With a clearly evident passion for the game of basketball, DongGuan New Century head coach, Brian Goorjian, has ushered in a new and exciting era in Southern China. (Photo: Osports)
Dwelling on what’s wrong with Chinese basketball is a pastime enjoyed by many, both within China’s borders and outside – one that’s accumulated more participants since the National Team’s summer 0-5 debacle at the 2012 London Olympics. It’s a problem with education system… It’s too political… Chinese bodies aren’t suited for a power sport like basketball… If you’ve got some time to burn, ask somebody what’s wrong with basketball in China and listen.
But what’s right with Chinese hoops? That’s a conversation rarely had, at least in the circles that NiuBBall runs with in Beijing. Which is really too bad. Because constantly dwelling on the wrong – something we have been guilty of ourselves — is pretty unfair when there’s so much right going on with Brian Goorjian down in DongGuan, Guangdong province.
Stressing comprehensive, long-term Chinese player development, Goorjian and the DongGuan New Century Leopard youth movement have become arguably the best story in Chinese basketball over the last three years; a story that can be better appreciated when you understand some of its background.
Starting with their inception in 2003 and entrance into the Chinese Basketball Association in 2005, the Leopards were mostly known throughout the 2000s as the middling neighbor that happened to share the same town as Chinese Basketball Association powerhouse, the Guangdong Hongyuan Southern Tigers. By no means a bad team, the Leopards went through an average first five years in the league, finishing with back-to-back fourth place finishes in 2007-08 and 2008-09 sandwiched in between three seasons of no playoffs.
Like most CBA teams, DongGuan’s wins and losses generally correlated in part to the success in the selection of their foreign players; hit your mark, like they did with Mike Harris in 07-08 and 08-09, and its a winning season. Miss, and you’re out of the playoffs.
Apparently fed up of that model, DongGuan ownership made a change in philosophy when they hired Goorjian as a consultant in 2009. Known as the most successful coach in Australian professional basketball history (six NBL championships, over 400 wins and .700+ winning percentage), Goorjian has built himself an unquestioned reputation in winning and developing players, the latter of which appealed greatly to a forward-thinking club that is focused on structuring a team that will rely not on its foreigners, but rather on its Chinese players.
Goorjian, who also served as the Australian Men’s National Team head coach from 2001-08, a time in which he oversaw two trips to the Olympics and one to the FIBA World Championship, has not disappointed in spearheading that change. Coming in first as a consultant in 2009 while he was serving as an assistant on the China National Team bench under then-head coach, Guo Shiqiang, the Pepperdine alumni ended up leading DongGuan’s youth team to a championship at the end of the summer. Impressed with the work he was doing with their young players, management elected to hire him as head coach of the senior team in 2010-11. In his debut year, the Leopards — relying on heavy contributions from a mix of veteran and young Chinese players in addition to solid play from their two foreign players – finished in third place at 25-7 before going down to Guangdong in the CBA semi-finals. Using the same formula this past year, they went 19-13, eventually losing to Xinjiang in the first round of the playoffs.
But heading into his third season at the reigns, Goorjian and his Leopards are looking to make a big leap due largely in part because his vision of building a Chinese-centric roster is coming to fruition. Backed by an owner who is committed to the concept of player development, investing large amounts of money in coaching, youth teams and infrastructure — including a state-of-the-art training facility that is partnered with the NBA, the only one of its kind in the world — the 59 year-old has been able to carry his success from Down Under to southern China, getting wins, improving players and building a club capable of sustaining long-term success. And with an average team age of around 24 years-old, the sky seems to be the limit — so much so that Goorjian has on record as saying the team’s goal is to win a championship in three years.
Which brings us back to that whole post-Olympics, how-to-fix-Chinese-basketball-debate. Sure, there’s no simple solution and opinions differ. But, one thing remains certain — if every team was being run the same as DongGuan, we likely wouldn’t be having that conversation as much, or at all.
Thankfully, Goorjian agreed to have a conversation with NiuBBall.com late last week, one that was so thorough and detailed that we had to split it up into two parts. With palpable excitement, the DongGuan head man talked about his thoughts on the upcoming season while also shedding light on his own philosophy on player development, the latter of which will come in Part 2 on Tuesday.
NiuBBall: Coach, your team has had a very busy off-season in terms of player movement. Let’s start first with your biggest move in the Chinese market, Yu Shulong. There’s been different reports in the media over the last month over his move down south and which team he’ll be playing for. What is the official status of Yu for this year? Has he officially signed with DongGuan?
Brian Goorjian: Being Western and not really being able to know what’s actually happening or having the insight to a lot of that information, I’m just going by action. And the action is that he’s down here. He’s been training with us, he’s committed to us and now he’s playing in games. We’ve moved Feng Qi to another club [Qingdao], so we’ve made movements and he’s moving along the line that he’ll be playing for us next year. I’m working with him like he’s definitely a guy who’s going be part of the team.
When the season finished last year, I just felt that the point guard position was a real weakness. The owner has put together a real youth policy over here. We’ve got good Chinese content in the other positions, but that one position there’s a huge void. So I’ve really had my eyes open and that was a kid that more or less could see that as well, that he wanted to make a move and he didn’t get an opportunity to play last year, he doesn’t feel like he’s moving forward and was attracted to us because, like I’ve said, and I think as a player he can see it as well, there was an opportunity to play on a pretty good team.
NiuBBall: Is this going to be a long-term move, or is going to be a deal of the one-to-two-year variety?
BG: He’s definitely long-term. I’m definitely not into what some of the teams do of picking up a player for a couple of years and then sending him back to that club. My thing, and I think the owner is on the same page, is that we don’t want to do that. We’re developing [players] and we’re in a development mode for our own future and for the future of our own guys, so we wouldn’t move a guy along to bring another guy in for a year. It just makes no sense in what we’re trying to do. If he didn’t live up to [expectations], a ballplayer can get cut, but as far as bringing in a guy as a fill-in, we’re not along that philosophy.
We’re making a commitment to him, he’s making a commitment to us and to be honest, what I’ve seen now is a kid who is way down on what I saw three years ago when I came here. When I came here, Jilin was a club that was around our team a lot. A lot of our players, Sun Tonglin, Feng Qi, Song Tao, those kids were playing some practice games with them and I saw Yu play again and I thought he had tremendous talent, and so did the national program who had him on the training squad. [But now], he’s slower than he was, he’s not shooting the ball with consistency, physically strength-wise he’s behind and he’s lost a little bit of speed and conditioning. And I think that’s the way our seasons are, if you sit on the bench and you just travel around like that for a couple of years, your game retards. So he’s got a lot of work to do.
But the bottom line is that he’s got talent. He can see the floor, he can find people, he has the ability to shoot the three, and like I said he makes passes and sees things that we haven’t had in the Chinese department at that position. But right now, he’s got a lot of work to do because of what’s transpired over the last three years.
NiuBBall: You’ve also added Taiwanese guard/forward, James Wang. What kind of expectations do you have for him in his first CBA season?
BG: I’m making this perfectly clear to him, he’s not someone who’s going to dominate or carry the team or be a focal point. He’s just going to be someone who’s part of the team that gives us more depth. Last year, I just thought we were thin at the two and three spots. A big loss for us was Meng Duo – we call him Danny – he went up north to Xinjiang, and that left a void for us there. Last year we had He Zhongmian and Qiu Biao that were really the only pure twos. Qiu got worn into the ground, he started good, but he just got tired as the year went on. We just wanted some depth at that position, and James can definitely play. He’s definitely a CBA talent, he can shoot from the outside and score, he’s small for his position and he’s a step slow defensively, which is something he’ll need to work on, but again it gives us another guy in the rotation and gives us a deeper team.
In this, we have to be very careful that we’re not squashing the young Chinese talent that we got. I don’t want guys coming in and taking minutes away from the players that we have that should be playing. With Yu Shulong, we moved Feng Qi because we didn’t see in all honesty a future for him at that spot. And then at the two and three spots, we’ve got He Zhongmian, we’ve got Gu Quan, we’ve got Zhao Jie now coming off a knee injury, so those are three young guys and now we have a fourth. James is young, he hasn’t played in the league before, he’s someone we’re looking at long-term and he’s not taking minutes away from any of those guys. He’s just part of that rotation.
NiuBBall: You just touched on not having guys take away from your concept of player development and not taking minutes away from your young core. Your two imports this year, Marcus Haislip and Lester Hudson, are new to the team. What do you look for in foreign players in regards to your overall philosophy and how do you see those two guys fitting into the squad this season?
BG: There’s two positions, there’s the guard and then there’s what you’re doing with the big. In the seasons past where I’ve been here and even before me, they wanted an import who could guard the other team’s five. Since I’ve come to the club, that has been a major part of the role of that guy. I’ve elected in my time here to get a more versatile guy than they’ve had in the past, like a Shavlik Randolph or a Jackson Vroman. Those guys can play five, but they’re not like a [Will] McDonald or a [P.J.] Ramos, he hasn’t been that guy. He’s been a guy who can play some five and also shift and play a little bit of four with some versatility.
This year in that spot we went with Haislip because we’ve got Sun Zhe, we’ve got Li Muhao and we’ve got Sun Tonglin, all three of them are fives and all three of them are Chinese. And we’ve made a commitment this year to play Li Muhao. So with that being the case, the import now is a four instead of a five. And if we were going to go with a four, we wanted to be more athletic. More four than Jackson, more four than Shavlik and more athletic than either of them. And second, we wanted a guy who could stretch the floor and hit the three with those three big Chinese that we got.
Lester Hudson, he’s played in this, he’s been down in this part of China, he knows the league, he’s experienced, he’s athletic and he can shoot the ball. I think a lot of people have made reference to the one spot and what I’m doing. And the criticism I feel that I get just in general is that my point guard shoots the ball a lot and “you’re developing this young Chinese talent and Josh [Akognon] shoots the ball a lot.” Well, in Australia, with my National Teams, I had C.J. Bruton, Shane Heal, Adonis Jordan… I go back through the course of my time and I’ve always had ones who can score. If you’ve been following our scores [this off-season] without any imports, our Chinese, our young Chinese, are at a point in their development where they struggle to score. They need someone to play off. Lester Hudson is like Josh, but maybe a little bit more. Josh averaged 28 a game, Hudson averaged 33 a game. Hudson’s a scoring point guard and without our team, if there there’s an advantage its that he’s bigger. We’re a little bit small back there with Luo Hanchen and [Yu] Shulong and Wang. This kid’s 6’3, well built and can score and carry the ball.
In what we do, we need a point guard, I feel, that can take pressure off of our Chinese content and if we’re struggling, he can bring that ball up the court and make plays and score. I just think that’s a real important aspect, not only on our team, but in this league. If you look at the Finals series last year, take Marbury. He was scoring in the 40s and everything was off him. I thought his mindset was score first and I think that’s why they won it. So I think that’s an important ingredient in that spot. So I’m very pleased with our American content.
NiuBBall: You mentioned Li Muhao and how he’s going to become more featured in the rotation this season. You’ve brought him along pretty slowly since you arrived in DongGuan and yet, DraftExpress recently placed him in the late second round of the 2014 NBA Draft. First, how would you rate his development since you’ve arrived with the team and second, is the NBA a realistic destination for him in your mind?
BG: His development has been a very, very, very slow process. And a big part of the development I think has been one, the pressure put on him in China, and all the eyes on him and every move that he makes. “When’s it going to happen, why didn’t he do this, why isn’t he doing that…” there’s just been pressure there and he’s a kid who I say is wound tight. He puts a lot of pressure on himself. So that’s been a big issue for him.
Number two, he’s unbelievably athletic and he’s 7’1. Basketball-wise, he’s all over the place, so the process has been a slow work in progress. But, I think this summer him leaving China and going to New Jersey and just being Li Muhao by himself with workout guys, he came back with a totally different mindset than from what I’ve seen. He’s much more coachable, he’s much more excited about the game, he seems to be at peace with himself and he seems to be enjoying basketball. He’s taken a big step in the last four or five months.
Last year, my plan, like what’s going on this year – and to be truthful, this happens with the Chinese setup – and again, I’m learning, but I come back [at the beginning of the off-season] and we start practicing… and there’s no Li Muhao. Where’s Li Muhao? Well, he’s off in Beijing somewhere and he’s there for four months! And our whole pre-season, our whole weight program, our development scheme, all of that is left in the hands of someone else. And then they’re brought back [to the team]. Li Muhao came back and just mentally he was burned out. He needed to be rested, he needed to be fed, needed to have a strength program put in place. So we pulled him off the court and brought him along slowly. And this is less than six weeks before the season is going to start.
As we started to get into the season, I would have had to cut out a major piece in our rotation to bring him, so I waited and then he rolled his ankle real bad. He was on the sideline for about a month. So really as you said, this is what was happening in his development last year and it was a real rough one for everyone involved, including Li.
This year, he went to New Jersey, he came with us for the whole pre-season, he’s playing with our group and right now, he is a guy that is going to be playing 25 or 20 minutes minimum in our system this year. So that’s a big piece that we didn’t have last year. It’s our most talented young player and he’ll burst onto the scene next year and I think it’ll give this youth movement a stronger and more noticeable look. When I say “youth movement,” that’s a piece nobody has seen before. So that’s big for him and it’s big for our club.
Second thing on the NBA, he’s got that on target his forehead right now and everybody who we play, any team who has an American, they all go after him and make things as difficult as they possibly can for him, which one, has been helpful in his development, but two also can let you see that he’s a long way from [the NBA] yet.
But as far as a talent, somebody you would draft and bring along? Yes. In my 30 years in this, he’s in the top four talents I’ve dealt with as far as, you come onto the court, you start throwing the ball to a guy and do a workout and you look and you say “Wow, I haven’t had much of these in my life.” He’s an NBA talent and I’m real excited where his head’s at, I just think he’s taken a huge step emotionally.
It’s a similar process to what Andrew Bogut went through when we were involved in Australia. He had similar issues mentally, just accepting coaching, accepting criticism, he was high strung, he was highly emotional and Li is very, very similar. And I’m saying this because I think in the long run, it’s a good thing. You gotta get a rope and pull him back, as opposed to some of these guys where you have to kick to get them to compete. Li doesn’t mind the physical stuff and he’s somebody you have to pull back. That’s a good quality.