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Playing the Global Game: How Americans are Extending their Basketball Dreams

From Europe to China to the Philippines and Iran, Americans are dominating foreign basketball leagues and extending their playing careers.

Back when Spencer Dinwiddie played at Colorado, he had a lesser-known teammate named Askia Booker. Booker was solid in his own right, averaging 13 points per game in college and earning a second-team all-PAC-12 selection in 2015. But the 6’1 guard from Inglewood, Calif. never played a game in the NBA, despite spending three seasons in the G League.

Booker wanted to keep playing basketball, so he did. Now, he’s averaging 22.3 points per game this season, which is 9.2 more than Dinwiddie is putting up for the Washington Wizards.

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The thing is, Booker is doing this for the Shenzhen Aviators of the Chinese Basketball Association, making him one of the relatively few Americans who headed to China this season to make a living. Another, Kay Felder, was the 54th pick of the 2016 NBA draft and spent time with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons before deciding that overseas ball offered more stability.

He is currently leading the CBA in scoring at 25.1 points per game for the Shanxi Loongs, who are chasing the first-place Lioning Leopards and their 6’3 small forward, Kyle Fogg, who once played for the Arizona Wildcats.

Other Americans playing this season in China include former NBAers Noah Vonleh and Dominique Jones. Also, CBA newcomer Trae Golden debuted with a 53-point performance for the Fujian Sturgeons.

These players are certainly not the first Americans to look to China for the best paycheck they can find, and there are a bunch of U.S. players making noise in Europe, too, as the Euroleague and Eurocup seasons churn along despite the pandemic. After Saturday night’s games, four of the top six scorers in Euroleague were Americans: Scottie Wilbekin, Isaiah Canaan, Mike James and Shane Larkin. Will Clyburn and Daryl Macon Jr. also resided in the Euroleague top 10 in scoring.

In EuroCup play, Errick McCollum (C.J.’s older brother) is the top scorer with an average of 22.8 points per game for Locomotiv Kuban (Russia), half a point higher than the scoring average of teammate Johnathan Motley, formerly of the Baylor Bears, Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks. Justin Cobbs, a former finalist for the Bob Cousy Award (given to the nation’ top point guard) when he was with the California Golden Bears, is third among EuroCup scoring leaders, followed by Caleb Homesley (Liberty), Will Cummings (Temple), Dylan Ennis (Oregon), Kevin Punter (Tennessee), and Allerik Freeman (N.C. State).

That means the top eight scorers in EuroCup competition all share one thing in common: They are Americans, with some of them holding dual citizenship so that they can represent other countries in international competitions.

“Because basketball is the second most popular sport in the world behind soccer, there are pro leagues everywhere, probably about 75 of them that offer paid opportunities,” ESPN commentator and overseas hoops expert Fran Fraschilla told Boardroom. “Unlike baseball or football, these guys can continue playing the sport they love, make some money and see the world. There are very few places where they can earn a nest egg to come back with, but it is a good way to extend your dream of playing basketball for a living.”

China and Europe are not the only places where Americans are thriving professionally, while the NBA struggles through absences caused by positive COVID-19 tests.

In Iran, of all places, Isiah Williams, formerly of Utah Valley University and Farragut High School in Chicago, is the leading import scorer in the Superleague, where he plays for Mes Kerman and regularly competes against fellow American expats Perry Petty (Texas-Pan American) and Christopher Evans (Kent State).

In the Iranian “B” Division, Dwight Buycks, formerly of Marquette along with the Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons, is the top player for first-place Chemidor Tehran, where he is teammates with Alade Aminu, the brother of Al-Farouq Aminu of the Orlando Magic, and Michael Rostampour, who has dual Iranian-American citizenship and played collegiately at Nebraska-Omaha.

The list goes on, with the Philippines another country loaded with Americans who have aged out of the NBA. The leading scorer there is K.J. McDaniels (Clemson) of the NLEX Road Warriors, who played in the NBA for Philadelphia, Houston, and Brooklyn.

The top five scorers in the Philippines League are rounded out by Mike Harris, formerly of the Rockets, Wizards and Jazz, Antonio Hester (University of Mobile), Justin Brownlee (St. John’s), and Henry Walker (Kansas State).

“Not all of these leagues are the Spanish ACB or the French A League, but a guy can be a star in Vietnam,” Franchilla said.

Vietnam? Yup.

DaQuan Bracey, who spent four years at Louisiana Tech, is averaging 34.3 points per game for the Saigon Heat. Just behind him is Akeem Scott, a 38-year-old from New York who also plays for the Jamaican National Team. He is averaging 31.9 points per game for the Danang Dragons.

“If you turn on Synergy Sports, you can watch a game from Iceland where it literally looks like a junior high school gym with three rows of bleachers, or you can see a Real Madrid game where there is a packed house and the level of competition is top notch. You cannot get rich, but you can make a couple thousand dollars (per month) for seven or eight months and prolong your childhood,” Fraschilla said.

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