In his first game for UC Riverside (go Highlanders, etc) last week, Chris Tang, a Chinese point guard born in Nantong, would play five minutes, pick up a foul and an assists and that was pretty much it. For a player that was once being dubbed the mainland’s Jeremy Lin, this was not a great look. For Chinese basketball as a whole however, given a little of time, this might just work out.
Indeed, the very fact that another Chinese-born is now playing in high(ish) level college basketball in America can only be a good thing. The CBA- for all the chest puffing it has been exhibiting in recent weeks due to the ‘CBA20’ celebrations to commemorate the league’s twentieth anniversary- is still in desperate need of fresh ideas. Wang Zhelin is obviously seen as the next great Chinese NBA player but given the size of the country’s basketball playing population, the harsh reality is that the Fujian big man should not be China’s only viable candidate for the big time.
The problem is though that the coaching and development of young talent in China is still way behind the times. In fact, the system in China is still similar to how it was in the 1950’s; find a player that has decent height for his age, send him off to a sports school to be coached several hours a day and then hope he makes a CBA team. The CBA may be promoting its twentieth year of existence but the frustrating practices within Chinese basketball should also be getting a sixty-fifth anniversary celebration given the apparent love for it within certain spheres of the country’s coaching set-up.
Fresh ideas in Chinese basketball are critical and yet internally, they are almost none existent. Even when outside influences attempt to come in and try to shake things up, they are bluntly rebuffed by the traditionalist elements of the CBA. A great example of this would be in 2012 when Liaoning’s then eighteen year old point guard, Guo Ailun was offered the chance to play in Greece with Euroleague contenders Panathanikos. Reportedly, the loan move was vetoed by the team’s head coach Wu Qinglong and the player’s father. The loan would have been an interesting opportunity for the player, particularly at a young age, to play in a different culture and bring back what he learned. Instead, he stayed in China and for all the local chatter about Guo being the Chinese Tony Parker, it remains to be seen if he is going to be one-day relevant for an NBA draft.
Currently, the same kind of players are coming into Chinese basketball as they have been for the previous two or three decades. Their coaching is the same; fundamentally sound but limited in terms of being able to take a game over and/or lacking in individual play making ability. Moreover, as mentioned in a previous interview, the mainland’s obsession with ‘their Jeremy Lin’ is a non-starter because Lin would never emerge through their system given the rigid selection criteria and obsession with height, regardless of position.
Tang though, like an increasing amount of other Chinese players, represent the next best hope for overhauling the stale player development in the country- namely by going overseas and bypassing the local coaching structure completely. Even before he arrived at Riverside, Tang had also played a season at legendary high school basketball factory, Oak Hill Academy. In essence, the guard is an ideal prototype; a Chinese player but with a western basketball mindset.
Bluntly speaking, this represents the best way currently that Chinese hoops can bring in new ideas- by sending its best players overseas before they get coached into robots or or some instances, find themselves broken down in training before they even turn pro. The Sichuan Blue Whales’ big man Xu Tao might not ever become a great center but after three seasons with San Francisco University, he will be a very different kind of player when compared to his Chinese front court contemporaries. Maybe he teaches his teammates new ideas, perhaps when he retires, he becomes a coach and trains local centers with the American methods he learned in the Bay Area. The same could be said perhaps of Jiangsu’s Chang Lin who played for Long Beach State back in 2011. This isn’t to say the western way is better but difference in attitude is important to help build better, more complete players. And China badly needs this to halt its potentially slow decline as Asian basketball’s top dog.
The CBA and possibly Chinese basketball itself is already starting to see the impact of its young players going off to America and learning different ways of playing basketball. Zhang Zhaoxu, a former Cal Bears center, went to the last Olympics with the national team and whilst he isn’t much offensively, he was good enough for Shanghai to make him one of the better paid Chinese players in the league last season. Moreover, just listen to what Zhang has to say himself about his time in the NCAA system at Cal and what he got from those experiences. Another recent returnee, former BYI-Hawaii starter Jet Chang (who I know is Taiwanese but indulge me) is arguably a top ten local swingman now. These players are more of a novelty than a movement right now but they also offer genuine possibilities for change. Gradually, more and more guys are going to go to America, learn to play basketball in a different way and then slowly help overhaul Chinese basketball; both in terms of how homegrown players play but also how they learn to take control of the game in key moments.
Remember; even Yao, who is the most modernizing force in the CBA right now can also be prone to worrying moments of knee jerk conservatism. All of this means that it will be returning players that help change the way Chinese basketball is coached. Players like Tang may not have glamorous careers in American college basketball but if they can come back to China and introduce new ways of doing things, that will mean so much more. Its going to take decades but the change will eventually happen.