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.