Can China's "Big Devil" Become the Next Yao Ming?

Zhou Qi has the size and skill to play in the NBA, and a pro track record to back it up. But he'll need to survive China's backwards basketball environment first.

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Apr 30 2015, 12:04pm

Image via YouTube

Some nicknames lose more in translation than others. Zhou Qi, who was one of the best players in the Chinese Basketball Association as a 19-year-old rookie, is lucky—his nickname is The Big Devil, or da mowang, which is pretty badass in any language. He's also lucky to be 7'2", fleet of foot, and blessed with hand speed. The only bit of misfortune, here, is that Zhou is still at least three years away from the NBA.

This has less to do with the NBA readiness of his game than it does with the fact that this is how things get done in China. Even for the player that led the Chinese Basketball Association in blocks at 19—the first time a Chinese player had achieved the feat since Yao Ming did it 13 years ago—rules are rules.

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The deafening hype that now surrounds Zhou in his homeland first began to gather in 2011, after he posted a 41 point, 28 rebound, 13 block triple-double during an international tournament in Turkey as a member of China's U-16 team. A year or so later, Zhou guided his provincial team to a national youth title, leading all players in points, rebounds, and blocks along the way. In 2014, the Xinjiang Tigers signed Zhou to his first multi-year contract—a deal that would make Zhou the third best-paid local player in the CBA before he had even played a professional game.

In China, high-level prospects don't come out of nowhere; they take very clear steps from the youth level, putting up big numbers at local and international schoolboy tournaments before making a similar kind of impact at the CBA level. Zhou has passed all those tests with flying colors and very recently undertook another of the traditional milestones for a Chinese player looking to be drafted in the NBA by taking part in the Nike Hoops Summit.

The big man would have a mixed weekend, as Corbin Smith noted in this space. Zhou looked extremely green and generally floundered offensively, but impressed on defense. "I don't think he really showed enough in Portland to say definitively that he's an NBA player," CBS Sports' NBA Draft expert Sam Vecenie explained via email, "but I think he'll still be a first round pick eventually. Nobody wants to miss out on taking the next Rudy Gobert and anyone who measures at 7'2" with a 7-6 wingspan is going to be picked, period."

While Vecenie remains cautiously optimistic on Zhou, China's basketball media pushed all its chips into the middle of the table a long time ago. Many of these same journalists can remember back to the 2004 Hoop Summit when a teenage Josh Smith hung 28 points on Yi Jianlian, only for the latter to be picked seventh in the NBA draft three years later. There is a feeling of destiny surrounding Zhou and when Draft Express recently made the big man the tenth pick in its 2016 Mock Draft, both of China's biggest sports sites ran it as their lead story. Here, as most everywhere else, Yi's NBA tenure is forgotten.

Whatever its fate, Zhou's inevitable shot at the NBA won't happen for a while. The working rule in Chin is that a player can enter the NBA draft once he turns 22, which means Zhou still has to complete one final part of his basketball apprenticeship. Should he come through it, Zhou is going to be even richer than he is now; if he fails, the CBA will have yet another wasted big man to its credit. It's a credit to Zhou, and a fact of how Chinese basketball works, that both are about equally easy to imagine.

Professional basketball in China is decades behind that in America, and even most of Europe. Zhou will have to develop within a professional setting in which teams don't care if their players smoke cigarettes off the court and for whom diet and nutrition remain an afterthought. Several promising Chinese players have lost their way within this working environment; the most famous being 7'1", 310 lb center Han Dejun, whom Western audiences might recognize from his monster dunk on Stephon Marbury in this season's CBA playoffs. Regarded as a legitimate NBA prospect when he debuted in 2007, Han was allowed to get so out of shape in such a short period of time that his nickname around the league changed from Baby Shaq to, among others, The Flying Pig.

Zhou will also have to avoid the temptation to coast when playing alongside his team's foreign players. In China, few front offices build rosters with any real strategy and instead look to make the playoffs every year by signing the best American free agents on offer. The inevitable problem with this approach is that those same imports, who are brought in to score and make up for the weaknesses of the locals, often end up weakening the team in the long run. This creates a J.R. Smith- or Metta World Peace-sized safety blanket for young Chinese players, who no longer have to develop weaker aspects of their game, and can instead focus on chasing long offensive rebounds and high-fiving.

In 2012, Wang Zhelin was in the same spot that Zhou is in now; a young, huge, highly regarded center who was surrounded by NBA talk. Three years later, Wang's NBA prospects look to be in real trouble because he has failed to build on his hard-working but predictable back-to-the-basket style of play. A large reason for this is because Wang's team, the Fujian Sturgeons, decided against working on their big man's mid-range game. Instead, they surrounded him for years with American stretch-fours who helped create the room needed for Wang to go one-on-one in the low post. In the seasons that followed, Wang has showed little progress, and is no longer seen as an NBA prospect.

But perhaps the biggest hurdle for Zhou will be how he copes with being China's consensus Next Big Thing. Zhou's countrymen passionately consume the NBA, and in the void that followed Yao Ming's retirement, there remains a nationwide obsession with seeing a Chinese player back at the highest level of basketball. For the next couple of years, Zhou is going to have to live with every good performance being proof that he belongs in the NBA, and every off night becoming a cause for widespread concern. The pressure to be as good as a billion people want him to be will weigh on Zhou, as of course it would.

The question now is not about Zhou Qi being good enough to make it to the NBA; he's awfully good, and will get better. The question is, instead, whether Zhou can survive the rest of his CBA apprenticeship. If he does, the skinny kid from Henan province will have earned every cent of his signing bonus.