Finding the Next Yao Ming
It’s a good thing today’s social media apparatus didn’t exist in 2002, because June 26th would have broken it.
That night, the NBA took a giant step in its global expansion when the Houston Rockets made Yao Ming the first-ever Asian to be selected as the top overall pick in the draft, and the first international player to do so without passing through the NCAA.
The entry of the 7-foot-6 center paved the way for the league to capture the Asian market -- led by China’s massive 1.28 billion population; more than 200 million people in China watched his league debut against Shaquille O’Neal and the LA Lakers. Fast forward to the present, and the NBA claims that more than 300 million people are playing basketball in China -- three times the number in the U.S.
Though Yao was not the first Chinese player in the NBA -- both Mengke Bateer and Wang Zhizhi preceded him -- it was Yao who made the biggest impact and legitimized Asian basketball. He lived up to the hype: among his career accolades you’ll find eight trips to the All-Star game, two selections to the All-NBA Second Team, career per-game averages of 19.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks, and enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016.
Afterwards, Asians and Asian-Americans had a place in the league. Though none of Japan’s Yuta Tabuse, Korea’s Ha Seung-Jin, China’s Yi Jianlian, Sun Yue and Zhou Qi, Iran’s Hamed Haddadi or India’s Satnam Singh made the impact of Yao, they were able to walk the trail that Yao blazed.
For a brief moment in 2012, though, Taiwanese-American Jeremy Lin recreated the Asian frenzy when ‘Linsanity’ swept New York. One instance of Asian basketball exceptionalism can be an outlier; two is a trend.
Today, there are only three players with Asian heritage on the league’s active rosters: Lin, who now plays for Toronto, Filipino-American Jordan Clarkson, of Cleveland, and Japanese forward Yuta Watanabe, in Memphis. Almost two decades since Yao came to our shores, fans from the Far East are still waiting for the impact of Asian players to match that of the Europeans.
Here are six intriguing prospects with Asian heritage to keep an eye on in the next few years.
6. AJ EDU
Photo courtesy of FIBA
Ariel John Edu has the potential profile of the modern stretch big. His length and agility help him protect the rim, while a silky-smooth perimeter game profiles perfectly for today’s NBA. Just last week, the 18 year-old forward helped the Toledo Rockets win the Mid-American Conference’s West Division, contributing five points, five rebounds and a career-high six blocks in 18 minutes off the bench.
Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk heaped praise on Edu, who made it to MAC’s All-Freshman team. “Every day you see something more. He just keeps on getting better. He’s probably one of the most coachable and likeable kids I’ve been around. He has a chance to be really special here in a Rockets’ uniform,” Kowalczyk said after the game.
Born to a Cypriot father and a Filipina mother, Edu has represented the Philippines, leading the archipelago nation to a fourth-place finish in last year’s U18 continental championship to earn a FIBA U19 World Cup ticket later this year in Greece.
Edu finished the tournament as the second-best rebounder and shot blocker averaging 14.2 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks while shooting 47.7 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from three-point range, and earned an invite to the 2018 Basketball Without Borders Global Camp. He has only scratched the surface of his talent.
5. WANG QUANZE
Photo courtesy of FIBA
Wang Quanze may look like the prototypical Chinese big man, but unlike Yao and other Chinese nationals who played in the Association, Wang is charting a more conventional path towards his NBA dream. He moved to California at the age of 14 and became a three-star recruit while playing for Mater Dei High School. He played the recruiting game like your average American teen, and is currently playing NCAA Division I basketball for the University of Pennsylvania, averaging 8.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and one assist in the Ivy League as a freshman.
Wang faced Edu in last year’s FIBA U18 Asian Championship. While Edu won their first meeting in the group stage, Wang had saved his best for last, dropping 27 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals on the Philippines in the bronze medal game as China made it to this year’s FIBA U19 World Cup.
4. HYUNJUNG LEE
Photo courtesy of FIBA
Hyunjung Lee is the hands-down best 18-year old wingman in Asia today. Last year, he was the only South Korean to earn a scholarship to the NBA Global Academy at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra.
A 6-foot-7 gifted scorer, Lee was almost unstoppable in the FIBA U18 Asian Championship, averaging a tournament-high 26 points including 3.7 three-pointers per game. A well-rounded player, Lee added 10.3 rebounds, 6 assists 3.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game for South Korea as well. He stands a good chance of becoming the second of his nation’s exports to the NBA.
3. KAI SOTTO
Photo courtesy of FIBA
There’s always hype surrounding Kai Zachary Sotto. Why? In the basketball-crazed nation of the Philippines, where the average height is 5’4, it’s not every day you can find a 7’1” 16-year old who has the agility to maximize his physical gifts. A true unicorn, the 16-year old could be the Philippines’ best hope of finally having a fully homegrown talent in the NBA.
Sotto proved that his 16.8-point, 13.5-rebound, 2.5-block average in the 2018 FIBA U16 Asian Championship was no fluke when he sustained his dominant form in the FIBA U17 World Cup. Against much tougher competition, he posted averages of 16.4 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks, including four monster double-doubles against Croatia, Argentina, Egypt and New Zealand.
The reed-thin forward may be looking at Kristaps Porzingis’ path to the NBA after receiving several offers from Europe led by Real Madrid and Barcelona; an NBA Scout noted that Sotto may need to move out of his comfort zone to develop into a solid prospect.
The stronger competition in Europe seems to be just what he needs to take the next step up.
2. REMY MARTIN
Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics
Our final two, starting with Remy Martin of the Arizona State Sun Devils, are almost certain to get a shot at the NBA, based on how well they’re already plying their trade stateside at the highest levels of college play.
Martin may be the smallest player on this list, but what he lacks in size he makes up for in ferocity. The 6’0” guard currently averages 13.4 points, 5.2 assists and 1.2 steals, earning him a spot on the All-Pac-12 Second Team. Over the weekend, he exploded for 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in Arizona State’s big win over rival Arizona to solidify their resume when selection Sunday comes around.
Born to a Filipino mother, Martin identifies with that part of his heritage. A look at his Instagram account makes instantly clear that he’s a proud Filipino despite being born and raised in the US. His wish to play for the Philippines may soon become a reality as national coach Yeng Guiao is looking to invite him to join their FIBA World Cup pool this summer.
1. RUI HACHIMURA
Photo courtesy of Getty Images
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Japan will host two preseason games this October, just as Japanese sensation Rui Hachimura is faced with the decision on whether to declare this year for the NBA draft.
The 6-foot-8 forward from no.1 seed Gonzaga is currently averaging 20.4 points on 61 percent shooting and 6.6 rebounds to get the nod for the WCC Player of the Year award.
In his matchup against this year’s projected no.1 pick Zion Williamson of Duke earlier this season, Hachimura scored a team-high 20 points including several key plays down the stretch to power Gonzaga to the Maui title. He added seven rebounds, five assists and three blocks in a complete game that showcased his NBA-ready talent.
Hachimura has the best chance to approximate Yao Ming’s star factor in the NBA and also helped Japan stage an incredible comeback from a 0-4 start in the FIBA World Cup qualifiers to make it back to the world stage, furthering his legend amongst Asian players.
Hachimura has fully embraced the challenge to become not only Japan’s poster boy but also Asia’s overall: “I want to be the guy where they say, ‘I want to be like him.’ Soon enough we’ll see if it’s Hachimura or one of the other contenders who carries the banner for Asia further into this new century.