An unexpected story that could one day be a milestone in the evolution of Chinese youth basketball broke last week. Zhang Zhiyao (center), the son of Beijing Ducks assistant Zhang Jingdong, will soon leave China and be moving to Spain where he will be part of the youth program of Eurobasket giants, Real Madrid. It might not mean much to Americans but in China this news was understandable a fairly big deal.
Up until the last two decades, it was almost unheard of for Chinese players to learn their craft outside of the Middle Kingdom. Ma Jian, the first mainlander to play in the NCAA, did not do so until the mid 1990’s and since then, the movement of young talent to overseas programs has been more of a trickle than a flood. A handful of Chinese high schoolers have played in America and then in the college ranks but this new announcement is a massive development.
Given his age, the thirteen year old Zhang has not been followed especially closely in Chinese basketball circles but it does not mean that he doesn’t have talent. Voted the best player in his school district, he was already a feature of the elite Tsinghua High School team. However, it is probable Zhang gets his skills from his parents. His father, Zhang Jingdong (right), was a legendary shooting guard for the Beijing Ducks in the 1990’s and who once hit 14 three-point shots in a single game. The boy’s mother, Zhangnai Fang, was also a player for the Beijing women’s team. At 6″5, Zhang junior is also expected to be about 6″10 by the time he finishes growing according to the ubiquitous x-ray tests that Chinese athletics use to estimate height.
Madrid’s interest in Zhang has been around for several months. According to various reports, Zhang attended a youth work out in Febuary and caught the eye of Paco Redondo, Real’s U-18 coach and the head of the Spanish national team’s U-20 side. Unsurprisingly given that the boy’s old man was a dangerous shooter back in the day, the Spaniard was very impressed by Zhang’s shooting as well as his height. Things developed to the point that Zhang will now move to Madrid on a full-time basis, both as a student and a basketball player.
Zhang’s move is now set to be very different to the career path most Chinese basketball players take before reaching the professional ranks. Currently, promising players invariably join a provincial sports school and are coached up through the ranks of a prospective CBA team before finally playing in China’s top division once they turn eighteen. That journey can sometimes be devoid of creative or updated coaching methods (although this is slowly changing in some places), meaning that when a young player reaches the CBA, he doesn’t have the multi-faceted skillset that players in other parts of the world might have. Being exposed to a European style of coaching won’t make Zhang a better overall player but it does mean he could be a different kind of prospect to what he could have been had he spent his formative basketball years in China.
There is obviously no guarantee that Zhang will thrive in Madrid. The Spanish capital is an international city but there is still the fact that this is a teenager leaving his family and friends to move halfway across the world. Home sickness, language barriers and cultural differences will all have to be overcome if the youth is to turn all of his potential into cold, hard talent. Very few people would be able to handle such a radical changing of scenery at such a young age. Make no mistake, this is still a risk as much as it is an opportunity.
Yet if it works out, this could be a huge change in how Chinese players are coached– and also where their coaching happens. If China wants to improve with each generation, it has to expose its best players to different kinds of basketball. America has already opened up as a front but having kids comfortable with the European style might be even better for China in the long term. Either way, this is a fascinating development that needs to be observed with patience. Right now, we are starting to see the start of the so-called ‘Generation 2.0’, or in other words, the offspring of former players from China’s pre and early CBA years. Zhang is among the younger end of that group but he could end up being be one of the most significant if he prospers in Madrid.