I have noticed that despite being an American-dominated sports league, the NBA is filled with talented basketball players from around the world. Universal talents are aplenty from the old D League or the new G League to the NBA league itself.
Players like Luka Dončić, Nikola Jokić, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are just a few examples of international talents that have stormed the NBA.
However, did you know that there were several basketball players of Asian descent who have played in the NBA and have achieved relative success?
In this article, I will explore more about the Asian community in the NBA and what these players have achieved in their basketball careers in the NBA.
Asian Players Currently Playing In The NBA
I will list down the Asian players that are currently playing in the NBA. Some of them may be more famous than others. Nonetheless, these are players that the Asian community should be proud of.
1. Jordan Clarkson
Jordan Clarkson is probably the most famous active Asian basketball player in the NBA. He’s currently one of the most famous Asian Americans in professional sports.
As part Filipino, Jordan Clarkson’s international NBA fans are so much more than his American fans. His Filipino blood garners him a huge following in the Philippines. He even got to play in the 2018 Asian Games and the FIBA World Cup Qualifiers.
Jordan also played for the Philippines in the FIBA World Cup 2023.
The Filipino-American guard made his debut in the NBA when he got picked by the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of the 2014 NBA draft. He played three seasons with the LA Lakers from 2014 to 2018.
One of Clarkson’s best games as an NBA player was in 2015 when he scored 30 points and amassed 7 assists when the Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
During his stay with the Lakers, he played alongside Jeremy Lin, marking the first Asian Americans to play together in NBA history.
Playing For The Jazz
Nowadays, Clarkson has found his stride with the Utah Jazz. In the 2020-2021 season, he won the NBA Sixth Man Award.
His best game as a member of the Utah Jazz occurred on March 13, 2022, where he scored 45 points on 21 made shots in the game against the Sacramento Kings. The Jazz won the game with a score 134-125.
Clarkson is a great example of an Asian-American player finding his fullest potential and being able to compete with the other players in the NBA.
2. Rui Hachimura
Rui Hachimura was born in Japan to his Japanese mother and Beninese father, hence the rather different Japanese look he has.
In the 2019 NBA draft, the Washington Wizards selected Rui Hachimura as the ninth overall pick.
The drafting makes Hachimura the second Japanese-born player to officially sign with an NBA team – the Washington Wizards.
In addition, his signing makes the Washington Wizards one of the most diverse NBA teams in the league, right alongside the Dallas Mavericks.
In January 2023, Hachimura was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.
One Of The Few Japanese NBA Players
The first Japanese-born player to ever play in the NBA league is Yasutaka Okayama. What makes Hachimura special is that he was drafted in the first round of the NBA draft.
He made an impact with the Wizards when he recorded his first NBA career-high in 2019. He scored 30 points, 3 assists, 1 steal, and 9 rebounds against the Clippers, wherein they lost with a score of 120-125.
Although he started wonderfully, Hachimura suffered a groin injury while playing against the Detroit Pistons, which forced him to undergo surgery.
As a Japanese player, Hachimura’s NBA career is looking positive for the Japan national team, as his great potential will eventually lead him to be an NBA champion.
3. Yuta Watanabe
Yuta Watanabe is one of the only Japanese players in the NBA that could potentially impact professional basketball, especially in the upcoming NBA seasons.
Watanabe is currently playing for the Brooklyn Nets.
Under Coach Nick Nurse with the Toronto Raptors, he was getting the opportunity he needed and has become one of the best Asian ballers to play in an NBA game.
Before joining the Raptors, Watanabe played for George Washington Colonial, making him the first Japanese to ever secure a basketball scholarship in the NCAA Division I.
Playing For The Other Leagues
In 2018, Watanabe played under a contract with the Brooklyn Nets during the NBA Summer League.
He would go on to perform well in the Summer League, then went on to play for the minor league of the NBA. When he was playing for the NBA D League or G League, he started in all 22 games.
Afterwards, he signed a two-year contract with the Memphis Grizzlies, marking his NBA debut with the Grizzlies in October 2018.
Together with Rui Hachimura, both became the first pair of Japanese basketball players to share a court in the NBA.
Notable Former NBA Asian Players
These are some of the most famous and successful Asian players to ever grace the NBA floor.
1. Yao Ming
Yao Ming is arguably the most popular and most legendary NBA player of Asian descent. He was the epitome of success for Asian basketball players aspiring to play in the NBA.
Known for his career with the Houston Rockets, Yao Ming was always a dependable and impactful center on the NBA court.
Before joining the Houston Rockets, he played for the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). Yao Ming and his basketball career have always been oozing with success, making him one of the most successful big men to ever play in the NBA.
Due to his success in the CBA, he became the first overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft.
Yao Ming’s Legacy In The NBA
Yao Ming was one of the dependable big men with a great free-throw percentage. Some point out that Yao Ming set the standard for big men who could shoot outside the perimeter.
Standing at 7ft 6in, he was the tallest player in the NBA back during this final season with the Houston Rockets.
Since his retirement, Yao Ming has set a standard for how centers should play basketball and is one of the most influential players even outside of the NBA.
If it weren’t for him, Asian players would’ve had low expectations coming to the league.
2. Jeremy Lin
Jeremy Lin is the NBA player most known for “Linsanity.”
The term was dubbed during his time with the New York Knicks when he had a stretch of games wherein he single-handedly won games for the team and recorded amazing statistics.
The point guard of the New York Knicks gripped the entire world during those stretches of games. He is often referred to as a very inspiring basketball player for many Asians in the United States.
Linsanity was a global phenomenon that people would consider Lin the best player in the league during this era of basketball.
Unfortunately, Linsanity did not last long. The Asian American’s career gradually declined throughout his stay in the NBA, although many will never forget about the era he created with the Knicks.
Winning An NBA Championship
Before leaving the NBA, Lin managed to win an NBA championship with the Toronto Raptors when they faced the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals in 2019.
The championship win made Jeremy Lin the first Asian to win an NBA championship. However, that also marks the end of Lin’s legacy in the NBA game.
Lin became a free agent several times during his NBA career. After getting his championship ring with the Raptors, he wanted to find a basketball league wherein he was valued more.
With that being said, after leaving the NBA, Lin signed with the Beijing Ducks of the CBA. He continues to play at a high level in the Chinese league.
The point guard continues to play professional basketball and will continue to find success, whether in the NBA or other basketball leagues.
3. Raymond Townsend
Raymond Townsend was the first Filipino-American player in the NBA. He was only the second player of Asian descent to play in the league.
The Asian player had a successful college basketball career, winning the 1975 NCAA title with the UCLA Bruins. This accomplishment led him to be drafted by the Golden State Warriors in the 1975 NBA draft.
Townsend would play three seasons with the Warriors and the Indiana Pacers before fully retiring and leaving a legacy worth remembering.
However, Townsend’s legacy is more correlated to his contribution to conceptualizing the Filipino Heritage Night for teams to commemorate their ancestry during NBA festivities.
The Filipino Heritage Night celebrates the community of Filipino Warriors fans that are always present during the Warriors NBA games in the Bay Area.
Raymond Townsend continues to celebrate the Philippine culture in Golden State and will be remembered as one of the players to be proud of his Filipino lineage.
4. Yi Jianlian
Yi Jianlian is often described as a legend in the Chinese sports community due to his careers in the NBA and the CBA.
He has played for several teams in the NBA: the Milwaukee Bucks, the Dallas Mavericks, New Jersey Nets, Washington Wizards, and the LA Lakers. Meanwhile, in the CBA, he played for the Guangdong Southern Tigers.
During his rookie year in the NBA, he was awarded the NBA Rookie of the Month in December of that year. He averaged statistics of 12.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
However, Yi Jianlian’s career would tragically end as he struggled with injuries later in his career, drastically reducing his lethality and impact in the game.
Despite all that, Jianlian’s legacy in the NBA will never be forgotten. Yi, alongside Yao Ming, are inspirations to many Asian who are aiming to break into the NBA.
Jianlian’s Performance in the NBA
One of Jianlian’s most notable games in the NBA was when he played for the Bucks against the Chicago Bulls and scored 16 points, winning against them in a 78-72 victory.
Another game that is memorable to Jianlian’s legacy was when he played against Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets. Jianlian scored 19 points, 9 rebounds, and made two 3-pointers.
While that may have been a great game from Yi, Yao had an even better game against him, amassing 28 points and 9 rebounds.
The game is one of the most-watched games in the history of the NBA, recording 200 million views in China alone.
5. Omri Casspi
Omri Casspi is a versatile Israeli professional basketball player who can play both the small forward and power forward positions.
Casspi would have a career spanning several teams from the Kings to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Take it as you want, but with the number of teams willing to accept him, it wouldn’t come off as a surprise to say that he was a valuable signing for several teams in the league.
The Sacramento Kings drafted Casspi in the 2009 NBA draft as the 23rd overall pick. This pick marked the first time an Israeli was selected in the first round of the NBA draft.
He would have a relatively good career with the Kings until he was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in June 2011. He would then go to the Rockets and Pelicans in a year.
Casspi would return to the Sacramento Kings in the 2014-2015 season and in February 2017 before finally retiring as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies in July 2018.
Omri Casspi is an inspiration for Israeli athletes and benchmarks how other relatively unknown basketball countries can make a mark in sports, especially in the NBA.
6. Wang Zhizhi
While it may be a bad thing to mention this, Wang Zhizhi is most famous as the first Chinese player that almost caused a diplomatic disaster.
The Dallas Mavericks drafted Wang Zhizhi in 1999, but his transfer from his former Chinese club to the NBA took two years of negotiation.
Because he was valued by the Chinese national team and his former Chinese club, China did not want to let go of Wang to the NBA.
However, once he was transferred to the NBA, he felt uneasy about getting back to his homeland and playing for the Chinese national team to the point he caused friction with the government.
Once that issue was settled, he would go on and make an impact in the NBA.
His game style was heavily influenced by Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon, making him a mobile big man that is a threat to every team in the league.
He would later become a vital player for his team before retiring and impacting the game for Asians.
7. Mengke Bateer
Mengke Bateer is a legendary Asian player who did not play too many seasons in the NBA.
Before going to the NBA, he would spend most of his professional basketball career playing for the Beijing Ducks in the CBA.
During his short NBA tenure, he would win the NBA championship with the San Antonio Spurs in the 2002-2003 season.
What makes Mengke special is his membership in an ethnic minority group.
He does not have a family name. Rather his name is composed of two words with a meaning that is rooted in Mongolian History; Monkh means Eternal while Baatar means Strong.
8. Hamed Haddadi
Hamed Haddadi is an Iranian professional basketball player who became the first-ever Iranian to step foot in the NBA.
This happened when the Memphis Grizzlies drafted him in 2008. Part of the reason why he was drafted was definitely his height, which measured 7’2” and his weight of 280 lbs.
Haddadi is not known for his NBA legacy; rather, he is known for his career with Saba Battery.
He started his basketball career with a local team called Shahin Ahvaz. Due to the scouts seeing potential in Haddadi with the local team, he was admitted to Paykan Tehran and Saba Battery.
During his career with Saba Battery, he won the Asian Club Championship. He won another championship with Foolad Mahan Isfahan in the 2013 offseason.
Haddadi led his team to win the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship Cup over Qatar’s Al Rayyan basketball team.
Hamed Haddadi may not have had a successful career in the NBA compared to the other Asian players listed here, but he has found success in other basketball leagues worldwide.
9. Yuta Tabuse
Yuta Tabuse, a Matsuza Generation, was the first-ever Japanese-born basketball player to ever hit the NBA courts and games.
Tabuse was one of Japan’s best high school players due to his incredible passing ability and dribbling skill, so much so that he led his high school team to win three national championships. He was a gifted basketball player and was once named the “Michael Jordan of Japan.”
How did he have so much skill at such a young age? Tabuse would refer to himself as someone being born into a sports family.
Ever since he was born, he has played his favorite sports often. However, some sports did not interest him, like baseball and soccer.
Once he went to high school and found a passion for basketball, especially finding his stride and only losing a single game, he succeeded and started his career in the sport.
He graduated high school in March 1999 and then enrolled in Brigham Young University in Hawaii. It was to enroll in an English international program to help him improve in speaking the English language.
He debuted in the NBA as a player in the minor league. This garnered huge media attention in Japan, and everyone took notice of the player and the country of Japan.
During his tenure in the NBA, he averaged 4.5 points, 1.0 assists, and 1.7 rebounds in 13 minutes per game.
10. Ha Seung-Jin
Ha Seung-Jin is the first South Korean player to ever set foot in the NBA. Seung-Jin played in both the NBA and minor leagues.
The Portland Trail Blazers drafted him in the second round of the 2004 NBA Draft. Recorded at 7’3” and 305 lbs, he was one of the biggest players in NBA history.
His basketball career started in high school, wherein he played for the Samil Commercial School. Then in college, he played for Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea.
It was in university where Seung-Jin truly shined. He played in seven tournaments with the team and averaged 12.6 points, 1.6 blocks, and 8.6 rebounds per game.
He was valuable to his college team, and the South Korean national team recognized his talent and saw the potential in him.
Seung-Jin went to Los Angeles, California, to prepare for the 2005 NBA Draft in order to pursue the dream of making it to the NBA. He played with the Portland Reign of the ABA for a while, and was later drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers.
His most notable game in the league was when they played against the Los Angeles Lakers, where he recorded 13 points, giving his team the pivotal edge over the Lakers.
He later transferred to the minor league of the NBA and found success there.
Basketball players from Asian countries now have more opportunities to shine and showcase their talents in the NBA. It was not as easy back in the days. With the globalization of basketball, talents all over the world, especially in Asia, now have a good chance of getting scouts to notice their talents and skills.
With the more inclusive and international outlook of the NBA teams and organizations, more foreigners are welcome to try out the NBA, especially Asian players.
Although some have found success and others have failed, it is no surprise that when an Asian player succeeds, we cannot help but be happy for them.
Thank you for reading my article. I hope you know more about the present Asian community in the NBA and other sports.
Feature image credit: Philippine Postal Corporation, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons