With another round of games in the books, the first month of the 2014/15 Chinese Basketball Association is almost at an end. Liaoning remain top of the standings but much of the rest of the league have changed places in just seven days. All of that means another look at the key stories of the week are in order. This time around, it’s a player who could have been an NBA star, two American cult heroes in China and the trouble with CBA teams (not) doing their paperwork.
1) Han Dejun Keeps On Showing Potential But It’s Too Late.
It’s a bitter-sweet moment every time Han Dejun has a good game in the CBA, in part because at twenty-six, he should be in the NBA and halfway through that tricky transition from the bench’s big man rotation to a starting center for his team. But he isn’t. Instead, he’s still plodding along in Yingkou, a crappy city four hours drive away from the North Korean border. As I alluded to in last week’s recap, the Liaoning [Whatever Their Name Is This Season] produce great players and have done so for ages. In the years I’ve followed the league, Han Dejuan has been/was possibly the most exciting of them all; a monstrous 7″1, 270lb bear of a human with decent touch and the willingness and bulk to go toe-to-toe with any American big man in the league. He had moments that made opponents terrified. But that was it; flashes of potential. When people around the league in 2011 were saying if anyone could get Han out of Liaoning, he will be on a plane to the NBA one day, they meant it. But no-one could and now in 2014, he is still there; having these occasional great games, averaging 15.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 27.5 minutes, which is good but not what it should be. When Liaoning went on the road and won in Xinjiang, Han played 32 huge minutes against Andray Blatche, who was getting a solid run in the NBA play-offs eight months earlier. Han had a useful 14 + 12 in that game but didn’t miss a shot and managed to slow Blatche down to help his team win. Last night against Dongguan, he had 33 + 12, albeit whilst taking on a far weaker front court (but was the most dominant big man in that round of games). The fact that Dongguan’s Li Muhao was bold enough to try for a NBA draft work out in the summer despite being a weaker overall player speaks volumes though about Han’s own ambition. He has never cared about leaving Liaoning nor really tried to improve his game beyond his initial potential. Instead he put on enough weight to earn the derisory ‘Flying Pig’ nickname and Liaoning, content to let their big man stay around within their system, just let him do it. Han seems content to finish his days with his boyhood team. Presumably he will be a big man coach there when he retires and add more inches to his waistline- and that’s completely fine; many people want to stay close to home. But it doesn’t mean he still won’t be one of Chinese basketball’s most recent and painful ‘what-ifs?’ players.
2) Spare A Thought For Josh Akognon
Life as an established CBA import is an odd one. One year, you are living the good life playing for a well run, expertly coached team and going to the play-offs. By playing for a good team, you acquire solid numbers and the cache of being a proven player in Chinese basketball. Then sometimes you get the phone call from a weaker CBA team wanting you to come there and repeat the trick (even though you can’t) or failing that, your numbers are good enough to make an NBA roster for most of the preseason only to be among the final cuts. If the latter happens, chances are you have to sign with that crappy team anyway because the more organized ones have got their imports already. Josh Akognon is one such player and after two very successful seasons with the Dongguan Leopards and a so-so year with Liaoning, the 5″11 guard is now a popular choice for teams within the league who are terrible and need instant offense. He spent the previous year with the Qingdao Eagles, the league’s worst team and now is playing for the Foshan Long Lions, who are a dumpster fire of an organization. Not only is the team ran by an aging, old school sadist like Jiang Xiangquan and has a dysfunctional front office that is widely distrusted by foreign players, the roster on the floor is just awful. What made things even more farcical on Sunday were the scenes towards the end of their game with Beijing when the Long Lions’ general manager Liu Hongjiang tried to rush the floor to square up to a referee making bad calls against his team.
But really though; when you’re on the court, watching your new GM (who made his name with the Guangdong Tigers as one of the best minds in the league) coming down to the floor looking like an extra from an Alan Mak gangster film and having to be held back by a Foshan bench player, then you know its going to be a long campaign. In the meantime, it means living in a third-tier city and playing for a losing team that hasn’t had a productive season in years. Oh, and they might try to not pay you when you leave. Good luck, Josh.
3) Charles Gaines: Does Not Bluff, Does Provide Stability
Charles Gaines, as has been proven many times over the years, is not a man to talk back to or to try to intimidate. He is a two-dimensional player in China- but in the very best way given that the two strands of his game are reliable low post scoring and rebounding, as well as absolutely intensity at all times. He averaged over thirty points a game for his first four years in Chinese basketball and whilst age has perhaps taken away from his ability to be a number one player on a team, now in year six for him in the CBA, he is still a hugely reliable player. Now over at the Zhejiang Bulls, Gaines is the iron fist that lurks beneath the silky play of the team’s shoot first point guard Errick McCollum. But it has been Gaines that has provided the stability at both ends of the court for when McCollum isn’t making shots or is on the bench. Averaging 25.7 points and a league leading 15.4 rebounds a game, Gaines has stats to show he’s effective but there is also the other stuff that a middling team like Zhejiang needs; effort, hard work and an almost pathological desire to win. In recent years, the Bulls have rolled the dice with guys like JR Smith and Ivan Johnson to get them results; a gamble that has gone wrong in a quite predictable fashion. Gaines and McCollum are considerably safer bets and although the team will be hard pushed to make the play-offs, at least the season won’t feel like its going to implode like it has done in previous years. With any luck, Gaines can keep the production going and at thirty-three prove that he still has it. In the meantime, the fact that the Bulls are not making the news for a variety of disasters can only be a good thing.
4) Visas Troubles
Nick Bedard had a solid piece about the Guangsha Lions’ issues with their American players’ work visas recently whilst Chongqing lost arguably their best defensive player Arslan Kazemi for six games because they also screwed up his permit. Kazemi returned last night having spent the last fortnight in Iran, waiting for his new visa to clear. Chinese basketball is already a strange place without the latest ‘quirk’ to emerge within the league; namely professional teams trying to keep their players in the country on tourist visas. This stuff happens obviously and many a westerner has lived and worked in China by arriving on a tourist visa, working cash in hand for three months, leaving on a short holiday (Hong Kong, Thailand, etc) and coming back in again on another tourist visa, etc. Other dudes come and go by more dodgy means and none of them are big or clever. It’s also not unheard of for some Chinese companies to pay little attention to the visas of their western employees because they are incompetent or that they just assume no-one will say anything. That said, it is still kind of amazing that in 2014, CBA teams are almost getting their players deported during the middle of a season.