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Popularity of NBA in China seems to create endless options

Mon Sep 16 3:08am ET
AP Basketball Writer

Players: James Harden, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic, Donovan Mitchell

BEIJING (AP) Kobe Bryant went to China for the first time in 1998, making the trip to Beijing to help operate an instructional basketball clinic for about a dozen kids. The local coaches working with him didn't know a lot about the game. Barely anyone noticed that an NBA player was in town.

Basketball wasn't a big deal in China.

And then everything changed very quickly.

The footprint of the NBA has grown at an extremely rapid pace over the last two decades in China, where more than 500 million people watched games last season and where one new streaming deal alone will pump $1.5 billion into the league's coffers over the next five years.

''When I first came here, I never thought the game in China would get to be this big,'' Bryant said. ''But it has. And it's not going to stop.''

The possibilities seem endless.

Could there be an NBA team in China despite the travel that would be involved? Might there be two-way player contracts between the NBA and the Chinese Basketball Association? What about the NBA constructing a team to play in China or the Chinese sending a team for a full season in the U.S.?

Farfetched as all that may sound, keep in mind that 20 years ago no one envisioned the NBA-China relationship to be this big - or that it would keep growing after Yao Ming's run with the Houston Rockets ended eight years ago. The NBA has academies in China now, and the Chinese national team returned to the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas this year.

''It's a good question,'' Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. ''I think the next step will probably come when the next Yao Ming comes. That would take it to a new level, more Chinese players to reach the NBA and make an impact.''

The marriage between the NBA and the world's most populous country is stronger than ever. NBA officials say more than 300 million Chinese people play the game and 40 million are registered to play the 2K video game. Thousands showed up this summer just to watch the sons of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James play exhibitions with the rest of their high school teammates.

A trade war is happening between the U.S. and China, political tensions are escalating between the countries and it could impact the products of the league's business partners. But the game itself continues to thrive.

''I think sports transcends politics and I hope the NBA can continue to connect fans globally,'' Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. ''I don't have any reason to think our relationship won't continue to be positive.''

Nothing seems to be able to derail the NBA's popularity.

The team that the U.S. sent to the World Cup in China didn't feature the NBA's biggest stars, yet drew sellout crowds for each of its first six games. U.S. coach Gregg Popovich was begged for autographs and selfies everywhere he went.

''We've known for a long time how big basketball has become in China, of course, but all over the world,'' Popovich said. ''It's an international deal now. There are so many great players in so many countries. It's not a secret.''

Stars like James, Stephen Curry, and James Harden have a trip to China on their annual schedules - and when Wade, the recently retired guard who has a lifetime contract with Chinese shoe company Li-Ning, visited this summer one of his events had to be halted after about 10 minutes because the mall where it was happening was overflowing with people.

Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz has been to China twice this summer, once to promote his brand, the second time for the World Cup with USA Basketball. He sees it becoming an annual stop for him, too - and believes there is no ceiling for the game globally.

''Man, I couldn't tell you,'' Mitchell said. ''I think it's going to be even bigger and it's not going to be just China. It's going to be many more countries. The (relationship) between the NBA and China has been huge since I was a kid and it can only take off from there ... because the passion and love is so strong.''

It's not a one-sided relationship; China sees reason to invest in the NBA.

Joe Tsai, the co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, agreed this summer to buy the remaining 51% that he didn't already own of the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center from Mikhail Prokhorov in deals worth about $3.4 billion. In 2016, Lizhang Jiang, a businessman from Shanghai, bought 5% of the Minnesota Timberwolves, a stake he sold earlier this year.

China also takes immense pride in players like Klay Thompson wearing Chinese brands on the court. (Thompson has a 10-year deal with Chinese shoe company Anta for a reported $80 million.) And China sent its national team to NBA Summer League this past July primarily to get ready for the World Cup, but also for exposure on the NBA stage.

''I think it's good for our players and good for the team,'' China coach Li Nan said of playing in Las Vegas. ''I think it's good for everyone.''

The NBA has opened three basketball academies in China and has seen very quick success with academies in Asia and Africa. The international influence on the league was more present this past season than ever.

The NBA MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is from Greece. The rookie of the year, Luka Doncic, is from Slovenia. The most improved player, Pascal Siakam, is from Cameroon. The defensive player of the year, Rudy Gobert, is from France. The All-NBA center, Nikola Jokic, is from Serbia.

''This past summer, an NBA Academy prospect from China signed a contract with a National Basketball League team in Australia, becoming the first male NBA Academy prospect from China to sign a contract with a professional team,'' NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. ''And on the women's side, Han Xu from the New York Liberty, who trained at the NBA Academy in Shandong, China, became the first NBA Academy prospect to be drafted into the NBA or WNBA.''

It hasn't happened overnight.

Former Commissioner David Stern struck a deal with Chinese television to show games on tape-delay three decades ago, and once toyed with the idea of some sort of NBA-sponsored or branded league in China. Teams embrace the chance to play the annual preseason games in China because he exposure is worth the jet lag.

''When I have 76ers gear on and I walk through Shanghai, walk through Shenzhen, if I had a nickel for every time somebody said `Trust the process' in perfect English I wouldn't be standing here working,'' Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O'Neil said, referencing the team's motto during its rebuilding phase of recent years. ''We're very much a part of the fabric of China.''

None of this seemed possible 20 years ago or so, when Bryant made that first trip. Now fans can't get enough.

''When you come here, you feel it from the fans, their energy, people at the hotel, people just walking around,'' Kerr said in China during the World Cup. ''Everybody just seems very excited about basketball.''

Same goes for the game's future in China.

Player Notes
Tomas Satoransky Oct 16 7:00pm ET

Chicago Bulls guard Tomas Satoransky has been named the starting point guard for the regular season opener, according to head coach Jim Boylen. Dunn was the favorite to win the job in camp, but that quickly faded. Boylen likes Dunn's defense off the bench, so that's how the team will begin the season. Satoransky is worth grabbing in the middle of most drafts.

Chris Paul Oct 16 6:50pm ET

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul (rest) won't play in Wednesday's preseason game against the Memphis Grizzlies. This is just a regular rest day for the veteran point guard. It's unclear how the Thunder plan on working Paul into their gameplan, so fantasy owners should draft him with caution. There is a good chance that Paul does sit out games this season until the Thunder can find a trade partner.

Dennis Smith Jr. Oct 16 6:50pm ET

New York Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr. (back) is available for Wednesday's preseason game against the Atlanta Hawks. Smith has been sidelined due to back spasms, but appears ready to play now. Head coach David Fizdale wants to see how Smith plays as the starting point guard. He's a late round option in most formats because the Knicks have depth at guard and could easily change it up at any moment. Smith doesn't have a secure starting spot at the moment.

Mitchell Robinson Oct 16 6:40pm ET

New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson will come off the bench with the second unit in Wednesday's preseason game against the Atlanta Hawks. Robinson got into foul trouble last game, so the Knicks will give Bobby Portis a chance with the starting five. Robinson should be locked as the starting center, but the Knicks probably just want to see how Portis plays with Julius Randle. Robinson is a great option in the early rounds of category leagues.

Terry Rozier Oct 16 6:40pm ET

Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier (knee) won't play in Wednesday's preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. He's dealing with a left knee issue, but most likely is just a precautionary move. Devonte Graham and Dwayne Bacon should see more minutes without Rozier. He should be fine for the regular season and is worth targeting in the middle rounds of most standard drafts.

Jalen Brunson Oct 16 6:40pm ET

Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson (hamstring) is listed as questionable for Thursday's preseason game against the Los Angeles Clippers. He wasn't able to play in Monday's contest, so the Mavs might be just playing it safe here. There is a good chance that he doesn't play on Thursday, but should be fine for the regular season opener. Brunson doesn't carry huge upside, but could be late round guy or a nice piece in a deep league.

Luke Kennard Oct 16 6:30pm ET

Detroit Pistons guards Luke Kennard (rest) and Derrick Rose (rest) will not suit up for Wednesday's preseason game against the Charlotte Hornets. This appears to be a normal rest game for them so the bench players can get some extra minutes. Both players should have late round value in fantasy leagues. However, the injury history could make some fantasy owners nervous about Rose.

Blake Griffin Oct 16 6:30pm ET

Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin (hamstring) won't suit up for Wednesday's preseason game against the Charlotte Hornets. Griffin is dealing with a minor hamstring issue, but doesn't believe it will cost him time in the regular season. The Pistons are going to be careful with Griffin, especially because of his injury history. He has solid upside, but fantasy owners should know the high risk of injury.

Markieff Morris Oct 16 6:20pm ET

Detroit Pistons forward Markieff Morris (illness) will play in Wednesday's preseason game against the Charlotte Hornets. Morris has been dealing with bronchitis, but appears to be over it now. Blake Griffin (hamstring) is sidelined for this one, so Christian Wood and Morris will get plenty of run in this game. Morris could be an interesting target for late in drafts, especially with Griffin possibly missing time.

Dennis Smith Jr. Oct 15 7:40pm ET

New York Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr. (back) is listed as probable for Wednesday's preseason game against the Atlanta Hawks. He missed the last two preseason contests due to a lower back strain. He's battling with Elfrid Payton and Frank Ntilikina for minutes at the guard position. This might be a tough situation for standard league owners, so they may want to avoid this.

Frank Ntilikina Oct 15 7:40pm ET

New York Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina (groin) was able to get through practice on Tuesday. Ntilikina is listed as probable for Wednesday's preseason game against the Atlanta Hawks. He did not practice on Monday due to a sore groin, but downplayed the severity of the injury. It appears he's actually fine, but will have to battle with Dennis Smith Jr. (back) and Elfrid Payton for minutes at the guard position.

Nikola Vucevic Oct 15 7:30pm ET

Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (ankle) and guard Terrence Ross (ankle) were able to go through a team scrimmage on Tuesday. Both players missed Sunday's preseason contest due to minor ankle injuries. The fact they were able to get through the scrimmage means they should be fine in a few days. Vucevic and Ross should be fine for the regular season opener.

Evan Fournier Oct 15 7:30pm ET

Orlando Magic guard Evan Fournier (back) was able to participate in some of Tuesday's scrimmage. Fournier admitted that he was very sore after going through the scrimmage on Tuesday. There is a good chance that the Magic have Fournier sit out for the rest of the preseason. He'll have late round value in most standard leagues, but it's unclear if he'll be ready for the regular season opener.

Kevin Huerter Oct 15 7:30pm ET

Atlanta Hawks guard Kevin Huerter (knee) has been ruled out for Wednesday's preseason game against the New York Knicks. Huerter has been dealing with knee soreness throughout the preseason. However, he expects to be ready to play for the regular season opener. He's not an attractive option in most standard leagues, but Huerter has value in deeper leagues.

Blake Griffin Oct 15 7:20pm ET

Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin (hamstring) has been ruled out for Tuesday's preseason game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Griffin is already working his way back from left knee surgery, but has this to worry about now. There is a good chance that the Pistons just play it safe and have Griffin rest for the remainder of the preseason. Fantasy owners should take Griffin knowing the high risk of injury. Griffin does have solid upside, but continues to get sidelined by injuries.

Kevon Looney Oct 15 7:20pm ET

Golden State Warriors center Kevon Looney (hamstring) has been ruled out for the rest of the preseason. However, Looney wants to be ready to play in the regular season opener on October 24. Looney has been dealing with a hamstring issue and sometimes those have a tendency to linger. He was able to get through Tuesday's practice, so that is a good step moving forward. Looney is someone worth looking at late in drafts.

Anthony Davis Oct 15 7:20pm ET

Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (thumb) was able to get through a full practice on Tuesday. Davis wore a wrap on his right thumb, but felt fine after Tuesday's practice. Davis is hopeful to be cleared for Wednesday's preseason game against the Golden State Warriors. It seems like Davis will be fine for the regular season opener. Fantasy owners shouldn't be concerned that Davis will miss any time due to this thumb issue.

Darius Garland Oct 15 7:10pm ET

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland (ankle) will suit up for Tuesday's preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Garland missed Saturday's preseason game due to a minor ankle injury. The Cavs will monitor him closely as they want to be cautious with their rookie. It sounds like Garland will be fine for the regular season opener. He'll have decent fantasy value, especially later in the season if the Cavs aren't competitive.

Andre Drummond Oct 15 7:10pm ET

Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (rest) and forward Blake Griffin (hamstring) will not suit up for Tuesday's preseason game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Both players should be fine for the regular season, but the Pistons don't want to push them in the preseason. Thon Maker and Christian Wood will see more minutes in Tuesday's contest. Both Drummond and Griffin should be solid early round picks in fantasy leagues.

Jordan Bell Oct 15 7:10pm ET

Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jordan Bell (calf) will be available for Tuesday's preseason game against the Indiana Pacers. Bell has been dealing with a left calf issue, but the Wolves should be able to get him into the game on Tuesday. However, Bell is going to have limited value even when healthy. He's worth looking at in deep leagues, but that's about it at the moment.