When South East Melbourne Phoenix signed Zhou Qi in the NBL off season, most Australians had never heard of him.
The Chinese basketballer was drafted by the Houston Rockets at pick 43 in the 2016 NBA Draft and has been a regular Chinese national player since making his debut in 2014.
Despite being a major superstar in China, he remained relatively unknown to Australian basketball fans.
The signing of Qi by the Phoenix was posted on multiple Chinese social media platforms with one post reaching more than 480 million people and 15.5 million who engaged with it.
Another post on social media reached 15 million people and another reached six million.
Phoenix brand and media manager Daniel Hoy could not believe it and said, ‘the numbers don’t feel real’.
This season the Brisbane Bullets have also recruited a player from China after signing Chuanxing Liu who stands at 225cm (7’4”) and is affectionally known as ‘Big Liu’.
When the Bullets and Phoenix played one another in January, more than two million people live-streamed the game. Incredible numbers.
Over the years, Asian players have not featured heavily in the NBL with most teams preferring to bring in players from the US as their imports.
This season, an NBL strategy has seen more players from Asian countries join the competition. The New Zealand Breakers signed Princepal Singh from India and the Adelaide 36ers signed Filipino Kai Sotto.
NBL commissioner Jeremy Loeliger said the league changed the rules to ensure it is easier for clubs to sign players from Asian countries.
“We very purposefully introduced an amendment to the salary and contracting rules allowing each team to contract one player from Asia that would be excluded from its salary cap calculations,” Loeliger explained.
“We’re conscious of the quality of talent coming out of the region, the popularity of the game in various markets throughout Asia, but also the fact that the best players command significant salaries.”
The Asian players in the NBL are having a big impact both on the court and off the court.
Popular Sydney chef Vincent Lim recently partnered with Kayo to make a ‘Slam Dumpling’ to celebrate the Phoenix’s clash with the Perth Wildcats in what was the NBL’s Chinese New Year game.
Lim’s Tik Tok video shows a giant dumpling being ‘dunked’ into a bowl of sauce and condiments and has been viewed 165,000 times.
Lim was not a basketball fan, that was until he was invited to attend some NBL games and he witnessed Zhou in action for the Phoenix against the Sydney Kings.
Instantly, the Sydney chef was excited and became a basketball fan.
“It just got me really into it, I did my research. I’m pretty new to the sport, I’m learning more about it and yeah, it’s pretty interesting,” Lim said.
“So I thought to create something that was Chinese New Year-based so we just decided to go with a dumpling and play off ‘slam dunk’ and we just called it a ‘slam dumpling’.”
With the NBL on the rise, both on the court and off the court, expect to see more Asian players in the competition as they use the league as a stepping stone to the NBA.