As basketball continues to diversify in player ethnicities, we examine an intriguing group of players trying to make history.
*Disclaimer: For this specific piece, I’m defining “Asian” as East Asian and Southeast Asian countries and identities.
Last year was a landmark NBA draft for Asian-Americans. With the number two overall pick, the Houston Rockets selected Jalen Green. Though I had no personal attachment to Green, I still felt a sense of pride. Why? The fellow Californian represented the highest draft pick for a player who identified as Asian since Yao Ming in the 2002 draft. Green’s mother, Bree Purganan, is a Filipina-American who’s father is a native of the Philippines. The 20-year-old is not shy to share his love for his culture. “I love the Philippines, the show of love and support. I’m just happy I get to represent them and I’m happy I have family out there.”
As someone who was also hails from an Asian island (Taiwan), it made me happy to see such a highly touted player openly embrace his heritage. I spent most of my life in majority White and Hispanic cities, watching a sport with predominantly Black/African American athletes. I yearned to see people who looked like me, let alone in the NBA. I learned about pioneers like Wang Zhizhi (Chinese) and Mengke Bateer (Chinese Mongolian), followed by high draft picks Yao Ming (Chinese) and Yi Jianlian (Chinese) at a young age. Though I was happy to root for my Asian brothers, I felt like I didn’t really connect to them at all. They were seven foot behemoths after all.
That Darius Miles celebration during a summer league game in 2017 was the closest I ever felt to Wang Zhizhi.
Then came the dawn of Jeremy Lin and Linsanity in 2012. Not only was Lin a fellow bay area native, but he was also a Taiwanese-American (Sorry Joe Alexander) like me. He spent the majority of his life growing up stateside, went through similar lived experiences as me, then finally earned international fame for his talents on the basketball court. I still vividly remember writing a paper about him for a Sociology class during my ungrad in 2009, wishing that this Harvard kid would find a way into the league.
Spoiler alert: He did.
The undrafted player’s massive success in 2012 may have serendipitously paved the way for the next Asian-American, Filipino-American Jordan Clarkson. Clarkson, who’s late grandmother was a native Filipina, would get drafted in 2014 during the second round and eventually find his path to a meaningful NBA career as well, which culminated in his 2021 NBA Sixth Man of the Year award.
There would be a few other non-American Asians who would try to break into the NBA scene later on, including a pair of Chinese centers to make history in 2016. Zhou Qi (43rd) and Wang Zhelin (57th) became the first pair of Asian players to be selected in the same draft. Though the latter never suited up in the league, it was still progress! I headed out to summer leagues to watch undrafted Ding Yanhuhang (Chinese) in 2017 and Abudurexiti Abudushalamu (Chinese) in 2018, but the next ones to actually make the big leagues were Yuta Watanabe (Japanese) in 2018 and Rui Hachimura (Japanese) in 2019.
It felt like I was finally seeing Asian faces with more regularity in the league, whether or not they identified as half-Asian or non-American Asians. It made me happy knowing there are youngsters not just in America, but around the world, who feel that it’s “normal” for them to get into basketball thanks to who they see in the pros. All this to say, we are just scratching the surface of Asians in the NBA. I still scour over every incoming NBA draft class hoping to find any new Asian hoopers that I never knew about. I learned about and rooted for guys like Mikh McKinney (Filipino) and Jeff Wu (Taiwanese), both fellow Sacramento State alums. The former even got close enough to receive a D-League invitation back in 2016.
As we head into Thursday’s draft, there’s a chance for history to be made. Though there may not be any Asian prospects in the lottery this time, there are still five young prospects who have been training for this moment. They look to make 2022 the first year that three or more Asian players are selected in a single draft.
Let’s dive in.
(None of this is meant to be Wataru Misaka or Raymond Townsend erasure. They were just well before my time. Also shoutout to my brother and NBA champion, Sun Yue.)
Potential 2022 Draftees
Power Forward/Center, 6’10”, 7’1” wingspan, 236 lbs, 19.9 years old,
10.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 2.6 apg, 1.3 spg, 1.1 bpg
Jaylin Williams, who’s mother is of Vietnamese decent, is popularly mocked in the early to mid second round, but some have him as high as the end of the first round. The big man out of Arkansas is truly an intriguing prospect. In just his sophomore season, he finished fifth in the entire NCAA in total rebounds, fourth in defensive win shares (Above potential first round prospect Walker Kessler), and number one in total charges drawn. That’s not something you expect to see out of a starting big. Those marks earned him 1st Team All-SEC, SEC All-Defensive Team, and a NCAA West Regional All-Tournament Team recognition.
Oh my! Jaylin Williams on Banchero’s head pic.twitter.com/MrWUBd9MB5
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 27, 2022
Offensively, though he’s got the size to be an athletic rim-running big, he doesn’t quite have the explosiveness that you would think he has. Instead of consistently playing above the rim, he often opts to hoist up runners and scoop shots that aren’t always accurate. From the perimeter, he tried to expand his range further out to the three point line during his sophomore season, but dropped from 30.4% down to 23.9% on nearly double the amount of volume. He still showed some ability to hit mid-rangers to the extent where he could be useful there. Where he does offer intrigue is his ability to pass the ball. In short roll situations, he has shown the vision and ability to consistently execute beautiful drop-offs and pocket passes which will surely be useful in the NBA’s pace and space game.
Arkansas’ Jaylin Williams worked out for the Suns today. Williams is projected to go in the second round.
Williams is the best passing big in the draft who could become a more athletic version of Dario Saric within Monty Williams’ 0.5 system. pic.twitter.com/qdJ8cQu52p
— Evan Sidery (@esidery) June 12, 2022
Williams impressed with four straight double-doubles in the NCAA tournament. He helped Arkansas overachieve, leading his team to the Elite Eight by defeating number one seeded Gonzaga (Featuring top three prospect Chet Holmgren, mind you) with a solid 15 point (2 3PM!), 12 rebound, and three assist performance. They ended up losing to eventual tournament runners up, Duke (With top three prospect Paolo Banchero), but he still posted a team-best 19 points, 10 rebound, and three assist stat line in the defeat.
Shooting Guard, 6’6.5”, 6’11” wingspan, 208.6 lbs, 21.1 years old,
15.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.8 apg, 0.7 spg, 0.1 bpg
The Creole-Vietnamese American is perhaps the most household name out of these five players. Johnny Juzang spent one short season with John Calipari’s Wildcats before opting to transfer closer to his hometown of Los Angeles, opting for more playing time at UCLA. During his sophomore season (first at UCLA), he helped lead his team all the way to the Final Four before Jalen Suggs took their souls.
Jalen Suggs’ all-time game-winner against UCLA called by Gonzaga’s IMG radio team of Tom Hudson and Adam Morrison (yes, that Adam Morrison): pic.twitter.com/DBtqdFjenL
— Brian Fonseca (@briannnnf) April 4, 2021
After an outstanding 2021 NCAA tournament where he averaged 22.8 points on shooting splits of .509/.375/.778, he surprisingly opted to return for his junior year. Unfortunately for the 21-year-old, he did not see any significant improvements despite an easier schedule. That’s not to say that Juzang doesn’t have anything to offer NBA teams. In fact, his primary strength is something all teams can use more: Shooting. His college tape was consistent in demonstrating his ability to make jumpshots in a variety of ways. Catch and shoot, spot up, off the dribble – Johnny gets buckets. In his two seasons in the Pac-12, he was top 10 in points and effective field goal percentage.
Defensively, he is much less exciting as a prospect. He is a bit heavy footed and fails to effectively stay in front of quicker opponents. Though he’s a bit large for his position, he lacks the the athleticism to really show it off. He’s had a number of workouts with NBA teams so far, so there’s still clearly intrigue in him. He’s gone from the second round to out of popular mocks now, but it’s still realistic for him to get selected near the end of the draft.
The #Timberwolves had a draft workout today. UCLA’s Johnny Juzang is said to have been among prospects in town taking part. Busy stretch with another group workout tomorrow, Combine next week. #RaisedByWolves pic.twitter.com/2wAYjYJkjS
— Darren Wolfson (@DWolfsonKSTP) May 13, 2022
Shooting Guard/Small forward, 6’8”, 6’10” wingspan, 210 lbs, 21.6 years old,
15.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.9 apg, 0.7 spg, 0.3 bpg
The six foot seven inch guard out of South Korea drew some national attention with his ability to shoot the ball, but perhaps more so because of the name across his jersey – Davidson. The same small liberal arts college where the best shooter of all-time, and recent finals MVP, came out of. Obviously no one expected/expects Hyunjung Lee to be the next Steph Curry, but what about Klay Thompson?
— Mark Kim (@MarkJKim_) December 22, 2021
Tell me you don’t get hyped after watching that reel.
As mentioned earlier, every NBA team could use more shooting. Lee is one of the more dynamic snipers of this draft class, being able to hit shots from all over the court in different ways. He’s much more of a pure shooter than Juzang, sprinting around off the ball like a pinball. One of the main differences between Juzang and him is that Lee played in a much weaker conference, but there’s plenty of evidence that good prospects can come out of mid-majors. His overall shooting numbers dropped off a bit from his sophomore to junior year, but he did see his USG% (24.7%) and FTr (31.5%) increase significantly. That said, he doesn’t appear to offer much else outside of his shooting prowess, measuring pretty unspectacularly in the NBA combine athletic testing.
Lee popped up on some mocks late in the second round earlier in the year, but has mostly disappeared as well. He’s recently had a number of workouts with teams with second round picks such as the Wolves, Warriors, Hornets, Pacers, and Kings. Even the Lakers invited him to a workout, perhaps signaling a potential camp invite.
Update: It appears he’s had a major ankle injury just days before the draft. Just terrible news. Wishing him a speedy recovery.
2022 NBA draft prospect Hyunjung Lee has suffered a foot injury one week prior to the draft. Reported by Naver Sports in Korea. Lee will go through further testing to determine the severity of the injury. @NoCeilingsNBA https://t.co/JSvcKAt2JI pic.twitter.com/8Vy4HZM6Yb
— ALBERT GHIM (@albertoeghim) June 17, 2022
Small forward/Power forward, 6’11”, 199 lbs, 19.4 years old
3.8 ppg, 1,4 rpg, 0.8 apg, 0.3 spg, 0.9 bpg
Fanbo Zeng was once a top ranked high school prospect. In fact, some labeled him as the best Chinese prospect since Yao Ming. As a sophomore at Windermere Prep (FL), he averaged 15.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.6 blocks, and 1.1 steals on pristine .600/.465/.859 splits. Similar to both Juzang and Lee, Zeng could also shoot the heck out of the ball. The teenager showcased his ballhandling and playmaking skills, plus athleticism that passed the eye test which made scouts intrigued with his potential.
What an impressive sequence by Fanbo Zeng. Shows off his vertical pop with the nice weak side block then on the other end showcases his impressive passing ability at his size. Unique prospect. pic.twitter.com/sNAkM00TV0
— Global Scouting (@GlobalScouting_) November 6, 2021
After decommitting to Gonzaga to opt for the NBA G League, Zeng struggled quite a bit to see the court. Due to the makeup of the G League Ignite team, which features four to five potential first round talents, he saw just 13.6 minutes per game. This limited the scope of what scouts could examine last season. What was hard to ignore was Zeng’s lack of physicality, as he was looked like a boy amongst men out there at times. He has the size, but certainly not the strength or explosiveness to really exert his presence on the court yet. That’s to be expected in the G League though, especially for someone as young as Zeng. He doesn’t appear on any mock drafts as of now, but according to his agent, he has had 10-15 workouts with teams including the Knicks, Kings, Pacers, among others.
— NBA G League Ignite (@gleagueignite) April 4, 2022
Center, 7’2”, 7’5” wingspan, 236 lbs, 20.1 years old,
7.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 0.5 apg, 0.3 spg, 0.8 bpg
I first recall hearing about this towering Filipino teenager a couple years ago. Kai Sotto was another potential unicorn that went viral in 2020, when a highlight video of him dominating high school competition generated over 2.5 million views.
You could’ve shown me that video in 240p black and white quality and I would’ve thought that was Wilt Chamberlain tape.
Since then, Sotto was on the radar of many international scouts. In 2020, the then 18-year-old signed with the aforementioned G League Ignite team. However, due to pandemic related concerns, he decided to opt out and sign a multi-year deal with the Adelaide 36ers of Australia’s NBL instead. Though his playing time was limited at just 15.3 minutes per game his smooth perimeter stroke translated well in his 23 games with the 36ers. Sotto connected on five of his 13 3PA and it’s easy to imagine him shooting over defenders at any level with his high, smooth release point. Sotto’s huge size is comparable to Chet Holmgrem, making him an easy lob target while cleaning up misses on the offensive glass.
A big difference between the two is that Sotto doesn’t have Holmgren’s high basketball IQ on both ends of the court yet. He’s also still figuring out how to play at the pro-level and is still fully mature into his body. Sotto’s frail frame allows for the bigger and stronger athletes to easily push him around down low for now. With time and an NBA strength and conditioning team around him, his potential may be just too tantalizing for teams to pass up. Broad strokes, he’s a discount Chet Holmgren that you can snag with a late second round pick. He’s worked out for the Kings already and despite suffering a sprained ankle recently, will keep his name in the draft.
Other potential prospects:
Chinese basketball prospect Yu Jiahao was invited to Milwaukee @Bucks pre-draft workout, according to a Chinese reporter. Averaging 12.2 points and 8.7 rebounds for the Zhejiang #GoldenBulls in his rookie season, the 19-year-old was named “Rising Star of the Year”.#NBADraft pic.twitter.com/c0R0lxYOZC
— Sports China (@PDChinaSports) May 31, 2022
Footage of 7’3 Chinese Center Harold Yu from the CAA Pro Day. The 19-year old Sierra Canyon alumnus has a huge standing reach and an extremely high skill-level that really shined through in this setting. pic.twitter.com/uvEjkkGqp5
— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) May 28, 2022
What could this mean for the Timberwolves?
For those of you who have been around for a bit, you may remember one specific name that hasn’t been mentioned yet.
Wolves summer roster wins the name game: Jet Chang, Sylven Landesberg, Zabian Dowdell, Lior Eliyahu, Papa Dia…all awesome.
— Canis Hoopus (@canishoopus) July 12, 2012
That’s right. Minnesota, by my count, has ever only had one Asian player don a Timberwolves jersey. In 2012, months after Linsanity exploded, the Wolves added undrafted, Taiwanese-born Jet Chang to their Las Vegas Summer League roster. Unfortunately, the six foot four inch guard did not see a single minute of game action that summer. He’s since bounced around Asian leagues, dealt with off-the-court issues, and recently got his career back on track as he won MVP of the P. League+ (Taiwanese league). Chang, who’s now playing for the newly formed East Asia Super League, has a cool story and continues to provide hope that maybe, just maybe, one day an Asian will play for the Timberwolves.
At the time of writing this, Wolves President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly has three second round picks to use (40, 48, 50). Minnesota’s front office team of Avengers has a strong track record of identifying impact players in the second round (Morris, Vanderbilt, Nowell) or with two-way contracts (Craig, Dozier, McLaughlin, Reid). That means even if any one of the discussed five prospects go undrafted, they could still potentially receive a summer league or training camp invite.
Though I’m sure diversifying the ethnic makeup of the Timberwolves roster isn’t atop their list of priorities, it sure would go a long way for Asian fans around the world. I mean, they owe it to us after the Watanabe incident.