Get To Know Zhou Qi And Wang Zhelin, Draft Night's Chinese Mystery (Big) Men
Before Zhou Qi and Wang Zhelin went in the second round of the NBA Draft, it'd been a decade since a Chinese player was drafted. Here's who's breaking that drought.
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For a delightful couple of hours last Thursday, Chinese journalists were doing sweet fuck all besides casually watching draft updates on their computers and making plans for the weekend. The Xinjiang Tigers' Zhou Qi, a familiar figure to Chinese basketball and readers of this organ alike, was a shoo-in to get picked in the NBA Draft and even after he started falling down the draft, everyone's copy was still straightforward enough that it could've been written a week earlier. "Zhou becomes first Chinese player to get drafted in a decade," or something like it. Boom, everyone gets to hit the bar by noon.
Except, soon after Zhou was selected by the Houston Rockets, another familiar name was announced. Wang Zhelin, a one-time idol of Chinese basketball, was unexpectedly given a direct line to the NBA from Memphis. Amid a nationwide scramble to work their sources, Middle Kingdom basketball writers suddenly had a dramatic story on their hands. "Double Happiness!" thundered the headline on Sina Sports, one of China's biggest media sites, while the English language Shanghaiist website breathed a sigh of relief and noted that the "ten year drought" is now over.
The sixty minutes that straddled the drafting of Wang and Zhou represents the most important hour in Chinese basketball since Yao Ming's heyday. For over a decade, the mainland dreamed of other countrymen emulating Yao's achievements; he remains as venerated in China today as he was during his NBA playing days. It's hard to imagine any big man topping what Yao accomplished, but after years of hoping, China suddenly had not one, but two giant athletes with tickets to the top table.
That Zhou got his name called should not be a surprise, even to stateside draft-watchers. The lanky rim protector has excelled in his two years as a pro, becoming the first local player to lead the Chinese league in blocks since, yes, Yao; he is also now a critical part of the national team. Rumors that Zhou might be a couple years older than his listed age were also swatted into the fifth row. When Houston selected him with the 43rd pick, it seemed almost inevitable.
The Rockets, who carefully cultivated their reputation as "China's team" during and after Yao's reign, knew what they were doing. Drafting Zhou reinforces their relevance within a huge consumer market, and they gain a raw talent who is already enough of a defensive standout to seal off the rim to all but the best players.
Wang Zhelin, however, presents a far more complicated case. Four years ago, the Fujian Sturgeons center was pure box-office, and was almost selected for China's 2012 Olympic roster before he'd so much as played a professional game. Rookie year numbers of 20.3 points and 12.9 rebounds underlined that the boy-giant was for real.
But then Fujian, one of the weaker teams in China, used their young star as a cash cow. They milked him not wisely but too well, playing him heavy minutes but paying little attention to his development. With time, his promise dimmed, as Wang failed to build upon his promising low post game, while his team failed to build around him. He spent most of last season recovering from a knee injury; the notion of Wang Zhelin: NBA Player seemed laughable.
Although Wang had hired an agent in the build-up to the draft, few could have imagined the 22-year-old was getting picked until the morning of the draft, when an ESPN article mentioned his name at the tail-end of their draft predictions. "Rekindled hope [for Wang]?" was the headline on a hastily published article on one Chinese website. It was obviously nice for Wang to get mentioned at all—it had honestly been awhile—but it was easy to dismiss as idle speculation until Memphis dropped their bombshell.
The name of the game for Wang, now, is adjustment—Memphis is a long way from the mountainous Fujian province, and developing in the NBA is a lot harder than not-developing in the CBA. But if Wang ever finds his footing, Grizzlies fans should find a stranger and high-five them this instant, as Wang is a big, nasty bastard—the good kind—who'll enjoy learning from Prof. Zach Randolph and the other lecturers at Grit and Grind University. Although considerably less mobile than Zhou, Wang is strong as an ox, and his old-school game makes him a natural addition in Memphis. Low risk late-draft gambles don't come with much higher ceilings than Wang's.
At this point China would dearly love to see both Wang and Zhou go stateside as soon as they can. The fickle news cycle and miniscule attention-span of Chinese basketball meant many had forgotten about Wang until his surprise selection by Memphis. To see him on the world's biggest stage would be a remarkable comeback for a player who had been dismissed as wasted talent before he turned 23.
As for Zhou, playing in a Houston jersey completes his coronation as Yao's successor. Indeed, the two men share many similarities. Both are the only children of former players, and both owe their development to the same coach. Liu Qiuping, the veteran Xinjiang head coach who helped mold Zhou's game, is the same coach who, twenty years earlier, gambled his fledgling sideline career by bringing up a 17-year-old Yao up from the Shanghai Sharks youth team. If only to complete the cycle, Yao has now suggested he hopes Zhou will wear his old no.11 jersey with Houston. No pressure, kid.
Regardless of which of these two players makes it first—the one who's the future of Chinese basketball, or the one who was the future before him—it does appear that The Curse Of Yi Jianlian is over, and Chinese players are about to return in the NBA. In America, they're two gangly second-round lottery tickets among many; in China, the headlines belong firmly to Wang and Zhou. Whether both continue to share the spotlight remains to be seen, but no second round pick will be watched more closely, by more people, than these two.