Meet the EuroLeague Star Who Could Be Germany’s Next NBA Export

An athletic kid in Germany outgrows his initial sport of choice. Because of his size, the kid is shepherded into basketball. Over time, he develops an all-around game, including an effective three-point shot, and goes on to become a team captain, an All-Star, a Finals MVP and a champion.

Sound familiar?

There’s a Dirk in this story, except it’s not the one who would carry the Dallas Mavericks for 21 years and, in the process, revolutionize the NBA. The Dirk here is Dirk Barthel, a sports educator from Heidelberg, Germany, whose son, Danilo, may well be the European powerhouse’s next export to the Association.

Except, Danilo isn’t another 19-year-old wunderkind preparing for the NBA draft. Rather, he’s a 27-year-old veteran EuroLeague forward who looks likely to make the increasingly common leap from overseas late bloomer to NBA contributor.

“Good player with NBA ability,” a longtime Western Conference scout tells CloseUp360. “He has unselfish team ability and knows how to play.”

“Love the kid,” an Eastern Conference executive says. “Would love to work him out here and let our folks see him deeper.”

“Every player has dreams of playing in the NBA,” Danilo says. “For me, saying it out loud now, I think I can play in the NBA.”

Danilo Barthel

Danilo Barthel could be the next German to play in the NBA. (Courtesy of Danilo Barthel)

Long before Dirk Nowitzki put German basketball on the map, Heidelberg was the sport’s epicenter in the Western European nation. The city’s biggest club, USC Heidelberg, won 13 league championships and two national cups between the end of World War II and the end of the Cold War, in what was then known as the West German Basketball League.

All of that might as well have been Greek to young Danilo. He was born in 1991—14 years after Heidelberg’s last title, and not even three weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The younger of Dirk and Gabrielle Barthel’s two sons, Danilo gravitated toward gymnastics as a child. When Dirk had school holidays off, the Barthels would go on camping trips across Europe and, when Dirk took a year-long sabbatical, spend months at a time in places as far flung as Australia and Indonesia.

That dynamic shifted when Dirk and Gabrielle split during Danilo’s younger years. Still, the family stayed close, with Dirk moving into an apartment above the one in which Gabrielle, Danilo and his brother Soren lived.

“It was not a big change when I was young,” Danilo says, “so I didn't really realize it until I was a little bit older.”

Even if his family life remained stable, Danilo’s athletic pursuits were bound for upheaval. By the time he was 10, he was already too tall to stick with gymnastics and was well on his way to outgrowing Germany’s national pastime, soccer. One of Dirk’s colleagues at the Internationale Gesamtschule Heidelberg, a basketball teacher named Alex, recommended that Danilo try the sport on his local youth team.

“So he just put me there for a couple of couple of weeks,” Danilo says. “I really liked it.”

This, despite Danilo being by far the youngest player on a club for kids ages 16 and under. To help manage that deficit of size and strength, he wound up playing point guard, where he showed a natural aptitude for dribbling and making plays with the ball.

“I was smaller than everybody,” he says, “So step by step, I grew and I kept the skill set.”

By the time he reached his teenage years, Danilo had shot past six feet, but remained smaller and younger than most of his teammates and opponents. Still, the time spent competing with and against bigger, older players toughened him, and his diligence in the gym outside of those games helped to prepare him for those uphill battles.

Danilo Barthel

Danilo started out at point guard because he was the youngest and smallest player on his club. (Courtesy of Danilo Barthel)

Along the way, Danilo did what he could to follow Dirk Nowitzki’s burgeoning career in the NBA.

“Back then, it was tough to watch any basketball on television,” Danilo says. “But if they showed a game, it was with Nowitzki. So you obviously start to idolize him.”

Like his idol, Danilo began his professional career in the second division of Germany’s Basketball Bundesliga (BBL). After spending two years with a club called Rhein-Neckar Basketball College in Mannheim (around 20 minutes from his hometown of Heidelberg), he returned to his hometown in 2008 to finish high school at Elisabeth-von-Thadden School and join USC Heidelberg’s youth program. He performed well enough there to garner attention from Germany’s under-18 national team.

“I was always a little bit under the radar,” he says. “All the coaches in Germany were surprised about how I was doing.”

Three years later, Danilo left home again—this time to play for Skyliners in Frankfurt as a 6’9” forward with guard skills.

“It was probably the best decision of my career so far,” he says, “because at that time, the rule changed.”

The rule? That BBL clubs had to have at least six German players on their rosters at all times. That helped to keep more of Germany’s most talented prospects close to home, and opened up more playing time for Danilo under Gordon Herbert, his coach with the Skyliners.

“He doesn't care how much you get paid or what's your name,” Danilo says of Gordon. “As long as you really work hard and do a great job in practice, he lets you play.”

Year by year, Danilo refined his game and earned the trust of his teammates and coaches. By the time he was 23, he’d been named the BBL’s Most Improved Player and become the captain of his club in Frankfurt.

“It was an honor,” he says, “but at the same time, we were a young team. I was the most experienced German on the team.”

That all changed in September 2016, when, after considering other options around Europe, Danilo signed with Germany’s most famous sports club: FC Bayern Munich. With that move up the ladder, though, came a drop down the proverbial pecking order at power forward.

First, he backed up Maxi Kleber, with whom he became close friends before Maxi left Germany to join the Mavericks in the NBA. Then, in his second year at Bayern, Danilo waited his turn behind Milan Macvan, a former second-round pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

When Milan injured his knee during the 2017-18 season, Danilo stepped into the starting spot at power forward in Munich. He hasn’t relinquished it since.

“That was my big opportunity because I always worked for it,” he says. “I always stayed ready.”

More importantly, Danilo always stayed healthy. Though he’d long since left gymnastics behind, the core strength and flexibility he’d built up as a child not only stuck with him, but also helped him avoid serious harm on the hardwood. That elasticity and durability also earned him an unshakeable nickname: “The Rubber Band Man.”

“My teammates right now,” he says, “they make fun of it sometimes.”

Jokes and all, Danilo earned the captaincy at Bayern. Last season, he led the club to its fourth BBL championship and second BBL-Pokal (German Cup), claiming BBL Finals MVP honors and securing a berth in the EuroLeague for Bayern along the way.

“I've pretty much reached already a lot of my goals in Germany,” he says.

Danilo’s recent resume in Germany suggests that he’s ready for another step up, perhaps in the NBA. In truth, he’s long had reason to believe that he can hang with the best basketball players in the world, even if playing across the Atlantic wasn’t always top of mind.

During his early years in the BBL, Danilo faced off with the likes of PJ Tucker and Darius Miller, before they established themselves as sturdy role players in the NBA. In 2014, after an eye-opening campaign in Frankfurt, he signed with the Miami Heat to play on their Summer League squads. And though he didn’t quite shine in Orlando and Las Vegas (4.7 points on 35.7 percent shooting, 12.5 percent from three in 17.2 minutes per game), he got to compete against the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Aaron Gordon, Julius Randle and Zach LaVine.

“You can see, ‘Okay, you can play with them,’” Danilo says.

Later that same July, he began to get a different taste of top-level competition when he debuted for Germany’s senior national basketball team. Over the ensuing years, he would get to measure himself against NBA players, from fellow Germans like Maxi, Dennis Schroder and Daniel Theis to international stars like Pau Gasol, Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw and Evan Fournier.

Though Danilo has held his own opposite that caliber of player, there are other factors of life in the NBA with which he is not and would not be entirely familiar. For one, the ball-moving, team-oriented style of European basketball—in which Danilo has thrived, thanks to his selflessness and knack for creating opportunities for others—is a far cry from the NBA brand of play, which elevates singular high-usage stars with systems that require significant sacrifices from everyone else on the floor.

The NBA’s hectic travel schedule could prove a challenge for someone like Danilo, as well, though the rigors of the 2018-19 season, with Bayern competing in both the BBL and the EuroLeague, gave him a glimpse of that life. Where NBA players fly charter from city to city and are treated to five-star accommodations wherever they go, European pros have to travel on commercial flights, often with stops and layovers to get across the continent, on schedules that cut into their much-needed sleep time.

“The leagues over here in Europe, they want to get closer and closer to the NBA and the rhythm and the standards,” Danilo says. “But we are still far, far away.”

“These are just the realities of life,” David Thorpe, a noted basketball trainer who’s worked with over 70 NBA players and upwards of 150 international pros, tells CloseUp360. “So you have to make sure you get guys coming here who are super professional and don't get caught up in living the life in the NBA, especially if you're taking a guy that doesn't have upside as much as he just is who he is.”

Even at his age and with his experience, Danilo might still has room before he reaches his ceiling as a basketball player. With that has come an uncommon maturity for someone who could be setting foot in the NBA for the first time this fall, alongside highly touted teenagers like Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Ja Morant.

“You will still call me a rookie in the NBA and a lot of things would be new to me,” Danilo says, “but I've already played a lot of games against good players on the national team or in Europe now.”

Danilo Barthel

At 27, Danilo would likely be the NBA's oldest rookie next season if he makes that transition. (Courtesy of Danilo Barthel)

If timing is everything in life, it hasn’t always been a friend to Danilo.

By the time he started to shine in Frankfurt, his age eligibility for the NBA draft as a European pro had already come and gone. When, in 2015, Dirk Nowitzki came out of international retirement to play for the German national team in EuroBasket, Danilo had to withdraw due to a back injury.

And if Danilo makes it to the NBA this fall, he will do so having just missed Dirk again, following the future Hall of Famer’s retirement at the end of the 2018-19 season.

“Cannot do anything about that,” Danilo quips.

In other ways, though, timing may now be on his side.

Thanks to the successes of mysterious prospects like Giannis Antetokounmpo and more developed imports like Maxi and Daniel, the NBA has widened its scope even further in search of players who can contribute, regardless of age. And with the NBA game creeping closer and closer toward its European counterpart—with a growing emphasis on multi-skilled players who can shoot, dribble, pass and switch defensively in more positionless play—Danilo, at 6’10” and 220 pounds, fits the profile of what front offices around the league are looking for.

“I watched him play on tape, and immediately I said, ‘Oh, he's an NBA player, for sure,’” David recalls.

Whether or not that premonition comes to fruition by the fall, Danilo has plenty of basketball left on his plate. Though Bayern fell short of qualifying for the EuroLeague playoffs, his club is in the thick of defending its BBL title in Germany’s domestic postseason.

Come summertime, he’ll be back with the national team, preparing for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup. And while medaling will be his aim in China, Danilo hopes to indulge in some of the local culture in Shenzhen, including whatever tasty delicacies he can find to feed his foodie tendencies.

“It will be a little bit risky,” he says, “but I will try some stuff.”

If the NBA is, in fact, in Danilo’s near future, he might as well start exploring now. And if he can help Germany secure a berth in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, he’ll have plenty more of the world to see—without any need for camping gear—while building his own legacy as his country’s next basketball torchbearer.  

 

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.