Though no fault of Antoine Wright, former NBA players kind of have a bad rap in the Chinese Basketball Association right now. Giddy over increased ticket and merchandise revenue from Stephon Marbuy’s half-season with Shanxi last year, the CBA moved to eliminate the long standing import player cap that limited how much money teams could spend on foreign players per month. With unlimited amounts of money to throw at players, owners looking to cash in Shanxi-style on an ex-NBA star went out en mass to sign a record number of instantly recognizable former NBA players.
At pre-season, a three handed man couldn’t count all of the new players on his fingers. Ricky Davis, Steve Francis, Fred Jones and Mike James were the elder Logo-representing statesmen who were enticed by higher salaries and easier competition. Younger guys came, too — Javaris Crittenton, Patrick O’Bryant, Josh Boone, and Dwyane Jones — as well as James Singleton, an established League player who decided on playing in Western China over signing an offered contract from the Washington Wizards.
Before the start of the CBA season, there was a buzz around the league that hadn’t existed before. People were genuinely excited to see “The Year of the NBA.” And who could really blame them? For the 99.999999% of China’s 400 million or so basketball crazed fans who will never get the chance to see a real NBA game, this was going to be their best chance to watch NBA players live at their hometown team’s arena.
But, as the players started first to trickle, then totally spill out of the league, NBA players in the CBA gained a newer, very different reputation: entitled, privileged, spoiled, out of shape and washed up. In the eyes of Chinese fans, these guys didn’t come here for the basketball, they came here to cash an easy check based on their name alone. They came here — to China — because they thought it’d be a joke. But, to the owners who write those big checks, the general managers who build the teams and the coaches whose jobs are on the line when imports don’t work out, there was nothing funny about their investments flaming out in less than a month.
Things have gotten so bad in fact that people are throwing out the words “salary cap” and “draft camp” as a possible deterrents to teams who want to try this NBA thing all over again next season. Thanks to a group of shaky ex-import players, if you’ve had a decent career in the NBA, you’re probably not welcome this year and possibly the next couple of years.
Just three games into his new stint as a Jiangsu Dragon, however, six-year NBA pro Antoine Wright appears to be changing some of the newly formed perceptions, not only his by his stellar play (32 ppg, and 7 rpg, all wins), but also by his humbleness, work ethic and seriousness towards playing in China.
From an article on Sina Sports, titled “Jiangsu’s Saviour Has Really Come!”
Antoine Wright and Fujian’s [Andre] Emmett both fell hard to the floor, the end result of a huge collision between the two. As Wright sat on the floor with his arms extended with everyone in the building thinking that he was looking for the referee, his fingers instead locked hands with Fujian’s dolphin mascot, who was standing on the sidelines. The mascot helped Wright up off the floor, where Wright and the dolphin gave each other a big bear hug as an end to the ceremony.
Whatever you do, don’t underestimate January 7th as a potential turning point for Jiansu’s season, a date that saw Jiangsu’s new import Antoine Wright prove his calm, reason and rationality. At that point during the third quarter when Emmett put him on his butt… Other foreign players definitely would have yelled back at the refs, but Wright didn’t and his calm and relaxed demeanor allowed his team to play the same.
In a season that’s been anything but for Jiangsu, “calm” is a welcome adjective. Before the season, a large portion of the team held out of most of training camp over unpaid bonuses from last year and disagreements over this season’s payment structure. Two weeks ago, it appeared as if the wheels were quickly coming right off. Sitting on a disappointing 4-4 record with the highly hoped for Ricky Davis unhappy, underperforming and on the way out, the team’s other import, Jerome Moiso, struggling to pick up the slack and key domestic player, Yi Li, injured and on the sidelines, it seemed as if the Dragons once promising season was coming to a premature end.
And then came Wright, a former lottery pick who had been playing serious minutes for a 50-win Dallas Mavericks team in 2008-09. Yet, contrary to what you may believe, it wasn’t easy for Wright to get a job here. Things are so bad for NBA players that before joining Jiangsu early last week, he was actually being discriminated against by multiple teams simply because he was coming over from the NBA.
Yes, that’s right: NBA guys have such a terrible reputation in China right now that teams are separating themselves entirely from anybody who has played recently in the League, regardless of the team’s need and the player’s ability and makeup. Teams didn’t want him strictly because he had the perceived stink of the Association all over his basketball resume.
Yet, judging from the “season savior” moniker he’s earned after just a few games, those other teams are probably kicking themselves for passing Wright up, who is already in the conversation for the league’s top foreign player. In his first game, Wright lit it up in a win against three-time defending champs Guangdong for 38 points on 8-11 from three, only to follow that up with 33 and 9 while limiting Fujian SBS’s Emmett, known mostly in China as the guy who dropped 71 points last year — against Jiangsu, nonetheless — to a ho-hum 25 point tally in another win.
In this article published by Net Ease Sports, its obvious that the team still had Emmett fresh in their mind and generally feels ecstatic about the arrival of their new star import:
[Jiangsu] won the game and limited [Emmett], so last night Jiangu was one very happy team. “Mr. 71 Points is like floating clouds. We have [Antoine] Wright!” yelled somebody on the bus after the game as the entire team erupted into laughter.
(浮云 fu yun translates as “floating clouds” and has several uses as a metaphor in Chinese language. In this case , it means that like a floating cloud, Emmett’s 71 points have been wisped away and are in the past.)
“…Wright’s a smart player, he’s always taking what the defense is giving him. And I think he’s a player who is extremely conscious of the team concept. Obviously, his beautiful three-point shot was something we didn’t know he had. But, we can see that his three-point shot is very consistent,” said [head coach] Xu Qiang.
As for Wright’s defense, Xu Qiang was extremely satisfied: “He’s got a great body and really knows where to be on defense. Plus, his arms are real long so he can cover a lot of space defensively. Trying to shoot a three in his face is pretty much impossible.
The players are sold on him too:
He’s the glue of our team. He’s not just an all-around player, he’s a guy who can straighten out our team’s continuity issues. Obviously, him feeding me the ball also makes me feel comfortable out there,” said [starting center and China national team member] Tang Zhengdong.
Sure, Wright may be the spark that ignites Jiangsu’s turnaround this season. But, he also might just be the mensch that gets the players of the NBA back into the good graces of Chinese owners.
Follow Jon Pastuszek on Twitter @NiuBBall