Despite the long history of the NBA, unfortunately, there haven’t been many Asian NBA players. This fact continues to remain the same despite the NBA going global which saw an influx of international players taking center stage.
Although there were a handful of players who were able to get drafted, a lot wouldn’t earn a spot in an NBA roster. Fortunately for Asian hoop fans, there have been a few who managed to make the cut. Moreover, some would even make their mark in the NBA. For this piece, let’s take a look at 18 Asian players that played in the NBA. It’s worth noting that this piece will not be considering naturalized NBA players such as Andray Blatche, Nick Fazekas, and Joe Vogel.
Wataru Misaka was the first Asian NBA player. After leading the University of Utah to a NCAA championship, Misaka would get drafted by the New York Knicks. The Japanese-American played in three games and averaged 2.3 points per game.
After Misaka, one of the next Asian NBA players was Filipino-American Raymond Townsend. Townsend was a first-round pick by the Golden State Warriors in the 1978 NBA Draft. He played for two seasons with the Warriors before wrapping up his career with the Indiana Pacers.
A decade after Townsend was drafted, another Asian-American NBA player emerged. Born to Lebanese parents, Seikaly would become one of the earliest international players to make an impact in the NBA. Seiklay carved out an 11-year NBA career, which saw him win Most Improved Player of the Year in 1990.
Aside from Misaka, another Japanese-American player that played in the NBA is Rex Walters. Walters played for seven seasons in the NBA, suiting up for the New Jersey Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, and the Miami Heat.
Although Yao Ming became one of the best Asian NBA players, he never won an NBA championship. The first Chinese player to do so was Mengke Bateer. Thanks to Tim Duncan and the Spurs, Bateer rode the bench en route to a ring. Aside from the Spurs, he also played for the Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors.
Wang ZhiZhi became the first Chinese player to get drafted in the NBA. The stretch big man was selected in the second round by the Dallas Mavericks. After five years in the NBA, Wang shot a solid career clip of 38.5% from deep.
While Misaka was the first Japanese-American NBA player, Yuta Tabuse would become the first full Japanese to see minutes in the NBA. He made the cut for the Phoenix Suns’ opening night roster for the 2004-2005 season and played in four games, averaging 1.8 points per game.
Ha Seung-Jin was the first South Korean player to ever get drafted and to play in the NBA. Selected by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round, the 7’3 center stayed in the NBA for two seasons. His best game with the Blazers saw him tally 13 points and five rebounds off the bench in a victory over Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.
Yao Ming is arguably the best NBA player from Asia. Yao would go on to appear in eight All-Star Games and make the All-NBA team five times. Because of this, it wasn’t a surprise that Yao would be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He is the only Asian basketball player to be inducted thus far.
With hype surrounding Yao, Yi Jianlian was dubbed as the next Yao Ming. After a successful stint in the Chinese Basketball Association, Yi was made the sixth overall pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. Although Yi wasn’t as dominant as Yao, he was able to play for five seasons in the NBA. His best season came with the New Jersey Nets where he averaged 12.0 points and 7.2 rebounds per game in 2009-2010.
Although China often sent big men to the NBA, Sun Yue was a forward. Thanks to Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, Sun became the second Asian and Chinese NBA player to win an NBA championship in 2009.
Despite going undrafted, Hamed Haddadi became the first Iranian player to see minutes in the NBA. Haddadi played for five seasons in the league, suiting up for the Memphis Grizzlies and the Phoenix Suns.
No one can ever forget the impact of Linsanity. For a while, Jeremy Lin took the NBA by storm after several obstacles that came in his way. Lin had several memorable moments with the Knicks. Years later as a Raptor, he eventually became the third NBA player of Asian descent to win an NBA championship.
Several years after Yi Jianlian’s NBA departure, Zhou Qi became the first Chinese player to play in the NBA since then. Zhou played in 18 games across two seasons for the Houston Rockets.
Since Yuta Tabuse, Yuta Watanabe became the first full Japanese player to step foot on the NBA hardwood. He has been a solid role player for the Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors, and now with the Brooklyn Nets. Currently, he’s just one of four active NBA players with Asian descent. Moreover, he’s leading the league in three-point percentage at 51.4% during the ongoing 2022-2023 regular season.
Aside from Yuta Watanabe, the second Japanese player in the NBA is Rui Hachimura. Hachimura became the first Japanese player to get drafted. Furthermore, he’s the fourth-highest-drafted Asian player of all time. In four seasons with the Wizards thus far, Hachimura is averaging a steady 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game.
Jordan Clarkson became the first Filipino-American since Raymond Townsend to see minutes on the NBA floor. His scoring prowess has turned him into one of the main players of the Utah Jazz. In his NBA career, Clarkson has made the All-Rookie team and won the Sixth Man of the Year in 2021. He has also scored at least 10,000 points and has broken several Jazz franchise records.
Aside from Jordan Clarkson, Jalen Green also traces his roots from the Philippines. He was drafted by the Houston Rockets with the second overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. As a result, Green became the second-highest-drafted Asian player and the highest for an Asian American. As one of the rising stars for the Rockets, Green is averaging 18.7 points per game in two seasons.