After months of speculation, Zhou Qi, China’s most hyped young player since Yi Jianlian, is going to make a run at the upcoming NBA draft.
This should not be much of a surprise for those who have followed the nineteen year old’s short career. After exploding onto the scene with a 28 point, 27 rebound, 15 block triple double during a U-16 international tournament in 2011, Zhou eventually turned pro with the Xinjiang Tigers in 2014 and led the CBA in rejections as a rookie. Having repeated the feat in his sophomore year, it seemed natural to test the NBA waters given that his stock is red-hot and the 2016 Draft appears weaker than 2017. The groundswell of support for Zhou is such that even Xinjiang, the team who own his contract rights, have reluctantly agreed to let him put his name on the board.
But what is muting the excitement is a familiar theme to Chinese basketball fans– namely that there could be an major issue with Zhou’s age.
Concerns about the actual birthdates of high level Chinese players have been around for decades and local journalists will openly tell you that age shaving is endemic. Indeed, as Sports Law Blog pointed out in 2007;
[According to] Xinhua, China’s national news agency […] birth certificates and ID cards could be forged to register for a U-18 competition and some players even went as far as to adopt a new name. A senior Chinese Basketball Association official, Zhang Xiong, admitted that age fraud was a problem and that past youth squads had indeed included overage players.
Within the domestic league, making players younger has also been an ongoing problem. Back in the 1990’s, Wang Zhizhi, the first “can’t miss” mainland prospect, was directly told by his Chinese team to lie about his age (and as a result, had his date of birth altered by two years). Meanwhile, Yi Jianlian has always refused to discuss reports that he was born in 1984 rather than 1987, even after images of an incriminating student ID (right) began circulating the internet. As a result, a stubborn dance has developed, with some sports websites like Sina Sports towing the party line (remarkably, so does both the English-language and Mandarin versions of wikipedia) whilst everyone else openly quotes Yi’s 1984 birthdate.
But whereas Yi got rumbled after he was drafted into the NBA, rumors about Zhou’s age have been floating around Chinese hoop forums for years. Depending on what claims you buy into, Zhou is alleged to have been born as early as 1992 (as opposed to his supposed DOB of 1996). Obviously a lot of this is rumor mongering from a hoops community that is used to athletes lying about their age. It should also be noted that Zhou enjoyed a somewhat controversial exit from Liaoning before he signed with Xinjiang. It goes without saying that there are some who want to see him fail after an acrimonious exit from the team that developed him.
However, it doesn’t help Zhou that a couple of odd details keep coming up. Some reports have suggested Zhou was accepted into a formal basketball school in 2005. This would have meant Zhou was nine years old but most boys could not have entered those kind of schools until they were thirteen or older. Other media outlets have since qualified that story and added he got a personal coach as he was too young to enter a basketball school but it remains unclear which version is correct. Another issue relates to Zhou measuring 7″1 as a fifteen year old in the 2011 schoolboy tournament. To put Zhou’s remarkable height into context, he was taller than both Wang Zhizhi (6″11) and Yao Ming (7″0) at the same age but has barely grown since then. By contrast, Wang grew another two inches whilst Yao added a further six.
It is important to stress that no-one at Shark Fin Hoops is alleging Zhou is fiddling his age. Unlike both Wang Zhizhi and Yi Jianlian, no-one has been able to produce birth certificates or ID that lists an alternative DOB to Zhou’s current age. At this point, there is nothing that contradicts the current birthdate attached to the big man.
But at the same time, considering that this story has been floating around for the entirety of his brief career and that some NBA scouts are suggesting Zhou might be as many as four years older than he claims to be, it would be remiss not to address the issue. At the CBA level, Zhou is a first-tier talent and his sophomore season’s stat line of 15.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks suggests he can be an impactful player in China for years. But in the NBA, he represents a raw project— and the difference between being 20 and 24 will be a huge factor as to whether an NBA GM decides to pull the trigger on draft night. Because of this, Zhou’s age will remain a factor in the build-up to the draft and the longer it goes unresolved, the bigger the elephant in the room becomes.