Top 10 naturalized players in EuroBasket history

Giorgos Kyriakidis
Staff Writer
2022-08-29 07:59

A few days before the EuroBasket 2022 tips off, BasketNews presents the 10 best naturalized players that left an indelible mark in previous tournaments.

Credit: FIBA Media/Getty Images
Credit FIBA Media/Getty Images

Over the last decades, FIBA ​​regulations have broken down many barriers. One of them is to allow players to wear the jersey of a national team representing a country different than their place of origin. 

In those 'games without frontiers', basketball federations have been granted permission to use up to one player whose passport hadn't been issued before the age of 16. Perhaps, the most illustrious example in the upcoming EuroBasket is Turkey's Shane Larkin, whose naturalization could potentially and single-handedly change the status and the chances of Ergin Ataman's squad in the tournament.

Of course, Larkin's case isn't unique. In Spain, the federation and its president Jorge Garbajosa faced severe criticism for their decision to welcome Lorenzo Brown as their eleventh naturalized player ever to the national team.

Credit Federación Española de Baloncesto

Gregor Fucka

Gregor  Fucka
Position: PF
Age: 51
Height: 215 cm
Weight: 103 kg
Birth place: Slovenia

Apart from being a star-studded competition, this EuroBasket also provides a platform for more players holding new citizenship than the one originally acquired to gain visibility and pursue some of the glory and recognition that club competitions might lack.

In this vein, we're going to witness - among others - Dee Bost (Bulgaria), Thad McFadden (Georgia), John Roberson (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Jaleen Smith (Croatia), and AJ Slaughter (Poland).

The list goes on to include some of the tournament's biggest names. Slovenia has Mike Tobey, who aided Luka Doncic at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, while Greece's backcourt will be boosted by Tyler Dorsey, who had played next to their Giannis Antetokounmpo at the 2016 Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Torino. 

In some cases, like Montenegro, two naturalized players are fighting for the single spot available. Jonah Radebaugh is the older in the pair, including Kendrick Perry. 

With John Petrucelli being left out of Italy's final selection, 11 out of this EuroBasket's 24 teams have a naturalized player in their ranks. That number is likely to grow in the next few years.

For quite some time, Spain had been the country to recruit non-native players, even in an era when those weren't exactly in fashion.

From the Americans Wayne Brabender, Clifford Luyk, and Mike Smith, to the Dominican Chicho Sibilio, and from the Argentinian Juan Domingo de la Cruz to the Congolese Serge Ibaka and the Montenegrin Nikola Mirotic, no other country has gained as much from naturalized athletes over the last decades. 

Some of them appeared in only one tournament, others kept playing with their teams for many years. In any case, other countries followed, and that's why several naturalized players did not only win medals but actually contributed to their teams' accomplishments. 

BasketNews lists the ten most influential naturalized players in EuroBasket history, taking both individual and team accolades into consideration. 

10. A.J. Slaughter (Poland - 2015, 2017, 2022)

If we're talking about longevity in a naturalized player's career with a national team in the modern era, then AJ Slaughter might be our man. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Slaughter had never played professionally in Poland but still managed to become a Polish citizen in June 2015. 

Credit Pawel Pietranik via www.imago-images.de

His maiden tournament was EuroBasket 2015 in France, where Poland was eliminated by future champs Spain in the Round of 16. However, following his first and only EuroLeague season with Panathinaikos, the American-born guard registered 9.5 points and 5.0 assists per game.

Slaughter doubled his EuroBasket appearances in Helsinki, Finland, two years later, but his team only won one out of their five games in the group stage. Despite his increased numbers (14.0 points, 4.0 assists), he only got to play in three outings due to injury, and his impact was minimal. 

Now, having recently turned 35, he's set to make his third EuroBasket and fourth major tourney overall with Poland after showing up at the 2019 World Cup in China.

9. Chris Kaman (Germany, 2011)

Pound for pound the biggest name on this list. Born in Michigan in 1982, Kaman had been a lottery pick (No.6) in the 2003 NBA Draft and an All-Star in 2010. He played throughout his entire 13-year-long career in the world's best league.

Before joining Dirk Nowitzki at the Dallas Mavericks in 2012, he had concluded his cycle with the German NT next to the retired legend. 

Although he did not speak any German at the time, he acquired German citizenship in July 2008 due to his great-grandparents being German and made his national team debut at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Athens, which gave Germany the ticket to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Credit Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images

Kaman re-joined the German national team for EuroBasket 2011, held in Lithuania. Despite leading the squad coached by Dirk Bauermann on offense (15.5 points per game) and rebounds (10.0 per contest), Germany didn't make the quarter-finals, losing the crucial game (75-84) to the hosts. They ended up 9th.

Without Dirk by his side, Kaman posted double-double averages, but he had no help from any other player. That was his last participation with Germany in any tournament. 

8. Serge Ibaka (Spain, 2011)

Serge Ibaka was born in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, but moved to Spain to pursue basketball as a teenager. He played professionally for CB L'Hospitalet in the second division.

After being drafted, he opted to stay in Spain to work on his game and spent the 2008-09 season with Basquet Manresa. Being a first-round pick by the Seattle Supersonics, which later became the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Congolese big man made his NBA debut in 2009. 

Ibaka, whom the Spanish government spokesman, Jose Blanco, renamed 'Ikea', obtained citizenship on July 15, 2011, a few days before the EuroBasket began.

Credit Christian Liewig/CORBIS.COM (Photo by liewig christian/Corbis via Getty Images

Although Juan Carlos Navarro was the undisputable MVP and Ibaka mainly had to play third fiddle next to the Gasol brothers, Spain's naturalized player was a force to be reckoned with in the paint, averaging 7.1 points and 3.9 rebounds in the tournament.

Spain got over their slow start and galloped all the way to their second straight gold medal. 

Ibaka made the cut once again at the 2012 London Olympics, but that was the last of him with the 'Roja' jersey. In the competitions that followed, Nikola Mirotic was the one taking up the single naturalized player's spot. 

In an interview with Marca in 2017, the three-time NBA All-Defensive First Team member said: "I always liked playing with the national team, and I would be excited to return. So, if they call me, fine. If it's him (Mirotic), then that's the way it is. But it's a situation that doesn't allow me to have my heart 100% in it.

I also don't want to force anyone to call me. In the end, it's like a poker game: those who choose have to find their best option." 

Right now, that 'best option' is called Lorenzo Brown. 

7. Nikola Mirotic (Spain, 2015)

Born in Titograd of former Yugoslavia, Nikola Mirotic is an ethnic Serb who holds dual citizenship from both Montenegro and Spain. Mirotic was a Spanish junior national team. As had been the case with Luka Doncic a few years later, he moved to Spain in 2005 at the age of 14 to join Real Madrid's junior team. 

He got to spend a total of nine years in the country, becoming one of the Blancos' core players after 2010.

That year was a milestone in Mirotic's career, as he helped Spain's U20 national team win the bronze medal at the FIBA Europe Under-20 Championship, where he was named to the All-Tournament Team. As he continued to flourish as one of the EuroLeague's top names, his promotion to the men's team was a matter of time. 

Sergio Scariolo included him in the 12-man roster for EuroBasket 2015, where Spain had Pau Gasol in beast mode leading them to glory.

Mirotic, Gasol's teammate at the Chicago Bulls back then, registered 18 points in a hard-fought quarter-final win over Greece before taking a back seat and enjoying the ride in the next two games.

Still, the current FC Barcelona forward finished the EuroBasket with 12.7 points and 4.9 rebounds per contest. His numbers were even better in the 2016 Olympics (12.9 points, 5.6 rebounds), where Spain took third place.

Nevertheless, Mirotic's run with Spain came to an abrupt halt in 2017. One month before the tournament kicked off, the player decided to withdraw from consideration ahead of the EuroBasket due to uncertainty over his NBA future.

Mirotic had just become a free agent after spending two seasons with the Chicago Bulls and didn't want to risk any injuries, thus missing out on the chance to go up against the country of his birth, Montenegro.

He also missed out on another bronze medal that Spain won in that tournament, the last for their so-called 'golden generation' and legends like Pau and Marc Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, Sergio Rodriguez, and Fernando San Emeterio.

Credit Europa Press/Europa Press via Getty Images

6. Chicho Sibilio (Spain - 1981, 1983, 1985, 1987)

Hailing from the Dominican Republic, a promising young man named Candido Sibilio landed in Spain to join the ranks of FC Barcelona. The year was 1976, and no one was prepared for what the forward from San Cristobal had in store. 

Sibilio acquired Spanish citizenship on June 16 1977, despite competing in the 1975 American Centrobasket with his native country, playing mostly as a center.

His scoring ability and rare outside shooting made him indispensable in the Spanish national team, with which he debuted at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. 

From then on until 1987, Sibilio was a Spanish NT regular. He had 87 official matches under his belt, scoring a total of 1.324 points, 15.2 per game.

The climax came at the 1983 EuroBasket in Nantes, where Spain won the silver medal, and Sibilio produced 17.4 points on average.

However, it all went downhill from there. Following the 1987 Athens EuroBasket, Sibilio's relationship with the Spanish federation suffered a serious blow, gradually leading to the breakup.

The Caribbean player was asking for financial compensation for not being able to play in the summer league of his home country in case he was selected to the national team, a request that the federation refused to accommodate.

Credit FEB

Even after his retirement, Sibilio worked as a coach in the Dominican Republic and not in Spain, where he had spent almost his entire professional career. He passed away in his country of birth on August 10, 2019. He was only 60. 

5. Wayne Brabender (Spain - 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1979, 1981)

Only those over 60 will probably remember him, but Wayne Brabender (as well as his Real Madrid and Spanish NT teammate, Clifford Luyk) had a huge impact on Spanish and European basketball. 

Brabender was an American forward who arrived in Spain in 1967 at the request of the late coaching legend Pedro Ferrandiz. Over the course of a few years, the blond-haired player grew into a continental star. 

In May 1968, he became a Spanish citizen but had to wait for a year to be able to debut with the national team. It was in Badalona, on May 10, 1969, in a friendly game in which Spain defeated Cuba 93-53.

Credit FEB

Brabender played a total of 190 games with Spain, which makes him the naturalized player with the most games in the team's history. That's quite an accomplishment, considering how many athletes acquired the Spanish passport after him.

No one could have matched his tally of six EuroBaskets and ten major competitions overall, including two World Championships and as many Olympic Games. 

His pinnacle with Spain came in EuroBasket 1973, where his side lost to Yugoslavia in the final after having previously knocked down the Soviet Union, putting a stop to their amazing streak of eight straight wins.

Brabender, 28 at the time, emerged as the tournament's MVP and one of its leading scorers with an average of 19.7 points per game. 

He was named one of FIBA's 50 Greatest Players in 1991 and was chosen as one of the 50 most influential personalities in European professional club basketball, over the previous half-century, by the EuroLeague Basketball Experts Committee in 2008.

4. Bo McCalebb (North Macedonia, 2011)

The epitome of the one-tournament wonder, Bo McCalebb led North Macedonia (then FYROM) to the EuroBasket semifinals in 2011. 

Hailing from New Orleans, McCalebb had already solidified his reputation for being a prolific scorer after a couple of great EuroLeague campaigns with Partizan Belgrade and Montepaschi Siena.

However, he became a member of a European national team before he entered his third season as a pro in the summer of 2010.

Credit Fotodiena.lt/R.Dačkus

"I was playing in Serbia last year, and I got a call from the Macedonians - they asked me to play for them," McCalebb explained to the New York Times. "I didn't ask any questions about the place," he said. "I just said, 'Yes,' and I got a plane for Skopje the next day."

Three days later, Bo McCalebb had turned into Borche McCalebbovski, a citizen of a country he was previously only vaguely aware of. His only obligation was to spend one month in the Balkan country every year to maintain his status as a native player.

As Dejan Lekic, general secretary of the Macedonian basketball federation explained, every team has the right to a naturalized player.

"He liked our country, we liked him, and he became 100% Macedonian. We have not paid for the passport, our budget is very low, and it would not allow us to carry out such operations." 

One of the best point guards in Europe at the time, McCalebb was North Macedonia's main offensive weapon on a team that upset the hosts Lithuania in the quarter-finals and closed the tournament in 4th place, following the losses to Spain and Russia.

His impressive numbers (21.4 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game) earned him an All-EuroBasket Team selection.

Two years later, McCalebb tried to reprise his role as 'Macedonian hero' but came up short. Despite averaging 17.6 points and 3.2 rebounds, his team finished the 2013 EuroBasket with only one win in five games and an early exit.

3. Anthony Randolph (Slovenia, 2017)

"Congratulations to Slovenia for having played an amazing tournament, to coach (Igor) Kokoskov, who did very well, even if they had (Anthony) Randolph's help. If a player is good enough, he should play for his national team. This story of false passports must end."

Serbia's coach Sasha Djordjevic had some reasons to be bitter after Slovenia had edged out his team in the 2017 EuroBasket final game. Randolph's naturalization probably shouldn't have been one of them. 

Credit FIBA Media

Regardless of the widespread practice of citing reasons of emergency or ascribing national interests to sports, Randolph greatly impacted Slovenia's success in that tournament.

Born by American parents in the western part of Germany in 1989, before the wall went down, Randolph represented Team USA at the 2015 Pan American Games, where he won bronze.

By then, he was already playing in Europe for Lokomotiv Kuban. Ironically, it only took him only a couple of years to acquire Slovenian citizenship and join a squad spearheaded by Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic. 

Slovenia made an exceptional run in Helsinki and Istanbul, winning every game on the road to the top of the podium (9-0). Randolph was an important piece, contributing 11.7 points and 5.2 rebounds in 24 minutes per contest.

In the tournaments to follow, starting from the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, he has been replaced by Mike Tobey. 

2. Gregor Fucka (Italy - 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001)

Standing at 215 cm (7'1") and possessing the skills of a guard, 1999 EuroBasket champion and MVP Gregor Fucka was clearly a player ahead of his time.

Italy had had some naturalized players before, like Mike D'Antoni (who also played at the 1989 EuroBasket in Zagreb), but no one was as successful as Fucka.

Slovenian by birth, he arrived in Italy at the age of 19 to play for Stefanel Trieste. Like many players at that time, due to the ongoing war conflict in the Balkans, he was forced to move to a country bordering his own. 

Credit Jon Buckle/EMPICS via Getty Images

His talent didn't go unnoticed, and soon, the tall boy from Kranj joined Italy's junior squads. He later became one of the cornerstones of the men's team, especially under the guidance of coaches Ettore Messina and Bogdan Tanjevic.

Fucka won silver in EuroBasket 1997 in Barcelona, averaging 13.6 points and 4.0 rebounds, and gold in the 1999 version hosted in France, where he contributed 11.2 points and 4.9 boards.

He also played at the 1998 FIBA World Championship (selected to the All-Tournament Team), as well as at the 1995 and 2001 EuroBaskets.

With Italy, Fucka scored a total of 1889 points in 163 games (11.6 on average), being the 7th scorer in the history of the Azzurri. 

1. JR Holden (Russia - 2005, 2007)

The main reason JR Holden tops this list is that he made the shot that decided the EuroBasket 2007 final in Madrid. Pau Gasol, who saw Holden steal the ball from him at the beginning of Russia's game-winning play, came very close to redeeming himself with a last-second jumper.

But the Spanish legend missed, and Russia celebrated their first and only continental title to this day. 

Although Holden's numbers in that tournament were far from impressive (11.6 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game), he made the difference when it mattered.

He put up 15 points against France in the quarter-finals and another 18 vs. Lithuania in the semis. His 90.9% (20/22) from the free-throw line counterbalanced his poor (28.6%) percentage from behind the arc.

Born in Pittsburgh, Holden arrived at CSKA Moscow in 2002 and immediately caught on. So much so that the Russian basketball federation quickly granted him a passport.

On October 20, 2003, he became a Russian citizen by decree of President Vladimir Putin, mainly because the federation's rules restricted the number of Americans allowed to play in the Russian league. 

In return, Holden improved the game and the competitiveness of the Russian squad, then coached by David Blatt, to the point of even bringing it to the top of Europe.

His first international tournament was EuroBasket 2005 in Belgrade, where his terrible shooting night in the quarter-final game against Greece (4/19 FG) was one of the factors that sentenced the Russians to elimination. 

Credit REUTERS/Victor Fraile

However, the same didn't apply to his national team career, which turned out to be short-lived. Holden played at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where Russia didn't make it past the preliminary round.

The two-time EuroLeague champion (2006, 2008) was shortly after replaced by Kelly McCarty, a two-time EuroCup champ (2004, 2011) ahead of the 2009 EuroBasket in Poland.

His stint was short yet sweet. 



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Jose Medina
Have you forgotten Macabbi with 5 players?
2022-08-31
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