Feature | Basketball

Ten European stars to watch in the 2020/21 NBA season

Giannis, Luka, Jokic, Porzingis, the Gasols, Rubio... stars from Greece, Serbia, Lithuania, Spain and beyond get ready to light up the NBA this season.

By Ken Browne ·

Feel like the NBA never went away? You're not the only one. Just 71 days after LeBron James and the LA Lakers sealed a historic 17th NBA Championship showtime for the new 2020/21 season begins today, December 22.

And while King James shows no signs of letting up, despite turning 36 next week, we're going to take a look at the European players out to steal the limelight.

The number of foreign players in the NBA has soared over the last few decades.

Why? Blame Michael Jordan.

When he and the Dream Team took the show on the road to the Barcelona 1992, it ignited a blaze of interest across the world and helped turn basketball into one of the most popular sports in the planet.

Everybody wanted to be like Mike.

On the opening day of the 1991-92 season, NBA rosters included 23 international players from 18 countries.

By 2019-20 there were 108 international players from 38 countries and territories.

European players really made their presence felt in 2018-19 with Greece's Giannis Antetokounmpo named league MVP, Rookie of the Year going to Luka Doncic of Slovenia, France's Rudy Gobert taking the Defensive Player of the Year gong, and Nikola Jokic named to the All-NBA First Team.

Last season, Antetokounmpo retained his MVP title and took Defensive Player of the Year honours with Doncic, Jokic and Gobert all picked as All-Stars along with Lithuanian Domantis Sabonis.

Scroll down to check out ten European players who'll set the league on fire this season too.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo - Milwaukee Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo is an MVP on a mission.

'The Greek Freak' has improved his points per game average every single season in the NBA, popping 29.5 points a game this past term - two more points per game than his first MVP season in 2018-19, with his rebounds up from 12.5 to 13.6.

Giannis just signed up for five more years with Milwaukee who pulled off a major coup by keeping the best in the game.

He only turned 26 on 6 December, meaning there's plenty of time for him to get even better.

Luckily for the Bucks, the bright lights of Los Angeles or New York couldn't tempt him away with the Greek megastar hoping they can build a team around him.

Former All-Star guard Jrue Holiday and two-time All-Star small forward Khris Middleton have come in to help share the workload.

Holiday's slick playmaking and perimeter scoring threat allied to the relief that Middleton will give Giannis should strengthen the squad, but with the The Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics all breathing down their necks in the Eastern Conference it won't be easy.

Now more than ever, much rests on Giannis' shoulders as he aims to achieve mythical status in Milwaukee.

2. Luka Doncic - Dallas Mavericks

When Luka Doncic rocked up in the NBA as a 19-year-old Euroleague champ with Real Madrid and Eurobasket hero with Slovenia, many asked if he could make it in the big time.

Doncic answered all those questions on the court with the 2019 NBA Rookie of the Year and an All-Star appearance last season, and at 21 there's so much more to come.

He exceeded all expectations in his second season averaging 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists.

When asked who he thinks is going to win the championship in the 2020/21 Doncic replied: "Which team is not going to have [COVID] positive people."

He's funny as well as talented.

"This season is going to be way better than last season," he also said, explaining that the Mavs had been disciplined by defeat and learned from mistakes in big moments last season.

But without any major acquisitions, the Mavericks will rely on Latvian big man Kristaps Porzingis and even more on Doncic to continue his meteoric rise.

3. Nikola Jokic - Denver Nuggets

At 2.13m (7'0) tall, Nikola Jokic shouldn't be able to do the things he does... But he does. His passing vision in particular is mindblowing for a man of his size.

The Denver Nuggets secured the No. 3 seed in the West last season and went on a run in the Conference Finals.

It all happened around Jokic, the other players like planets in orbit around a big Serbian sun.

Averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists per game, the argument that Jokic is the best centre in the NBA right now is trending.

He's was named to last season's All-NBA Second Team, behind the Lakers' Anthony Davis, having been in the First Team the term before.

Equally comfortable throwing shapes in the paint as he is picking off distance shooters and dropping mid-range shots with his eyes closed, he's certainly the most complete centre in the league.

In the play-offs, the electricity between Jokic and Jamal Murray was visible and this new season he also has Argentinian recruit Facu Campazzo to bounce off.

With plenty of talent whirling around him, Jokic and the Nuggets' fans have plenty to look forward to this term.

4. Rudy Gobert - Utah Jazz

Gobert, much like Giannis, has just signed a massive five-year deal worth US$ 205m with the Jazz, and the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is ready to prove his worth.

"It means that they believe in me," the man known as 'The Stifle Tower' told ESPN. "They believe in what we've been building over the years with this whole organisation, with Coach [Quin Snyder] and all the guys.

Gobert contributed 15 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks a game in the campaign gone by, a versatile ball winner who provides a platform for co-star Donovan Mitchell to sparkle.

The 2.16m (7'1") Frenchman has lofty ambitions in his eighth season in Salt Lake City.

"For me, my goal is to always win a championship," he added, before explaining why he refused the 'supermax' deal which would have entitled him to the same terms - US$ 228m over five years - as Giannis at the Bucks.

"I want to win, and I feel like leaving this money on the table for the team just to be able to have better talent around me and Donovan was really important. I want to win, and I believe in this group and I believe in this organisation, and I was willing to leave that money on the table for them."

5. Pau and Marc Gasol at the LA Lakers?

At 40, superstar centre Pau Gasol is dreaming of the perfect ending.

At the beginning of December, the much-loved big man said he'd love to join brother Marc at the Lakers where he won back-to-back NBA rings with Kobe Bryant in 2009-10.

The two brothers won silver medals side-by-side for Spain at the Beijing 2008 and the London 2012 Olympics, losing out on both occasions to the USA.

Pau is planning one final tilt at the Olympic podium in Tokyo, after which he told Olympic Channel he'll retire.

He's a free agent right now and will be 41 at Tokyo 2020, while Marc, 35, has joined LeBron James and Anthony Davis' championship-winning team in Los Angeles.

The younger Gasol has his own winners' ring from Toronto two seasons ago and brings much to the table for the Lakers who have been active off-season, the reigning champs looking to double down on their bubble triumph at Disneyworld.

Marc brings a different threat for the Lakers and coach Frank Vogel is clear about what he adds to the mix.

"It's really remarkable the skillset Marc has at his size, the intelligence and ability to read defenses and whatnot."

James said he's "happy as hell" about Marc Gasol's arrival.

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6. Kristaps Porzingis - Dallas Mavericks

Standing 2.21m tall (7'3") Latvian colossus Kirstaps Porzingis is set to miss the start of the season as he recovers from knee surgery in October.

The centre suffered the injury in the first-round series opener against the LA Clippers in the bubble in August, tearing the meniscus in his right knee.

Word is that Dallas are hoping to have him back in early January but don't want to rush things.

Porzingis missed the entire 2018-19 campaign after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while at the New York Knicks.

He was a key contributor last season, averaging 20.4 points and 9.5 rebounds in his first season with Dallas and has a powerful understanding with Doncic.

Luka will want him back holding court ASAP.

7. Domantas Sabonis - Indiana Pacers

2020 NBA All-Star Domantis Sabonis is projected to make a big impact again this season.

The all-court American-Lithuanian has gone from best sixth man in the league to starting-five fixture and the 24-year-old's numbers are rising.

Averaging 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game, Sabonis makes an impact at both ends with his influence as a leader growing.

For the Pacers really improve this season, playmaker Malcolm Brogdon will have to up his game and connect with a Victor Oladipo looking to rediscover his own All-Star form after injuries which have hampered his last two campaigns.

More pressure on Sabonis to step it up again might see him light a fire under this team.

8. Nikola Vucevic - Orlando Magic

Montenegrin centre Nikola Vucevic was sensational after the restart in the bubble for the Magic, averaging 20.4 points per game shooting 53% overall and 40% on 3-pointers in the seeding games.

And though Orlando fell in the first-round playoff series, Vucevic was a joy to watch against the Bucks averaging 28 points a game and showing that he can perform under pressure.

Without any big new arrivals at the Magic, all the improvement will have to come from within.

Orlando's 2019 first-round draft pick Chuma Okeke is fit again after a torn ACL saw the forward miss all of last season, while shooting guard Dwayne Bacon should make a difference too.

But the Magic is heavily reliant on 'Vooch'.

His shooting from deep is something to watch and, encouraged by his coach to attempt eight long-range shots or more per game, could see him break the three-pointer record for a centre.

Led by the Montenegrin maestro, Orlando will have to improve individually and collectively to avoid a third consecutive first-round playoff exit.

9. Ricky Rubio - Minnesota Timberwolves

Ricky Rubio says he's home.

The Spanish point guard spent seven years at the Wolves when he arrived from Barcelona in 2009 freshfaced and full of NBA dreams.

Now he's returned at 30 years old, says he's in the prime of his career and he wants to win. Minnesota may just have put together a roster capable of doing something special too with 2020 No.1 overall pick Anthony Edwards joining forces with stand-outs D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Rubio was outstanding at the FIBA 2019 World Cup, walking off with the tournament MVP award and leading Spain to victory.

He wasn't bad at Phoenix either last season averaging 13 points and 8.8 assists, shooting a career-best 36.1% on three-pointers.

But he also brings valuable experience and leadership to a team packed with hungry young Wolves.

“I feel like having good veterans like I had during my career really helped me improve my game," he said, reported on AP.

"When you’re a youngster, you believe that everything has to go super fast, especially the kids right now, they have Instagram, they have everything they want right now. It seems like success has to happen right away.

"I feel like it can really help through all the ups and downs that the season has as a team.”

10. Dennis Schroeder - Los Angeles Lakers

After successful stints in Atlanta and Oklahoma City, Germany's Dennis Schroeder is part of the Lakers' reboot as they bid for back-to-back titles.

A pacey point guard with a wide spectrum of passing and disruptive defensive skills, LeBron James has already christened him 'Dennis the Menace'.

Coach Vogel calls him the “speeding bullet” and sees him on the court a lot with the King this season.

“That’s a huge part of this year’s plan, to have Dennis out there with LeBron, alleviating some of the pressure,” Vogel said.

“But it’s also his ability to play off the ball, that’s what we love about him. They’re going to see heavy, heavy minutes together throughout this year.”

But despite his coach's confidence and James' approval, Schroder knows his place.

“End of the day, if [James] is on the court, he’s going to handle it. I think me off the ball, I’m doing a pretty decent job of running, backdoor cuts, and whatever I need to do,” he said.

Anything less than a second straight NBA Championship title will feel like a failure in Lakers Nation, but Schroeder can help them put up a strong title defence.