Bamboo Ceiling 2.0: James Wang and Asian representation in the NBA
Revisiting James Wang's basketball journey that spanned Sydney, Australia, the United States and China.
James Wang would scan the court and just see NBA talent. Bobby Brown. Blake Ahearn. Jeff Adrien.
It was the summer right after his final season at Williams College, a Division III basketball program in which Wang would finish an illustrious four-year college career as a two-time All-American. Wang - all six feet of him - was a dead-eye shooter. Over the years, from prep school through to college, he would patiently add more to his game, all culminating in this scrimmage. This was his chance to be a pro.
The man running his eye over the scrimmage that day? Brian Goorjian.
Goorjian was head coach of the Dongguan Leopards of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) at the time, with the camp serving as an addition for imports for his team. He had called up Wang, hoping to get a live look at his game. Goorjian had poured over film of Wang’s exploits at Williams, and liked his potential fit. Now, it was up to Wang to prove it.
The Pick and Roll is an independent reader-supported publication. To receive new stories and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
To understand how Wang got to this point, we need to go back and examine his story.
Wang was born in Taiwan and raised in Sydney, Australia, having moved to Sydney at the age of two. The Wangs grew up in Taren Point, a suburb in the south of Sydney.
NBA games in the 90s were hard to come by in Australia. Wang’s dad recorded Bulls games and showed his kids. The family home had a basketball ring in the backyard and a toy mini hoop setup in the living room. Wang’s older brother fell in love with the sport; the younger Wang wanted to follow his brother, which started his respective love affair with the game.
Wang started playing with the local club, coming up against the likes of Nate Tomlinson. The family moved up the road to Hurstville afterwards when Wang started to attend high school, first at Hurstville and then at Sydney Tech - his older brother went to Newington where he also excelled at basketball. The younger Wang had to follow his brother’s footsteps. But first, Sydney Tech, before transferring a few years later to Newington to play with his brother on a scholarship.
At that point, Wang had never been identified through traditional pathways, having never been in the representative system. It was during this time that Wang was introduced to Ed Smith.
Smith’s name will forever be intertwined in Australian basketball circles with Thon Maker, but he was also known for providing an alternate pathway into US basketball. Smith’s message to all his charges was simple: stick with his process and he would get them to their desired destination.
“It's old school training methods, man,” says Wang. “Run your ass off. You know, defence, defence, defence all day, right. Like gruelling conditioning drills.”
Wang would spend early mornings training with Smith, travel to school and follow up with another morning practice there. Wang was always surprised, and thankful, that his mother allowed this. His brother, a talented player, did not have a successful tale. Yet Wang persisted, and his parents allowed him to chase his American college dream.
And he made it. As Wang finished high school at Newington, Smith was busy calling every prep school in the States, looking to get Wang his shot. He ultimately recommended Wang to Kevin Sutton, head coach of Montverde Academy, the school which in later years became better known here, courtesy of Ben Simmons.
When Wang arrived, he was instantly struck by the upgrade in talent, guys with outlandish physical talent with strength, and who could windmill, flat footed. Despite the aura, Wang was not overawed by the competition, and he credits Ed Smith’s program conditioning him to be able to cope with this level of competition.
Solomon Alabi represented one such upgrade in talent. A few years later, Alabi would become a second round pick of the Dallas Mavericks — before being traded to the Toronto Raptors — and play 26 games across two seasons in the NBA. But for now, he was Wang’s seven-foot teammate, and as Alabi calls it, a “brother from another mother.”
The two hit it off instantly, forming a strong bond, becoming best friends.
“I struck up a friendship with him because I sensed that he might be familiar with my culture,” says Alabi, “and some of his background experiences aligned with mine.”
Alabi tells the story of the time when Nicolas Batum and Alexis Ajinça helped him with his French homework at a Nike hoop summit camp.
“I got in trouble for cheating on school work since I don’t speak French,” says Alabi. As the student president, Wang had to discipline Alabi in front of a committee and then removed him from the student prefect position. “We went back to our dorm room and laughed about it and how uncomfortable it was,” Alabi remembers.
Within Ed Smith’s program, Wang was taught how to maximise his game in a way that would make him shine as a prospect, to be able to play selfishly within a team system. At Newington, under the guidance of Rex Nottage, he was taught the fundamentals and team-centric concepts and principles. With that basketball education, Wang says he had the best of both worlds. At Monteverde, that development was put to the test.
In his first year, he was put forward as the starting point guard, but he had never faced such defensive ball pressure prior to the States. There was no respite. Every game he would line against top high school prospects.
Alabi is highly complimentary of Wang’s game. He and Wang would talk basketball non-stop. Realistically, neither thought they could make it to the NBA. Instead, they talked about college and dreamed of being recruited to the same program.
“I would bet that James is a better shooter than Jeremy Lin,” says Alabi.
By the end of Montverde, Wang had a Division I offer from Nicholls State but he declined, choosing Williams College where he enjoyed four years of great team basketball, but also personal accolades.
One day, Wang got back to his phone and noticed seven missed calls. Listening to his voicemail, it was Brian Goorjian.
Unbeknownst to Wang at the time, Goorjian had a problem. When he first went over to China to coach, Goorjian noticed how thin guard depth was in his squad. To his surprise, the roster was full of seven-footers, as though size was the entry level. He needed guards who were ready, and he was prepared to look elsewhere.
“Somebody had reached out to me and said that there's a kid,” says Goorjian, “a guard that could play in the CBA. And it was James Wang.”
So Goorjian studied film.
“Who the hell is out there watching Division III film?” asks Wang. “But he’s telling me like, hey, you’d be a great fit for my team in China.”
When Wang finished his Williams career, he was at a crossroads. He didn’t want to play professionally in the wilderness across a bevy of foreign leagues for 10-15 years, but he knew he wanted to experience professional basketball, even for a little bit.
“The call from Goorj could not have come at a better time,” he says.
So, back to the Los Angeles camp, Wang held his own, with his confidence rising that he could compete at this level.
“When James came, not only was he, I thought a very, very good player,” says Goorjian, “he had what I was trying to bring to the team, training wise, defensively, offensively.”
Goorjian brought him into the fray for a few months, so Wang could impress the owners in person.
Ultimately, red tape curtailed Wang and Goorjian’s plans to join forces at Dongguan, but Goorjian’s endorsement was enough to open windows for Wang, who played in Taiwan for a single season, before joining Guangxi of the Chinese NBL — a tier below the CBA — and played three seasons there. Over those years, he’d play alongside the likes of Hamady N’Diaye, Darrington Hobson, Tony Mitchell, Orlando Johnson, Vander Blue - all players with NBA experience.
James Wang would bring the ball up the court. Years playing in the States against bigger, longer, and more athletic guards hounding his dribble would render any token pressure here moot. Once past half court, Wang would offload the rock to his star import, before he would shuffle to the corners.
It’s possible that a part of him may have wondered, if this was the ecosystem in which he worked daily: Could I not do the same on the grandest stage in the world? Could I not do the same job in the National Basketball Association?
The James Wang story also serves as an interesting point of reflection - a microcosm, if you will - when it comes to examining Asian representation in the NBA. If we narrow the focus even further, his story provides an interesting case study in examining Chinese representation in the NBA.
Yao Ming. Yi Jianlian. Sun Yue. Wang Zhizhi. These names are synonymous with Chinese representation within the grandest basketball stage in the world.
“Crowds go crazy for these [former NBA] guys,” says Wang, who played an exhibition game against Wang Zhizhi. “They’re absolute local heroes.”
Despite the passion for the sport, and a past history of producing NBA-level talent, there has been a real absence of Chinese players to make it to the NBA. Most of those aforementioned household names were seven-footers - skilled and with immense size. The NBA was also a different game then, when size reigned, and unearthing the next big was the North Star.
The modern NBA however, has been dominated by wings and guards. A question to ponder then: was the developmental focus in China prioritising size?
“The NBA has gone [in] a direction now,” says Goorjian, “where it's smaller basketball, it's more athletic, it's more up and down.”
Remember, Goorjian went in search of guards abroad, where his path ultimately crossed with that of James Wang.
“And we connected, like, like, right away,” says Goorjian. “I liked him as a person. I loved the way he handled himself. He was always in the gym before I got there. He could shoot the ball in a very, very elite level. And, he can speak English. So it was easy for me to communicate. And he helped me not only from a basketball standpoint, but he helped me from a teaching standpoint.”
Though Wang never played for Goorjian in the CBA, he did play professionally in the Chinese NBL, coming across local talent and NBA imports. In those experiences, Wang came across, and played against, national team guards. His recollection was that they were slightly bigger in frame than he was, perhaps a little more physically gifted than himself. However, at no stage did he feel out of place.
“I didn't feel like any of them were unguardable. I felt many, many American guards [were] unguardable in front of me,” says Wang.
Wang points out that pool of talent to wade through when someone is between 5’10 to 6’2 is essentially an ocean. The differentiating factors are so crucial and marginal. Consider Patty Mills for example, a small guard is known for his shooting, but there are lots of good shooters. Passion can only take you so far; Mills’ endurance and speed are critical differentiators.
There’s also the typical import, who is more often than not, a former NBA player who has been signed with much fanfare. With that pedigree and talent, you bet they’re handling the ball the most and dominating usage. Has this impacted perimeter player development?
There have been changes being made in recent years to the CBA, with import limitations and regulations on how many imports can be on the court, but this is an interesting discussion point.
Goorjian, who spent years coaching in China, observed first hand that there was talent.
“I felt with the Chinese that there was quickness, there was guys that could really shoot, there was size,” says Goorjian. “But what my job was was to teach them how to practice, to teach them how to get better, and to play system. And that’s a really hard process.”
Whilst both Wang and Goorjian saw talented and skilled players in their time in China, they reference a missing piece, which is that dynamism on the court — making organic decisions in the heat of the moment — commonly known as read and react.
“Basketball is such a dynamic game with layers, upon layers, upon layers of strategy,” says Wang. “And there's so many different ways to be good at it. There's so many different ways to be a good team.”
Wang refers to the team aspect and coalescing into a unit that outperforms its individual pieces. The Australian Boomers are a classic example, where they collectively perform despite facing teams with more high-end talent on the court.
Remember, Goorjian was involved in the Chinese men’s national program as well.
“I came over with the national team and added pieces,” he says. “On-ball defence, rotation on trapping, these three sets out of horns [sets], but I didn't come into the program and develop the culture, develop the processes of skill development.”
What his experience involved was less focus in process, and more interest in learning sets, tactical education such as a zone attack, press breaks, out of bounds plays, in game strategy. Goorjian remembers trying to influence changes to diets in the dining hall, skill development and mindset. Instead, the focus was primarily about influencing wins now, not about setting up foundations that can prosper for generations.
“And those things that you're talking about there are what is required, when you are away to build a program over a long period of time and take it someplace it's never been,” he says.
Now working in an agency, Wang points out that there is Asian talent that is coming through and has the potential to make it. Chinese Canadian Zach Edey — whose mother Julia is 6’3 and formerly played basketball — is a name that should come to mind quickly.
Should we expect a change? Will passion for the sport — aside from China, consider how basketball is revered in the Philippines — translate to a burgeoning pool of talent that could wash over the Association?
Not yet, according to Wang. “We're not a big enough group of talent to make that much noise.”