With more than 300 million people playing basketball in China and 30 million viewers per week watching NBA games on television, it's safe to say that China has become something of a basketball-crazed nation.
Yao Ming (NBAE/Getty)
Instrumental in generating interest for the sport and the NBA has been Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, the four-time consecutive All-Star Game starter, as well as a pair of other Chinese big men that preceded him.
Yao entered the NBA as the No. 1 selection of the Houston Rockets in 2002. At 7-5, the Shanghai-born pivot was considered "The Next Big Thing" in more ways than one.
Since then, he's proven himself worthy of such a billing. Yao's steadily improved over his four-year NBA career, concluding this season with averages of 22.3 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, both career-highs. He exploded in the month of March, posting 27.6 points and 11.0 rebounds per game, filling in the void left for the injured Tracy McGrady.
To observers who had always appreciated Yao's remarkable combination of size and skill, the 15-game stretch represented the fulfillment of the promise they always believed Yao had. Should Yao continue at the pace he finished the season with next year, he figures to make a strong case for himself as the best all-around center in the league.
While Yao has led the way in the rise of Chinese basketball on the international map, Wang Zhizhi, in fact, was the first Chinese player ever to compete in the NBA.
The 7-1 Wang signed with the Dallas Mavericks on April 5, 2001 after originally being selected by the franchise in the 1999 NBA Draft with the 36th pick overall. He spent two seasons in Dallas, posting the best year during the 2001-02 season with career-highs in such categories as points (5.6 ppg), minutes (10.9 mpg), games (55) and three-pointers (48 on .414 shooting).
Wang then signed with a free agent deal with the Clippers in 2002, playing parts of two seasons there, before moving on to Miami, playing parts of two seasons there as well.
The second Chinese player to compete in the NBA -- and the only other Chinese player besides Wang and Yao -- was 6-11 center Mengke Bateer, who hails from Mongolia.
In his second career NBA game, an estimated 400 million Chinese viewers tuned in on March 3, 2002 to watch Bateer and the Denver Nuggets face Wang and the Mavericks in a game broadcast live in China on CCTV.
Bateer appeared in 27 games with the Nuggets that season, averaging 5.1 points and 3.6 rebounds in 15.1 minutes per contest. He was traded by the Nuggets to the Pistons the following preseason and later played for San Antonio and Toronto.
Another player who could eventually find his way to the NBA is Xue Yuyang, now playing for the Chinese Basketball Association's Xinjiang Tigers. The 7-0 forward was drafted in the second round of the 2003 NBA Draft by the Dallas Mavericks with the 57 th pick overall and was then traded to the Denver Nuggets.
Other noteworthy Chinese basketball products include Sung Tao and Ma Jian.
Sung became the first Asian player ever drafted when he was selected by the Atlanta Hawks as the 67 th pick of the third round of the 1987 NBA Draft. Sung never saw action in an NBA game.
Jian, a former University of Utah 6-8 forward, attended Los Angeles Clippers training camp as a rookie in 1995. He signed two contracts with the Clippers on October 3, 1995 and October 17, 1996, respectively, but was waived shortly after each signing.