If you look at the basketball landscape now compared to 25 years ago, when the first “Dream Team” was ruthlessly demolishing its Olympic opponents, the change is staggering. American players and teams still dominate the scene, but now more than ever, basketball is a global sport, with rabid fanbases everywhere from Adelaide to Zagreb.
At first, the flow of talent and attention was unidirectional: foreign fans stayed glued to their TV sets at odd hours to catch a glimpse of NBA basketball, and some of those fans grew up to become good enough players to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing alongside and against their hardwood heroes. In the past decade or so however, the status of foreign basketball markets has grown to the point where playing overseas has become a viable, even lucrative, option for many talented players. The prospect of a starring role, less strenuous schedule, exotic locales, and in some cases, tax breaks and other perks have made foreign leagues a hot destination for fringe NBAers, or those simply wanting a change of scenery.
For some, the trip overseas represents the end of the line, the closing chapter to a successful basketball career. For others, it’s a stepping stone, a place to regain their footing and prove their worth in the hopes of launching back into the big leagues. And for still others, a foreign experiment is a sort of mid-career crisis, a vacation from the rigors and responsibilities of NBA life that some, quite understandably, never intend to return from.
They may all be there for different reasons, but all former NBAers playing in foreign leagues have to ask themselves the same question at some point: should I stay, or should I return? Often the choice is made for them, as the NBA has limited roster spots and certain players command more of a market than others. Even so, there are questions of money, pride, and culture shock every player needs to take into consideration. Here’s my take on eight players who could and should make a return to the NBA, and seven players who should give up their NBA aspirations if they haven’t already.
15. Should Return: MarShon Brooks
A first round pick by the Nets, Brooks was a scoring machine coming out of Providence, even drawing comparisons to Kobe Bryant. He didn’t disappoint in his rookie season, finishing with an average of 12.6 points per game, third best among rookies that year behind top-10 picks Kyrie Irving and Brandon Knight. Despite this promising start to his career, Brooks’ failed to live up to the early expectations, and his production took a steep dive over the next two years before finding himself out of an NBA job. Since then, he’s played in Italy and China, where he’s just re-signed.
While he seems to have carved out a niche as a scorer there, his talents could really be used by an NBA team looking to add some offensive firepower. At just 28, he’s in the middle of his prime and could easily step in today and play a Lou Williams-type sixth man role.
14. Should Stay: Andray Blatche
One of the last prep-to-pro players ever drafted, Blatche tantalized NBA scouts as a teenager with his unbelievable skill level in a 6’11”, 235 pound frame. Unfortunately, in spite of his immense talents, he never quite grew out of his biggest flaws, remaining turnover-prone and lazy, particularly on defense. He was frequently suspended by both the Wizards and Nets (the latter for reportedly showing up drunk to practices), and had several run-ins with the law off the court.
Seeking a place to ply his trade where he could feel more appreciated, Blatche turned to China despite being in his prime and playing well as a reserve for the Nets. He seems to have his roots laid down firmly in Asia, having inked a lucrative three-year deal in 2015 to remain in China, and spending time on the Filipino national team as a naturalized citizen. Now on the wrong side of 30, Blatche’s baggage and contentedness with playing overseas make him seem like a safe bet to stay there for the remainder of his playing days.
13. Should Return: Jan Vesely
Vesely first began making noise as a teenager, breaking out as a serious NBA prospect with Serbian club Partizan. The Wizards made him the sixth pick in the 2011 draft in hopes that he’d develop a dependable shooting stroke to compliment his outstanding combination of size, mobility, and hustle. Unfortunately, that never happened, and the Vesely experiment was abandoned after just three years of extremely limited action.
However, since returning to Europe, the Czech-born Vesely has been a force, with a résumé that includes a Euroleague title this past season– the first ever for Turkish club Fenerbahçe. While he still hasn’t shown that he can step out and hit a jumper, or even his free throws, Vesely has reportedly drawn heavy interest from a number of NBA teams who are keen on his ability to guard multiple positions and scrap around the rim.
12. Should Stay: Jeremy Evans
A late second round pick by Utah in 2010, Evans’ name would likely remain in near total obscurity were it not for a fateful injury to Iman Shumpert, who was slated to participate in the 2012 NBA All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk Contest. Evans was chosen as a replacement, and while he lacked the name-recognition of some of the other participants, he emerged as a dark-horse candidate thanks to his incredible length and leaping ability. Sure enough, Evans won the competition, etching his name in basketball lore. However, game time exploits were a much different story. Despite sticking in the league for six seasons, Evans only ever cracked 10 minutes per game in one of them.
After failing to garner the interest of an NBA team this past season, Evans headed overseas to play in Russia. Given his less-than-stellar NBA résumé to this point, and the fact that he’ll be 30 by the time the season gets underway, it seems like Evans is a pretty safe bet to remain overseas for the twilight of his career, where his athleticism will stand out more and his non-existent shooting can be mitigated.
11. Should Return: Jimmer Fredette
It seems like only yesterday that the basketball watching public was in the midst of “Jimmer-mania”, enthralled by Fredette’s scoring exploits while attending Brigham Young University. Like so many college stars before him however, the NBA proved to be a challenging adjustment, and in five NBA seasons he never managed to rediscover the magic that made him a lottery pick. Growing frustrated with the lack of opportunities he was getting stateside, Fredette took his talents overseas and blew up the Chinese Basketball Association with the Shanghai Sharks, leading the league in scoring and winning International MVP.
Now that he’s signed a two-year contract to return to China, it might seem like Fredette is gunning for Stephon Marbury’s spot among China’s basketball royalty. But players who can shoot and create their own scoring opportunities still have a lot of value in the NBA, and Fredette will almost certainly have NBA suitors lining up for his services should he want to earn more money to play a reduced role in more familiar surroundings.
10. Should Stay: Andrea Bargnani
Maybe it’s just the biased Raptors fan in me, but I want Bargnani to stay as far away from an NBA team as possible. I don’t want his perpetual five o’clock shadow reminding me of the years of suffering Raptors fans had to endure waiting for the breakout season that never happened. Instead, Bargnani represents another whiffed Raptors pick, and not just any pick: their one and to date only number one overall pick. As a stretch-big, you’d think Bargnani would be perfect for the modern game, but scoring was never the problem for “Il Mago”, who averaged double figures for nine of his ten years of NBA service. No, his problem was being atrocious at just about everything else: a disinterested passer, ineffective rebounder, and downright disaster on defense.
At 31, the Italian seems like a safe bet to play out the remainder of his career in Europe, where he spent this past season. Even that path might be in jeopardy however, as his Spanish club has released him amid a litany of injury concerns.
9. Should Return: Donatas Motiejunas
Early in his development, there were many who spoke about Motiejunas in hushed tones as a future top pick thanks to his high skill level and physical gifts at seven feet tall. Even though his progress slowed a bit as he entered draft-eligible territory, he was still viewed as a prospect with the upside to warrant a top-20 draft selection. After a breakout third year in which he averaged 12.0 points and 5.7 rebounds, it looked like Motiejunas was on his way to fulfilling some of that promise. Unfortunately the injury bug struck, which led to missed time and two separate failed physicals that voided a trade and then a new contract.
He recently signed a one-year deal to play in China, but he’s too young and too skilled to not be earning NBA money, even with his injury history. If he was truly done with the NBA, he could have easily gone back to Europe and played closer to his Lithuanian homeland, but a dominant and healthy season in China will put him right back on the path to making a lucrative return to the league.
8. Should Stay: Terrence Williams
Williams was arguably my favorite player in a 2009 draft class that featured the likes of Steph Curry, James Harden, and Blake Griffin. He was the complete package, a physical specimen with defensive intensity and supreme court vision to boot. He made plays in his rookie season that made me believe he was a can’t-miss prospect whose floor was Andre Iguodala and whose ceiling was mini-LeBron James. Something never quite clicked though, because after playing 78 games as a rookie, he saw action in only 75 more over the three remaining years of his NBA career. Since then he’s bounced from league to league with alarming speed, often only playing one or two games before moving on.
While he first played decent competition in places like China and Turkey, he’s been scraping the bottom of the barrel lately, playing in places like Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Now 30, Williams’ hopes of ever returning to an NBA roster are looking slim to none, a sad waste of truly special basketball talent.
7. Should Return: Chris Singleton
Singleton came out of Florida State with a reputation for being a mature defensive ace. His combination of length and quickness make him a nightmare on the perimeter, and his 6’9” 230 pound frame has allowed him to easily switch onto bigs without giving up much ground. Unfortunately, his offensive game didn’t progress in the NBA to the point where he could play significant minutes, and he lasted just three seasons before having to make the move overseas. Having just come off a very successful season for Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos, in which he seemed to make huge strides with his jump shot, it might not be long before we see his name on an NBA roster again.
6. Should Stay: Yi Jianlian
This one’s pretty much a no-brainer. The former top-ten pick was the biggest basketball star to come out of China since Yao Ming, and his terrific athleticism and skillset for a seven-footer and scouts drooling over his potential. A decent rookie season left a lot of room for optimism, but in the coming years he’d be plagued by injuries, criticisms of his effort level, and rumours about his true age. He returned full time to his former team in China, the Guangdong Southern Tigers, in 2012 and hasn’t looked back since except for a brief flirtation with the idea of playing for the Lakers last year, which ended before the start of the season.
5. Should Return: Anthony Bennett
Let’s get one thing straight: Bennett has already cemented himself as one of the biggest busts in NBA, and maybe even sports history. However, he’s still just 24, was hampered by injuries for much of his NBA tenure, and will now face much lower expectations than he did coming into the league as the number one overall pick. It’s also not like Bennett had a magical fluke season in college that caused him to be regarded so highly; he was a highly ranked prospect throughout most of high school and one year of college, so the pedigree is there.
A little bit of time away from the game and all the noise around it might end up being a blessing in disguise for Bennett, who was released by Fenerbahçe after joining them mid-season for their run to the Euroleague championship. Now he can focus on getting himself into the best shape of his career to regain his confidence and the explosive leaping ability that made him such a force in college.
4. Should Stay: Carlos Boozer
Alaska’s finest has had by all accounts a very successful basketball career: two All-Star selections, an All-NBA Team, two Olympic medals (one gold and one bronze), and double figure scoring averages in all 13 of his NBA seasons. Alas, all good things must come to an end, and despite continuing to play at a high level into his 30s, Boozer couldn’t land an NBA contract after the 2014-’15 season, and had to take his show on the road. He played well for the Guangdong Southern Tigers alongside a name you might recognize from earlier on this list, Yi Jianlian, but he’s now two years removed from playing NBA basketball, and closing in on 36. At that age and with a skill set that includes neither three-point shooting or rim protection, it’s going to be very tough for Boozer to make a case for himself as a legitimate NBA player anymore.
3. Should Return: Anthony Randolph
In a day and age where the NBA is obsessed with “unicorns” and oversized wings, players with guard skills in the bodies of big men, you’d think there’d be a place for Randolph, one of the early prototypes of the genre. A 6’11” smooth athlete with a promising shooting touch, Randolph moves effortlessly with and without the ball, and his length lets him get to the rim in a hurry on offense and deny passing lanes and shot attempts on defense. The key with Randolph however has always been his ability to put all his abilities into practice consistently. He was never able to do that in the NBA, which is why he hasn’t played there since 2014.
Since then, he’s been a key member of perennial powerhouse Real Madrid, playing at the highest level of competition outside the NBA and really coming on strong during Euroleague play. He seems to have improved his shooting a bit, which could be a game-changer for his NBA chances. Still just 28, Randolph might not ever turn into the star many pegged him as, but he should be able to land some minutes as a long, athletic role player.
2. Should Stay: Stephon Marbury
The artist formerly known as “Starbury” is now a Chinese icon, a pioneer who helped create the pipeline leading talented Americans to play basketball in China. A playground legend growing up in New York’s Coney Island projects, Marbury was heralded as the next great NYC point guard. The first half of his professional career seemed to confirm that sentiment, with Marbury earning two All-Star and All-NBA nods apiece. However, he was dogged by perceptions that he was selfish and not a real winner. This came to a head during Marbury’s time with the Knicks, which was characterized by public feuding with members of the organization and general dysfunction. His NBA career went up in flames at that point, but from the ashes rose a new career path that would give Marbury’s ego all the adoration it craved.
Marbury captured the hearts of Chinese fans by winning three CBA championships with the Beijing Ducks and elevating the game to new heights. At 40 there’s zero chance of him making an NBA roster, so all that’s left is a well-deserved farewell tour in China leading up to his announced retirement at the end of next season.
1. Should Return: Josh Smith
For all of Smith’s many flaws, it’s impossible to deny that the dude can just flat out ball. He’s like a human Swiss army knife, using his freakish athleticism and solid court awareness to impact the game on both sides of the ball, especially as a shotblocker and underrated playmaker. However, Smith has always been just on the edge of greatness, never quite a big enough offensive threat to be a true star, and arguably one of the best players to never make an All-Star team. His tendency to make boneheaded plays and questionable shot selection have given him a reputation for immaturity that probably contributed to his rapid decline over the last couple years of his NBA career.
Having spent last season in China, I’m willing to bet Smith has had time to clear his head and recommit himself to the NBA. At 31, he’s not the most exciting roster addition, but in the right situation he could really be an asset with his experience and defensive acumen. If Smith can emulate what Andre Iguodala’s done for the Warriors, he’ll put himself in a position to have a very successful end to an already great NBA career.
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