by Casey Jacobsen
Selecting the best basketball player of the past decade at any level is a daunting task. Usually, arguments can be made for several guys. Do individual stats (I.e. Allen Iverson) or winning championships (I.e. Tim Duncan) define the best individuals in a team sport?
When discussing the best international player of the past decade, this is especially difficult because so many of these players have traveled overseas to test their skills against the NBA’s best and, as a result, their international resumes are left incomplete. Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki are two international players who could easily win this award, but their successes the past 10 years have come exclusively in the United States.
I believe the “Best International Player” should be awarded to the best foreigner whose success was achieved outside of the NBA… and maybe even a player that many people have never heard of. To any of those hardcore fans out there who pride themselves on knowing the best players and teams in the world, Nikola Vujcic’s name will be familiar. For those casual fans, he is relatively unknown. Vujcic is the “Best International Player” of the past decade.
Nikola Vujcic, 31, was born in Croatia and grew up playing in his homeland for Split. In 2001, the 6-11, 250-pound center began his decade-long dominance in Europe when he won his first professional championship in the French Pro League with ASVEL Villeubanne, averaging 16 points and 6.5 rebounds. In 2002, he began a six-year stint for well-known club Maccabi Tel Aviv of Israel, joining forces with Anthony Parker, Sarunus Jasikevicus and Derrick Sharp. Vujcic & Co. established a mini-dynasty in the Euroleague during this time.
Maccabi won Euroleague titles in 2004 and 2005, while losing in the finals in 2006 (after beating my team, TAU Ceramica, in the semi-final that year). From 2002-2008, Vujcic helped lead Maccabi to five Israeli league titles, two Euroleague titles, and two more Euroleague Final Four appearances. During the 2004 campaign, he averaged 17 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists while shooting 60 percent from the field and 80 percent from the free-throw line. And although this was his best statistical season, his numbers were incredibly consistent on a team loaded with stars.
Nikola became the first player in the Euroleague modern-era to achieve a triple-double when, in 2005, he recorded 11 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists. The following season, he did it again with a 27-point, 10 rebound, 10 assist performance. What makes these numbers more impressive is the fact that he plays the center position. He wasn’t bringing the ball up the court or running the pick and roll, yet he still was able to make plays for his teammates. Whenever he decides to retire, he will go down as one of the best passing big men in the history of Euroleague basketball.
The lone opportunity I had to compete against Nikola came in the 2006 Euroleague Final Four in Prague. My team, Tau Ceramica of Spain, had just made their second consecutive trip to the Final Four and we were confident that this could be our year. Maccabi Tel Aviv was the best team on the continent, however, and was looking for their third consecutive Euroleague title, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since Arvidas Sabonis’ Real Madrid teams. We knew we were fighting an uphill battle, but Vujcic took all the wind out of our sails from the opening tip.
He scored easily in the post a few times in the 1st quarter to establish his presence and then began setting his teammates up with an array of backdoor passes and post kick-outs to open teammates. Anthony Parker, Maccabi’s other stud that year, also caught fire from the perimeter and entering halftime, it was almost a 20-point lead. The game was already over. Vujcic finished with 16 points (6-8 shooting), 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals in 32 minutes.
I walked away from that game with a newfound respect for him. I knew he was good before I played against him. I read articles and saw his gaudy stats, but you never really appreciate a guy until you play against him (or play with him, which would have been a lot of fun!). It was the biggest game of the Euroleague season, and Vujcic came up with his best performance. That is what great players do and he has done it year after year for most of the past decade.
Nikola has never played a game in the NBA, although it has been written that he was interested in coming to the League a few years ago. Obviously, he never signed a contract and no one will know exactly why, but here might be a few reasons why we never saw him with a Jerry West logo on his shirt:
1) Vujcic is perfect for the European-style of basketball. He wouldn’t have been as good in the NBA. His ability to pass and see the floor made him a special big man. The slower tempo of the game in Europe allows a big man to utilize his passing skills more effectively. Maccabi ran their offense through Vujacic. In the NBA, this wouldn’t have been possible. He would have been left behind on the fast breaks and his offensive touches would have been cut in half, limiting his ability to change a game with his playmaking abilities.
2) He played for Maccabi Tel Aviv, easily the most storied organization in the past decade of European basketball. Maccabi wasn’t going to let him leave to the NBA during his six-year career without a fight.
3) He was a white, “unathletic” center. I don’t want to play the race card, but it has to be mentioned. The modern NBA puts a greater emphasis on athleticism than they ever have in the past. Vujcic wasn’t fast and he couldn’t jump very well and he wasn’t the best defensive player. Those were his physical weaknesses, but he made up for them in other ways. But from an NBA standpoint, he wasn’t as valuable of a commodity.
4) He made too much money in Europe. In order to come to the NBA, he would have been forced to take a pay cut. A big one. There were a few summers where some NBA teams were thinking hard about bringing Vujcic over, but the offers weren’t big enough.
I’m sure many will wonder how Vujcic’s skills would have translated in the NBA, but we will never know. I think that is a good thing. In today’s basketball world where the United States has robbed Europe and other continents of every star in the past 25 years (Dirk, Parker, Nash, Gasol, Petrovic, Schrempf, Kukoc, Divac, Stojakovic, Scola, Navarro, Jasikevičius, Fernandez and eventually Rubio), at least European fans got to keep Vujcic and enjoy his talent the last decade. And the least I could do was give him the credit he deserves.
For more Decade Awards, check out the archive.