If last season demonstrated anything, it is that the most impactful free agents in China turn up playing for the most random of teams. Back in September, Errick McCollum, a point guard who spent most his career in Israel, signed with Zhejiang and then proceeded to score 82 points in a game against Guangdong and also averaged 39.5ppg for the season (both CBA records). Another new arrival, Eli Holman single-handily dragged the Guangsha Lions’ to the play-offs and was an outside shot for league MVP. Indeed, the arrival of both men, plus others like Qingdao’s Justin Deadmon (who arrived from Lithuania) or Chongqing’s Willie Warren (Hungary) underline the American talent that can be found in lesser known overseas leagues.
The ‘trouble’, if that is the correct word, is trying to identify who might be coming from Europe to China. For CBA writers, it’s basically like trying to find a needle in a haystack. But CBA teams themselves will be more clued up on who is out there and what they can bring to their organization. Scoring and ideally some rebounding are the key things because, to quote what one CBA official said to me once; ‘you don’t bring an American to China to play defense’. Basically, if you can keep the scoreboard moving, are confident carrying a team on offense for stretches and can be relatively efficient with your shooting; chances are there is a CBA team that wants to talk to you. Moreover, several teams can still remember the problems caused by NBA free agents like JR Smith and Kenyon Martin in 2011, who both arrived in China and struggled to deal with the culture shock of CBA basketball. An added incentive of signing Americans who have spent most of their careers in Europe is that they are experienced with the overseas lifestyle and less likely to become a disruptive presence in the dressing room.
Though it’s still early days in the CBA offseason, one player that is reportedly getting a lot of attention is power forward Trevor Mbakwe, who spent most of his college career with the University of Minnesota before moving to Italy and then Germany. Mbakwe recently helped his former team Brose Baskets win the German national championship and had a 20 point, 13 rebound double-double in the decisive Game 5. On paper, Mbwake seems an ideal Chinese import and at 6″8 and 245lbs, he will have a physical advantage over most local power forwards in the league. Offensively, he is a powerful low post bully but his athleticism as a rebounder and pick-and-roll finisher will also be intriguing to CBA teams (given that Mbawke has a 36″ vertical, his dunking should also be pretty tidy too). The most obvious playing comparison would be with Charles Gaines, another undersized power forward who came from the obscurity of Israeli basketball but ended up leading the CBA in both points and rebounds during his six seasons in China.
Mbwake does not officially have a team right now but if rumors are to be believed, he should have one in the near future. Other American players are sure to follow from Europe, although its still difficult to guess who exactly they will be. One of the more logical fits may well be swingman Tony Mitchell, currently the top scorer in Italian basketball and who previously had a stint with the Jilin Tigers back in 2013. Ultimately though, no-one can be sure and this in turn means a lot more speculation for several weeks to come.