Summer League is over, and so is the seasonal supply of Chinese players wearing NBA jerseys (usually we would say “yearly” but Zhou Qi will be a Houston Rocket this season).
It’s now been three consecutive years of CBA players making waves in the NBA off-season, although those waves are often fueled by the froth of an anxious Chinese media rather than something more genuinely seismic.
But before we start fantasizing on which players are bound for 2018 Summer League action, there’s also an NBA Draft– full of potential foreign surprises– to tackle first. Players born in 1996 but not currently encased within NBA employment will be, as usual, automatically eligible as they turn 22. But from a Chinese perspective, there isn’t an outstanding prospect on the horizon. Zhou, already drafted back in 2016, is the best Chinese prospect under the age of 22. After that, there’s no real comparison.
However, does that mean no Chinese player will hear his name called from the Commissioner next June?
Not necessarily. Enter Zou Yuchen.
Standing at 6’10” with promising length, instincts on the glass and almost no game outside of the paint, Zou is the kind of prospect you would anticipate coming from 1980’s Yugoslavia rather than a Chinese basketball culture that is more open to their big men pulling up from distance. Instead, Zou fits the very trendy mold of the slightly undersized but mobile big man who can plays the modern NBA 5 when previously he would have been automatically slotted in at 4. Tristan Thompson and Bismack Biyombo are two good examples but there are also many others. Zou isn’t quite the kind of muscular or explosive player that the two big men from Canada and the Democratic Republic of Congo are, but Zou is by far the most vertical big man in China after Yi Jianlian, and Zhou.
But this is still not exactly first rate praise and Zou is slightly stuck in a quandary– what with him being a little undersized and a few shades removed from legit athleticism. He is clearly not a prospect that CBA teams are comfortable using like they should. Still, the Bayi Rockets are banned from using foreign players and as the ban effectively takes away any chance of competing for anything serious, it is not impossible to fathom a change in style. The team, coached by former Chinese NT point guard Adiljan, has given much leeway to its youngest players and Bayi could be inclined to experiment. Many CBA teams are already starting to play with one man down low, most notably the Beijing Ducks and the Xinjiang Tigers. Should Bayi inevitably get with the times, this would also put Zou (stably) at the 5 spot, his ideal place on the court.
From an NBA perspective the most intriguing part of Zou’s game is his offensive rebounding and shot-blocking. Never below 2.1 blocks per game in China since turning pro, Zou has impressive quickness off the floor and can contain guards on defensive helps.
Verticality is not an issue for him on offense as he can dunk through contact with relative ease and does not shy away from attacking opposing big men at the rim. A physical player with a better-than-average frame by Chinese standards, Zou will never turn into a 20 ppg player but his offensive rebounding (as high as 4.4 offensive boards per game in some seasons) is a weapon. Moreover, going to the free throw line is no problem for him as he’s regularly over 70% from the charity stripe. There’s even been some improvement shooting-wise; Zou is starting to hit three pointers and signaling a clear intent to expand his game according to the current NBA style. As a 5, however, he will seldom be required to shoot from deep but its not impossible to see him eventually become a 32-35% shooter if he gets an open look. Closer to his low-post comfort zone, he’s skilled enough to exhibit satisfying percentages in the CBA, a league close to NBA-level height and length (but with far less athleticism and physicality, of course). His IQ is undoubtedly high-level, and in settings where he faced local youngsters like himself, he looked like a man among kids without towering over any of his opponents or having an especially chiseled frame.
For a lot of CBA fans (especially abroad) there is no doubt Zou is the second most intriguing prospect after Zhou Qi, and it partly is because he looks like a much easier and clearer fit overseas. Teams will obviously have to look past his average height to envision how helpful he could be for them but the question is, will they? Should they do, Zou is an interesting wildcard with a relatively unique skillset.