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Asia’s Finest: The past, present, and future of Asian Players in the NBA

On the launch of the Basketball Without Borders Asia camp in Tokyo – a 4-day event where current and former NBA players interact and train young Asian hopefuls – the NBA’s Senior Vice President Kim Bohuny held the firm opinion that Asia will definitely have a future presence in the world’s best basketball league.

“I wouldn’t say that Asia is underrepresented,” Bohuny said, “What the NBA would like to do is just really work with FIBA and FIBA Asia to invest in development here. You have many talented young players and I really believe that the future of the region is very bright.”

Bohuny’s optimism has been backed by conscious effort by the NBA – particularly over the past decade and a half – to promote themselves and basketball as a whole in Asian countries. The NBA’s largest international office is in Beijing, China, and basketball has become the favourite sport of the world’s most populated nation. The NBA has a growing presence in Taiwan, Philippines, Japan, and Korea, too. Closer to home, the league has been pushing grassroots programmes across India, and in the process, promoting the game and their brand as well.

It’s not just about making sure that basketball becomes a bigger sport in these Asian nations: The NBA – a league renowned for its international talent – wants the continent of Asia to produce more of that talent, too. It is mutually beneficial for the nation and for the NBA if the country can produce NBA-level players in the future.

It has barely been a dozen years since the first Asian national players made it to the NBA. While players from Spain, France, Serbia, Australia, Canada, or Croatia have been starring regularly in the league for decades, Asian players have yet to make their presence felt. And in the recent few years, this presence has grown dimmer. Over the past season, there were only two players of Asian nationality in the league: China’s Yi Jianlian and Iran’s Hamed Haddadi. Both were benchwarmers for their respective teams, averaging less than six minutes and three points a game.

The retirement of injury-prone Chinese Center Yao Ming was a big blow to NBA’s Asian – particularly Chinese – hopes. Yao is the greatest Asian basketball player of all time. He remains the first and only Number 1 draft pick out of Asia. In a shortened, decade-long career, he grew to be one of the best big men in the league. Plagued with injuries, Yao’s career never lived up to its promise, but the much-revered player becomes a basketball legend solely because of how he almost single-handedly escalated the NBA’s worldwide fanbase.

Ironically, the man who grabbed the mantle of ‘Asia’s Big Basketball Hope’ from Yao wasn’t technically Asian at all. Born to Taiwanese parents as an American citizen, Jeremy Lin has given new birth to basketball craze in the Far East. The exciting young New York Knicks point guard sparked the most amazing basketball story in years – LINSANITY – but the truth remains that no matter how much Asians try to claim him, Lin is American. He was born American, he ate American nutrition, followed the American training regime, and came through a disciplined system in America that has churned the world’s best basketball players.

Outside of Yao, Asia’s finest players have struggled to translate domestic success into the NBA, where they have faced the most competitive talent in the world. Athletic forward Yi Jianlian of China was supposed to follow Yao in making China (and Asia) proud, but his NBA career hasn’t panned out to fans’ expectations. In his five-year career, Yi has already bounced around four NBA teams – Bucks, Nets, Wizards, and Mavericks – and never quite found his footing except for the 2009-10 season in New Jersey, where he averaged a respectable 12 points and 7 rebounds a game.

Yi does carry forward the legacy of China as the biggest contributor to the NBA from Asia, as he became the fifth Chinese player to play in the NBA. The first Chinese player to make it to the league was Wang Zhi Zhi, who was drafted by the Mavericks back in 1999. Wang didn’t make his NBA debut till 2001 and played a total of four years in the league, for the Mavericks, Clippers and the Heat.

The first Asian player to win an NBA championship was Mongolian-Chinese player Mengke Bateer. Bateer played for the Nuggets, Spurs, and Raptors from 2002 to 2005, winning a ring with the 2003 Spurs (playing less than four minutes a game!) Both Bateer and Wang, like Yao, were over seven foot tall.

A few years later, another Chinese bench-warmer won a championship ring: this time it was 6 foot 9 small forward Sun Yue, who was drafted by the Lakers in 2007 and played with them off-and-on during their 2008-09 championship run. Yue and Yi have been regular stars for China’s national team.

Along with Yi, Hamed Haddadi is the only other active Asian player in the NBA. The seven-footed Iranian has been a legend in Asian basketball competitions and became the first person of his nation to play in the NBA. He was drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies and has played for them the past four years.

Currently helping the Basketball Without Borders camp in Japan is that country’s most famous basketball player Yuta Tabuse. Most of the Asians who made it to the NBA did it because of their height advantage. At 5 foot 9, Tabuse was a diminutive but quick point guard: he was picked by the Mavericks in 2003 after the Summer League tryout, and spent the next five years between the NBA and the minor leagues in the USA. Tabuse played on and off for the Mavericks, the Nuggets, Suns, Clippers, and lastly, for the Nets in 2008. He is known as the ‘Michael Jordan’ of Japan.

The last Asian country to have had NBA representation is South Korea. Korean 7-foot-3 star Ha Seung-Jin was drafted by the Portland Trailblazers in 2004 and played for them for two years. After playing small minutes for the Blazers, Ha was traded to the Bucks and waived in 2006 before getting a chance to play with them.

Looking back at this list now, it is evident to see that, with the exception of Japan’s Tabuse, all of the Asian players who play or have played in the NBA have either been behemoth centers or larger forwards who could create a mismatch on defence. Even then, with the exception of Yao, none of the players have yet to make a name for themselves.

But despite the bleak outlook of the recent past, there has been a definite rise in quality of Asian basketball. The first eight players to play in the league have been just the baby steps – with improved international scouting, there is sure to be more attention paid to potential Asian stars of the future. Big men always have the advantage and come at a premium, but perhaps the likes of Jeremy Lin will be able to encourage smaller, talented players in Asia to keep their NBA dreams alive.

And what about us? How close or far are we from having the first Indian-born basketball player to live the dreams of a generation of young desi-boys? At this point, the most likely path seems to be the most predictable: size. India’s Satnam Singh Bhamara – a talented seven-footed 16-year-old is carrying the expectations of an entire country that wants him to be the next Yao Ming. He’s still young and still developing (at the IMG Academy in Florida); although his size and youth give him an advantage, it would be too early to count Bhamara as a sure shot yet. Like Asian players before him, he will have many struggles and toils ahead of him if he wants to fulfil his dreams.

The NBA promises to welcome talent from Asia, but is Asian talent good enough to fulfil that promise?

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Edited by Staff Editor
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