The NBA has gone global, with every team signing an international player to its roster. Curiously, there is only one Asian — two if Jeremy Lin is included — on the NBA roster: Yuta Watanabe. The undrafted Japanese lefty is currently on a two-way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies and is proving that he deserves a spot in the undrafted prospects list compiled by Full Press Coverage. With Watanabe looking to make it big in the league, here is a look at some Asians who nearly made the grade in the NBA.

Ma Jian


Long ago China was Ma Jian country, and he was for a time the best in Asia. Ma was a 6’7, 220-pound prototypical swingman who could score inside and out, and he was hell-bent on making it to the NBA. Sports Illustrated even ran a brief profile of Ma when he took his act to the U.S. via the University of Utah, an NCAA Division I school.

He was eventually drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers in the 1995 NBA Draft but was ultimately cut. That was as close as he would get to the NBA.


Johnny Abarrientos


At 5’7, Johnny Abarrientos of the Philippines hardly looked like a potential NBA player. But in his prime, he was arguably Asia’s best point guard. Simply, the Flying A just knew how to play. Small wonder that Charlotte Hornets consultant Joe Bettencourt made a couple of trips to the Philippines to take a closer look at the diminutive playmaker. Last year Abarrientos recalled to what could have been, noting that plans were in place for him to sign a 10-day contract with the Hornets. Unfortunately, Bettencourt stopped pursuing the Filipino.

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Arsalan Kazemi


Iran’s Arsalan Kazemi is a 6-8 small forward who played NCAA Division I basketball — first for Rice, and then for Oregon. He ended his college career averaging a near double-double in points and rebounds.

He was then drafted 54th by the Washington Wizards in the 2013 NBA Draft and soon traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. Kazemi played a few Summer League games but was unable to crack the 76ers’ regular season lineup.


Satnam Singh Bhamara


Hailed by The Logical Indian for putting India on the basketball map, Bhamara first burst onto the basketball scene as a wide-eyed big man. But he was largely unimpressive. He nonetheless worked on his game and improved — slowly but surely. His hard work paid off 6 years later as he was picked 52nd by the Dallas Mavericks in the 2015 NBA Draft. He saw action in the Summer League but like Kazemi couldn’t quite make it to an NBA roster.

Larry Tieu


Vietnam is a football nation. But basketball has nonetheless found a niche in the country. In fact, it is becoming more popular thanks to the establishment of the ASEAN Basketball League and the expanding reach of the NBA. Expat Bets’ guide to sports betting in Vietnam  shows how the locals love to place wagers on NBA games due to the popularity of the sport. Unfortunately, there have been few Vietnamese players who’ve even come close to reaching the big leagues. The closest has been Larry Tieu, who played NCAA Division II basketball. The 6’3 combo guard purportedly received some interest from the Los Angeles Lakers, though nothing ever came out of it.

Now, there have been Asians who have cracked an NBA roster, like Zhou Qi, Hamed Haddadi, and Yao Ming. It wouldn’t be a surprise then if others follow suit, with the aforementioned Watanabe knocking on the NBA’s door. Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura and a few others might be next in line.



  1. Not entirely accurate. Jordan Clarkson of the Cleveland Indians has a Filipino mother so he is ethnically part asian, too.

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