While the NBA is flooded with fantastic European superstars these days, that once wasn’t the case. Sure, there would be a guy here and there that could jump the pond and succeed but the options certainly weren’t as abundant 30 years ago as they are now. One of those early success stories was Croatian superstar Drazen Petrovic, who played four seasons in the NBA with the Portland Trailblazers and New Jersey Nets before tragically becoming one of the biggest “what if” stories in the history of the game.
Drazen Petrovic was a huge star for the Yugoslavian national team
Before making his way to the NBA, Drazen Petrovic was a huge star in his home country of Croatia. He made his first professional team at just 15 years of age and quickly became one of the biggest stars in Europe. He was a standout for KK Cibona, averaging 37.7 points in his four years with the team, also winning multiple titles in numerous competitions throughout Europe.
Petrovic’s most notable game came in 1985 in which he scored 112 points against a Slovenian club in the First Yugoslavian League. He also spent one season with Real Madrid in Spain, averaging 28.5 points per game.
Petrovic was also the biggest star on the Yugoslavian national team that at various times included a number of future NBA players, including Vlade Divac and Toni Kukoc, that won the bronze medal at the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984 and the silver medal in 1988 in Seoul. Drazen Petrovic had proved just about everything he could in Europe and wanted to see how his game matched up against the best players in the world.
He was on his way to becoming a star in the NBA
Seeing the talent he possessed, the Portland Trailblazers drafted Drazen Petrovic in the third round of the 1986 NBA draft, although he didn’t make his NBA debut until the 1989-1990 season. Coming off the bench on a guard-heavy Blazers team that featured Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter, Petrovic struggled to adapt to the role. He appeared in 77 games his rookie season, all off the bench, and averaged 7.6 points per game, certainly not what he was used to.
The following season, Danny Ainge joined the team and Petrovic saw his already-limited playing time dwindle to just over seven minutes per game and was averaging just 4.4 points. Not happy with his role, he requested a trade, which was granted in January 1991. The Blazers shipped him to the New Jersey Nets, where he thrived alongside rookie star Derrick Coleman. In 43 games with the Nets, he upped his average to 12.6 points in just over 20 minutes per game, one of the NBA’s best points-per-minute ratios.
In his third season, Drazen Petrovic was finally where he belonged in an NBA starting lineup. Playing and starting all 82 games in the 1991-1992 season, Petrovic averaged a team-high 20.6 points per game and led the Nets to their first postseason berth in six years. After leading Croatia to a silver medal in the 1992 Olympics, scoring a game-high 24 points against the Dream Team, Petrovic was even better for the Nets in 1992-1993, averaging 22.3 points and earning All-NBA Third Team honors.
Drazen Petrovic had become a star in the NBA, which everyone in Europe, including himself, knew he could be.
Drazen Petrovic was killed in a car accident at the age of 28
On June 7, 1993, Drazen Petrovic was killed in a car accident in Germany, abruptly ending a career that truly hadn’t even really begun, despite all the success he’d already attained. He had already conquered the basketball world in Europe, had won three Olympic medals and numerous titles, and was seemingly on his way to doing the same in the U.S. He had established himself as one of the top scorers in the NBA and was also one of the league’s best three-point shooters. As good as he already was, he was entering the prime of his career and was only going to get better.
Drazen Petrovic’s No. 3 jersey was retired by the Nets and he was posthumously inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002. Since his death, the European wave has taken the NBA by storm as the likes of Toni Kukoc, Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki, and Luka Doncic are just a few of the many players from overseas that have come to the U.S. and thrived. And they have guys like Drazen Petrovic to thank for that.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference