Post by James Hsu
September 23, 2013
He lives in Beijing, reads Chinese, is a self-described basketball degenerate who has watched his fair share of CBA games and really wants to write about Chinese basketball. And as we know better than almost anyone else, anybody who willingly watches CBA games is definitely a basketball degenerate.
Yeah, James Hsu is a perfect fit for NiuBBall.
From here on out, James will be writing about really anything that comes to mind about Chinese hoops. Based on our lengthy email conversations, NiuBBall readers will like that stuff that comes to his mind. His first piece delves into the deep and dusty part of the China basketball library: Former players, some more obscure than others, who have tried their shot at the NBA. Here’s hoping that book will be updated with a new player by 2020.
“Who got next?”
Kobe Bryant. LeBron James.
Yao Ming. Yi Jianlian. Jeremy Lin.
These are household names in professional basketball. My mother knows these names. Their faces are all over TV and the news. The other day, I found a blog that tracks what Yao Ming is doing right now, after his basketball career has ended! That’s an insane amount of coverage.
But what about the unsung heroes? The other Chinese players that crossed over, or attempted to cross over to the NBA? What are their stories?
There’s a whole world out there of Chinese basketball players hustling, scrapping, trying to face the best competition the world has to offer. In many cases, the NBA has validated them and given them a shot. There are many reasons why some players make it and others don’t.
I’ve narrowed my focus to players from the past 15 years. Not to say that there weren’t players that paved the way in the 90’s – I simply wanted to focus on the most recent era.
Here are their stories.
“Look Ma, I made it!” (Made it to the Big Leagues)
Wang Zhizhi (王治郅)
Almost didn’t put Wang Zhizhi in this article. I always believed Wang to be a mainstream baller – an awesomely destructive basketball genius who DESTROYED opposing teams with his superb marksmanship and ferocious, rim-rattling dunks.
I also live in Magical Christmas-land for most of the year.
Wang isn’t mainstream enough to pass the “mom test.” Years ago, my mom and I had this exchange:
Mom: “Look, that’s Yao Ming on TV! Did you know he’s playing in the NBA?”
Me: “Yes mom…”
Mom: “Who’s that other Chinese guy on TV? He looks like Yao…”
So Wang’s not quite a household name, but he carved out a solid career in the NBA, having played for the Mavericks, Clippers and Heat.
Whereas Yao was a traditional center, Wang preferred to face the basket and launch jump shots all day. All day. I certainly don’t remember Wang doing anything other than set screens and “roll” to the three-point line.
The tall guy who shoots 3s? That’s Wang Zhizhi, baby.
Wang also had another weapon at his disposal: a back-to-the-basket post up move, which usually led to his defender not biting on the pump fake and leading to a contested shot. What, you think 7 footers are supposed to pass the rock? Tell that to Patrick Ewing!
Here’s a feature, complete with stirring comeback music, on the “15 year old veteran soldier” and “savior of Chinese basketball.”
Snide remarks aside, Wang truly is one of the key figures in Chinese basketball. He’s dutifully served the National Team for a number of years. If they ever create a Chinese “Hall of Fame,” Wang would be in it on the first ballot.
Dude even won a CBA dunk contest! We already know how awesome the CBA All-Star Game is. Respect, brother.
Sun Yue (孙悦)
Sun is a 6’9″ combo guard who made it into the Lakers’ roster in 2007. I still remember watching TV at the time and thinking, “who is this guy?”
Sun never dominated Chinese basketball — maybe because his team, Beijing Aoshen, isn’t really in Chinese basketball — but his court sense and overall length made him intriguing to NBA scouts. The “Chinese Magic Johnson” also possessed a 34″ vertical. Sun played a total of 10 games with the Lakers in 2008-09, averaging less than three minutes a game. No meaningful contribution other than being one of the few Chinese players to have an NBA championship ring, as a benchwarmer on the Lakers playoff roster.
Sun has been solid if unspectacular on the national circuit, playing in two Asian Games and three FIBA Championships.
Here’s a mix tape. Not too much going on other than the fact that Sun looks rail thin and is a complete fail rocking the headband.
In terms of dirty laundry, Sun’s claim to fame is being caught having sex with a B-list celeb in a car. This being China, there’s a theory that the act was a planted story. Given that the Chinese National Team was struggling that year, it could have been a convenient headline diversion. Either that, or some real TMZ-ness going on. Moving along…
Mengke Bateer (巴特尔)
Bateer is a big dude – 6’11”, 290 pounds. A native of Inner Mongolia, Bateer was first signed by the Denver Nuggets in 2001, before playing for the San Antonio Spurs from 2002-2003 and for the Toronto Raptors from 2003-2004. Though he is not a quick player, Bateer possesses a high basketball IQ and is a competent role player. You can’t teach size, as they say.
His NBA lifetime averages of 3.4 points and 2.5 rebounds are nothing to write home about, but his NBA longevity is. After going back to the CBA, Bateer’s been dominant. He’s also been in three Chinese films! Talk about livin’ la vida loca.
I couldn’t find any good “mix tapes” of Bateer terrorizing the league, so instead I’ll bless you with this gem. Bateer as method actor – genius, really.
“Faraway, so close!” (Almost made the cut)
Liu Wei (刘炜)
Of all the players in this category, Liu Wei was supposed to be the one. The one who would make history by being the first Middle Kingdom guard to make the NBA. Liu was a CBA teammate of Yao Ming’s and their collective success would have been a resounding one-two punch for Chinese basketball.
In 2004, Liu got his shot with the Kings in the pre-season and faced off against Yao in two Kings-Rockets exhibition games. Unfortunately, he did not make the regular season roster.
Cynical fans will say that it was a publicity stunt, but I don’t think so. Liu physically dominated the CBA at the time and was a high-IQ basketball player. He had a knack for making the right pass and would have been an intriguing combo guard. The Kings gave him a legitimate look.
Two strikes against Liu, though.
First, he lacked NBA 3-point range. NBA shooting guards without a consistent outside stroke need to have killer athleticism and/or defensive prowess (see: Allen, Tony).
Second, Liu was 24 years old when he walked into NBA training camp. It’s hard to find any potential “upside” in terms of Liu’s physical maturation. He had basically peaked as a player – what you saw was what you got.
Tangent: Age is an ongoing issue for the CBA-bred players. They spend years in the CBA system, a system that does not develop its players as well or rapidly as North American alternatives. By the time they are ready, they may have spent 6-7 years in the league whereas other systems would have done the same work in less time. Add to that the need to appease the CBA authorities, and you have a real dilemma.
Nonetheless, Liu Wei has enjoyed a solid career and continues to play in the CBA and for the National Team.
Chen Hsin-an (陈信安)
Chen was the first Taiwanese player to be invited to NBA summer camp, first with the Nuggets in 2002 and then with the Kings in 2003. He got a look by the scouts but failed to make the roster.
He’s one of the most gifted pure scorers in Chinese basketball, clocking in at 6’5″ and 200 pounds. Chen is undersized for the international game, but on Chinese soil he can play small forward as well as shooting guard.
People don’t remember this now, but during the late 90’s, Chen was considered one of the rising Chinese stars alongside Yao Ming in the Asian Basketball Confederation.
I remember being impressed by Chen’s explosiveness when I watched him in action for the first time. He has the ability to exhibit the “hang time” that is rare for Chinese players. Here’s a good highlights clip to illustrate.
Tien Lei (田垒)
Tien hails from Taiwan and has dominated the Super Basketball League (SBL) in the region. He’s been called the “Taiwanese KG,” which is endearing if superfluous. Offensively capable and clocking in at 6’8″, Tien received an invite to the 2005 NBA Summer League. He got a shot with the Sacramento Kings but didn’t make the cut.
It’s hard to find a direct comparison to an NBA player. Tien has range and can make plays off the bounce. He’s also shown the ability to finish plays on contact and go hard at the rim. Had he made it, Tien would have been more of a small forward or “tweener” forward in the NBA.
Unfortunately, injuries and other factors kept him at less than full strength. Today, he continues to play for the Chinese Taipei team and is one of the elder statesmen of the game.
Here are some of his better moments. Make sure you watch this one with the music off – you’ve been warned.
Xue Yuyang (薛玉洋)
Xue Yuyang is a good example of a “what if” story.
6’11”, can play multiple positions. Most comfortable facing the basket. Xue entered the 2003 Draft and got called up by the Denver Nuggets in the second round.
Unfortunately, the Chinese authorities CBA forbade him to enter the NBA. Remember Yao Ming’s deal with China and the Sharks? Yeah, Xue didn’t have that.
And who can blame him? As a Chinese player, you’d be foolish to burn bridges with the CBA. If anything, it illustrates just how precarious the NBA roster spot is.
It’s hard to even find footage of this guy, so we can only dream about an alternate universe where a rail-thin Chinese 7-footer with agility takes the league by storm. Poor man’s Jonathan Bender? Yeah, baby, yeah.
“To be continued…” (The Next Generation)
Wang Zhelin (王哲林)
Wang is a 7 footer who is just starting to get established in the CBA. Has some intriguing moments, and likes to create off the bounce. One more nail in the coffin for traditional, back-to-the-basket centers.
Wang needs to hit the weight room and improve upper body strength, though. That’s the coach in me talking.
Wang is not even 20 years old, so it’s a complete question mark as to whether he wants to make The Jump. He’s got the physical potential and has had some success in international competition. Definitely one to watch.
Here’s some footage of Wang. Really likes to go to his left, although he tends to finish with his right. Don’t basketball teams read scouting reports anymore? I mean…sigh.
Chang Tsung-hsien (张宗宪)
Unlike a lot of other guys on the list, “Jet” Chang had the mindset to spend his formative years in the United States, playing Division II ball for Brigham Young University-Hawaii. Listed at 6’4″ and 195 pounds, Chang dropped 43 points in the DII NCAA National Semifinals – no small feat given the level of competition.
He tried out for the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2012 Summer League but failed to make the roster. Here’s a sweet draft workout video so you can witness his nice stroke and all-around abilities.
The book isn’t closed on this young fella – he’s still trying to make it to the NBA. If there’s anything that helps his case, it’s that he plays against better competition than many of his Chinese predecessors.
Chris Tang (唐子豪)
Next we have…the “great Asian hope” (shudder).
I debated whether to include Chris Tang on this list. He’s a high schooler heading into the college ranks. But Tang’s got the virtue of playing against top flight American competition at an early age, and seems determined to get to the next level.
The comparisons to J-Lin are inevitable. In the end he’s going to have to work on the basics – ball handling, court vision, shot selection – to have a shot at the big league. As we’ve established in this list, the list of 6’6″ and under guards NOT making it is a long one indeed. It will be interesting to follow his development over the next couple of years.
The game of basketball boils down to a couple of things – can you play? Can you help the team? Can you do it consistently?
And…do you want it badly enough?
The journey is anything but easy. For NBA journeymen like Chris Copeland, Jimmy Butler and Patrick Beverley, their success was predicated on hard work and figuring out how to do things other than put the ball in the basket. They scrapped their way into the regular rotation.
If there’s one recurring thread that comes up as we examine the Chinese players, it’s that most of them do not have these intangible qualities. Scoring isn’t the end-all, be-all of basketball. You have to make stops, rebound and do the dirty work.
For many Chinese players, the sacrifices cut deeper. Can you stay in the United States for an extended amount of time? Can you assimilate into the culture, the language and the system?
Reference data is flawed for most aspiring Chinese players. Whether it’s draft workouts, NCAA game tapes or scouting reports, there’s limited data out there on these guys. It’s one thing to drop 30 points on inferior CBA competition, but what does that mean against the best competition in the world?
If recent signs are any indication, it’s that Chinese players have to make the necessary sacrifices and embed themselves into the American basketball institution early on. It helps if you’re born on American soil, but even if you have Yao Ming’s physique, you need to face the best competition.
You need to be relentless.
Everyone is wired differently, and making it to the NBA is not a common goal. It’s a one-in-a-million goal.
The next Jeremy Lin may be one of these guys; it may not be. What we can do as Chinese basketball fans is follow, observe and support every step of the way.