I started my list of the best basketball stars American fans never saw nearly two weeks ago in this article. I planned on releasing the rest of the list shortly after, but a commenter offered Greek statistics for the 90s, and I did not want to finish the list until I was able to add that information to my projections. This proved worthwhile, as three Greek Leaguers rate among the best players never to play in the NBA.
A short reminder, my goal here is to use the international projection model I developed (here, here, and here) to identify European Stars who never came to the NBA, but could have been successful. Previously, I revealed the backend of the list, mostly players who could have hung-around as bench players but likely nothing more.
Here is a reprint of the reference I posted in part 1 to help put scores into context:
Today I present the top 14 scorers, all athletes equal to or above the Marko Jaric line. These are international stars projected to have been heavy rotation players, starters, or even stars in the NBA.
[BTW, I have linked highlight videos to each player’s name on the list to help give more context]
#14. Carlton Myers, SG
Italian/English, EWP: 3.6
Carlton Myers was born in London, but his family moved to the small Italian city of Rimini when he was a young boy. Myers stayed in Rimini early in his career, but it eventually became clear he was too big of a talent for 2nd division competition. This was probably the case before he famously scored 87 points in a single game, but if not that certainly settled it. The next season, Myers moved to Bologna, where he spent the prime of his basketball career.
Myers was a dangerous scorer, averaging nearly 25 points per 40-minutes on 62% True Shooting. He scored through a combination of attacking the basket with superior handles and athleticism, and sniping from outside with his ~40% three-point shooting. He was also a solid distributor and defender, collecting just over 3 assists and 2.4 steals per 40-minutes.
Myers collected several championships and personal awards over his career, but he may be best remembered for his duels against crosstown rival Sasha Danilovic. NBA fans know Danilovic for his largely unsuccessful campaigns with Miami and Dallas. Judging by the numbers, Myers is the player who should have taken a shot at the NBA, as he consistently scored a higher expected win peak than Danilovic in the mid-90s. Still, Myers’ expected win peak of 3.6 is not that much higher than Danilovic’ observed 2 wins, which clearly was not enough success to sustain mutual interest between Danilovic and the NBA. It is likely Myers would have ultimately decided he had a better thing going in Italy as well.
#13. Theodoros Papaloukas, PG/SG/SF
Greek, EWP: 3.7
Combining elite court-vision and creativity with a 6’7” frame, “Greek Magic” was one of the best European players in the 2000s. His scoring volume was never impressive, but his efficiency and ability to create for teammates was undeniable. Papaloukas averaged more than 7 assists per 40-minutes across his career, which with American score-keeping likely would have been in double-digits. He was unstoppable in the pick-and-roll, and used his size to demoralize opposing guards in the post, either scoring himself of finding open shooters.
It is reasonable to worry about Papaloukas’ ability to stay in front of NBA point-guards, but he was no slouch on defense, averaging an impressive 2.6 steals per 40-minutes throughout his career. Papaloukas scored a 3.7 in my model, which is good enough to be a major factor off the bench. Given his skillset, he would have best fit into the NBA as a ball-dominant 2nd unit leader.
#12. Velimir Perasović, SG
Croatian, EWP: 4.1
“Peras” was born within a few months of Drazen Petrovic, the greatest Croatian player of all time. He also happened to play the same position, and offered a similar skillset to that of his legendary contemporary. Despite deferring to Petrovic, Peras was the 5th highest scorer on the famous 1990 Yugoslavian National Team, which also included Toni Kukoc and Vlade Divac. While most of Yugoslavia’s stars were signed by NBA teams, Peras spent the 90s in Spain, where he established himself as one of the best European guards of the decade.
Peras was an exceptional shooter. He averaged 42.2% from three on 7 attempts per 40-minutes across his career. He was also comfortable putting the ball on the court and pulling up mid-range, allowing him to tally 24 points per 40-minutes on 62% True Shooting. This was the core of Peras’ game, and clearly identifies what he would have offered to an NBA team. Shooting matters in the NBA, and Peras was good enough to have succeeded as a shooting-specialist off the bench in the NBA.
#11. Felipe Reyes, PF
Spanish, EWP: 4.3
Felipe Reyes’ expected win peak of 4.3 projects him as a high-minute rotation player. I like this, because his game slots right into a classic third/fourth bigman role, the “undersized hustle big.” Reyes is 6’9” with decent athleticism and ball-skills, but that is not what separates him from the pack. Instead, he dominates European competition using consistent effort and aggressiveness. Reyes is a steady source of rebounds and steals (the latter especially when he was younger)… in addition to personal fouls, as he sometimes embraces the physical side of the game too eagerly. Reyes’ most successful offense comes at the free-throw line, where he finds himself eight times every 40 minutes. Beginning about five years ago, he turned this into a deadly weapon by making roughly 80% of his attempts. Parallel to the development of his free-throw efficiency, Reyes added the ability to stretch the floor as a spot-up shooter.
“Lunchpail” players are often overlooked early in their careers, so it is no surprise that Reyes received minimal NBA attention until he was so entrenched in the ACB it was impossible to pry him away. Reyes is still a productive player, captaining Real Madrid and riding the pine with Spain’s National Team at the World Cup in 2014. However, it is likely too late in his career to consider giving the NBA a shot. This is unfortunate, because I think Reyes would have been a fan favorite (and opposing fan least-favorite) wherever he went.
#10. Nikola Vujčić, C
Croatian, EWP: 4.6
Nikola Vujčić just finished one of the more impressive careers in Euroleague history. He never won a Euroleague MVP, but was selected to the All-Euroleague 1st team three times and won two championships as the point-center next to Anthony Parker and Sarunus Jasikevicus on the dominant early-2000s Maccabi Tel Aviv teams.
Vujčić was an excellent offensive weapon, putting up nearly 20 points on 60% True Shooting and doling out 4 assists every 40 minutes. Extremely versatile, he recorded the first two triple-doubles in Euroleague history. There was some definite mutual interest between Vujčić and the NBA, but no offers were good enough to steal him away from Europe.
The major concerns for Vujčić transitioning to the NBA came on the defensive end. He had a reputation for being a soft defender, and was relatively useless protecting the rim. That said, less-explosive high-IQ players often look better in objective measures like RAPM-D than subjective evaluations give them credit for. No guarantee this would hold for Vujčić, but players with his combination of size and savvy usually make their teams better.
#9. Panagiotis Giannakis, PG
Greek, EWP: 4.6
“The Dragon” began his professional basketball career with Ionikos at age 13. His reputation grew from there, eventually leading Boston to select him late in the 1982 draft. Rather than leave Greece, Giannakis signed up to play Goose to fellow Celtic-could-have-been Nikos Galis’ Maverick. The superstar duo led Aris to seven consecutive Greek League titles and carried their partnership over to the successful Greek National Team.
Giannakis was an efficient 15 and 5 guard over the period I have quality data for, but his stat lines may have been more impressive before he teamed up with Galis. In fact, in the 1979 season while still playing for Ionikos, Giannakis led the Greek League with 36.5 points-per-game. He even topped Galis in their ridiculous head-to-head matchup scoring 73 to Galis’ 62, though Galis’ team won the game.
The model projects Giannakis to have been worth 4.6 at his peak in the NBA. That is good enough to be a solid 6th man, or low-end starting point guard.
#8. Dejan Bodiroga, SF
Serbian, EWP: 4.6
I admitted my limit previous exposure to European basketball in the first article of this series. It was not until researching Dejan Bodiroga that I truly regretted my late arrival to the scene. Master of the step-through and popularizer of el latigo (“The Whip”, known as “The Shammgod” state-side), Bodiroga is an amazing showman. I became a fan about 30 seconds into the highlight video linked to his name above. Seriously… watch it… or at least skip to the 4-minute mark where he embarrasses Richard Jefferson and Carmelo Anthony. NBA-exclusive basketball fans really missed out on this guy.
My model projects the 6’9” point-forward to have added 4.6 wins during his peak in the NBA. That is good enough to be a borderline starter or high-quality 6th man. Given his skillset, Bodiroga would have offered an NBA coach tremendous roster flexibility as a 6th man.
#7. Dejan Tomašević, C
Serbian, EWP: 4.9
As far as I can tell, Tomašević was never considered an NBA prospect. Injuries may have been part of the reason, but Tomašević also lacked an outside shot and offered nothing in the way of rim-protection. These limitations would make him difficult to pair into a complete front-court, which likely explains the lack of NBA interest. However, based on his overall production a team should have given him a shot. Tomašević was a tough and uniquely crafty big man. At 6’10” 250 pounds, he averaged 4.2 assists per 40-minutes across his career. Remember, that European leagues are much stingier with assists than the NBA. To put Tomašević’s European assist rate in perspective, he setup teammates at a higher rate than star guards Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro, or Rudy Fernandez.
One possible comparison for Tomašević is Brad Miller, both in stature and skillset. Interestingly Brad Miller also received minimal interest from the NBA, going undrafted out of Purdue, but looked like an excellent prospect by the numbers. Miller ended up a two-time All-Star. I will not assume that level of success for Tomašević, but I wager he could have comfortably slotted into a similar role in the NBA. Tomašević’s expected win peak places him right on the margins of being a typical NBA starter.
#6. Panagiotis Fasoulas, C
Greek, EWP: 5.4
“The Spider” was a lanky 7’ center who played collegiate basketball at N.C. State before being selected 37th overall by the Blazers in 1986. Fasoulas never played in the NBA. Instead, he spent his career with clubs PAOK and Olympiacos in Greece, where he was widely recognized as one of the great European bigs of his generation.
Looking into the numbers, Fasoulas was a pretty standard defensive center. He averaged 4.4 blocks and 12 rebounds per 40-minutes across his career, but offered very little in terms of scoring volume or facilitation. With a score of 5.4. my projection model pegs Fasoulas as a missed NBA starter. I am a bit skeptical given the failure of similar players like Stojko Vrankovic, but I suppose the point of the model is to improve on simple anecdote-based evaluations. Fasoulas was a talented rim-protector and likely would have found a place in the NBA.
#5. Riccardo Pittis, SF
Italian, EWP: 5.4
Riccardo Pittis mixed impressive facilitation with efficient scoring early in his professional career, averaging more than 17 points and 3 assists per-40. Unfortunately, around age thirty a tendon problem forced him to switch shooting hands. This severely limited Pittis’ offensive options. The clearest evidence of this is his sharp decline from a 70% to sub-50% free-throw shooting. Amazingly, Pittis’ overall production barely skipped a beat. He simply doubled-down on his passing skills and continued to be a major contributor for many seasons.
Where Pittis really impresses the projection model is his career average of 3.9 steals per 40-minutes. Pittis consistently rated near the top of both Serie A and Euroleague ball-thieves, even as a 6’8” player in his mid-thirties. Combined with his selfless offense, the freakish steal rate gives Pittis the classic profile of an under-the-radar prospect. Consistent with this, Pittis never received attention as an NBA prospect. This is a shame, since his expected wins peak of 5.4 place him solidly in starter territory. We will never get to see whether Pittis really was Euro-Pippen, or simply a guy with outlier stats who tricks the model.
#4. Marcelo Nicola, SF/PF
Argentinian, EWP: 5.6
Marcelo Nicola was selected 50th overall by the Rockets in the 1993 NBA draft. Two years later, he had his rights thrown into the Clyde Drexler trade. This was the extent of Nicola’s involvement with the NBA.
Despite landing among my top five players never to come to the NBA, Nicola may be the least decorated player on the entire list. His highest personal accolade was making the All-Euroleague second team in 2002, and he is rarely mentioned in conversations about top international players. In 1989, Nicola left Argentina to play for Tau in the Spanish League as an 18-year-old prospect. This was nearly a decade before the “golden generation” of Argentinian stars flooded the NBA and European professional leagues.
This disjoint with his nation’s rise to prominence may help explain Nicola’s relative obscurity, as his production was clearly superior to golden generationers like Wolkowisky, Herrmann, and Oberto. In fact, Nicola’s numbers may even compare favorably to the international statistics of successful NBA combo-forwards Nocioni and Scola:
Not quite the rebounder either of his countrymen were, Nicola’s line is more well-rounded and suited to spending time at small-forward. Nicola could stretch the floor, move the ball, and harass opponents on defense. This comparison is nice to see, since Nicola’s expected win peak of 5.6 puts him just behind Scola’s observed peak of 5.9. It really looks like Nicola could have had a similar impact to Scola’s, only a decade earlier.
#3. Oscar Schmidt, PF
Brazilian, EWP: 7.9
Oscar Schmidt’s rebounding was at best average given his height, his defensive statistics were worse than that, and he had a nearly 1:3 assist-to-turnover ratio. Oscar Schmidt was a scorer, possibly one of the greatest to ever play the game. Schmidt averaged nearly a point every minute in the 80s and early 90s for top-tier Italian clubs Caserta and Pavia, and did so at a phenomenal 68% true shooting. At 6’9”, Schmidt rained threes on opponents at a 10.8 per 40-minutes clip while connecting on 46.5%.
Schmidt was more than just a big fish in a small pond, as he regularly proved he could score against the best players in the world. In three Olympic matchups against Team USA, Schmidt averaged 32 points per 40-mins on 24 shots. Likely his most famous matchup against the United States was not at the Olympics, but the Pan-American Games, where Schmidt hung 46 points (35 in the second half) on a collection of future NBA stars while willing Brazil to an exciting come-from-behind victory.
In sum, Schmidt scored more points in both the Olympics (1,094) and FIBA World Championships (843) than any other player in history. Topping a long list of historic performances on the international scene, he averaged 42 points-per-game on 73% true shooting at the 1988 Summer Olympics. Schmidt’s performance across those 8 games scores higher in my projection model than any player-event of similar length, a full tier above Kevin Durant’s 2012 Olympics which comes in second.
The absence of a well-rounded game is what keeps the model from projecting Schmidt as an NBA superstar. Projection models tend to frown on obligate-scorers in favor of those offering more diverse contributions. That is what makes Oscar’s performance in the model so impressive. He may have been a defensive liability in the NBA, and he definitely would have dominated his team’s offensive identity. However, I believe it would have worked. Oscar Schmidt was just too good of a scorer not to have been a special NBA player.
#2. Nikos Galis, SG
American/Greek, EWP: 8.2
Nikos Galis was born in New Jersey and played in the NCAA, making him the only American on this list (note: I omitted Darryl Middleton and Pete Mickeal, whose scores of 2.6 and 2.9 are good enough to make the back end). However, as a second-generation immigrant who played his entire career in the Greek Leagues and starred for the Greek national team, Nikos Galis is as Greek as gyros and ouzo.
Galis was slower than most special talents to emerge as a star. Across his collegiate career at Seton Hall, he saw his points-per-game climb each season from 3.2, to 12.9, to 17.3, to 27.5 with a parallel improvement in efficiency jumping from 48%, to 51.8%, to 52.1%, 57.6%. Like many late-bloomers, Galis fell a bit under the radar. He was drafted by the Celtics, but an ill-timed injury killed his chance of making the team. Red Auerbach later cited cutting Galis as the biggest mistake of his career. Failing to stick in the NBA, Galis joined Aris B.C. in Thessaloniki, where he ultimately became the greatest player in the history of Greek basketball.
Similar to Oscar, Nikos earned his fame on offense. Across the latter half of Galis’ career (the portion I have data for), he averaged 32 points per 40-minutes at a ridiculously efficient true shooting rate of 69.5%. He also comfortably created for others, averaging 5 assists while only committing 2.6 turnovers. To make sure I am clear, these were Galis’ number in his declining years. I do not have complete rate statistics pre-1989, but Galis averaged 28.4 points-per-game in the sample used for the impressive numbers above, and 38 points-per-game in the nine preceding seasons I am not including.
I have little doubt that Galis could have scored against NBA talent. Unfortunately, his Greek teams never battled Team USA to test that claim. The only supporting anecdote I can find is the time Galis dropped 50 points on Michael Jordan (albeit in an exhibition game as a 26-year-old professional against a 20-year-old college student). Galis’ ability to contribute in the NBA defensively seems more questionable. His rebound, steal and block rates were all very marginal. 6’ tall combo-guards averaging one steal per 40-minutes in Greece are likely liabilities in the NBA. That said, I wager his offense would have carried him.
My model projects Galis to have added 8.2 wins during his peak season in the NBA. That expected production mirrors the actual win peak of Tony Parker, arguably the best European guard to ever play in the NBA. Obviously it is no guarantee Galis would have lived up to this projection, but it is just as likely he would have surpassed it. Galis’ numbers tell the story of a very special NBA player, and I doubt many fans who had the pleasure of watching him in Greece would debate that.
#1. Arvydas Sabonis, C
Lithuanian, EWP: 13
I understand I am cheating a bit here. Sabonis played seven very successful seasons with the Portland Trailblazers, so technically I should not have included him in my list. However, he did not join the NBA until after his prime years, and knees, were behind him. That means NBA fans never actually saw “peak Sabonis.”
Using a simple method to project Sabonis’ NBA production back to his prime years, I estimated an NBA win peak of about 11. This is better than his actual peak of 9, but any standard adjustment fails to account for the fact that his extreme injury condition made Sabonis an atypical 30+ year-old player. One way around this is to project forward from his healthy seasons using my international projection model. Doing this, Sabonis is projected to have been worth 13 wins in his prime, not quite on par with some of the most hyperbolic scout assessments, but a clear-cut superstar.
I do not have much to say about Sabonis that has not been said better before (link, link, link), but this model does give a unique perspective on the question of what prime Sabonis would have looked like in the NBA.