Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson and others have defined the game in the Americas. They are all among the best NBA players to ever play the game. But great basketball players from South America have also left a large imprint on the game.
The greatest basketball players from South America have enriched the game with dazzling creativity, toughness, and contagious, competitive passion.
The Dream Team, the U.S. Olympic men’s squad stacked with NBA stars, grabbed massive press coverage attention at the 1992 Barcelona Games. But another big story was brewing in the 1990s and continued to grow in the 21st century: the rise of basketball in South America.
Naturally, South America’s rise didn’t happen overnight. It took stars to inspire and others to follow in their footsteps.
For this column, the landmass south of Panama is referred to as South America. For an upcoming column, North America will include the land from Canada to Panama, including what some call Central America.
Among the greatest basketball players from South America, honorable mention accolades go to Venezuelans Carl Herrera and Greivis Vasquez, Argentines Fabricio Oberto, and Walter Herrmann and Brazilian Maciel Pereira.
The 206-cm Herrera, born in Trinidad, was the first player from Venezuela to appear in an NBA contest. Before that, he earned all-SWAC First-Team honors at the University of Houston in his final collegiate season. Drafted by the Houston Rockets (No. 30 in 1990), he provided a spark off the bench for the title-winning Rockets in the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons.
Herrera began his pro career with Real Madrid in Spain in 1990 but stayed there for just one season. He lasted with the Rockets until 1995. Then competed for the San Antonio Spurs (1995-98) and the Vancouver Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks (1998-99). “Amigo,” as he was known during his playing days, saw court time in 465 regular-season games and averaged 5.3 points and 3.6 rebounds in the NBA. His career continued for another decade in Venezuela.
Vasquez starred for American powerhouse high school Montrose Christian, teaming up with Kevin Durant there, before heading to the University of Maryland. He excelled as a senior and, in 2010, received the prestigious Bob Cousy Award, given annually to the nation’s top college point guard. Memphis then made “General Greivis” the 28th pick in that year’s draft. The well-traveled floor leader appeared in 401 games in the NBA. He averaged a career-best 13.9 points and 9.0 assists for New Orleans in 2012-13. He played his final NBA game for the Brooklyn Nets in the fall of 2016.
Pereira, dubbed “O Rei,” or The King, spearheaded the Brazilian national team during his heyday. Brazil took the bronze at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the gold at the 1963 FIBA World Championship. Those are defining moments in his international career. The 199-cm Sao Paulo native’s pro career included five Brazilian League titles between 1965 with Corinthians and 1981 with Sao Jose dos Campos. He competed from 1960-82 as a pro and passed away in 2002. Pereira was posthumously inducted into the FIBA and Naismith Halls of Fame.
“He instilled fear in the opposition and was one of those rare players who gave his team whatever it needed on that particular night,” Pereira’s Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame bio reads.
Oberto enjoyed a 20-year career (1993-2013) and a slew of achievements with the Argentine national team. His longevity as a national team-caliber player is one of his biggest feats. He played for Argentina’s title-winning squad at the 1995 Pan Am Games and did the same at the 2011 FIBA Americas tournament. He suited up for his country at the 2004 Athens Games, where it won the gold. His team claimed bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games. The 208-cm big man made a living in Argentina, Greece, and Spain. He also earned distinction as a 31-year-old rookie with the powerhouse Spurs in 2005. Oberto started 12 playoff games for San Antonio during its championship run in the spring of 2007. He remained with the team until 2009. He then saw time with Washington Wizards and Portland Trail Blazers.
Hermann is synonymous with winning and high-caliber play. An Argentine League MVP (2002, ‘14) and Spanish League MVP (2006, 2010), the supremely gifted small forward contributed to a pair of Argentina title teams, two more in Spain and another in Brazil. He expanded his fame with the Charlotte Bobcats and Detroit Pistons from 2006-09. He averaged 9.2 points for the Bobcats and made the NBA All-Rookie Second Team in his debut season there.
10. Pablo Prigioni
In a 22-year career as a savvy offensive catalyst, the Argentine playmaker plied his craft in Argentina, Spain, and the NBA. He established himself as a dependable player in his homeland. He then enjoyed greater opportunities in his prime in the Spanish League. Especially during his long runs with Baskonia (2003-09, 2011-12) and Real Madrid (2009-11).
One of the greatest basketball players from South America, Prigioni became the oldest rookie in NBA history on Nov. 2, 2012, with the New York Knicks. He was 35. Prigioni continued his pro career until he was 40 upon returning for a third stint with Baskonia in 2016-17. Shortly thereafter he retired.
He emerged as an unlikely key contributor for the Knicks down the stretch in the 2012-13 campaign, winning a starting spot over the final few months. He helped guide New York past the Celtics in a six-game playoff series, which was the Knicks’ first postseason series victory since 2000. In a January 2016 game, Prigioni, then with the Clippers, made eight steals against the Heat.
His long list of accomplishments is filled with European honors. Including three Spanish Cup crowns, four consecutive Spanish Super Cup titles (2005-08), and the league championship in 2008. He was No. 1 in the Euroleague in assists in 2006.
9. Tiago Splitter
The Brazilian pivot was a key contributor for a decade for Baskonia (2000-10), notching double-digit scoring totals in the Euroleague in the final five seasons there. He was the Spanish League Finals MVP in 2010.
Then, much to the delight of the Spurs front office, he joined San Antonio, which chose him late in the first round of the 2007 draft.
In his five seasons with the Spurs, Splitter was a steady contributor, not a stat-dominating human-highlight reel.
Splitter, one of South America’s greatest basketball players, earned distinction as the first Brazilian to win an NBA title. He made history with the Spurs in 2014, averaging 7.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 2.0 assists in the playoffs (23 games, 18 starts). He wrapped up his NBA career with short stints with Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers.
8. Carlos Delfino
The Argentine swingman had his passport stamped in his homeland, Italy, Russia, and Spain while also solidifying his reputation as a dependable NBA player.
A daring perimeter sniper, Delfino made his pro debut in 1998. He found a home in the NBA with the Pistons in 2004. He switched to the Toronto Raptors in 2007. After time in Russia, fast forward to 2009-10, and one of the greatest basketball players from South America poured in 11.0 points for the Milwaukee Bucks. The next season he raised his scoring average to 11.5. With the Rockets in 2012-13, he had his third NBA season with 10 or more points (10.6). Foot and knee injuries slowed him down during his NBA career.
In the 2010 postseason, Delfino thrived in the spotlight, dropping in 10 points a game and sinking 3s at a 40.5-percent clip.
7. Andres Nocioni
“Chapo,” standing 203 cm, emerged as a dynamic player early and claimed top Sixth Man honors for the Argentine League in 1998-99. Like many of his compatriots, he embraced the challenge of testing his skills against the best in Europe, going to Spain in 1999, the year he turned 20.
He was a core member of the Argentina national squad that collected Olympic medals in Athens and Beijing. The Argentina Basketball Federation retired his No. 13 jersey in February 2018. Indeed, it was a spectacular honor for one of the greatest basketball players from South America.
Never one to be shy about taking a shot, Nocioni averaged 10.5 points in 514 NBA games for the Chicago Bulls, Sacramento Kings and 76ers from 2004-12. He scored a career-best 14.1 ppg in the 2006-07 campaign for the Bulls.
“The Wild Bull of the Pampas” also enhanced his reputation as a big-game player by snatching the Euroleague MVP award in 2015. It was a lofty compliment to his Spanish League MVP honor in 2004.
6. Leandro Barbosa
The Brazilian Blur played at warp speed for large stretches of his career.
The 191-cm combo guard enjoyed a long career in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns (three stints), Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors from 2003-17. He played for the Warriors in back-to-back Finals in 2015 and ’16.
Barbosa, one of the greatest basketball players from South America, scored a career-best 18.1 ppg for the Suns in 2006-07 and received Sixth Man of the Year award. He also averaged 4.0 assists and 2.7 boards off the bench for coach Mike D’Antoni’s club.
In November 2017, the electrifying playmaker returned to Brazil and resumed his pro career with Franca Basquetebol Clube.
5. Anderson Varejao
The physical 211-cm, 120-plus kg athlete was a frontcourt fixture on the Cleveland Cavaliers for a dozen years (2004-16).
Varejao was named to the 2010 NBA All-Defense Second Team. Throughout his career, “Wild Thing” has been known for taking charges and also aggressively attacking the glass for rebounds.
He had career-high totals of 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds in 2012-13 for the Cavs, but only appeared in 25 games.
Though he’s been one of the great basketball players from South America, Varejao has been hampered by an assortment of injuries (wrist, ankle, blood clots, Achilles, among others).
He was with the Warriors for parts of the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. He left Cleveland in February 2016.
Although the big Brazilian was released in February 2017, Golden State still designated a championship ring for him.
Before securing an identity as an NBA mainstay, Varejao proved himself with FC Barcelona from 2002-04, including a Euroleague title in 2003. The Cavaliers acquired Varejao from the Orlando Magic, who selected him in the second round (30th overall pick) of the 2004 draft.
4. Luis Scola
With Scola in the lineup, the Argentina national team soared to impressive heights. Starting in 1999 through 2017, the club hauled in nine medals in FIBA Americas Championships, including gold in 2001 and 2011. And in those nine tourneys, Scola has been named MVP four times (2007, 2009, 2011 and 2015).
A national hero, Scola was Argentina’s flag-bearer at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics for the opening ceremony.
The 203-cm power forward entered the NBA after an invaluable apprenticeship with Baskonia (1998-2007), and a spell on loan to second-division Gijon.
By the time he had joined the Houston Rockets, Scola’s CV already included All-Euroleague First Team recognition in 2006 and 2007 and two Spanish League MP awards. He had developed a well-polish repertoire of low-post offensive moves and a fierce determination to lead by example.
The Spurs drafted Scola with the 56th pick in 2002 but were unable to work out a contract buyout with Baskonia for the Buenos Aires native. As a result, the Spurs traded the draft rights to Scola to the rival Rockets.
Scola, one of the greatest basketball players from South America, scored a career-best 18.3 ppg for the Rockets in 2010-11. He was an NBA All-Rookie First Team member. He notched six consecutive seasons of double-digit scoring to open his NBA career with the Rockets and the Suns and later competed for the Pacers, Raptors, and Nets. His NBA career totals: 12.0 points and 6.7 rebounds and 49.3 percent shooting from the floor.
The Chinese Basketball Association’s Shanxi Brave Dragons signed Scola to a contract before the 2017-18 season.
3. Nene Hilario
Longevity has defined Nene’s pro career.
With more than 900 NBA games in the books, he’s an enduring figure in Brazilian pro sports.
He made his NBA debut in 2002, and in March 2018, he’s contributing 7.0 ppg for the title-chasing Rockets.
Nene, one of the greatest basketball players from South America, has stayed in the premier global circuit for all these years with only three teams: the Denver Nuggets, Washington Wizards, and Rockets.
The Knicks had chosen Nene in the first round (No. 7) in 2002 but shipped him to Denver.
Nene became the first Brazilian to be a first-round draft pick.
Never considered a superstar in the NBA, Nene is a consistent producer. He’s averaged 10-plus points in 11 seasons.
2. Oscar Schmidt
The Brazilian legend defied anybody to slow him down on offense, but he proved repeatedly that he was an unstoppable offensive force.
Nobody was up to the task on a consistent basis.
Like fellow countryman Pele, there was something astonishing about Schmidt’s offensive skills. Looking back, his athleticism and inner drive to take over a game at the offensive end stand out.
It’s been said that Schmidt is basketball’s all-time leading scorer with 49,737 points. Yes, wow.
This was a total amassed in club play and games for the Brazilian national team.
Schmidt’s career spanned from 1974 (at age 16 with Palmeiras in his homeland) to 2003. Along the way, the 205-cm wing redefined what a Brazilian — and South American player — was capable of accomplishing in basketball.
One of the greatest basketball players from South America — or any continent — Schmidt was a seven-time Italian League scoring champ between 1984 and ’92. Then he repeated that feat in Spain with Valladolid in 1994.
The next year, Oscar’s career entered a new chapter — back in Brazil. He starred for Corinthians, Bandeirantes, Barueri, and Flamengo before taking his final shot in 2003. And he won eight consecutive scoring crowns there.
At the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Schmidt averaged 24.1 ppg. He tore up the competition with an Olympic 42.3 ppg at the 1988 Seoul Games, including 55 against Spain. He appeared in five Olympics and was the leading scorer in three of them. Including 24.8 at the Barcelona Games and 27.4 in Atlanta in 1996.
In addition, he’s No. 1 on the FIBA World Cup all-time scoring chart with 843 points and a 24.1 average, including a tournament-best 34.1 in 1990.
The 2013 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee approached his job like a skilled surgeon. But he also recognized that he was an artist on the court, flicking his strong wrist to create another scoring chance.
“Some people, they play the piano,” he once said. “And some people, they move the piano.”
While growing up in Italy, Kobe Bryant idolized Schmidt, according to published reports.
Known as “Mao Santa” (Holy Hand in Portuguese), Schmidt seemed to possess a magical or supernatural ability to score throughout his extraordinary career.
Case in point: the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis. Facing the United States in the title match, Brazil trailed 68-54 at the break.
No problem. Schmidt took over, outplaying a team that included Rex Chapman, Pervis Ellison, Keith Smart, Danny Manning, Dan Majerle, and David Robinson.
Schmidt famously torched Team USA for 46 points as Brazil picked up a 120-115 win.
Three years earlier, the Nets chose Schmidt in the sixth round of the NBA draft with the 131st overall pick. His commitment to the national team never wavered. And in an era when NBA players were barred from competing for their country’s squads, Oscar Schmidt was Brazil’s indispensable scoring machine
That was true for every team he played for.
1. Manu Ginobili
The Argentine superstar’s drive and will to win have shined through for more than 20 years. Tony Parker may have been the primary offensive catalyst of the San Antonio Spurs dynasty, with Tim Duncan the backbone of the team’s success. But Ginobili has been indispensable as a big-game player, a big-moment scorer.
No one will ever excuse Ginobili of giving less than 100 percent in any game. That’s the true mark of his professionalism, even now in March 2018, eight months after he celebrated his 40th birthday.
The astute Spurs brain trust plucked the pride of Bahia Blanca, Argentina with the No. 57 overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft.
Ginobili was establishing his reputation as a one-of-a-kind superstar in Europe at that time. And among basketball history buffs, who can forget Ginobili’s early hints of greatness in Italy? Winning the Italian League with Bologna in 2001 and the league cups in 2001 and 2002 and the 2001 Euroleague at which he was the Finals MVP provided glimpses of what was to come.
Nearly two decades later, his offensive creativity, his longevity as a pro, and his connection with fans are enduring traits.
In a November 2003 article for ESPN.com, Marc Stein quoted Steve Kerr once saying Ginobili was “the best loose-ball getter in the league … if that’s a word.” Stein then went on to pen this memorable label:
“We like to call him The Shooting Guard From A Faraway Land Famous For Everything Except Shooting.”
The left-handed shooter started playing shooting guard at age 6, the ESPN article reported, and two decades later “compensating for his less-than-silky jumper with timely steals, nifty passes, handy deflections, purposeful drives, fearless charge-taking and, after his late-in-life growth spurt, the renowned art of at-the-rim showmanship,” Stein wrote.
If hustle were an art form, Manu would be one of its iconic maestros.
Even if his stats don’t jump out at you as otherworldly, Ginobili has done it all for the Spurs. He’s laced up the sneakers for more than 1,040 NBA matches through early March 2018. His 13.4 ppg, coupled with 3.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, an 82 percent shooting touch from the foul line, and an uncountable number of momentum-changing, game-clinching plays. And that’s not counting the 213 playoff games to date, with averages of 14.1, 4.0 and 3.8, including two seasons with 20-plus ppg in the postseason (a career-high 20.8 on the 2005 title team).
A daring defender, but also a risk-taker beyond the norm, Ginobili tops the list of the greatest basketball players from South America.
What cemented that label?
Ginobili proved to be a perfect fit for the Tony Parker, Duncan and Gregg Popovich-led Spurs, making his mark on NBA championship teams in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014, and keeping them in the hunt for another crown on an annual basis.
“He has a willingness to do what it takes to win, and to do it at the highest possible level of intensity, every single minute he steps on the court,” Popovich said after the Spurs’ glorious 2005 postseason run.
Two years later, ESPN’s John Hollinger referred to Ginobili as “one of the great draft heists of all time.”
What’s more, in those aforementioned 213 playoff games, Ginobili started only 53 times.
Indeed, it’s rare for superstars to accept a role as a bench player, and to excel for most of their career in that role.
His father Jorge, a coach, helped teach Manu the finer points of the game in his formative years. Manu also is said to have idolized Michael Jordan during his younger days.