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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.