Basketball has become a global sport in recent years. Today, 109 players, around a quarter, of the league are international players. Eighteen players from overseas were drafted in the 2021 NBA Draft, nine in the first and nine in the second round. Out of all these players, only 0.4 percent are Asian. Who are they and who are the tallest Asian basketball players in the NBA and in other leagues?
How Many Asian Basketball Players are in the NBA?
Currently, there are only two Asian-born players in the NBA, and both are Japanese. These are Yuta Watanabe of the Toronto Raptors and Rui Hachimura of the Washington Wizards. Watanabe was born in Yokohama while Hachimura was born in Toyama.
Watanabe and Hachimura walked different paths in the NBA. Both went to college in the United States, but Watanabe came into the league as an undrafted free agent while Hachimura came out of Gonzaga as a lottery pick. Hachimura averaged 13.8 points and 5.5 rebounds last year, but for some undisclosed personal reasons, did not play at the start of the season.
Outside of the individuals mentioned above, Jordan Clarkson represented the Philippines in various international events. The Utah Jazz guard was born to an American father and a Filipino-American mother, whose roots are traced to Pampanga, Philippines. Houston Rockets guard Jalen Green also has Filipino roots, with his mother’s relatives hailing from Ilocos Sur, Philippines.
While there are only two Asians right now in the NBA, the league’s history came to see some notable ones throughout the years. Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6 Hall of Fame giant from China, was an immovable force for many years before retiring due to foot issues. Yao was also the tallest NBA player at one point.
Jeremy Lin was in the forefront of “Linsanity” in New York, although the Taiwanese-American could not replicate his Big Apple success elsewhere. (Lin was born in Palo Alto, California, to Taiwanese parents.)
Who is the Tallest Asian Basketball Player?
Yao Ming may be one of the tallest Asian basketball players ever, but he does not hold the distinction of being the tallest. That honor goes to Sun Mingming. Mingming is the tallest basketball player in China and in the world at 7-foot-9. At 38 years old, he last played professional basketball in 2014 as part of the Beijing Ducks.
Another tall basketball prospect from China that could possibly dominate the professional and world stage is actually not a “he” but a “she.” Zhang Ziyu, now 15 years old, stands at 7-feet-4 inches tall and is already a star in her age bracket. Ziyu’s parents are also basketball players.
10 Tallest Basketball Players from Asia
While Asia is under-represented in the NBA right now, the continent is known for producing some of the tallest basketball players. Here are the tallest Asian basketball players:
1. Sun Mingming (7-foot-9)
Sun has the distinction as the tallest professional basketball player in the world at 7-foot-9. He never made it to the NBA but had stints in the USBL and Mexico before going back to China with the Beijing Ducks.
2. Yao Ming (7-foot-6)
Hands down the best player coming out of Asia, Yao is also one of the tallest NBA players of all time. He tipped the scales at 7-foot-6 and 310 pounds during his playing days. Yao was an 8-time All-Star, a five-time All-NBA selection, and a Hall-of-Fame inductee. Over a decade after retirement, Yao is still heavily involved in the Chinese basketball scene as the chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association.
3. Seung-Jin Ha (7-foot-3)
Ha did not have the NBA career Yao Ming had, but the Korean giant was a serviceable big man during his heyday. He played with the Portland TrailBlazers from 2004 to 2006 and was later waived by the Bucks before the 2006-07 season. At 7-foot-3, Ha has the same height as NBA fan favorite Boban Marjanovic.
4. Kai Sotto (7-foot-2)
Filipinos are hopeful Sotto will be the first Filipino-born player in the NBA and it could be a dream come true as soon as next year. The 19-year-old is playing in the NBL’s Adelaide 36ers averaging 8 points and 4.5 rebounds while shooting at a 59% clip from the floor.
5. Hamed Haddadi (7-foot-2)
Haddadi is the first Iranian player in the NBA. He went the undrafted route in 2004 and played in the NBA for 2008-13 for the Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns. Haddadi gave a physical presence inside and once grabbed a career-high 11 rebounds for the Suns.
6. Zhou Qi (7-foot-1)
Qi was the last Chinese to play in the NBA as a second-round pick by the Houston Rockets. Despite his 7-foot-1 frame, Qi is actually more of a small forward. After spending a season with the Rockets and their D-League affiliate, Qi had stints with Xinjiang Flying Tigers (CBA) and the South East Melbourne Phoenix in the NBL.
7. Wang Zhi-Zhi (7-foot-1)
Wang was the first Chinese to step foot in the NBA. If anything, he was ahead of his time as a sweet-shooting big man. Wang’s best years were with the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Clippers, where he played 55 and 41 regular-season games, respectively.
8. Yi Jianlian (7 feet)
If there ever was someone who was thought to carry the torch for the next wave of Asian basketball players, it’s Yi. Yi had a complete inside-outside game, but for some reason, he never panned out, or at least, he hasn’t had the success Yao had in the NBA. His best year was in 2009-10 where he averaged 12 points and seven rebounds with the New Jersey Nets.
9. Mengke Bateer (6-foot-11)
Mengke’s NBA career was short-lived, having played for the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, and the Toronto Raptors. He did get a ring with the Spurs in 2003, but he wasn’t on the playoff roster in that championship run. His best year was in 2001-02, averaging 5 points and 4 rebounds for the Denver Nuggets in 15 minutes a night.
10. Sun Yue (6-foot-9)
Sun was dubbed the Chinese Magic Johnson but as far as his NBA career is concerned, that did not materialize. Like Mengke Bateer, Sun won a ring as a warm body at the end of the bench for the Los Angeles Lakers. He was not part of the Lakers’ playoff roster in 2009 and was waived before the start of the following season.
Wrapping Things Up: Tall Asian Basketball Players
Right now, there are only two Asian-born basketball players today. These are Yuta Watanabe and Rui Hachimura from Japan. Jordan Clarkson and Jalen Green have Filipino blood but were born in the United States. Before these youngsters plied their trade, several Asian behemoths made their way into NBA rosters.
Who are they? They are Yao Ming, Hamed Haddadi, Ha Seung-Jin, Wang Zhizhi, Yi Jianlian, and Mengke Bateer. These guys were at least 7-feet tall, with Yao being the tallest at 7-foot-6. At one point, Yao Ming was the tallest NBA player, along with Shawn Bradley of the Dallas Mavericks.
Right now, Watanabe and Hachimura may not have made it among the tallest Asian basketball players, but they represent the next wave of NBA Asian players. If Fanbo Zeng and Kai Sotto fulfill their dreams of getting drafted next year, that will pave the way for more Asian players in the best basketball league in the world.
Cover photo by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / modified from original