Despite playing in their bad ass throwbacks to celebrate the anniversary of the CBA, the Guangdong Tigers managed to lose to a seemingly unstoppable Liaoning Jaguars team that moved on to 10-0 in the standings. Guangdong’s 116-112 home defeat was obviously not a good look but this is a veteran team that know they are going to the play-offs anyway and will laugh off the loss as one of those things. Indeed the dressing room, though unlikely to be filled with balloons and cake to celebrate the result, would still have been a more upbeat place than normal because of the history that had just been made on the court. Zhu Fangyu, the Tigers starting small forward scored 34 points on the night and it was enough to take him over the 10,000 point mark for his career. A special event for the player, it is also a huge landmark for the CBA itself. Zhu had long been the league’s leading scorer but his achievement against Liaoning represents another line in the sand for a player who has basically been China’s most reliable shooter for almost a decade.
Most people in the west probably only know Zhu from one of the many brawls that the Chinese national team started and/or finished during the era of Bob Donewald Jr. In a picture that is still probably one of the most well known images involving Chinese basketball, Zhu absolutely nails a smaller Brazilian player from behind and promptly got a two game ban from the national team and a $5000 fine. Yet despite being the author of the ‘cheap shot heard around the world’, the strange thing is that Zhu is also one of the most respected individuals in the history of Chinese basketball.
A smart player with a beautiful jumper, Zhu made his debut for Guangdong in the 1999/2000 season at just seventeen and would become a critical part of the Tigers roster before he had even entered his twenties. It would take a couple of seasons after that but Guangdong would go on to win eight titles in ten years between 2003 and 2013 and Zhu’s fingerprints were all over everyone of those championships. In arguably his best statistical season in 2007/08, he averaged 20.1ppg and shot nearly 50% from beyond the arc but that still doesn’t come close to demonstrating Zhu’s impact on the league. On four different occasions, he came within three percentage points of a 50-40-90 season but his slightly less reliable free-throw shooting (over the course of his career, he is ‘only’ an 83% shooter from the stripe) caused him to miss out.
Despite rumors of Zhu trying to jump to the NBA in the mid 2000’s, the forward would end up staying in China, which has always seemed a little strange. At the time, Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer were all in the league and a number of NBA teams seemed to be cool with rolling the dice on a Chinese player who would almost certainly bring with him a massive TV audience. Zhu himself admitted that the Houston Rockets were very interested in 2004 and had even consulted Yao on the matter (knowing all about his fellow Chinese national team player, the big man obviously approved). The Rockets had a late second round draft pick that year but instead used it in a deal to get highly touted Greek combo guard Vassilis Spanoulis, who lasted one season in Houston before being traded due to major friction with Jeff Van Gundy. Zhu’s name was never called that year nor at any of the subsequent NBA drafts.
There are though some possible reasons why a move to America never happened; Zhu may well have been a pure scorer but defensively, he wasn’t great and also never came close to averaging respectable rebound numbers despite being 6″8. The memories of getting Wang and Yao out of the CBA were still reverberating around the NBA and spending the same sort of energy on a player described by Draft Express as China’s Jason Kapono may not have been desirable. Another factor could have been that another of Zhu’s Guangdong teammates Yi Jianlian, then just aged 2o (or at least that’s what Yi claims!) was already averaging 16.8 points and 10.3 rebounds. Given he was a younger prospect with a higher ceiling, those GM’s looking at Zhu may have simply decided to keep their gunpowder dry and aim to bring over Yi instead when the time was right.
Now aged thirty-two, Zhu still is a very useful CBA player and will be a big part of the Tigers’ bid to make it back to the CBA finals. A very messy tabloid scandal involving himself and his former wife Hu Mei could have slowed Zhu down this season but the forward has managed to keep his eye on the prize and is currently averaging 18.4 points (including 52% from long-range) in 34 minutes of playing time. With Yi back from America and firmly entrenched as the team’s unquestioned leader as well as young American guard Emmanuel Mudiay emerging as a proven scorer, this year may well see more open looks than ever for Zhu. A ninth title, which would make him easily the most decorated athlete in the CBA era, might just follow as a result