Like too many rebuilding projects, the Bayi Rockets only opted in once they took a hard look in the mirror. The previous season, the former kings of Chinese basketball were dragging old legends out of retirement to win games and the nationwide criticism may well have had something to do with the current Rockets ethos. Because whatever discussions happened in the 2015 offseason, Bayi suddenly seem content at being pretty bad.
Indeed, one need only look at the record of ‘8/1’ this season to realize that this is a team happy to bring through young players in the hope that they can become a foundation for the future. The roster also seems to back up this assumption and there isn’t a player over the age of thirty averaging 30mpg so far this season.
Given this is a league dominated by foreigners, such an outlook should be praised, although there are a couple of obvious caveats. Given that the Rockets represent the Chinese army, they are banned from hiring non-Chinese players and so they have no choice but to find new young talent. Secondly, because Bayi aren’t the force they once were, no sane Chinese free agent wants to join a team that still trains their players like they actually are in the army.
Another factor why no-one should feel sorry for Bayi is because they are, the Bayi Rockets; the team that cheated for decades to win countless national championships. Referees openly colluded with the team and winning on Bayi’s homecourt was so tough that the Youngor Arena was nicknamed ‘the Graveyard of Hope’. Now the boot is on the other foot, it would be like cheering for the Empire to enjoy a comeback after the Death Star got destroyed (timely Star Wars reference: CHECK).
And yet– AND YET– there is an unusually interesting mix of young players coming through the ranks. Top of the bill right now are the Rockets duo of undersized big men; Zou Yuchen and Fu Hao, both of whom were recently profiled by Shark Fin Hoop’s very own Marco Catanzaro in his feature on young Chinese talent. Both are undersized and scrappy, which reflects how far the Rockets now are from recruiting China’s best young talent.
Zou, playing in his sophomore season, is 6″8 and Fu is 6″7 and a rookie. But despite both being painfully young, each is beefy, brave and incapable of backing down. Neither will be able to step out to the three-point line and are as joyless and two-dimensional as one would expect from an army team roster but somehow they seem to work. At the time of writing, Zou is averaging 15.1 ppg, 9.8 rpg, and 2.5 bpg, whilst Fu has 11.7 ppg and 5.7 rpg. This is nothing to write home about but Bayi, remarkably are playing the waiting game. As a team linked to a feted state institution like the People Liberation Army, they know the league will always give them the benefit of the referee’s whistle so long as they can put a decent product on the floor. Both young big men are part of the Rockets’ attempts to keep up their end of the bargain.
Behind them, Bayi are also trying to put together enough young shooters to stretch out the floor. Point guard Lei Ming, (6.5ppg, 37% from 3pt range) is another Rockets’ rookie who will play 35 minutes one night and then 12 on the next, but he has a streaky three-point game that could eventually worry defenders. Luo Kaiwen (left), who, yes, is another rookie, is averaging 9.4ppg and shooting 33% from downtown.
Moreover, eight of the fifteen members of the Rockets roster were born in 1995 or later, and the team have come close to running out entire line-ups of rookies or second-year players. By doing this, eventually these youngsters might give Bayi a new golden generation to work with. If such a plan sounds familiar, this is because the Guangdong Tigers and the Beijing Ducks have won a combined twelve titles over the last twenty years by bringing through a core of homegrown young players. The only other sides to have won championships since 1995 are Bayi (who did it with a collection of other team’s best players that they stole before the league become competitive) and Shanghai, who had a twenty-two year old Yao Ming averaging 32.4 ppg and 19.0 rpg.
So Bayi are hoping to build a foundation for the future. This is interesting for two reasons. The first is that it shows that the Rockets are pragmatic enough to know they need to suck before they can be outstanding again. The second is that the blooding of several young players suggests Bayi will not be folded or allowed to sign foreign players anytime soon. Instead, a new generation of bright young things are being rushed onto the floor in the hope that one day, they can be contenders in a foreigner filled league. Zou Yuchen and Fu Hao might not seem like much to an NBA audience but to Chinese basketball fans, they signal a renewed drive by Bayi to return to the glory days, even if it has to be done the hard way.