NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Monday, December 7, 2015, 4:20 PM
Knicks rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis is already generating debate on whether he’ll be an all-time European-born NBA great.
Monday night’s Knicks-Mavericks matchup will pit master against student, as 37-year-old Dirk Nowitzki and 20-year-old Kristaps Porzingis go head-to-head at the Garden.
Porzingis, the Knicks’ Latvian sensation who has emerged as an early frontrunner in the Rookie of the Year race, grew up watching highlights of Nowitzki, now widely considered the best European basketball player in history. But Nowitzki, who is seventh on the all-time NBA scoring list, didn’t become a superstar overnight. In fact, the German arrived in the league lanky and underweight, unable to bang down low with the bigger bodies of the NBA as a 20-year-old.
Over time, Nowitzki honed his game to become one of the best scorers of all time, European or other. But there’s no denying that so far into his rookie campaign, Porzingis – averaging 14 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1 assist in 21 career games – is ahead of where Nowitzki was at the same age and in the same situation.
To put Porzingis’ hot start in perspective, the News went back to look at the 10 best European players in NBA history and how each fared in their first season in the league.
1. Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Germany
Rookie numbers: 8.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1 assist and 0.6 blocks
Now considered the greatest European NBA player ever, Dirk Nowitzki struggled mightily during his first season in the league.
As mentioned above, the 7-foot Nowitzki largely struggled in his debut NBA season after going ninth overall to the Mavs in 1998. He was young and undersized, shooting just 20.6 percent from three in 47 games. The struggles were brief, however. The next season, Nowitzki raised his scoring average to 17.2. He would average at least 21 points per game for 13 of the next 14 seasons.
2. Pau Gasol, C, Spain
Rookie numbers: 17.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.1 blocks
Gasol was taken with the third overall pick of the 2001 draft by Memphis and turned 21 before the start of the 2001-02 season. Unlike Nowitzki, the Spaniard wasted no time proving his game translated to the NBA en rout to winning Rookie of the Year.
3. Tony Parker, PG, France
Rookie numbers: 9.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.6 rebounds
Four-time NBA champion Tony Parker got an early taste of NBA success, making the playoffs as a 19-year-old with the Spurs in his first season in the league.
The 6-foot-2 Parker obviously has a much different body type than Porzingis, but he’s an apt comparison because of his career path. Both Porzingis and Parker were drafted out of Europe as 19-year-olds (Nowitzki turned 20 five days before the 1998 draft) and jumped right into their respective starting lineups. Parker, though, played the entirety of his rookie season at 19, including the playoffs. Porzingis turned 20 in August.
4. Drazen Petrovic, SG, Croatia
Rookie numbers: 7.6 points and 1.5 assists
The Trailblazers drafted Petrovic in the third round of the 1986 draft, but the Croatian star didn’t join the NBA until the 1989-90 season as a 25-year-old. He struggled in Portland to begin his career, largely because he was being misused as a spot-up three-point shooter, but blossomed after earning a trade to the Nets. In 1992-92, at age 28, Petrovic averaged 22.3 points per game for New Jersey. Tragically, however, Petrovic died in a car accident the ensuing offseason.
5. Peja Stojakovic, SF, Croatia
Rookie numbers: 8.4 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists
A bust in Portland, the late Drazen Petrovic blossomed into an NBA star with the New Jersey Nets.
Peja joined the Kings as 21-year-old in 1998 after being drafted in the 1996 draft. He would go on to become a lethal three-point shooter, finishing his career above 40 percent. But he shot just 32 percent as a rookie. Porzingis is shooting 35.1 percent so far this season.
6. Vlade Divac, C, Serbia
Rookie numbers: 8.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks
As a 21-year-old rookie with the Lakers, Divac came off the bench and only averaged 19.6 minutes per game. He became a full-time starter the following season. At the end of his career in the early 2000s, he played along Stojakovic on the Kings.
7. Marc Gasol, C, Spain
Rookie numbers: 11.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.1 blocks.
Andrei Kirilenko, who ended his NBA career with the Nets, had a solid rookie campaing for the Jazz, averaging 10.7 points per game.
Long considered just the younger brother of Pau, Marc Gasol has developed into one of the best centers in the NBA. He was a diamond in the rough, going in the second round to the Lakers (48th overall) in the 2007 draft. He was traded to the Grizzlies in February 2008 before making his debut the following fall.
8. Toni Kukoc, F, Croatia
Rookie numbers: 10.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists
Kukoc was another late-arrival from Europe. He was drafted by the Bulls in the second round of the 1990 draft but didn’t make his debut until the 1993-94 season, when he was also 25 years old. Kukoc is best known for being a key piece in Michael Jordan’s 1996-98 title three-peat.
9. Andrei Kirilenko, F, Russia
Rookie numbers: 10.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.9 blocks
On top of having one of the best nicknames in sports (AK-47), Kirilenko put together a very well rounded NBA career. A tremendous defensive player who blocked 3.3 shots per game in 2004-05, the Russian also posted solid offensive stats, three times averaging more than 15 points per game.
10. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, C, Lithuania
Rookie numbers: 13.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks
At 7-foot-3, Ilgauskas stands as tall as Porzingis. He also boasted very similar rookie averages. However, Ilgauskas was not a three-point shooter. He made just one three as a rookie and only 31 for his career – 26 of which came in a two-year stint toward the end of his playing days. Porzingis, meanwhile, is on pace for 78 threes this season alone.