Hoop dreams come in all shapes and sizes. And halfway around the world, some dreams are just beginning — the dream of making it back to the NBA.
This weekend, the Chinese Basketball Association concludes its regular season as teams gear up for the playoffs. For many Americans playing in China, the dream is humble yet significant – to compete for an NBA roster spot.
No matter how you look at it, getting back to the NBA is always a long shot. Nonetheless, at this point in the season, NBA teams are looking to add some firepower to their rosters and may want some veteran leadership anywhere they can find it.
What benefits American players in China is that they have had several months to showcase their skills and stay in shape. They are playing in an increasingly competitive environment and asked to shoulder a tremendous offensive load, often matched up with American counterparts on a nightly basis. And make no mistake, NBA scouts are paying attention.
The players fall into three categories. The frontrunners are the players with the highest chance of making it back to an NBA roster near you. Next are the fringe-worthy - players with a relatively long shot of returning, though certainly not impossible. Last but not least, is the hell freezes over category – players whose names come up in conversations and whose hearts are in the right place but aren’t legitimate prospects.
Johnson is no stranger to the NBA, having played for the Atlanta Hawks as recently as 2012. He is an undersized 6-8 forward averaging 25.8 points and 10.2 rebounds for the Zhejiang Golden Bulls. Zhejiang is out of playoff contention and Johnson doesn’t have a long-term contract, so he is definitely looking to head back. At 29, he is still a legitimate pick up for NBA teams. Although Johnson has had his share of attitude problems, it is a fairly low-risk, high-reward situation.
Singleton isn’t a household name but has been a terrific Swiss army knife for Xinjiang with averages of 20.2 points, 10.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 blocks and 1.0 steals. The 6-8 tweener has played for several NBA teams, including the Wizards, Mavericks, Clippers and Kings. Last season, Singleton just missed being signed by the Knicks and could be an interesting pickup for several teams. The one knock against him is his age – 32. But in terms of work ethic and grit, Singleton leads the China class. The other X- factor is Xinjiang’s positioning in the playoffs – they are among the better teams right now – so Singleton’s availabity will be delayed.
Singleton’s partner in crime in Xinjiang is tailor-made for the CBA game. Hudson is a steadying presence at point guard and is averaging 25.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.6 steals. He is no stranger to the NBA, having last played for the Grizzlies in 2012. Unfortunately, he was waived by the Jazz in 2013, which led to his decision to play in China. The one knock against Hudson is his size – generously listed at 6-3 – but he’s not yet 30 and can be an intriguing option for teams looking to add depth and long-range shooting.
Brown, the 74-point game wunkerkind, is a well-connected and well-traveled journeyman. He is averaging 30.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.6 steals for the Dongguan Leopards. He has plenty of NBA experience, having played for the Kings, Timberwolves, Hornet and Clippers. Brown is an undersized, score-first guard who may get a shot soon. After all, he is a popular player in NBA circles, and a 74-point outburst is nothing to sneeze at. Dongguan is currently seeded third going into the CBA playoffs, so it’s also unlikely Brown will leave right away.
“Bassy” needs no introduction. The younger cousin of Stephon Marbury last played significant minutes for the Suns from 2011-13; unfortunately, he was waived by the Raptors last year. Since coming to China, Telfair has averaged 25.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 2.2 steals for the Tianjin Golden Lions. Telfair never has been a particularly efficient player or team facilitator, but he is playing well and hungrier than ever to come back. While Tianjin is headed for the CBA playoffs, Telfair isn’t locked up for the long term. He could help several NBA teams with his scoring and experience.
Powell has had exposure to a number of NBA teams over the years, including the Spurs, Hawks and Lakers. After being waived by the Knicks last year, he joined the Guandong Southern Tigers. The numbers are unspectacular by league standards – averages of 14.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, 0.4 blocks – but that has to do with the system in which he plays. Guandong is a deep squad, and Powell gets 30 minutes a game. Powell is basically treating the CBA as a lucrative endeavor and is still spry enough to get a shot with NBA teams. Like most CBA bigs, he is not big enough (6-9) to be a sure thing but definitely worth watching. Even though Guandong is one of the top teams, not being the focal point enables Powell to walk away if the opportunity presents itself.
It’s official: West is out of the Chinese league, reportedly based on infighting with his coaching staff and teammates. Statistically speaking, West had a great season for the Fujian Sturgeons, with averages of 23.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.4 steals. He is playing like the combo guard that made him so effective over a long NBA career.
So why isn’t he in the frontrunner category? At this point, West’s character issues are a red flag to NBA teams looking to sign him. He is not exactly the steady veteran that can mentor young players and could be disruptive in the locker room. While West’s return to the NBA would be a great story, I’m not holding my breath.
Pooh Jeter is the prototypical scoring guard – 5-11, fearless, unlimited range. He last played for the Kings during the 2010-11 season and is currently in the midst of a two-year contract with the Shandong Flaming Bulls. Jeter is one of the best scoring guards in the CBA, averaging 26.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.2 steals – including a heat-check worthy 42.4 percent from 3-point range. The Shandong contract signifies Jeter’s willingness to play in China, where he can take care of his family. It’s not inconceivable that he walks away from Shandong to chase a non-guaranteed NBA contract, but it’s not likely, either.
I’ve called Morris the Tim Duncan of the CBA, and for good reason. He is the type of player that plays cerebral basketball and is a big reason why the Beijing Ducks are doing so well. With Stephon Marbury out of commission for most of the season, Morris has been carrying the team with averages of 26.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists. Morris just seems tailor-made for the CBA game, which is a double-edged sword. While he has mastered the Chinese game, he lacks the explosiveness and “motor” that players of his size need to succeed in the NBA. If Morris hasn’t gotten the call-up over the past two seasons, chances are he won’t get it now. He is fringe at best.
White is an NBA veteran last seen playing meaningful minutes for the Charlotte Bobcats in the 2011-12 season before getting waived by the Nets and the Bulls in 2013. These days, he is playing for the Sichuan Blue Whales – or as I like to call them, the Fail Whales. He is averaging 20.4 points and 8.5 boards for a team that is already loaded to the gills with foreign talent. Despite this, Sichuan is at the bottom of the CBA rankings, so there’s no doubt that White is looking for an exit. At 6-9 and 27 years old, he certainly has the attributes to be a fringe pickup.
Williams has been in the CBA for several seasons and has played remarkably well as the go-to scorer for the Shanxi Brave Dragons. The lead guard is averaging a torrid 29.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.5 steals. While he has had exposure with teams like the San Antonio Spurs, he has been out of NBA circles for some time. Coupled with his career success in China, that makes walking away from the CBA an unlikely proposition for Williams.
At 5-11 with a score-first mentality, Akognon is perfectly suited for the CBA game. He is averaging 28.8 points, 2.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.5 steals with the Qingdao Eagles. Akognon flirted with an NBA roster spot last year and was claimed by the Grizzlies, only to get waived. He has made no secret of his desire to get back into the NBA, and Qingdao is dead last in the CBA standings, but the jury is still out on whether teams will take a potential flyer with him.
Hell Freezes Over
Wilkins is a guy that is still fresh in NBA fans’ memories, having spent all of the 2012-13 season with the Sixers. He was effectively “on loan” for the Beijing Ducks this season, due to Marbury’s injury. Now that Marbury is back, Wilkins is out of the CBA. I’m not convinced he can get back to the NBA. Age has caught up with him, and he lacks a definitive skill such as shooting or defense that can help NBA teams at this point in his career.
Gibson has played well in his inaugural season for the Guangsha Lions. He is a lightning quick offensive player and carries much of the scoring load. The one thing he has never done, however, is land a spot on an NBA roster. Gibson has played in Europe for a number of teams and has entertained in the prestigious Drew League, but I would be extremely surprised if he can channel that into an NBA opportunity.
Jones is a great numbers guy – 25.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.6 steals for the Liaoning Flying Leopards. The problem is that even by CBA standards, he is a detriment to the team’s success and doesn’t do anything particularly well other than hoist a lot of shots. He is the focal point on offense for a team that is fighting for the last CBA playoff seed. The former first-round pick was waived by Dallas during his rookie contract for refusing to go to the D-League, so that also hurts his stock.
James Hsu is a Chinese-Canadian writer currently living in Beijing. Follow him on Twitter at @james_hsu.