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Pau Gasol’s NBA legacy lives on through the European players who followed him

When David Stern called Pau Gasol’s name with the 3rd overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft, there were a total of 44 international players in the NBA.

Of those 44 players, only eight had exceeded 2,000 minutes played during the season prior. When the Spaniard played his final minutes in the NBA in 2019, the number of international players in the league had blossomed to 116. Nearly 30 of those 116 players had cracked the 2,000 minutes played threshold.

Over the course of Gasol’s near-two decades in the league, the NBA’s international landscape completely changed.

It all starts with the way NBA talent evaluators can scout international prospects. Today, streaming and social media help the process because game footage and player information are readily available, leaving no stone unturned for franchises’ scouting departments.

Players like Tony Parker (France), Vladimir Radmanovic (Yugoslavia/Serbia), Raül López (Spain), Mehmet Okur (Turkey), Antonis Fotsis (Greece) and Robertas Javtokas (Lithuania) had a wildly different experience than today’s international stars like Victor Wembanyama.

It seems like a century has passed since the days when international players had to deal with unfair stereotypes about their game based on the country they came from.


Two of the league’s leading MVP candidates — Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo — were not born in the United States. Nor were four of the five leading scorers in the NBA this season, which is why international players are starting to be evaluated more fairly. No clichés, no preconceived notions — they’re judged purely on their play.

Gasol’s instant impact and long-lasting legacy was just the beginning of that turn for players overseas.

Gasol entered the NBA as a scrawny 7-foot forward who “likes to face the rim, can handle the ball and has skills,” as Gary Fitzsimmons, the Warriors general manager in 2001, told ESPN. He quickly earned the league’s respect, playing at the highest level possible from the get-go.

In his first year in the league, he was already matching up against a future MVP like Kevin Garnett, he beat out Richard Jefferson in the battle for Rookie of the Year and he was following Dirk Nowitzki’s footsteps as one of the best international players in the NBA.

Gasol’s success was responsible for a major change in the NBA’s style of play, as the Barcelona product was never the strongest player on the court but found a way to make an impact with his soft shooting touch, sneaky quickness, keen passing and sharp defensive IQ at 7-feet tall.

As a result, we started to see teams scout tall, crafty and versatile Europeans in the draft every year. Some were more successful than others, but it was clear that the Grizzlies’ home run swing on Gasol had not gone unnoticed by the league.

Teams started searching high and low to find “the next Gasol” or “the next Nowitzki.” They made it infinitely more possible for international players to make the NBA instead of staying home and playing in the Euroleague or other local leagues.

“He was really important [for European players],” Slovenian veteran Goran Dragic told The Sporting News at the 2023 NBA Paris Games.

“He was one the best forwards/fives, he could play both positions. What he did for European basketball was unbelievable. What he achieved in the NBA, he had a tremendous career. I’m really happy for him. It was always tough to play against him. It’s only right (the Lakers) retire his jersey, he had a Hall of Fame career.”

Dragic credited Gasol, as well as other European legends, for breaking down the barrier that prevented players overseas from reaching the NBA.

“When you play in the NBA, you tend to forget about the players before us,” Dragic continued. “When Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc came into the league, it was a little bit different. European players didn’t have many chances so they had to battle for them.

“They helped Pau, helped me, and now we can see that European players are dominating. Giannis [Antetokounmpo], Luka [Doncic], [Nikola] Jokic, those are the guys that are the MVPs of the NBA. It’s pretty awesome to see how European basketball has impacted the NBA.”

Former Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah shared some kind words on Gasol’s behalf as well.

“Pau was a special talent,” Noah told The Sporting News.

“Very skilled, very competitive. I was very happy to share the court with him. He’s an even better person off the court. Always caring about others, always being supportive of the younger guys. I only have great words to say. It’s tough we lost to him in the Finals of Eurobasket (in 2011), but he was a true champion at the highest level.”

By the time Gasol retired, he left his mark on the NBA record books. He ranked in the top 40 all-time in scoring, top 30 all-time in total rebounds and top 25 all-time in blocks.

Gasol’s legacy goes well beyond his 18 seasons in the best league in the world. His career served as a bridge for European players to reach the NBA.

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