Croatia has produced some of the best European players in the NBA.
On top of the list is scoring machine Drazen Petrovic who is considered one of the pioneers of the European invasion in the NBA. However, Petro’s budding career was cut short because of his accidental death. The Balkan nation also produced former Chicago Bulls forward Toni Kukoc who helped Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with three straight NBA titles from 1996-98.
Let’s take a look at the best Croatians to ever set foot in the NBA:
Drazen Petrovic is considered as one of those who paved the way for European stars to come to the NBA. Petro earned his stripes as a superstar in Europe before joining the NBA in 1989. He won two silver medals and one bronze medal in the Olympics, a gold and bronze at the FIBA World Cup, and two Euroleague titles.
Seeking a bigger stage, he joined the NBA in 1989 as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers team which drafted him 60th overall in the 1986 NBA draft. He came off the bench in Portland but after getting traded to the New Jersey Nets, his career took off. Petrovic became one of the best shooting guards in the NBA and was named to the All-NBA Third team in 1993. He died in a car accident later that year.
Toni Kukoc was a key player on the Chicago Bulls’ second three-peat run. He was the third-leading scorer of the team after Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. In 1996, he was named as the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year winner and is the 4th ( and last ) player to win the Sixth Man Award and the NBA title in the same season.
Like Petrovic, Kukoc was a star before he joined the NBA. He began playing professionally at the age of 17 and helped his hometown club KK Jugoplastika win the Euroleague title from 1989-91. He joined Benetton Treviso and led the team to the Italian League title and won a third Euroleague Final Four MVP award. He was drafted 29th overall in 1990 by the Bulls but he joined the team in 1991.
Dino Radja was a very decorated European basketball star, having won titles while playing in Greece, Yugoslavia, and Croatia while also winning MVP honors in Italy. Radja won an Olympic silver medal with Yugoslavia in 1988 and bronze with Croatia in 1992. He was named as one of FIBA’s 50 Greatest Players in 1991 and was inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018.0
Although he played in only three and a half seasons with the Boston Celtics, Dino Radja was one of the European pioneers in the NBA. Radja was the 40th overall pick in the 1989 NBA Draft but after signing with the team, he was ordered by the court to return to Europe. Radja went to Italy after playing in Yugoslavia and he only started playing for the Celtics in 1993.
Gordan Giricek played for the Zagreb-based team Cibona and it was there where he was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks with the 40th pick of the 1999 NBA Draft. The Mavs traded him to the San Antonio Spurs for Leon Smith. San Antonio then traded him to the Memphis Grizzlies for a second-round draft pick in the 2004 NBA Draft. In 2001, he signed with CSKA Moscow and had a breakout year.
Giricek made his NBA debut with the Grizzlies in 2002 but after playing 49 games with the team, he was traded to the Orlando Magic one day before the trade deadline. He finished the season as a member of the 2003 All-Rookie team. He played for Utah, Philadelphia, and Phoenix before heading back to Europe to finish his basketball career.
Bojan Bogdanovic started his basketball career with his hometown club Zrinjski Mostar before heading to Spain to play for Real Madrid. He returned to Croatia to play for Cibona Zagreb and then to Turkey with Fenerbahce.
Bogdanovic was drafted 31st overall in 2011 by the Miami Heat. He was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves and then to the Brooklyn Nets on draft night. Bogdanovic made the All-Rookie second team in 2015 and he also played for the Wizards and Pacers. In 2019, he signed with the Utah Jazz as a free agent and his $73M contract made him the highest-paid Croatian Athlete of all-time.
Ivica Zubac came from the youth squad of Cibona Zagreb and then played for KK Zrinjevac in the Croatian second division. He joined Cibona’s men’s team in 2014, playing alongside Ante Zizic and Nik Slavika. Zubac played for the A1 League and Adriatic League before heading to Serbia’s Mega Leks.
He was drafted 32nd overall in the 2016 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. During his rookie year, Zubac had multiple assignments with the Los Angeles D-Fenders. He also had assignments with the South Bay Lakers in 2018. He had his best year in 2018-19 where he averaged 8.5 points and 4.9 rebounds while playing alongside the Lakers’ young core. He was traded to the Clippers for Mike Muscala.
Dario Saric was the Adriatic League MVP in 2014. The former FIBA Under-18 MVP was drafted 12th overall in the 2014 NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic but his draft rights were traded for Elfrid Payton on draft night. But Saric played two more years in Europe for Anadolu Efes before he finally played in the NBA.
Saric was named to the All-Rookie team in 2017 and was an important player in the young team that included Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. However, he was dealt to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the trade that brought Jimmy Butler to Philly. In 2019, Saric was shipped to the Phoenix Suns on draft night in exchange for Jarrett Culver.
Mario Hezonja played with Dario Saric at Zagreb. He then left for Spain to play for Barcelona and led the team to the Catalan Basketball League title from 2012-15. Barcelona also won two Liga ACB titles during Hezonja’s stay there.
He was drafted 5th overall in the 2015 draft by the Orlando Magic but he never lived up to the expectations. The Magic didn’t pick up the fourth year of his rookie contract and Hezonja signed with the Knicks. After one season in New York, he was on the go again, this time to Portland.