Equally impossible for spell check and opposing defenders to figure out, Ding Yanyuhang is arguably the most exciting story going on right now in the Chinese Basketball Association. The twenty-three year old forward is averaging 22.3ppg and coming off a four game stretch averaging almost 31 points a night. In an era of American dominance, these might not seem like gaudy numbers but within China– where local scorers are an endangered species– this is something to celebrate.
Ding has been playing for Shandong for six seasons after turning pro as a teenager back in 2011. For most of that time, he cut his teeth in the shadows of more illustrious foreign talent, most notably Pooh Jeter, who played for the team since the 2012 season. He did, though, play a solid supporting role in helping an underdog Bulls roster get to the 2013 CBA Finals before Shandong were swept by the Guangdong Tigers.
But this season, the perpetually unfashionable Shandong went through a considerable overhaul. Jeter, who was beloved by the team’s fanbase and took the team on two play-off runs and a CBA Finals berth, opted against/ was not brought back for a fifth season (the exact reasons for this remain unclear). Instead the Bulls opted to sign Norris Cole to a monster contract reportedly worth $5 million, a decision that attracted bemusement among CBA supporters. The team’s established and reasonably successful head coach, Gong Xiaobin– who also happened to be the team’s greatest ever player (imagine Reggie Miller retiring and then coaching the Pacers to an NBA Finals)– was another major figure not to return.
All this upheaval naturally made for a rocky start to the season and as the Bulls arrive at the halfway point of the season, the team finds itself 8-6 and clinging on to the eighth and final play-off spot. Dire on the road, only an impressive 7-1 record at home has kept Shandong in the postseason hunt. Meanwhile, Norris has had issues with injuries whilst Jeter, who remains an active CBA player, is now averaging 27.3ppg for the Tianjin Lions.
But amid this up-and-down start, Ding has shone like a beacon. With Shandong needing someone to support former NBA big man, Jason Thompson, Ding has been posting the best numbers of his career. His efficiency has taken a slight dent now that his usage has increased but even then it has been minimal. Ding is taking twice as many shots as he had previously but is still shooting 33% from downtown and is 50% or more from the field on most nights. Ding is also getting to the line (something he has not shown a great interest in previously) and is consistently making the most of those trips to the charity strip.
That Ding can do this shouldn’t be surprising. For years, he was the backcourt understudy of Jeter and made a living playing off the American. Whether it was shooting the open three, cutting inside and driving to the rim, or smartly identifying space to drift into for an easy look, Ding has been patiently honing his skillset until the moment when he becomes a premier option for his team. That moment has clearly arrived.
Ding’s success is helped by Cole’s absence but another factor is that he has been underrated by Chinese basketball because he is not an NBA-calibre prospect and thus not worth the hype of big time guys like Zhou Qi, Wang Zhelin and Guo Ailun. This may have been to Ding’s credit and after years of being in the shadows, teams are scrambling to figure out how to stop the spindly forward from Xinjiang province.
But plan they must, and now that Ding is having his moment in the sun, China is watching. In Shandong’s most recent game against the Liaoning Leopards, who’ve been to the last two CBA Finals, Ding had 29/12/5 and willed the outgunned home team to a 95-93 win. With his jump shot going limp against a tough Liaoning defense, Ding instead put his body on the line and got to the strip as often as possible, and went 16-of-17 as a result. Against Jilin in the previous game, Ding had 37 points, this time by driving to the rim at will and punishing the Tigers with a solid midrange game. It showed the league that Shandong youth product can cook you a number of different ways if you let him.
In the long-term, Ding is not taking Shandong to another Finals. The roster is too weak and even when Cole gets back, this is not a roster able to frighten anyone. But what locals are getting excited about is that the forward could well become the heir to Gong Xiabin, the iconic Shandong player had mentored Ding as a teenager. Like his protege, Gong (right) was a lanky, fresh faced forward who spent two decades ghosting through defenses with a mixture of deft movement and cool shooting. The national team will also be hoping that, after years of young local players playing second fiddle to imports, a confident Chinese scorer is emerging to help them on the international stage.
Finally, the sight of an unheralded local player torching defenses is a special moment in a league where local players have long since faded from prominence. It is also possible that those with long memories will remember that last time a player from Shandong exploding into life and captured the imagination of the entire league. Indeed, back in 1997, Gong was Shandong’s only ever CBA MVP after he guided the team to the play-offs whilst posting similar numbers to what Ding is now putting up. In an era where the Americans call the shots, the CBA doesn’t have many Hollywood stories but its possible (and hopeful) that Ding can rewrite the script for one season at least.