Although foreign-born stars like Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo have taken over the league in recent years, we haven’t seen an Asian NBA player emerge as a true superstar since Yao Ming took his talents from China to the United States.
While New York Knicks fans will fondly remember the year of Linsanity, that occurred almost a decade ago. In fact, when it comes to Asian players in the NBA, there are few and far between. Let’s take a closer look at the impact Ming and Jeremy Lin made on the league before examining which current NBA players are of Asian descent.
Yao Ming took his talents from China to Houston
Born in Shanghai, Yao Ming tipped the scales at 7-foot-6, 310 pounds during his playing days. The towering center dominated the Chinese Basketball Association as the crowned jewel of the Shanghai Sharks. Ming won the 2001 CBA MVP Award and led the league in rebounds and blocks for three straight years from 2000-2002.
But after winning a championship in his final season with the team, the talented big man successfully negotiated a way out of his contract. Ming entered the 2002 NBA draft and did not have to wait long to hear his name called. The Houston Rockets made the Chinese-born superstar the new face of the franchise by making Ming the first overall pick.
That set the stage for a Hall of Fame career that included eight All-Star berths, two All-NBA Second Team selections, and three All-NBA Third Team selections. He retired with career averages of 19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks. And while injuries did play a major factor in his early retirement, Ming earned widespread respect for his toughness, leadership, and maturity.
And shortly after the former No. 1 pick played his final game, another Asian NBA player captured America’s attention.
Linsanity in New York
When it comes to Asian players in the NBA in the post-Yao Ming era, Jeremy Lin easily takes the honor of being the most recognizable. The California-born Harvard graduate became the first American of Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA.
Although he went undrafted in 2010, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound point guard refused to give up on his dream of playing in the league.
Ultimately, Lin’s persistence paid off.
After getting waived by the Golden State Warriors, he joined the Knicks with little fanfare. However, Lin quickly became the biggest storyline of the 2011-12 season.
In his only year with the team, he averaged 14.6 points, 6.2 assists, and 1.6 blocks in 35 games (25 starts). He brought fans to their feet with clutch jump-shots, crafty floaters, and timely defense.
Linsanity may have lasted just a year, but it captivated audiences and actually gave Knicks fans something to cheer for.
Lin discussed the topic of being the only Asian NBA player (at the time) with The Undefeated back in February 2019.
“At times it kind of sucks. At other times it’s amazing,” he explained. “Amazing because you get to challenge everyone’s viewpoints and perspectives. I’m rooting for many more Asians to come in.”
Are there Asian players in the NBA today?
Yao Ming retired from the NBA almost a decade ago. Jeremy Lin quickly made magic in New York, but he basically became a journeyman after that breakout 2011-12 season. In fact, he left the league last year to play for the Beijing Ducks of the CBA.
While the 32-year-old nearly re-joined the Warriors recently, he remains a free agent.
So with Lin still looking for a job, are there any Asian players in the NBA today?
According to a recent NBA press release, only one player on 2020-21 opening-night rosters hails from a country in Asia.
Born in Toyama, Japan, Rui Hachimura entered the league as the ninth overall pick of the 2019 NBA draft by the Washington Wizards. The 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward earned NBA All-Rookie Second Team honors after averaging 13.5 points and 6.1 rebounds on 46.6% shooting.
Asian players in the NBA are so rare that only one international two-player qualifies for that distinction.
In 2018, Yuta Watanabe signed a two-way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies after he went undrafted out of George Washington University. He averaged 2.3 points and 1.5 rebounds in 33 games across two seasons.
In November, the 6-foot-8, 215-pound small forward became the first Japanese-born player to sign with the Toronto Raptors.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.