The NBA’s Far-Flung Role Players

In 2011, it was damn near impossible to watch “SportsCenter” without catching at least 30 seconds of Ricky Rubio footage. For over ten years, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili have been household names, engrained in the minds of basketball fans and non-fans alike. Now Kristaps Porzingis is being considered for Space Jam 2 (You just know he’ll be that tall, blue Monstar with the warped eyes.)

If you haven’t been paying attention, the league has gone international. The NBA featured players from 37 countries in the 2015-16 season. So what of the lesser-known imports? Here’s some knowledge you can drop during cocktail conversation.


Walter Tavares – Cape Verde

Tavares is a 7’3” second-year amateur who signed with the Atlanta Hawks after the 2014 draft, grabbing his first minutes in 2015. His homeland, Cape Verde, is a former Portuguese colony. It has a per-capita GDP of roughly $3,500; one person’s annual contribution to the national income could’ve bought a pair of courtside Lakers seats in 2011. Or half of the Staples Center this season.

The country is an archipelago that may look like the Galapagos of Africa–it’s a few hundred miles due west of the continent’s coast. Alas, those of you who placed heavy on the Galapagos producing an NBA star before Cape Verde–sorry, you’re out of luck.

During the 2014 draft, Tavares made a few headlines for his unusual path to the league. He had split time between Gran Canaria, a team in the Spanish Liga ACB, and UB La Palma, a lower-tier team. But his tenure in Spain was borne of pure coincidence: he was discovered by a German tourist, who found him working at his mother’s convenience store. Half a decade later, he’s trying to mimic the playing styles of Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan. Tavares has a lot to live up to, especially since teams tend to underutilize centers. But posting up in the paint is an improvement over selling produce at the market.

mbah a moute

Luc Richard Mbah a Moute – Cameroon

No longer a fringe international player, Mbah a Moute has been in the league six years. Last season, he logged a career-high 9.9 points per game with the Sixers. After failing a physical with the Kings in 2015, Mbah a Moute landed in Los Angeles, where his role has shifted. He’s gotten some national attention for his defensive prowess, and is usually the point man for guarding the opposing team’s most dangerous scorer.

Luc is considered literal royalty in Cameroon because his father is a tribal chieftain. By American standards, this may equate to a mayor, or possibly a lead librarian. But regardless of the “royalty” label, Mbah a Moute is a humble player who has received praise from teammates and coaches throughout his career. Plus, unlike two of his current All-Star teammates, there have been no reports that he’s broken a hand.


Zaza Pachulia – Georgia

Pachulia is a 13-year veteran and is known by true followers of the league. He’s seen considerable success in time spent with the Magic, Bucks, Hawks, and Mavericks. During the 2015-16 season, he played a large role for the Mavs, averaging a career-high 9.4 rebounds per game in about 26 minutes of court time.

Zaza was 6’8” at age 13. When I was thirteen, I was reading The Wind in the Willows–and finding it challenging, I might add. I suppose he could’ve been reading it, too. But the guy was seemingly growing at a rate of a centimeter per fortnight. Is it really all that surprising that the Iron Curtain fell when he was six?

With Zaza on the Mavs, there’s no knowing where management will place him. But his consistency in adapting to different systems seems to suggest that he’ll still be productive for a few more seasons.


The Three Nikolas – Montenegro

Nikola Mirotic (Chicago Bulls), Nikola Pekovic (Minnesota Timberwolves), and Nikola Vucevic (Orlando Magic) have a monopoly over the name. Sadly, I think we can all decipher that this is just the equivalent of “Nick” in English. I wonder if there’s a Nikola Cage-ovic walking around the streets of Podgorica, spending his inflated salary on rare Mesozoic artifacts.

I digress. The three Nikolas have been in the league a combined 12 seasons. They are known to dine with each other and maintain a solid rapport, as one would expect of three professional basketball players who emerged from a nation of 600,000 people. Pekovic and Vucevic are particularly close, having played on the national team together. But they were recently dumped from that gig due to disagreements with the coaching staff. That may be a bummer for Montenegrin (that’s how you spell it, I swear) basketball fans, but I’m sure these ambassadors had a hand in their country’s recent invitation to NATO. Glass half full?


Steven Adams – New Zealand

Adams was picked 12th in the 2013 NBA draft by Oklahoma City, becoming the first-ever New Zealander picked in the first round. And although he seems fit for a “Man vs. Wild” episode, the 2015-16 season saw Adams log a career-high 8 points per game. He started 80 games this season, and managed an eye-catching .613 field-goal percentage.

With a staunch rugby build, this guy is authentically Kiwi. So why the NBA? Trying to raise awareness of his homeland, probably. He’s a better representation of New Zealand than the silver fern, and he’s slightly more imposing than Flight Of The Conchords.


Marcin Gortat – Poland

Gortat. Try it. Gortat. Off the tongue. That’s all that needs to be said.


Matt Sulva is a writer who hails from the little-known land of Vermont.