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Popularity of NBA in China seems to create endless options

Mon Sep 16 3:08am ET
By TIM REYNOLDS
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
Otto Porter Jr. Oct 20 8:10pm ET

Chicago Bulls forward Otto Porter is expected to play about 30 minutes per game, according to head coach Jim Boylen. He averaged 32.8 minutes per game last season, so the Bulls want to cut it down a bit. He was only able to play in 56 games last season due to injury. The Bulls hope that limiting his workload should help Porter stay on the court more often this season. Porter is worth grabbing in the middle rounds of standard drafts.

Kevin Huerter Oct 20 8:00pm ET

Atlanta Hawks guard Kevin Huerter (knee) was able to fully practice on Sunday. Huerter missed all of the preseason due to right knee pain. However, he could suit up for Thursday's opener if he continues to make progress. The Hawks are going to remain cautious, so we'll wait and see how Huerter progresses throughout the week.

Kyle Kuzma Oct 20 7:50pm ET

Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (foot) has been ruled out for Tuesday's regular season opener against the Los Angeles Clippers. He's been dealing with a left foot stress reaction since August. Kuzma has not been cleared for contact work yet, so his timetable is a bit unclear at the moment. He's worth drafting if an IR spot is available, but otherwise he's tough to hold onto without any return in sight.

Kevon Looney Oct 20 7:40pm ET

Golden State Warriors center Kevon Looney (hamstring) was able to get through the team's scrimmage on Sunday. Looney will probably start at center for the regular season opener against the Clippers on Thursday, according to head coach Steve Kerr. The Warriors are a bit banged up at center, so Looney is a safe late round target right now. It's unclear when fellow big man Willie Cauley-Stein (foot) will be back on the floor. Looney will most likely continue to see starts until then.

Rodney McGruder Oct 20 7:30pm ET

Los Angeles Clippers forward Rodney McGruder (ankle) is unsure if he'll be able to suit up for Tuesday's regular season opener against the Los Angeles Lakers, according to head coach Doc Rivers. It's unclear how much progress he's making, but the Clippers are likely to be cautious at the beginning of the season. Maurice Harkless and Terance Mann would split up the extra minutes, assuming McGruder sits out Tuesday.

Isaiah Thomas Oct 20 7:20pm ET

Washington Wizards guard Isaiah Thomas (thumb) is not expected to suit up for Wednesday's regular season opener against the Dallas Mavericks. Head coach Scott Brooks said "We're going to do what's best for him," so the Wizards will be cautious with him right now. The team isn't going to rush Thomas back, so it's unlikely he'll be cleared to play by Wednesday.

Domantas Sabonis Oct 18 6:40pm ET

Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis is not close on a contract extension with the Monday deadline looming. The Pacers are reportedly actively shopping Sabonis to see what they can get. It's unlikely that the Pacers move Sabonis, but it's possibly if the two can't come to an agreement. T.J. Warren, T.J. Leaf, and Goga Bitadze would see extended roles if the Pacers did move on from Sabonis to start the season.

Marquese Chriss Oct 18 6:40pm ET

Golden State Warriors forward/center Marquese Chriss made the cut for the regular season roster, according to Shams Charania. Chriss played very well in the preseason and the Warriors will need him to open the season. Willie Cauley-Stein (foot) is sidelined, so there will be minutes for Chriss in the rotation. He's more of a deep league guy than anything else, but we'll see what Chriss can do. Alfonzo McKinnie has been waived by the team, clearing room for Chriss on the roster.

Blake Griffin Oct 18 6:30pm ET

Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin (hamstring) is expected to be fully healed and ready to play in the regular season, according to head coach Dwane Casey. Griffin ended last season with a left knee issue that required surgery. He's been battling a hamstring issue in camp, so hopefully it's not something that lingers. Griffin is expected to be ready for the season opener, but should get plenty of rest games along the way.

Willie Cauley-Stein Oct 18 6:30pm ET

Golden State Warriors center Willie Cauley-Stein (foot) was able to participate in a light workout after shootaround on Friday. Cauley-Stein suffered a left foot injury in late September and hasn't done much work since then. He's expected to miss the first few weeks of the season, but it could be longer. It's unclear at the moment how long Cauley-Stein is going to be sidelined. Kevon Looney will continue to gain fantasy value in the meantime.

De'Aaron Fox Oct 18 6:20pm ET

Sacramento Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox (back) and center Dewayne Dedmon (illness) were able to return for Friday's practice. Fox has been dealing with some back issues, but appears to have put it behind him. He's expected to be fine for the regular season opener. Dedmon was battling an illness, but is set to be the starting center to begin the season. Dedmon should be worth grabbing at the back end of most drafts.

Harry Giles Oct 18 6:10pm ET

Sacramento Kings center Harry Giles (knee) is likely going to be sidelined to begin the regular season. Head coach Luke Walton said that he's going to take his time with Giles and bring him along slowly. Giles already has serious knee issues and Walton doesn't want to put his career in danger. Richaun Holmes should get the backup center minutes to begin the season, but is basically just a deep league asset.

Avery Bradley Oct 18 6:10pm ET

Los Angeles Lakers guard Avery Bradley (rest) and center Dwight Howard (rest) are sitting out of Friday's preseason game against the Golden State Warriors. Both players had strong preseasons, but head coach Frank Vogel will let the young guys play in this one. Howard is worth grabbing in the last few rounds of standard drafts, while Bradley isn't a great option, but could be worth a look as a last pick or two.

Jonas Valanciunas Oct 18 6:00pm ET

Memphis Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas (knee) is beginning to do some conditioning work this week. It doesn't sound like he's been able to go through a full practice yet, but the Grizzlies are being cautious here. Brandon Clarke has been playing well and is seeing his stock quickly rise in standard leagues. Valanciunas will drop a bit on draft boards, but he's still worth grabbing in the middle rounds.

Kevon Looney Oct 18 6:00pm ET

Golden State Warriors center Kevon Looney (hamstring) is expected to be ready to play in Thursday's season opener against the Los Angeles Clippers. He suffered a hamstring injury in early October, but returned to practice a few days ago. Looney is expected to share the center minutes with Marquese Chriss to open the season. He'll be worth grabbing around the 90-100 range in most formats.

Victor Oladipo Oct 18 6:00pm ET

Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo (knee) is expected to play some 5-on-5 in the next couple of days. Oladipo is progressing faster than he was expected and could beat his December timetable. He is worth grabbing in the 75-100 range in most drafts, assuming there is an IR spot available. The Pacers are going to be cautious here, but Oladipo will hopefully be able to return before December.

Furkan Korkmaz Oct 18 5:50pm ET

Philadelphia 76ers forward Furkan Korkmaz will jump into the starting five for Friday's preseason game against the Washington Wizards. Ben Simmons (back) will sit out, so the backups will get some more run in this one. However, Josh Richardson is looking strong and healthy in a Sixers' uniform. He'll be worth drafting in the middle rounds of most drafts, while Korkmaz can be ignored.

Zion Williamson Oct 18 1:28pm ET

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN is reporting that Williamson is now expected to miss the first few weeks of the regular season with an injured knee. Williamson's knee injury is not believed to be severe.

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.