Along with the emergence of Zhou Qi, a familiar habit has occurred within Chinese basketball; namely the complete shifting of media focus from one NBA hopeful to another. Four years ago, Fujian’s Wang Zhelin was the dashing young star destined to go to America but after a disappointing season in 2016 and still no play-off appearance on his four year old resume, the beefy power forward feels like yesterday’s news. That said, NBA teams should not discount the draft eligible big man and Marco Catanzaro is here to explain why.
Unquestionably, Zhou Qi is the talk of the day for Chinese basketball fans. He’s already confirmed his presence in this year’s NBA Draft, accepted an invitation to the Draft Combine — a nod all likely draftees commonly receive — and turned in measurements that would tie him for first in height w/o shoes, second in height with shoes and second in wingspan length among all-time invitees. All this, one should add, while posting a 31.5 no-step vertical leap (on par with 2012 Andre Drummond).
While still painfully skinny, Zhou Qi’s physical attributes are overwhelming. This, combined with his better-than-average experience for a 20-year-old and the two-way promise he’s shown as a player, make it hard to picture him going any lower than early 2nd round. There have been doubts regarding his true age, but that happens to every single Chinese prospect, including former lottery pick Yi Jianlian.
So let’s be clear on this; Zhou Qi is undoubtedly the next NBA player from China. Another issues, however, is if he will be the only mainlander coming over this summer?
Some will remember that a couple of years ago the big talk in China was another big man, the now-22-year-old Fujian big man Wang Zhelin. Playing in a team barely fit for CBA playoff contention, Wang has averaged well above 20-10 for his first three seasons (this year he’s battled injury problems and has played only sparsely). Delonte West, a former teammate, called Wang “a young Hakeem Olajuwon”, probably with just a bit of excessive emphasis. But some in China think he is no longer NBA ready, and that seems strange.
So let’s take away the local hype. Take away the stats. Take away the fans, the contracts, the National Team. After all that, what’s left to focus on? Allow me to demonstrate.
Wang Zhelin and the Chinese Misunderstanding
An obvious problem in the eyes of many CBA fans is the relationship between a Chinese player and the expectations he faces. Some, by using the word “unrealistic”, will think of unfairly high standards these players struggle to meet. It’s not necessarily true.
Instead, the issue Chinese basketball needs to address when evaluating prospects should be based on how NBA scouts will look at them. It doesn’t need to be about dominance within the CBA but rather about being able to foresee them in a different role.
Wang, given his talents, is a go-to-player by CBA standards. You can question how this role translates in terms of exploiting his talents on the floor (not all big men need to play the post as a No. 1 option), but you can’t argue with the attention he commands. In the NBA– if he actually makes it– Wang will have to find his niche in a completely different landscape and where he’ll be expected to constitute a different kind of commodity. Call it ‘role player’, if you like. Will he adjust? Do Chinese fans understand what his role will be, at least for his first couple of years, in the NBA?
In the CBA, Wang has been used as a post-up threat, at least so far. Rarely have we seen his coaches exploit him as a rim roller, a finisher around the rim or as a simple face-up player. In his one exhibition outside of these boundaries (as a fresh faced 18-year-old center for the World Team in 2012’s edition of the Nike Hoop Summit), Wang has had an excellent 19-point game without ever relying on post-up possessions.
(A quick aside; it’s crazy that we need a 4-year-old exhibition game to evaluate his role outside of China, but that’s part of the problem).
While he’s been a good post player because of his skill level and his ability to use pump fakes and step-throughs, those same commodities would be much more efficient against players who are already out of position – again, something you’d find with pick and rolls, dribble penetrations and so on while having him as a recipient rather than an initiator. This is something that, on a good team, he can easily get. His defense, on the flip side, could stand a bit of improvement, but at twenty-two, he has room for that and then some. His shooting is also slightly subpar, but he’s nowhere near a non-shooter, either.
Why should NBA teams bank on him, then?
First of all, he’s much more experienced than any college kid. He’s played with and against NBA personnel in a professional, no-excuses setting. He’s encountered a decent degree of physicality and adjusted accordingly. But above all else, the biggest issue he’s facing in his own country is the misconception about what type of player he should be at the next level (a type of misunderstanding that also probably cost Yi Jianlian a fair NBA shot). Give him some experience at the highest level playing the role he should have been looking forward to all along and, well, who knows what his ceiling really is?
Make no mistake, whatever the headlines are in China, at twenty-two years of age, Wang is not a lost cause. But the time is now, and any further indecisiveness may cost NBA teams a chance at a very good player coming in at a very low price. And for the player himself, the price to pay may be even higher: Wang’s career outside of the boundaries he’s constrained by in China.