Not since 2007 have Chinese players heard their names called in the NBA draft. History tends to forget that two mainlanders were drafted that year (Yi Jianlian to the Bucks and Sun Yue was also selected by the Lakers in the middle of the second round). Either way, by 2011, both players were out of the NBA and since then, there has been an awkward absence of Chinese players in the world’s biggest league. That was, until last Thursday, when Wang Zhelin and Zhou Qi both were selected.
Seventy-two hours after those draft selections, the dust is still settling and it is still unclear what will happen next. Both NBA teams would presumably like to work with their freshly drafted players but it is going to take some time. Whether it even happens this season is itself a source of confusion and the next couple of weeks will decide who comes over and when.
In the case of Zhou, easily the more high-profile of the two players, extracting him from China could take some work. Although he has a clear buy-out in place, Zhou seems likely to stay for one more year with Xinjiang. The Tigers will once again be pushing for a CBA title in 2017 and need their young rim-protector to anchor the front court along with Andre Blatche. Interestingly, at least one Chinese report has suggested a deal was in place allowing Zhou to go now if he went in the first round– although this has not been mentioned in the English-language media and could well be idle speculation. Frankly, another year in China would also be useful for Zhou and allow him to work on his game away from the NBA spotlight.
Given that Zhou is still a project at this point, Houston will be happy to play along too. This is not going to be a Yao Ming scenario wherein Zhou can start right away. Back in 2002, the freshly drafted Yao (right) was two years older, and arrived in America having just led his CBA team to a title as well as averaging averaged 32.4 points, 19.0 rebounds and 4.8 blocks. By contrast, Zhou is two years younger and still raw in some areas, meaning Houston would be smart to avoid the intense scrutiny that comes with having a Chinese player until they are sure he can get onto the floor.
Also on the NBA docket is Wang, whose drafting caught many in China by surprise. The Fujian player has lost his shine in recent years after an insane rookie season back in 2012 and spent most of this year injured. But equally, his back-to-the-basket game will find a welcome home within a Memphis roster that has embraced an old-school, grid and grind style.
Although his free agency status is unclear, Wang has also been given the greenest light possible by Fujian to pursue an NBA career. The Sturgeons weibo page doubled down on this and recently published a Weibo post calling Wang ‘not only the pride of Chinese basketball, but also the pride of Fujian basketball’ before adding ‘Fujian SBS basketball club will fully support [Wang] to win glory for [China]’.
However, what might hold him back will be his playing opportunities. As many have noted, Memphis already has a crowded front court. Wang, who is still not 100%, has also not played meaningful basketball for a while and jumping to the NBA could be a leap too far.
Another aspect to consider is that if Wang stays in China, he can make more money and be a big fish in the CBA. By now, all of the golden generation of early-to-mid 2000’s Chinese basketball like Yao, Yi Jianlian, Wang Zhizhi, Mengke Bateer, Liu Wei and Zhu Fangyu have retired or will do in the next couple of years. A lucrative void will soon be opening up that the young, photogenic and still talented Wang can step into. Indeed, whereas Zhou is a defensive orientated player, Wang Zhelin had three consecutive 20+10 seasons before getting injured and could become one of the new faces of the CBA if he chooses against riding the bench and making the NBA minimum. It is a tough call but money talks and this may explain why a historically irrelevant Fujian team is being so cavalier with the biggest meal ticket they’ve ever had.
Either way, choices await for everyone involved in Thursdays draft. My own prediction would be that both men get to the NBA at some point if only because of personal ambition and national expectation. But again, this is Chinese basketball and nothing is ever truly logical or clear cut.