Top-flight basketball players in need of a professional opportunity have a wealth of leagues to choose from, with Greece, Argentina, Italy, Spain, Turkey and France all providing exceptional competition — and compensation — that in some cases rivals what can be found in the NBA on any given night. The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) does not seem likely to be a primary option for players seeking a league that can boast both talent and prestige, but an increasing number of NBA-level talents have spent time in the CBA in recent years.
While the CBA has been known to attract aging NBAers who appear to be otherwise out of professional options, the league has also drawn a host of other players whose circumstances are quite different. Young players are beginning to see China’s top league as a viable option because of the relatively short season and the opportunity to land a fairly lucrative contract, while a number of NBA All-Stars spent time in the CBA due to the lockout of 2011. There have also been instances in which players who were otherwise overlooked by the NBA generated interest in their services by succeeding in the Chinese league.
The uptick in NBAers taking their talents to China may have something to do with the league’s clear growth potential. Although the CBA has a very well-deserved reputation for having some of the worst officiating in the world, the league also operates in a country that boasts the second-largest NBA market, trailing only the United States in that regard. One of the 15 players on this list has even become a legitimate cultural phenomenon in China, offering maligned or misunderstood former NBA players a chance at crafting a redemption story of sorts. Whatever their reasons for joining the CBA, the following 15 players have all taken their talents to China at some point in their professional basketball careers.
15. Greg Oden
Injuries have derailed Oden’s NBA career, leading the 2007 NBA Draft — in which the former Ohio State center was taken before Kevin Durant — to be frequently compared to the 1984 class that saw oft-injured center Sam Bowie taken ahead of the legendary Michael Jordan. Oden, who is still just 28, last saw NBA action during the 2013-14 season and has only managed to appear in 105 games over parts of three seasons since joining the league. Having several failed comeback attempts under his belt already, Oden is attempting to revive his once-promising basketball career yet again, this time by heading to China.
The one-year, $1.2 million contract Oden agreed to with the Jiangsu Dragons may provide the 7-footer with the opportunity to show that he can remain productive and healthy enough to contribute to an NBA franchise again, perhaps as early as the close of the 2015-16 season. Unfortunately, it seems just as likely that Oden’s time in the CBA will become just another sad but fitting chapter in a pro basketball career that has been incredibly disappointing for so many reasons.
14. Dorell Wright
A veteran of 11 NBA seasons at just the age of 29, Wright only recently committed to join the CBA after playing the 2014-15 season with the Portland Trail Blazers. Wright, a former first-round draft pick out of high school, was reportedly pursued by the Miami Heat this offseason, but instead opted to sign on for a single-season commitment to play with the Chongqing Soaring Dragons. With the CBA season ending well before the NBA regular season concludes, it is entirely possible that Wright could return stateside with enough time to land a roster spot on a playoff-bound team in need of perimeter shooting.
13. Steve Francis
Francis’ career in the CBA is by far the most puzzling of any player appearing on this list, as he only managed one basket in four games with the Beijing Ducks before the team summarily dismissed the former NBA All-Star and seeming franchise cornerstone by simply cutting him from the roster. A three-time All-Star in Houston whose early-career exploits appeared to foreshadow a lengthy and successful NBA career, Francis was out of the NBA at age 30 following the 2007-08 season and was entirely done with professional basketball by 2010.
Francis was apparently frustrated by the fact that the Ducks brought him to the team more for his status as Yao Ming’s former teammate than for his on-court abilities, as he clashed with the coaching staff over playing time while seeing the court for a total of 14 minutes. At the time of his dismissal from the Ducks, Francis was just six years removed from making an NBA All-Star team, demonstrating just how sharply his skills declined over a relatively brief period.
12. Bonzi Wells
A talented former lottery selection, Wells’ best seasons in the NBA coincided with the peak years of the Portland team contemptuously referred to as the “Jail Blazers.” His reputation forever linked to a number of on- and off-court incidents that included a physical altercation with an official, Wells was often referred to by the Chinese media as a “Bad Boy” during his time playing for Shanxi Zhongyu of the CBA.
Along with the “Bad Boy” tag, Wells was also surprisingly but repeatedly identified as “His Majesty” in Asia Basket reports, perhaps owing to the fact that he put up 40-point games with regularity during his first games in the CBA. It does bear mentioning, however, that his scoring output often came as the result of volume shooting, as Wells once went 1-for-11 from behind the arc on a night he scored 41 points. Ultimately, Wells’ time in the CBA was brief: His contract was terminated in his first season when Wells delayed his return from the United States during the league’s break for the Chinese New Year.
11. Stromile Swift
Incredibly athletic and capable of powerful, highlight-worthy dunks even in traffic, Swift tantalized NBA talent evaluators with his potential. As the second overall pick in the 2000 NBA Draft, he unfortunately became one of the prime representatives of what may be the worst draft class in the history of the league. After failing to live up to expectations during stints with the Grizzlies, Rockets, Nets and Suns, Swift signed on to join the CBA after being released by the 76ers before the start of the 2009-10 season. He played for the Shandong Lions for just one season, averaging 22.1 points and 11.8 rebounds during his 31-game run, marking the final season of his professional career.
10. Emmanuel Mudiay
Mudiay, now a member of the Denver Nuggets after being taken seventh overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, took a unique path to the NBA by skipping college altogether and playing a season of pro ball in China. After committing to play for Larry Brown at SMU, Mudiay instead took a $1.2-million contract to play one season for the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the CBA. Since NBA rules no longer allow players to declare draft eligibility right out of high school, Mudiay’s decision was at least partly based on being able to land a pro contract that would allow him to support his family financially without having to wait for NBA Draft eligibility.
Though there was concern that the CBA would not provide the same level of exposure as the NCAA (or at least would make talent evaluation difficult due to differences of opinion regarding the level of competition), Mudiay was still considered one of the best guards available and was projected to be taken as high as third overall before the draft. This was despite the fact that Mudiay was limited to just 10 regular-season games and two playoff games due to an injury, though he did put up a balanced 12-game CBA stat line of 18 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists to go with 1.6 steals per game.
9. Shavlik Randolph
Randolph is a veteran of parts of eight NBA seasons, most often carving out a role as a bench player or adding big-man depth to a roster. A skilled forward who, at 6-10 and 240 pounds, has the kind of size that NBA teams are always looking for, Randolph has played internationally in pro leagues in both Puerto Rico and China, spending the 2011-12 season with the Foshan Long Lions of the CBA.
While in China, Randolph consistently dominated, averaging 32 points and 14.6 rebounds per game while showing a knack for interior passing and winning the league’s scoring title. His performance in the CBA earned him an opportunity with the Boston Celtics the following season, but Randolph has yet to earn a secure role in the NBA, instead bouncing back and forth between Boston and Phoenix over the past three seasons.
8. Michael Beasley
The second overall pick of the 2008 NBA Draft, Beasley has experienced a lot of ups and downs throughout his pro basketball career. Undeniably talented, Beasley has bounced around the league due to questions about his off-court behavior, playing for the Heat, Timberwolves and Suns before recently re-joining the Heat. His third stint in Miami came off the heels of a successful season in China with the Shanghai Sharks, as Beasley averaged 28.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game during the 2014-15 CBA season and also set a CBA All-Star Game record when he scored 59 points in the league’s showcase. Before heading to the CBA, Beasley had only been able to secure a non-guaranteed deal with the Grizzlies for the 2014-15 season, so it is entirely plausible that the 26-year-old former lottery pick could have been out of the NBA altogether if not for his outstanding play in the Chinese pro league.
7. Chris Andersen
After mistakenly failing to officially declare for the NBA Draft following his single season at Blinn Junior College in 2000, Andersen joined the Texas Ambassadors for a series of exhibition games that included a stop in China. His performance with the semi-pro team led to a single-season contract offer from the Jiangsu Nangang Dragons, an offer Andersen accepted despite having been outside of Texas just twice in his life at that point. Following his season of pro ball in the CBA, Andersen returned stateside with a chance to play in the D-League, eventually landing a spot on the Denver Nuggets to begin what has now become a successful and improbable 13-year NBA career.
6. Al Harrington
Harrington’s lengthy professional basketball career began as an 18-year-old with the Indiana Pacers, the team that selected him out of high school in the first round of the 1998 NBA Draft. After 16 NBA seasons and seven different franchises, Harrington’s pro career ended following a brief stint in China, where he became homesick after less than two months with the Fujian Sturgeons of the CBA. Harrington was averaging 32 points and 11 rebounds per game with the Sturgeons before parting ways to return home and officially retire from professional basketball.
5. J.R. Smith
Smith headed to China during the 2011 NBA lockout, signing on to play with the Zhejiang Golden Bulls but failing to secure an opt-opt clause that would allow him to return to the NBA if the lockout ended during the CBA season (it did, and Smith had to wait until the conclusion of the CBA season before joining the Knicks as a free agent in February of 2012). Smith played well, but he did nothing to dispel his poor reputation during his time in China.
Smith’s stay would become the stuff of legend, as, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, the Golden Bulls fined him over $1 million during his brief stint with the club due to “skipping practices for shopping excursions in neighboring cities,” and “a relentless pattern of insubordination” that apparently included ordering over $3,000 worth of room service on the team’s tab “just to see if they would keep bringing it to the room.”
4. Gilbert Arenas
A four-time NBA All-Star whose athleticism was adversely affected by chronic knee injuries, Arenas headed to China looking to continue his pro career without having to commit to a long NBA season. Arenas signed on with the Shanghai Sharks, and the former Washington Wizards star averaged over 20 points per game in his debut season in 2012, though he would later claim that he averaged “29 and 12.”
Arenas’ success in China led to some apparent contemplation of an NBA comeback, with “Agent Zero” telling Bleacher Report the following in a 2013 interview: “I felt I worked too hard, and perfected my skill and my talent, to just play in China and go through the motions and dominate. I wanted to be challenged; I want to be challenged. I want my talent to be challenged. And China wasn’t going to do it.”
3. Metta World Peace
The man formerly known as Ron Artest adopted the moniker “The Panda’s Friend” during his recent stint in the CBA, averaging 19 points and six rebounds per game during his season as a member of the Sichuan Blue Whales. Metta World Peace explained his decision to head to China in an expectedly perplexing way, saying he wanted to play in the CBA in order to re-establish the individual offensive skills that had eroded due to his status as a role player with the Lakers and Knicks.
The 2004 NBA Defensive Player of the Year also noted that he wanted to play in China while he was still in his prime, not when he was 40 because, according to World Peace, “I won’t have a lot of skills at that time probably. So I came in my prime so I can try to come back to the NBA like next year.” After his CBA season, World Peace headed to Italy, and has since said he plans to play until he is 40, despite his own recent assertion that he “won’t have a lot of skills at that time.”
2. Tracy McGrady
McGrady came to the CBA at the tail end of his career, playing a season with the Qingdao Eagles before briefly returning to the NBA as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. The two-time NBA scoring champ averaged 25 points per game on 49.6 percent shooting, adding 7.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game with the Eagles. His penchant for scoring did not translate to team success, however, as the Eagles came in last in their division during McGrady’s lone season with the club. McGrady announced his retirement from basketball in 2013 and has since made a short-lived attempt at a pro baseball career as a pitcher with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League, striking out one batter before subsequently announcing his retirement from baseball.
1. Stephon Marbury
A two-time NBA All-Star who never quite lived up to the talent and hype that surrounded him, Marbury has become the face of the Chinese Basketball Association since joining the league in 2010. As a member of the Beijing Ducks, Marbury has won three CBA championships in four seasons and was recently named Finals MVP after averaging 29.7 points, 5.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 2 steals per game during the best-of-seven championship series.
At 38, Marbury has become a genuine icon in China, and not only has he been immortalized with a statue in front of the home arena of the Beijing Ducks, but his story has also inspired a musical chronicling his success in China and the CBA. Marbury’s stay has been so overwhelmingly successful that he intends to stay in China following his retirement from basketball and has even stated a desire to coach China’s national team one day.