Like a Slavic Gary Neal, Toni Kukoc didn’t actually make it to the NBA until he was 25. Drafted 29th overall by the Bulls in 1990, he spent the next several years collecting accolades in Europe (3x Euroleague Final 4 MVP, 1990 FIBA World Championship MVP) before deciding that even if shots would be harder to come by in Chicago, at least Michael Jordan knew where to get good cigars. The Croatian Sensation joined the Bulls in ’93, only to find out that MJ had decided to go try some strange other game where players wear hats and belts and sit down half the time. This confused Toni, but he had little trouble adjusting to the NBA, garnering 2nd-team All-Rookie honors despite starting just 8 games behind Scottie Pippen.
With Jordan’s return in ’95-’96, Kukoc cemented his place as one of the most effective forwards in the game. He was absolutely devastating coming off the bench during the Bulls’ three-year title run. Here’s how his stats for that period compare to those of the top vote-getters at small forward for the 90’s NBA All-Decade Team (excluding Grant Hill because he played 92 games those 3 years), when they were the same ages (27-29):
As you can see, Kukoc compares pretty favorably with the rest of this group. He snatched up Win Shares at a better clip than anyone, and only Mullin even approaches his O-Rating numbers. Kukoc really was a rare breed on the offensive end, 6’10” with legitimate point skills. Nicknamed “The Waiter” for his distribution, Kukoc was like a better-shooting Lamar Odom, or a Hedo Turkoglu that cared about basketball.
There’s no telling what he could have done as the focal point of an offense, though he would have been just that for most teams in the mid-90’s. By the same token, he spent some of his prime basketball years in Europe. He’s one of the most decorated players in Euroleague history. Had he come over in 1990, could he have made a similar impact on American basketball? Would he have taken an all-decade spot from one of the players mentioned above? At this point we can only guess, so Kukoc remains a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a stringy Croat. A true international man of mystery. We salute you.
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