In 2016, when NBL rule changes allowed a third import and the introduction of the 'marquee player rule', the Asian Player Rule was also introduced. It made a concession for the introduction of a player from a FIBA Asia or Oceania region country to compete as an unrestricted player in the competition.
Since then though, the rule has evolved into a category known as 'Special Restricted Players'.
According to Liam Santamaria, as of June 2019, the rule included "a select number of Asian countries that the NBL has selected as possible areas to market the NBL and bring more supporters in from outside of the Australian or New Zealand market. Those countries have changed slightly over time but are currently China, Philippines, Taiwan, India, South Korea, Singapore and Japan."
Up to this point, the exception has been rarely used. Tai Wesley and Earnest Ross, natives of Guam, have previously been on rosters under the rule, but due to the aforementioned changes, are now treated like imports.
We also saw the signing of Makoto Hiejima for the 2018/19 season, but the Japanese national team member played only one minute all season, in what was a failed experiment for the Brisbane Bullets.
There's also 19 year old Terry Li (Li Tian Rong), development player for the New Zealand Breakers, who is going into year two of a three-year deal with the New Zealand Breakers.
Lastly, we've seen Amritpal Singh, the star big man of India's national program, play for the Sydney Kings in the 2017/18 season. After impressing in the NBL Next Gen Camp, Singh was picked up and played 127 minutes for the Kings.
The rule has been occasionally used, but so far, the impact of those signed has been minimal. Going forward, is there a greater potential utility for the program, and what players would be suitable targets?
The Philippines are a passionate basketball nation. They've got plenty of young talent coming through the ranks, and one of the best is 6'0 guard Remy Martin, currently heading into his senior season at Arizona State.
Although Martin grew up in the US, his mother is Filipino. He currently holds dual Filipino-American citizenship, and there is mutual interest in representing the Philippines in international play.
Earlier in March 2020, Martin was named 1st team All-Pac 12, and for good reason. Averaging 19.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists, as well as 1.5 steals a game, Martin is a star for a high-major college program, and the only thing holding him back from being a legitimate NBA prospect is his size. Even more so, we know that dynamic, if undersized, scoring guards have a great history of success in the NBL. He possesses exceptional speed, a crafty handle, and is talented passer on top of being a multi-level scorer.
That sort of player could be considered worthy of an import spot at the NBL level, and the possibility to acquire someone of Martin's caliber without using an import slot should be an exciting possibility for any NBL team.
The Brisbane Bullets may not have had much success with Makoto Hiejima, despite the expectations that he would be a contributor at the NBL level, but Baba is a superior talent who plays a bigger role for the Japanese national team.
The 6'5 Baba is an athletic combo guard who was Japan's 3rd highest scorer at 9.2 points per game in the 2019 World Cup (by comparison, Hiejima averaged 4.4 on 32.1% FG). He's also playing this year in the NBA G League, averaging 6.3 points per game in 19.6 minutes. Lastly, shooting - Baba is averaging 41.1% from three on the season, on 2.3 attempts a game.
Baba seems like a gettable target for NBL squads, as he's unlikely to draw legitimate NBA interest. But for NBL standards, Baba absolutely looks like a guy that could contribute at either guard spot, and at 24 years of age has plenty of room to continue to improve.
Somewhat less likely, but exceptionally exciting in theory, is current Memphis Grizzlies two-way player Yuta Watanabe. A smooth, 6'8 athlete with a high skill level offensively, Watanabe is far and away Japan's best player outside of lottery pick Rui Hachimura.
This season, he's lit up the G League playing for the Memphis Hustle, averaging 17.2 points, 6 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game, on 54.6% from the floor and 36.4% from three.
Watanabe appears to be trending towards finding a chance at the NBA level, but for now, he's only tied down as a two-way player. If he finds himself on the outside looking in for future NBA opportunities beyond this season, NBL teams could only hope to lure him, as he could be a star in Australia.
Alexander, a former NBA lottery pick, has been mentioned as a potential 'loophole' guy for the Asian Player Rule in the past, and despite now being 33 years of age, it's hard to see him not contributing for an NBL team, should he qualify.
Despite being considered American-Israeli, Alexander was born in Taiwan, so could theoretically fall under the rule, depending on the NBL's interpretation.
The journeyman is currently playing for Hapoel Holon, averaging 6.7 points per game in 21.2 minutes. Over the years, Alexander filled out his 6'8 frame, turning into a prototypical four man, and he's still able to utilize his athleticism in the paint, as well as stretch the floor, where he's shooting 38.3% from three across 6 games.
Singh had a pretty respectable season with the Kings back in the 2017/18 NBL season, scoring on 65.6% of his field goals, rebounding the ball at a strong level, and providing a shot blocking presence in the paint.
He's a bit of a slow, lumbering big, but he's a big 6'10 and for a team looking for some size towards the back end of their rotation, Singh can certainly have a niche at the NBL level.
After his 2017/18 campaign, Singh unfortunately tore his ACL a day before the Commonwealth Games, but he's finally back to full health. Playing for India in the Asia Cup Qualifiers, Singh averaged 19.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists over two games against Bahrain and Iraq.
He's not going to be a big time contributor, but teams have shown interest before, and he's expressed disappointment in not being able to continue his NBL career after the injury, so he certainly sounds willing to come back if offered a deal.
Those are five notable candidates, but there's plenty more, either in play for the next year or two, or further down the line.
Should Oceania countries be reinstated into the rule, as Guam Head Coach EJ Calvo has advocated for, Tai Wesley's change in classification would allow the South East Melbourne Phoenix another import slot. It would also open the door for Earnest Ross to return to the league if teams are interested. There is also a 23 year old, 6'11 big man by the name of Jonathan Galloway. As one of the country's brighter young talents, Galloway appears to possess the upside to play at the NBL level.
Through the rest of the Oceania region, NBL level players are hard to come by. Between Tonga and Fiji, the most notable player is probably Joshua Fox. An athletic forward at the NBL1 level, it'll be worth keeping tabs on his play for the Frankston Blues this upcoming season.
China possesses plenty of talent, but most of their top players are tied to the financially lucrative Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), so established Chinese talents like Jianlian Li or Zhou Qi would be unlikely candidates, as well as top CBA-based prospects such as Haowen Guo.
Upcoming players through the Canberra-based NBA Global Academy may be more gettable, such as Terry Li who signed with the Breakers last year. There is currently one Chinese player at the NBA Academy --2003 born wing Yongxi Cui-- but he's still several years away from even being a Development Player (DP) candidate due to his age.
Two other notable Asian NBA Academy prospects are India's Princepal Singh and South Korea's Hyungjung Lee.
Singh, 19, will be looking ahead to professional opportunities, so could theoretically sign with an NBL team as soon as this offseason. The 6'10 big man is India's most promising young talent, and possesses more athleticism and a stronger potential skillset than his national team counterpart, Amritpal. Other young potential Indian talents worth monitoring over the next few years include Amaan Sandhu and Seijin Mathew.
Hyungjung Lee is probably the best Asian prospect we've seen come through the Academy so far. After training with the Academy and representing the Centre of Excellence (CoE), he's joined Davidson University and had an outstanding freshman season. Whether able to be lured away at any point during his college tenure, or simply monitored for after his NCAA career is done, Lee could definitely develop into an impactful NBL player.
Beyond the aforementioned Remy Martin, the Phillipines have more talent coming through, in the form of AJ Edu and Kai Sotto. The 7'2 Sotto could be an option as a Next Star this coming 2020/21 season as reports are he is leaning towards not attending college this upcoming season.
The 6'11 Edu completed his freshman season with Toledo in 2018/19 before tearing his ACL in FIBA play. He's been flagged by scouts as a high upside front-court prospect, but is still early into his college career, so it may be several years before we see Edu as a viable NBL option.
Unlike China, neither South Korea or the Philippines have high quality local leagues, so players from these countries may be more inclined to look at the NBL once they decide to sign a pro contract.
It may also be worth tracking Japanese high school prospect Chikara Tanaka. The 17 year old, 6'2 guard was Japan's 2nd top scorer at the 2018 Under-18 Asia Championships despite being the youngest player on the roster, averaging 15.2 points in 22 minutes per game. He now plays for the prestigious IMG Academy in the US, where he was teammates with Josh Green last season, and has also trained with the Japanese men's team.
While the exception has scarcely been taken advantage of since its inception, there's plenty of talent out there that could bolster an NBL roster. There's certainly an argument against giving opportunities to international players and not our own where possible, but there are situations to bring in real difference makers that could both bolster a team and provide the league with exposure to the international markets they desire.
If teams are savvy, they will be exhausting this avenue to maximise their rosters this offseason.