 points and 7.8 rebounds and is the second-best blocker in the NBA, with 2.9 blocks per game.
Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies, who are currently in fourth place in the western conference, has formed an impressive frontcourt partnership with Zach Randolph.
He contributes 14.3 and 7.7 rebounds on average while he is the second-best passer among all big men in the league, with 3.9 assists per game.
Ronny Turiaf has tasted the joy of winning the title with Miami and is now on a team that has genuine options of going all the way this year, the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Frenchman comes off the bench and contributes two points and 2.4 rebounds per game.
Kostas Koufos is the starting center of surprise-package Denver Nuggets and had a career-high 22 points and 10 boards in the Monday night game against the Phoenix Suns.
The Greek international averages 8.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per contest while among his three European team-mates is another center, Timofey Mozgov.
The Russian has featured in 36 games so far, contributing 2.7 points and 2.5 rebounds on average.
Latvian Andris Biedrins meanwhile is on the books of the Goldern State Warriors but is undergoing his most discreet season since joining the NBA in 2004, averaging 0.5 points and 3 rebounds per game.
Omer Asik and Donatas Motiejunas have become the centers of choice at the Houston Rockets, although lately the Lithuanian plays at the power forward spot so that the two will start together.
The Turkish international is having a break-out season since joining Houston in the summer and has turned into the second-best rebounder in the NBA, behind Dwight Howard, with 11.8 boards per game, to go with his 10.3 points.
Motiejunas meanwhile had a career-high 19 points on Wednesday night against the Suns and his average figures have raised lately to 5.3 points and 1.7 boards.
The eldest Gasol, Pau, who has already won two NBA titles with the Lakers, is currently sidelined with injury but will return well in time for the play-offs, which the Los Angeles powerhouse now look able to reach after a tormented start to the season.
The Spanish superstar has featured in 36 games so far and despite the fact he has posted the most modest stat lines since his rookie season, he still contributes 13.4 points and 8 rebounds per contest.
If the Lakers do not make the play-offs, it will most likely be because the Utah Jazz of Enes Kanter clinch the last berth in the West.
The 20-year-old Turkish center has strengthened his position in a team with fierce competition in the frontcourt and averages 7.3 points and 4.6 rebounds.
Another European big man on a team that still has chances of clinching a play-off berth in the western conference is Joel Freeland, of the Portland Trailblazers.
The British rookie is slowly carving out a spot in the team rotation and has featured in 36 games, with 2.3 points and 2.1 rebounds on average.
Polish center Marcin Gortat of the Suns was recently injured and will miss the rest of the season but his team were no longer in the play-off picture in any case.
Nikola Pekovic of the Minnesota Timberwolves is in a similar position but had impressed the entire league with his performances until forced out of action recently.
The captain of Montenegro has featured in 48 games and averaged 15.9 points and 8.8 rebounds, making a significant impact in his third season in the NBA.
|Does it all on the court: Joakim Noah, the NBA's best passing center|
Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls has assumed enormous responsibilities this season in the absence of injured star point guard Derick Rose and has stepped up to the challenge.
The French international is the best passer among all big men in the league, with 4.1 assists per game, and averages a double-double of 11.9 points and 11.5 boards, as the fourth-best rebounder in the entire league.
Another Frenchman, Ian Mahinmi, continues along the lines of his solid last season at Dallas and seems to be a good fit on the Indiana Pacers, who are marching second in the East.
Mahinmi averages 5.3 points and 3.9 rebounds in approximately 17 minutes of action per night.
The Atlanta Hawks look like they will not miss out on a play-off spot and they have a double European presence at center.
Zaza Pachulia of Georgia has struggled for form for long stretches this season but is still contributing 5.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, while his French team-mate Johan Petro has 3.1 points and 2.5 boards on average in the 21 games he's featured in so far this year.
One European center that will not go through the play-offs experience but has impressed enormously this season is Nikola Vucevic of the Orlando Magic.
The Montenegrin international averages 12.2 points and is the fifth-leading rebounder in the league with 11.4 boards per game, having exploded in his second season in the NBA.
Vucevic was a starter in all 65 games so far and his minutes on the floor, along with his stat lines, have more than doubled since his rookie season at the Philadelphia Sixers.
Over the Canadian border in Toronto meanwhile, Andrea Bargnani and Jonas Valanciunas have been heavily influenced by the Raptors' troubles this season.
The Italian veteran is sidelined with injury and will not play again in this campaign, while the Lithuanian rookie also had his fare share of health troubles this season and is averaging 7.1 points and 5.6 rebounds, but has established himself as a starter and shown great potential for the future.
Another rookie European center, Ukraine's Viacheslav Kravtsov, is finally getting minutes on the floor in the last couple of months and has now featured in 19 games, contributing 3.3 points and 1.7 boards.
Kevin Seraphin of France will also not see play-off action with the Washington Wizards but has been a solid presence on the team of the capital, averaging 9.2 points and 4.5 rebounds in his third season in the NBA.