Dirk Nowitzki excited about new European players: 'The skill level has gone through the roof'

2022-09-05 19:17

German legend Dirk Nowitzki met the media in attendance in Milan and shared his views on European players dominating the NBA, citing Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and Drazen Petrovic as unique cases.

Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

Dirk Nowitzki is on a visit to Milan, as FIBA EuroBasket 2022 Ambassador. The German legend, who had his German NT jersey retired last week in a special ceremony held in Cologne, attended all three games in Group C.

He also gave a short, 15-minute long press conference, whereby he answered a variety of questions on FIBA competitions, international basketball, changes in the NBA, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and much more. 

Having one's jersey retired is something unprecedented in FIBA history and BasketNews asked Dirk Nowitzki about how he felt about it.

"It's a huge honor. We couldn't have done it any better. I think it was something that I'll bring with me for the rest of my life. I believe that even in my mind I couldn't have imagined something better than that, with all my family there.

I got goosebumps. I thank FIBA and the German federation for allowing it to happen."

One thing that has stood out so far in Milan is Estonia's fans cheering for their team, no matter what. They're a lot, they're loud and they make their players feel like they're competing at home. Nowitzki couldn't help but sing their praises.

"Fans' support has been amazing in this EuroBasket," Nowitzki initially said. "What Estonians did in the first game was amazing. We're very happy and we've had amazing games so far," he added.

The 44-year-old Dallas Mavericks legend referred to the changes the game has undergone globally.

"The talent level is even higher. There are more teams participating and basketball has taken a step forward globally. If you look at the pool of talent, three Europeans have been amazing in the NBA - Giannis, Luka and Jokic."

To those three, another one could soon be added. It's Franz Wagner, a player who's coming off his rookie NBA season with Orlando and is already turning heads in Cologne. Dirk sees an exciting future lying ahead of his fellow countryman. 

"We're all very excited about his future; how he reads the game, he can shoot, handle pick n rolls... He's become faster and more athletic. He had a great game against Lithuania. We're going to have a lot of fun with him in Germany and Orlando," he pointed out. 

Credit FIBA

Italy's Simone Fontecchio can soon find himself in a similar position. After a solid season with Baskonia, the young forward has skyrocketed his stock and upgraded his game to another level. 

"I'm excited about his talent level," Nowitzki said with sheer enthusiasm.

"He's a great shooter and I'm excited to watch him play. The NBA game is a bit faster and more athletic than FIBA game, but you've got to see yourself as a student. You learn how to prepare for everything.

You ask questions, and pick the brains of guys who've been there: Come early, leave late, show coaches that you want to improve. You got to show that you're there to learn," the German legend said. 

Credit FIBA

One good example of how an NBA rookie should adjust to the other side of the Atlantic is Luka Doncic. Of course, the Slovenian guard is a generational talent, but Dirk emphasizes his work ethic as the factor that can help any player stick to the NBA.

"See what Luka is doing," he said. "Usually, guys come in and develop. The way he reads the game, makes decisions... He's playing like a 30-year-old. I'm super impressed.

His basketball I.Q. is on another level. He's a good kid, has a good heart, and wants to win. Some so many players are fun to watch. The sky's the limit for them." 

Another telling example of how hard work can pay off is Giannis Antetokounmpo. Ironically, Nowitzki joined the Dallas Mavericks in 1998, after being traded by no other than the Milwaukee Bucks, Giannis' current team. Another thing the two have in common is that both have only played pro basketball in the NBA and not in Europe. 

Dirk thinks Giannis is "unbelievable. When I first saw him, he was a skinny kid. He's gotten stronger, and his skill level has improved. He's becoming an even better player every summer.

He's the MVP and champion already. He's a good kid, and keeps getting better. I'm a fan of his," he stressed. 

Recently, former NBA All-Star Gilbert Arenas made some hasty comments about Giannis, saying that the Bucks star "doesn't understand basketball yet." It goes without saying that Nowitzki doesn't share Arenas' views.

"He (Giannis) is one of the best players in the world and has shown it as a champion and an MVP. He is the first one to tell you you can always improve, but if you look at what he is done already at such a young age, he is one of the best," the retired player said. 

Asked about how European basketball has been building since the advent of the Dream Team in 1992, Nowitzki mentioned some keywords: "Popularity and media presence have risen,' he noted.

"Kids get excited, and if the talent pool is bigger , there's more talent to choose from. Hopefully, the overall level in Europe can get even better. The skill level is really good, how they read the game. I'm really impressed. 

The skill level has gone through the roof. It's been tremendous. These guys are good and athletic. To see them get better makes us all proud."

Although the new generation of players looks enticing and promising, the old guard had its charm. Dirk Nowitzki kind of bridges the gap between the pioneers like Vlade Divac and new talent like Luka Doncic.

"Detlef Schrempf and Drazen Petrovic paved the way for us. Then, Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic came. We were proud to have been there."

Referring to the late Croatian legend, Nowitzki declared himself "a big Drazen fan" and added that he "was devastated by his tragedy."

"He was smart and had the mentality of a big shot-maker."

Pointing to the main differences in the game of the past and the present era, Dirk brought an example.

"If you look at the Knicks in the 90s, it was a very physical game. When I came in, we had zone defense, they put the hand-check rule. That's how we European grew up. With the NBA changing, that's why you see the success of Europeans. We can make plays the right time."

Credit FIBA

While the latest FIBA World Cup qualifiers provided the chance for many NBA players to rejoin their national teams ahead of EuroBasket, several injury cases were noticed.

"FIBA is trying to improve the schedule, so that you have your best players. Some of the best countries in the world are in Europe. FIBA is trying to showcase the best talent," Nowitzki commented. 

Always smiling, willing to make photos with fans, and show up for media, Dirk Nowitzki hasc built a reputation for being an accessible superstar. 

"I always tried to play hard and help my team win, making time for fans. I always saw myself as part of the team. I don't know if that's the secret. I've given everything to the sport, having fun with my teammates."

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