Making his debut for Shark Fin Hoops, Rolling Wave (aka Richard Chen) breaks down the potential of Zhou Qi in an NBA environment. The young shot blocker made national headlines in China after getting drafted by “Yao’s team”– now it’s time to see what the Rockets have on their hands.
After much speculation, Zhou Qi fell all the way to pick #43 as ole China friend the Houston Rockets picked him up with the later of their 2 2nd rounders.
To be frank, I felt he fell too far, though this was a chaotic draft to say the least with guys going in the lotto out of nowhere, green room invitee falling to the second round, the guy projected to go top 3 going into the year barely staying in the first round without any injury issue etc.
While ultimately it doesn’t really matter for NBA players where they’re drafted if they work out (or doesn’t.) statistically one has to acknowledge that the odds of a second rounder carving out a NBA career isn’t great. on average maybe 3-5 guys in a year manage to stick in the NBA longer term . far more of them never got on the floor at all, and most only get a brief cup of coffee.
However, examples of excellent players that came out of the second round is also abound, and they are the types that most GMs would have sleepless nights over knowing they passed on them often more than once. We just had a NBA finals where Draymond Green, a second rounder in the 2012 draft, was arguably the 2nd best player in a series that had one of the greatest NBA player of all time and someone that just won back to back (including the first ever unanimous ) MVP.
So this article would be to look into what Zhou need to work on to make it in the NBA. and his potential fit with the Houston Rockets. Due to the nature of this article, we will focus more heavily on his negatives.
The Houston Rockets have a pretty steady track record of how they develop players , so we can reasonably guess that unless Zhou completely killed it in training camp (which only Chandler Parsons have managed to do in the last 5 years or so as a rocket draftee. ) he will play his first year mostly on the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets associated D-league team. ( however, when is that first year is up in the air, he is widely reported to have a buy out after next season , but I keep hearing the interviews in China that gives off the impression that he’s going immediately.so we’ll see, I personally think it would improve his chances of working out if he goes right away, as does pretty much everyone else in China. )
So what is it exactly that Zhou needs to work on?
- physicality : this is probably what most people immediately see with Zhou when they doubt his NBA prospects, he played most of the last 2 year in China at around 208-210 lbs and weigh in at 218 recently at the NBA draft combine, that’s about the average weight of a wing player in the NBA. who are half a feet shorter than him
- defensive positioning and general fundamentals : this may surprise folks a bit. I will expand on it.
- rebounding : again, this may surprise people if you just look at his numbers, but Zhou could potentially have some rebounding issue in the NBA, especially on the defensive end.
To be more in depth
Physicality : this is basically true for everyone, a lot of prospect simply just couldn’t raise their game to the next level when they make this jump and need to face entire team of elite athletes (or at least guys who can hang with elite athletes) , there’s all sort of different cases for this, some guys who look like they’re NBA athletes (even freak level once) fail and some guys who wouldn’t look too out of place in a rec league game still manage to make it, there’s no real way to tell until they give it a try to be honest. because part of it is also a mental / mind game issue.
But suffice to say, Zhou’s rather unique physical profile make this question a bit more serious than most. since the mental aspect of this we have no real way of judging, we can only go by the physical aspects.
Although thin bigs aren’t exactly that uncommon in the past drafts, such as Jokim Noah / Larry Sanders / John Henson / Donatas Motiejunas / Kristap Porzingis . Zhou may be pushing this to another level and with the more comparable case being a guy from 2 decades back, Shawn Bradley.
We should note of course, that all the guys listed above played reasonably well in the NBA to various degree, but obviously you have cases like Alexis Ajinca who also had a similar profile when drafted. Ajinca failed as a prospect but since he returned from France again he has been an obvious real NBA player.
So while this is probably the most important baseline issue for Zhou, there’s also no real way to know for sure until he gives it a try. Zhou does have plenty of skill adjustments to deal with heavier guys in the CBA, he seem to often pull musical chair moves against guys who try to just ram into him. He is also well aware of the weight issue and is actively trying to bulk up. We should also note that there are plenty of guys who were dominant physical players in the NCAA playing in China, and while the overall quality of local players are still not great, big heavy centers have been the one thing Chinese basketball never had a shortage of.
(aka he needs to fix this, although his team also need to do better than leaving him on an island like that.)
(this is what most non Haddadi foreign bigs tries to do against Zhou in the CBA, they try to ram into him on the drive, but like this play it fails badly quite often. as Zhou manage to just keep his arm up and they can’t bump him off enough to overcome that length and in turn they try to over do it leading to fouls / turnovers. The guy in picture is Mike Harris . )
Zhou doesn’t appear to be a high motor player despite sometimes being able to really turn on the jets, and he is often very very passive on offense and just not doing great on effort plays, HOWEVER I need to couch this by pointing out that he plays an insane number of minutes , he lead his team in minutes this year playing a good portion of it as a 19 year old big who’s super skinny, that just shouldn’t happen , by my count at least a quarter of his games this year (and he played in nearly every game not even counting FIBA.) he played over 40 minutes(!) that is worrisome and a big reason why I say he should get over right away. and it should also give people a bit more comfort when they doubt his motor, as playing him in smaller minutes should go a long way in helping his effort level.
Positioning / Footwork fundamentals : This may surprise people who sees Zhou as a defensive savant just watching his amazing shot blocking highlights. but watching full games his positioning can be suspect at times. relying too much on his shot blocking ability to make up for mistakes. The Xinjiang team’s defense is actually not great despite playing Zhou huge minutes, but that obviously have a lot of other factors going on as well.
The Xinjiang team is interesting in that it plays a different defensive scheme than most CBA teams, whom generally stick to basic man to man defense and react from there as plan A while occasionally go into zone defense a bit. The Flying Tigers however is the exact opposite with their main lineup, as they play a quasi zone which keep Zhou near the paint as much as possible as plan A, while occasionally breaking it up back into man defense.
(the classic Flying Tiger zone set up , here Haddadi sees Zhou in position for a double. pass out and somehow Zhou managed to block the 3 point attempt.)
Zhou also is one of the very very few bigs in the CBA would who attempt to show on high pick and roll. success rate is a mixed bag but it’s probably better than him just strait up zoning or push all the time on such plays, my general feeling is that the Xinjiang team is playing one of the more innovating schemes in the CBA that somehow swings hard between extremely conservative and extremely aggressive without a lot of middle ground, to be honest it’s probably too hard to pull off with their main group of guys but in terms of NBA scouting it helps to know that he’s already played in more complex schemes.
(not a great show, but at least he bumped the handler off a little.)
( great play if he didn’t foul Will Bynum in the very end.)
Most of their team isn’t exactly the greatest defenders. Liu Wei‘s very old , Li Gen is a lovable chubby power 2/3 that create match up problems on both sides. Andray Blatche probably had a few too many of those Kebab in Xinjiang. (and carry a huge load on offense.) and Andrew Goudelock isn’t exactly known for his defense. they have a couple of wings that are better defenders (like Xiralijan Muhtar and Korambek Makhan a fun feature on Xinjiang that they have several of those central Asian minority players.) but they don’t always play consistent minutes.
But aside from team scheme which I think he should be fine after some adjustments, the more worrisome aspect of his own fundamentals is on close outs, although Zhou is very quick and often switch out and iso against guards even, his foot work on close outs especially against people out of the triple threat is between highly suspect to god awful. When he gets set he usually does fine to even great but a lot of players in the CBA go right by him when he tries to close out on the catch against them.
(Here D-league legend Justin Dentmon tries to turn on the jets but Zhou displayed some really good lateral quickness and shadowed him to the rim.)
(annnnnd in the same game he had this hilariously awful close out attempt as well. at least he didn’t totally give up on the play.)
(another example of this, he got set too slow and team China captain Zhou Peng got around him )
In an ideal world Zhou would be a guy you can switch around a lot and pose a huge threat even against good shooters on the perimeter, indeed a lot of his blocks came against jumpers, often even out to the 3 point line. But if you watch his games more he gives up way too many easy drives on closeout for that blocking to be worthwhile. while he manage to stay down against drives reasonably well from the paint (though occasionally seem to out think himself and didn’t go up because he was playing to pass.) . I seen him stay with fast guys enough times to think that this should be more of a correctable footwork / approach issue than simply lacking the lateral quickness. but boy he better correct those quickly or he’s going to look foolish on the NBA court at times.
Rebounding : Rebounding is related to both physicality and defensive fundamentals obviously , and like the close out issue it can look very serious at time. though again being couched in that rebounding is at least 50% effort and asking a young skinny dude playing 40 minutes to have good effort level consistently is not a fair thing.
Zhou’s length and general good mobility gives him a lot of advantage on the boards, this is especially obvious on the offensive end where he is able to get his hand on a lot of ball. he does have this habit of trying to poke the ball to his teammates instead of bringing it down as his first instinct, which while useful at times for starting fast breaks you probably rather see him just grab it with authority instead of risking tipping the ball to opposing team.
I’m not sure if the ball tipping part can be fixed / changed that much since that seem to be tied in with his rebounding instincts. but at least he needs to do a better job on the defensive board in general. while he isn’t this bad every game, there were more than a few games where Xinjiang got smoked by second chance points. boxing out doesn’t come instinctively for him right now, he’ll do it sometimes but often let smaller players just slip under him and snatch the board right under his nose. And experienced bigs can often box him out badly.
Zhou also has some trouble holding on to the ball in traffic, while this is a forgivable offense when your trying to drive through a bunch of people, it becomes a lot more problematic when it means that a significant number of rebounds you bring down doesn’t end up with your team holding possession.
(here Zhou Qi killer Hamed Haddadi torments him again with 2 easy offensive rebounds. yeah it’s not entirely his fault but if you can’t box super old and too slow for NBA Hamed out on the move your going to get into trouble in the NBA. )
(here Zhou does a great job soaring way over everyone to grab the board, but couldn’t hold on to the ball.)
Most of these things should be correctable problems with improved strength and fundamentals, with his limb I think he will always have some trouble holding on to the ball relatively speaking, but even just improving a little bit would be tremendous, he has well above average hands for a big in general, this issue seem to mostly stem from the physicality aspect.)
We should note that despite all these weakness Zhou was extremely productive in the CBA, the teams in these GIFs are two of the best teams last year with 3 players on both team that had seen time in the NBA. .
Watching Zhou in the CBA the general takeaway is that he’s remarkably inconsistent for someone putting up star level stats. you can read this in good or bad ways, but I keep coming back to looking at his minutes and cringing at how long he stays out there, while not Yao Ming level bad (the national team especially does a reasonable job of keeping his minutes down.) few other prospects takes this level of playing time . And when you consider that most of his problems are at least partially tied to effort level , this give you some hope that a more sensible playing patter in the US would go a long way in fixing them even without other skill improvements.
Zhou’s fit with the Rockets?
Well this is a hard question since we don’t really know how long Zhou would take to get on the team, and with the Rocket FO’s reputation of being pretty trigger happy , it’s hard to know what team would be there when Zhou’s really on the team, but let’s overlook that part and lets assume that Morey doesn’t dramatically change the team’s concept in the next year or two, it would still be a James Harden centric team with most of the other guys being 3 & D players , along with Clint Capela and Mike D’Antoni as the coach.
We know what MDA is as a coach on offense, he was a pioneer in fast paced run and gun , 7 seconds or less and is a tremendous X and O coach in half court as well, he like guys who are versatile and quick. Assuming that James Harden could sort of take over the Steve Nash role, Zhou should fit in pretty well . He is a player with a pretty wide skill set , and can run the floor like a deer. even handling a little bit.
Zhou is also a pretty good shooter, his shot is a bit slow and mechanical and a little unorthodox (he let his left hand go a bit early than normal.) but he’s really consistent on his shot , doesn’t rush it and have above average touch. He’s very likely to be able to hit 3s pretty well almost right away .
Clint Capela is a very good rim runner, he needs another big around him who’s actually consistent in shooting, which unfortunately none of the Rockets’ revolving door of PFs have been, Donatas Motiejunas is suppose to be the closest thing, but he is more of a theoretical shooter than a practical one who’s best skill is still his post up moves. Zhou seems like a better chance to be a reliable shooter, and certainly has a huge wingspan advantage on D-Mo. If Zhou works out and the Rockets run with a Zhou / Capela / Dmo 3 big lineup that’s actually very logical in what MDA wants to do as all 3 can really run. then they keep a 4th big who can deal with really big post up guys just in case.
The Rocket’s perimeter players is basically Harden and everyone else, Morey has built a group of 3&D type of guys around Harden to run the show, they probably do need another PG who can run the offense when Harden isn’t so Harden don’t have to play 40 minutes on the offense and 0 minutes of defense. But that’s talk for another day. Harden ‘s a rather divisive star but there’s no question that he’s a brilliant offensive focus who’s the closest thing to Steve Nash that MDA has had.
Harden dribbling the life out of the ball and his extreme ref baiting strategy can really turn people off that is true, but it’s also true he creates penetration and finds open guys. the theoretical half court set involving a Capela / Harden pick and roll with 3 guys that can shoot around them would be really helpful , Zhou as a guy who can run and shoot should fit right into this well. I always felt the teams in China underused him as a shooter when he keeps having these games where he knock down everything from 20 feet Lamarcus Aldridge style. having him hang more as a shooter / secondary option is also helpful in keeping his stamina on the other end .
Que for Mike D’Antoni and James Harden jokes here….
Ok seriously, it is quite scary that a coach who has not been known for his defense to put it nicely pairs up with a super star that has super long youtubes highlights for his epic defensive failures . We really don’t have much to evaluate what the Houston’s defense is going to look like going forward. the Rockets defense last year was a flat out disaster with very aggressive rotation and trapping but with a team of mostly inexperienced or not exactly the highest BBIQ guys , all anchored by James Harden who often takes plays off in the most noticeable fashion of all time. (come on, at least other guys fake some effort.) They gave up some of the most hilarious wide open shots in the half court and / or horrendous mismatches (I lost count of the times that somehow 6 feet tall Patrick Beverley is trying to defend post up from 7 footers on an island.)
I seriously doubt they stay with that defensive strategy, so we really don’t know what the defense is going to be. I’m guessing it would become much more vanilla.
Harden needs to give more consistent effort for Houston’s defense to function no matter what, that’s obvious, so we’ll just have to assume he does, at that point then . a theoretical lineup of Zhou / Capela / Ariza / Harden / Beverley could be good defensively. their front line would be very switch friendly and mobile, Harden for all his other flaws is actually a guy who does well when switched onto bigger players, with the biggest potential weakness of this group maybe being facing huge post up guys, but with a MDA style offense they should run most of those sort of player off the floor to begin with. and if teams are trying to go small then this is a pretty ideal lineup and dealing with that . (again, assuming Harden is at least adequate. )
But again, the fit on defense is going to be a totally open question until we actually know what this new regime wants to do, and also we need to really see what Zhou’s defensive translation to the NBA would be like.
I feel Zhou’s floor as a NBA prospect is probably better than most people expect, his skill set is ideal for a versatile role player, so he really just need to be able to handle the physicality and then he probably at worst should still be a functional role player. and EVERYONE need to pass the physicality problem, he doesn’t need to develop a skill that he doesn’t really have right now (maybe better rebounding instincts, but against weaker 2nd units his pure physical ability should at least be functional. ) , his strength are some of the most thought after things in the league. There are multiple roles he functions in, he is useful with or without the ball. it’s really hard to see a scenario where a coach can’t find a use for his skill set as long as he is competitive on the floor at all.
There is the outside possibility he might have a higher ceiling on offense than we expect, given that he can shoot and put it on the floor and have moves, but he doesn’t need to realize those things at all to be a player in this league, even a good player. he just needs to be able to stay on the floor and play defense.
It is true that to pass that first basic test his path is a bit harder than most prospect, but with the way the league is trending and the Rocket’s general approach to developing and utilizing players. I feel it’s certainly more than doable, it’s just up to Zhou to actually do them. He will need to elevate his game and body to stick in the NBA, but guess what, every single NBA player that ever made it had to do the same after they were drafted.