Another round of games, another week of story lines. This time around its the struggles of a CBA legend, one of China’s oldest teams in turmoil, another mishandling a young star and China’s next great big man™ is emerging on the horizon in Xinjiang.
1) What’s up with Stephon Marbury?
After a remarkable late chapter in his almost twenty year pro career, Stephon Marbury might be learning a very harsh lesson; Father Time catches up with everyone in the end. Now into his fourth season with Beijing and his sixth overall in China, Ma Bu Li is a CBA institution and still one of the faces of the league. The problem however is that the thirty-seven year old is off to an uneven start to the season. After going off for 32 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists in Beijing’s opener against the Guangdong Tigers and then coming off the bench to score 21 points against the Bayi Rockets the following game, Marbury’s stats have not been great; in 29.3 minutes per game, he has been going for 7.4 points, 5 rebounds and 5.2 assists. The player is thought to be fighting through an early preseason injury of some description and the Ducks are almost certainly going to wait this one out.
History though has been on the side of the Ducks in this area. When Marbury was injured for most of the season last year, the team transformed former Sixers bench guy Damien ‘nephew of Dominique’ Wilkins into one of China’s most improbably cult heroes whilst waiting for the team’s talisman to return from injury. Min Lulei, the Ducks’ coach, is smart enough to know how to play this situation again; put the ball in the hands of combo guard Sun Yue (he of the absurd Lakers bench squad of 2009) and run the offense through Marbury’s former Knick teammate and one of China’s best foreign big men, Randolph Morris. Marbury was close to unstoppable in last season’s epic play off semi-final series win against Guangdong and its this ability to keep making things happen in crunch time that mean the Ducks will keep coming back to him. The reality is though that that was an all-time great play-off series performance and such Lazarus-esqe comebacks rarely repeat themselves. Marbury needs to play himself into some form and soon.
2) Liaoning’s Gain Is Guo Ailun’s Loss.
Watching Liaoning makes one want to shake their fist angrily at the sky. For a team that got busted in spectacular fashion earlier this year for screwing over one of their former players, things have worked out pretty well. This year, they are 7-0, top of the standings and are the league’s only unbeaten team. They’ve gone to Xinjiang, my preseason favorites to win the whole thing and won, which is REALLY hard to do because teams hate going to Urumqi as it is and that’s even before considering the traditionally strong teams that the Tigers put together. Yet one can’t but feel frustrated for how they are doing this. After Xinjiang decided to sign Jordan Crawford in the offseason, they passed on their previous starting point guard Lester Hudson, who in turn fell into the lap of Liaoning. Liaoning obviously did not hesitate to sign a player who was league MVP last season and averaged a whopping 26 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.3 steals. However, this is such a Liaoning move given that it shunts Guo Ailun, the team’s best Chinese guard to the side because Hudson needs the ball in his hands a lot in order to do his thing. Liaoning’s player production line is incredible and seems to produce one exciting young player every couple of years, only to screw it up somehow by letting that talent fester.
It is not uncommon to hear people say how amazed they are that Liaoning have not won a title yet given their resources. Moves like this prove why. Guo is a good young player that missed a lot of games last season with injury and needs time to grow into his potential and now doesn’t get to have it. Two seasons ago, I watched in person as Guo carved up an admittedly woeful Shanghai Sharks team when the guard was just only nineteen years old. Liaoning then used him in conjunction with a shoot-first American guard (Josh Akognon) and it worked but Hudson is a different kind of player in a league with new rules about using Americans. It means that Guo has to have reduced minutes and that’s a real shame. I appreciate that a team has to roll the dice when they stumble into a player like Hudson but if Liaoning doesn’t win it all this year, it could end up costing them in the long term.
3) Zhou Qi Is For Real
For a teenager who was made one of the paid best players in the league before he’d even played a game, Xinjiang’s center Zhou Qi is somehow justifying the hype. Having poached the player away from Liaoning’s famed youth set-up, Zhou has been playing solid minutes in a loaded front court that also has Andray Blatche, Tang Zhendong and Su Wei (the final two both being former Chinese national team centers). The center is averaging 12.7 points + 6.7 rebounds a game and also leads the league in blocks (3.1 bpg)- all of this despite being only eighteen years of age. Given the fact that Wang Zhelin is getting all the hype as China’s next big thing and that Xinjiang have so much ability in their big man rotation, this is perhaps the ideal situation for the lanky Zhou to get a full season under his belt without too much hype or attention. The Tigers are being careful with their young giant, giving him twenty-eight minutes off the bench most nights but they are also happy to start him against weaker teams and give him a chance to prove himself against some of the league’s better centers (Shanghai’s Zhang Zhaoxu, Tianjin’s Sheldon Williams and Liaoning’s Han Dejun have all been recent opponents for Zhou). Basically, the kid is legit and can hopefully keep making strides. By the time Blatche leaves and next season comes along, Zhou may well be a starter at one of China’s biggest teams.
4) The Bayi Rockets Are Still Really Bad
In 2007, the Bayi Rockets went to Hangzhou to play the Guangsha Lions in Hangzhou for the first time in the CBA era. The Rockets would win that game 117-82 with six different players scoring in the double-digits as Bayi destroyed the league’s new boys. That was a Rockets team that featured a generation of great Chinese players and Wang Zhizhi, Mo Ke, Zhang Jinsong and Li Nan would all play in that Guangsha game as Bayi went on to win their eighth championship five months down the line. Seven years later, the boot is on the other foot and when the Rockets went to Hangzhou this time, the Lions won 128-86. Right now, China’s greatest team is 0-7 and desperately hoping it can rebuild around new crop of local players. In the meantime, it seems certain that Wang Zhizhi will be obliged to come out of retirement to play for the Rockets. This is not a good look for anyone connected with ‘Eight-One’.