Making it to the NBA is one of the toughest things any athlete could ever strive for, especially if he doesn't go through the traditional system of high school hoops, college basketball, and then the league. That's why just 11 international NBA players have been the first overall pick of the Draft.
Foreign players just don't get the same exposure as Americans unless they make it to the U.S. to showcase their talents. International players in the NBA have it even tougher than the rest and that's why being the first overall pick is so impressive.
Needless to say, not all of those foreign NBA players have turned out to be as good as everybody hoped, but others ended up in the Hall of Fame after putting together a legendary career. In the following paragraphs, we'll let you know about all international NBA players who were the first overall pick of the Draft.
Team: New York Knicks
The year was 1984. A skinny center out of the University of Houston was taking his talents to the NBA, so the Houston Rockets decided to use their first overall pick on him. Then, the legend of Hakeem Olajuwon was born.
'The Dream' was the first international player to go first overall in the Draft. He was so good that Rockets fans have never complained about their team picking Hakeem over Michael Jordan, who was the third overall pick.
Hakeem was a lockdown defender an elite rim protector and he also had some of the smoothest moves and footwork the league had ever seen. He led the Rockets to a couple of rings in 1994 and 1995.
Team: New York Knicks
There is a conspiracy theory surrounding the New York Knicks, Patrick Ewing, and the 1985 NBA Draft. Some people claim the Draft lottery was rigged to bring a superstar to the Big Apple, and whether that's true or not, it's not for us to decide.
The case is that the Knicks made the most of their pick by taking Patrick Ewing out of Georgetown. He dominated right away and ended up becoming the greatest player in franchise history.
Ewing had the tough luck to coexist with the Celtics, Pistons, and Bulls throughout his career. He led the Knicks to a couple of trips to the NBA Finals, but lost to the Rockets in 1994 and couldn't play vs. the Spurs in 1999 due to injury.
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
We had to wait 13 years before another foreign player was taken with the first overall pick. Even so, when we talk about the great African NBA players, Michael Olowokandi's name definitely doesn't come to mind.
The Los Angeles Clippers were a struggling franchise hoping that Olowokandi could get them over the hump with his size, strength, and athleticism. He ended up being one of the biggest busts in NBA Draft history.
Olowokandi left the Clippers after five seasons with the team and then played for the Timberwolves and Celtics, leaving the Association with career averages of 8.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
Team: Houston Rockets
It seems like the Houston Rockets sure know how to make the most of their first overall picks. This time, they got the greatest Asian NBA player to ever live, the one and only 7'6'' juggernaut: Yao Ming.
Ming was the most dominating force Asian basketball had seen was the best international player not in the NBA by a long shot. Ming was actually poised to enter the Draft in 1999 but Chinese regulations prevented him from doing so until 2002.
Yao went on to have a great 10-season career with the Rockets, making it to 8 All-Star Games in the meantime. He didn't find much success in the playoffs but played a huge part in taking the league to Asia, even though there haven't been many Chinese NBA players after him.
Team: Milwaukee Bucks
It's crazy to think that Andrew Bogut was the first overall pick of the Draft thanks to his offensive traits, considering he ended up shining because of his physical defense and ability to alter shots.
Bogut became the first Australian NBA player to go first overall and sure lived up to the expectations. He dominated the paint with the Milwaukee Bucks before joining the Golden State Warriors in 2012.
He played a huge part in the Warriors' playoff aspirations and even helped the team win the NBA championship in 2015. He later played for the Mavericks, Cavaliers, and Lakers before going back to Australia to play for the Sydney Kings.
Team: Toronto Raptors
Well, certainly the Toronto Raptors could've done way better in 2006. But, to be fair, Andrea Bargnani looked like a can't-miss kind of talent, something of the likes of the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki.
Bargnani's three-point shooting ability, ball-handling skills, and his success overseas granted him the honor of going first overall but, other than a couple of seasons with the Raptors, he pretty much flew under the radar.
His team's subpar performances made Bargnani join the Knicks and later Nets. However, his - lack of - defense and subpar rebounding (4.6 rebounds per game as a 7-footer) got him out of the league after 10 years.
Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
When the Cleveland Cavaliers took Anthony Bennett with the first overall pick, it was a questionable choice, to say the least. Everybody had Victor Oladipo going earlier, and for very good reasons.
Bennett, on the other hand, was a bit of a tweener. Too small to play the five, too slow to play the four, and lacked the range to play the three. Moreover, the lack of confidence was evident every time he set his feet on the hardwood.
Anthony Bennett went down as one of the biggest busts in the history of the league. He's not even on an NBA roster anymore and it's only been seven years. The upside was never there, the improvement didn't come, and the Cavaliers surely regret that call.
Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
Once again, the Cleveland Cavaliers were entitled to the first overall pick and, once again, they would use it on a Canadian player. This time, Andrew Wiggins got the nod, and he was supposed to become the most dominant scorer in the league in no time.
Obviously, that didn't happen. The Cavaliers traded him away to get Kevin Love, and while that turned out great for them, it wasn't that good for Wiggins. He was somewhat underwhelming and was recently traded to the Warriors.
To be fair, Wiggins is only 25 years old. He's a gifted athlete and has shown glimpses of greatness from time to time. He may not be the Kobe Bryant-ish scorer they sold us but he has a shot at being a very productive piece on a contending team.
Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
Country: Dominican Republic
The Minnesota Timberwolves had a tough call on their hands. Either take injury-prone Joel Embiid out of Kansas or superstar prospect Karl-Anthony Towns out of Kentucky. Honestly, they just couldn't miss this time.
The Timberwolves went with Towns and it didn't take long before he showcased his offensive repertoire. Now, he's the cornerstone of their franchise and one of the few players who average a double-double for a whole season.
There's absolutely no denying in Towns' talents and scoring ability. However, the lack of drive and motivation can be a concern from time to time. He's still pretty young and has a bright future ahead of him.
Team: Philadelphia 76ers
For the fourth consecutive season, a foreign player was taken with the first overall pick of the NBA Draft. There wasn't a more obvious choice than Ben Simmons and his almost unprecedented playmaking ability.
Simmons is yet to develop a consistent jump shot but has shown the ability of guard one through five in a dominant fashion. He's also one of the craftiest passers the league has ever seen.
He must add some range to his offense if he wants to lead the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals but there's absolutely no doubt that Simmons is a one-of-a-kind talent. He's just 24, so he's got plenty of time to develop.
Team: Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns were entitled to the first overall pick in 2018 and it looked like nobody, not even them could make things up, as there were plenty of talents to choose from. Eventually, they leaned towards Deandre Ayton out of the University of Arizona.
Now, don't get me wrong. Ayton is great. He's very talented and has been quite productive during his first two seasons, even despite his subpar defense. But Suns fans must be sick to their stomachs every time they think they could have taken Luka Doncic instead.
Ayton had a promising rookie season and has now added the three-pointer to his repertoire. He's physically gifted and can still become an average defender, at least, but that Doncic comparisons will haunt him forever.