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Who Was the First Chinese NBA Player - Wang ZhiZhi

Yao Ming
Credit: VCG/Getty Images

Who was the first Chinese NBA player? I'm assuming that you probably answered Yao Ming.

I don't blame you for that answer.

I'm Chinese and an NBA fan, and I thought Yao Ming was also the first Chinese NBA player. Still, just a year before Yao Ming was drafted first overall in the 2002 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets and would become an All-Star every year; a Chinese Basketball player started his NBA career just ONE YEAR before Yao Ming's, Wang ZhiZhi.

Growing up, Wang ZhiZhi was a huge Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley fan. It makes sense as Wang ZhiZhi's rugged and size-oriented playstyle was similar to Olajuwon's and Barkley's.

Wang ZhiZhi started his professional basketball career in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) with the Bayi Rockets at the young age of eighteen.

During ZhiZhi's time with the Rockets, they would win six championships in a row, from 1995-2001. In addition, ZhiZhi was the CBA Block Leader between 1996-1999. To top it all off, ZhiZhi was the CBA MVP and the Finals MVP during the 2000-2001 CBA season. During that season, ZhiZhi averaged:

26.3 Points, 11.7 Rebounds, 1.6 Assists, 1.7 Steals, and 2.1 Blocks.

59.4 2P%, 36.1 3P%, 76.1 FT%

Sidenote: minutes were not recorded back then, but ZhiZhi played 31 games that season.

After his MVP season with the Rockets (remember, not the Houston Rockets, the Bayi Rockets), ZhiZhi would leave the CBA to join the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA.

Interestingly, ZhiZhi was actually drafted two years before, in the 1999 NBA Draft by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round as the 36th pick. The then assistant general manager, Donnie Nelson, was interested in ZhiZhi as early as 1993 during a game in Russia.

However, ZhiZhi's NBA career would be delayed as the Rockets refused to allow their only center, and arguably, their best player, to leave for the NBA.

After two years of negotiation, the Rockets would let go of ZhiZhi, letting him pursue his NBA career.

At first, I thought this was pretty petty of the Bayi Rockets, but once ZhiZhi left, their Championship streak was broken by none other than Yao Ming. In addition, in ZhiZhi's first year back with the Bayi Rockets, the Rockets would once again win a championship and the Finals MVP.

Wang ZhiZhi's time with the Dallas Mavericks and the NBA, in general, would be short-lived. ZhiZhi would only play with the Mavericks for two seasons. With the Mavericks, he played sixty games and averaged:

5.5 Points, 2.0 Rebounds, 0.4 Assists, 0.2 Steals, and 0.3 Blocks.

43.8 FG%, 40.7 3P%, 74.6 FT%

10.6 Minutes

Definitely not the best stats ever, but the one stat that surprises me the most is ZhiZhi's three-point efficiency (40.7%). Although he only shot two three-pointers a game, it is still pretty surprising to see a big man during that era shooting threes in general.

After his two seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, ZhiZhi would sign with the Los Angeles Clippers. In his second season, ZhiZhi was put on waivers and was signed by the Miami Heat, where he would play 34 games before he went back to the CBA to play with the Bayi Rockets.

As said previously, ZhiZhi's NBA career was quite uneventful, but if you are interested in his stats during his time with the Clippers and Heat, scroll down below and click the link to be redirected to ZhiZhi's stats!

Notable NBA Games:

On March 19th, 2003, against the Denver Nuggets, Wang ZhiZhi would record his best stat-line:

21 Points, 6 Rebounds, 1 Assist.

9/12 FG, 2/2 3P, 1/1 FT

25 Minutes

On November 24th, 2002, Wang ZhiZhi would play against Yao Ming for the first time (in the NBA). Neither player did well.

Wang ZhiZhi:

1 Assist, 1 Steal.

0/3 FG, 0/1 3P

11 Minutes

Yao Ming:

4 Points, 7 Rebounds, 2 Blocks.

1/4 FG, 2/3 FT

28 Minutes

After playing 137 NBA games, Wang ZhiZhi would go back to the CBA and play for the Bangyi Rockets for another nine years. After those nine years, ZhiZhi would retire. However, he would continue his jersey with the Rockets, not as a player but as the head coach.

Although Yao Ming is definitely the better player and much more well known, at least ZhiZhi can say that he was the first Chinese NBA player (so that's good?)

Interested in Chinese NBA Fan Culture? Here are the Top 10 Chinese NBA Nicknames!

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