Author Archives | Leon Zhang

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Farewell, Jilin Northeast Tigers

April 10, 2013

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The 2012-13 CBA season is officially over, which means most teams will be running three-man weaves for the next eight months as they wait for next season to start. For the teams that didn’t make the playoffs, that process has likely already begun. To ensure your squad isn’t forgotten, Leon Zhang is writing an end-of-season ode to every team in the league. In his ongoing series of CBA Farewell Letters, Leon Zhang says goodbye today to the Jilin Northeast Tigers, who finished in 14th place.

Jilin, we know many have told you that anyone can be special special — including you — but here’s the hard truth: this season you weren’t.

You are that team who recently has always had a losing record, characterized by an overmatched and raggedy group of youngsters, the overburdened imports, and mismanagement. We should add that there’s nothing wrong with being so ordinary. If you’re a player, honestly, you did the best you could.

In fact, count us in with anyone that finds it hard to criticize Jilin. By all accounts, though this wasn’t a talented team by any stretch of the imagination, it was a group that was tough and fought in every game. The plucky little underdog even pulled out some opportunistic wins, case in point a thrilling Round 19 victory against Beijing, and it’s easy to admire Dewarick Spencer (28.6 points on 53.7% shooting) and Samuel Hoskin (a walking double double with 20.9 points and 10.3 rebounds) for their production and general lack of sulking in the face of such monotonous mediocrity. It’s credit to the players on the team that we really haven’t heard much from Jilin all season, no drama, just a workmanlike effort each and every time out on the court, for a win every three games.

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Farewell, Tianjin Golden Lions

March 7, 2013

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The regular season is over and for the eight teams who finished with a good enough record to participate, the month of March will one of hope and optimism… unless you’re playing Guangdong or Beijing in the first round (as Guangsha and Zhejiang both found out). Then, maybe it’ll just be a month of collecting first-round playoff bonuses. But for those nine teams who are already relaxing at home, you’re not forgotten. Leon Zhang says goodbye to the second-worst team in the league, the Tianjin Golden Lions, in his ongoing series of CBA Farewell Letters.

It was the best half season anyone could’ve expected, and then abruptly, it was the worst. The first part of the season saw Tianjin, high upon the standings, looking to preserve a low playoff seed as a pleasant surprise — a Cinderella story in the making, a testament to what good coaching and solid import selection can do. The second was, in short, a massive flop towards the finish line.

And at the end of the season, the inevitable question is raised: Just what were you, Tianjin? Borderline contender or a historic failure?

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Farewell, Qingdao Eagles

February 25, 2013

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The regular season is over and for the eight teams who finished with a good enough record to participate, the month of March will one of hope and optimism… unless you’re playing Guangdong or Beijing in the first round. Then, maybe it’ll just be a month of collecting first-round playoff bonuses.  But for those nine teams who are already relaxing at home, you’re not forgotten. Leon Zhang says goodbye to the worst team in the league, the Qingdao Eagles, in his first installment of CBA Farewell Letters.

Oh, Qingdao, how you tantalized all of us with one move, one player, one Tracy McGrady; and what a shock all of us experienced in the aftermath of such a seismic shift. We all knew it would be hard for you to have a decent record with such a bare roster, especially with Li Gen off to Beijing. But really, it’s been a dramatic disaster both on and off the court, and wherever you guys thought you were going when you protested a questionable call in Round 20 against Bayi. And that’s kind of the way it’s been this year, a team trying to find its identity amid turmoil and bursts of anger.

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Dominant Guangdong running away from the competition

February 1, 2013

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Parity. It’s something that is said to be increasing inside the Chinese Basketball Association, from third Asian imports (Zaid Abbas) leading previous bottom-dwellers to the playoffs to rules granting specific teams special privileges (need we single out Bayi?). And though it is apparent that the struggle to make the playoffs will be one of the fiercest in recent memory, it is just as clear that there is one frontrunner for the title this year.

The Guangdong Southern Tigers are running roughshod over the league, and it isn’t even close.

Every statistic comes just as impressive as the next for Guangdong. What’s more frightening: a 14 game winning streak or the fact that they have lost just four times all year? Taking into account that their average margin of victory during this win streak has been nearly 14 points, Guangdong has made nightly blowouts nearly routine. They haven’t skipped a beat under Jonas Kazlauskas; on the contrary, the undefeated coach has arguably taken the team to the next level.

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New sponsorships bring new complications to CBA

December 6, 2012

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Beijing’s Lee Hsueh-lin has been one of 12 players to be fined by the league for not wearing Li-Ning shoes during games. The fine comes as a result of the CBA’s new sponsorship deal with the Chinese shoe brand.

It’s been an exciting start to the season, to say the least. Amidst all the ongoing stories, however, the most important to the league long-term are the new deals that the CBA has signed this past summer. After inking a five-year contract with Infront Sports and Media, now the official marketing partner of the CBA, the league scored 23 new sponsorships, headlined by Li-Ning’s massive CNY 4 billion (US $721 million) commitment.

With these contracts comes an unprecedented windfall for the league’s 17 teams. Having previously received a comparatively measly CNY 2 million from the association, each of the league’s 17 teams will now have around CNY 10 million to spend on salaries, stadium improvements (heating comes to mind), and anything team higher-ups decide on. You don’t need us to tell you this is a boon for the league: money means better imports, more experienced coaches, nicer facilities, and by extension, elevated quality of play and a more refined basketball product for all.

Of course, all this good news does not come without its complications. More sponsors means more advertisements, from CCTV-5 broadcasts to on-court exposure. Whether it be the new Li-Ning apparel, advertising boards, or even the Tsingtao Beer cheerleading squads, you can be sure that these sponsors will make their presence known. Taking on these sponsors also means less autonomy for individual clubs, as teams are now left with only two sections near the courtside audience seats of ad space for sale. Apart from ticketing revenue and individual sponsorships like those on some team’s uniforms, all of the CBA is now dependent on the league to cover their operating costs, a questionable practice at best. Another problem is that of rising costs: even with this injection, with some of their revenue producing avenues cut off, teams may still find it hard to produce a profit.

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DongGuan splashes into the foreign and domestic market

September 7, 2012

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Marcus Haislip will play his third season in the Chinese Basketball Association with DongGuan New Century.

As the season looms closer and closer, elite CBA teams vying for a top place have gotten more and more aggressive with their acquisitions. Not content to watch Beijing and Xinjiang add impressive reinforcements, the Dongguan New Century Leopards have added 6’10’’ power forward, Marcus Haislip, and promising 22 year-old guard, Yu Shulong, to head coach Brian Goorjian’s rapidly emerging core.

Haislip, a University of Tennessee product, is a familiar face in the CBA. Last season for Foshan, he averaged 21 points and seven rebounds after coming in mid-season to replace Gerald Green. More importantly for a DongGuan team with the explicit goal of landing in the top four, Haislip also has valuable playoff experience. In 2010-11, he shot an incredible 77.7% rate from behind the arc to clinch a title for Guangdong Hongyuan. The former NBA lottery pick will be called upon for his postseason experience and post presence on a team that placed fifth last season before falling to Xinjiang in the quarterfinals in five games. His all-around ability should fit in well with Goorjian’s defensive schemes.

The 6’1’’ Yu is a highly regarded guard. He burst onto the CBA scene in 2009-10, averaging 11.7 points in his debut for the Jilin Northeast Tigers. Known for his speed and shooting, Yu played bit roles in the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship and 2010 FIBA World Championship as a backup while he continued to remain as a centerpiece on the Jilin team, normally logging over 35 minutes a game as a starter.

This past season, however, the diminutive guard found himself on the short end of the CBA’s Asian import rule. Expected to continue his large role within the team, Yu instead found himself backing up Jordanian star Osama Daghlas and averaging a career low 15.6 minutes per game. Deeply resentful of his diminished playing time, Yu went so far as to say this week that he would rather go back to school then play another season for Jilin. DongGuan had been linked with a move for Yu since the beginning of the off-season.

Now finally free of Jilin’s much-maligned practice of playing one guard at a time, Yu will finally have an opportunity to continue his development. His temporary transfer is an exciting move for Dongguan. Known for his long-term vision in developing players, Goorjian adds a significant piece to the team’s future while immediately bolstering a patchy guard rotation. All this, of course, is contingent on Jilin, which seems intent on keeping Yu in the long-term. Yu will continue to represent Jilin in the National Games next year, but this move for the club is questionable at best. Playing time for a National Team-caliber guard, an extremely young one with huge upside no less, should not be this hard to find. The fact that Yu felt alienated is a clear indictment against Jilin’s management and coaching. Dongguan has done well to capitalize on this shortsightedness to add a tremendous player.

The Leopards continue to look for help, and a potential backcourt partner for Yu has surfaced in Wang Dingjie, or James Wang, as he’s known stateside at Williams College. The Taiwanese native averaged 17.3 points on 56% shooting as he led the NCAA Division III squad to a 30-2 record. A strong player with nice offensive skills, Wang’s most troubling weakness is his height: he measures out at 6 feet, a tad small for a shooting guard. Dongguan has treated his four days in China as a sort of a scouting test, and will make a decision based on their evaluations.

These signings deviate little from Dongguan’s practices in the past: develop talented young players and integrate skilled foreign players within Goorjian’s plan. With Guangdong, Haislip showed willingness to defer to teammates and get his own shots within the flow of the offense, and will be commit to the offensive and defensive plans at Dongguan. Yu and Wang are guards with great upside that the team hopes will develop into a formidable starting backcourt.

Dongguan continues to kick off preparations for the new season today with a tournament in Shenzhen.

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Xinjiang signs Von Wafer, attempts to reload for title run

August 20, 2012

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Von Wafter, who most Chinese will remember from his days with the Rockets, has signed with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers.

Xinjiang certainly recovered quickly after its failure to resign Quincy Douby.

With a contract reportedly worth US $2 million dollars, the Flying Tigers have officially signed six-year NBA pro, Von Wafer.

Chinese fans will recognize Wafer for his play on the Rockets while sharing the floor with Yao Ming in in 2008-09. Some may even remember that two years ago, he was linked to Xinjiang before they eventually signed Douby, so in a sense the team has come full circle. Wafer’s professional playing career started after his sophomore year at Florida State University when he declared for the 2005 NBA Draft. He was selected by the Lakers in the second round, but wasn’t able to stick and proceeded to bounce around the league. A solid season for Houston in 2008-09 wasn’t good enough to land him a long-term deal, however, and he ended up the next season in Greece playing for Olympiakos. After struggling in Europe, he was bought out of his deal in December and was quickly snapped back up by Houston.

But, Wafer never ended up playing for Houston after he failed his mandatory physical. Since then, he’s played in Italy and back in the NBA with Boston and Orlando. Now, “The Dutch Cookie” will be taking his NBA career highs of 39% 3 point shooting and 9.7 points per game, all set with the Rockets in 2009, along with his daring drives and uncanny touch, to the Xinjiang plateau.

With combo-guard, Meng Duo, back from overseas training and Tang Zhengdong returning from surgery in the United States, the Flying Tigers seem all set to go for another no costs spared, all out run at the championship. Wafer will suit up next to Meng, Xu Guochong, Xirelijiang and possibly Zhang Qingpeng, who is attempting to work himself out of Liaoning, to form an absolutely loaded backcourt.

But Xinjiang’s guard rotation is also one where many of the players have overlapping skill sets. The 27 year-old Wafer is not the most skilled at creating opportunities for his teammates. This may become a problem for Xinjiang, who are seeking to break out of their annual runner-up status to Guangdong, which it has held for three straight years. New head coach, Cui Wanjun,  has his work cut out for him, but his problems are the likely the envy of most other coaches — with a talented backcourt to go along with Tang and Mengke Bateer in the middle, Xinjiang still has the talent to contend for a title.

The pressure cooker that is Xinjiang will stop at nothing short of a championship, and as we’ve seen in the past, the team is not averse to cutting even its most well-known imports or coaches. Will Wafer rise up to the altitude of Xinjiang, or will he be another high-profile NBA player leaving in disappointment?

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Grading Team China’s Olympics

August 16, 2012

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The United States 107-100 triumph against Spain in the gold medal match on Sunday marked both the end of Olympic basketball and the Olympics altogether, as the closing ceremony was held only a few hours after. Of course for China, basketball has been over for a while now after they went 0-5 in Group B.

Without a doubt, the winless finish will be viewed as a disappointment. But smearing blame across the entire team wouldn’t be fair. Who failed to play up to their standards, and who pulled their weight? We grade each player on a scale of 优 (excellent), 良 (good),中 (average), and 差 (bad), evaluating their performances with expected results in mind.

优- (Excellent) - Yi Jianlian

Key Statistic: 30 points (13/19 FG), 12 rebounds vs Spain

China was expected to rely heavily on their only NBA-level talent, Yi Jianlian and in the early going, Yi did not disappoint, notching a huge double-double against Spain in a respectable defeat. He followed up with another strong effort against Russia, putting up 16 points and 7 rebounds.

Photo: Getty Images

However, just as it looked as if Yi might singlehandedly lead China to some wins, he suffered an injury in the second half against Australia that severely limited him the last two games. Other teams started to focus their defenses upon him as the rest of Team China was not much of a threat, and in turn he made just 5 field goals. Yi was unable to shoulder the heavy burden placed upon him, even though he was the top rebounder at the Olympics with 10.2 a game and was one of only two players to average a double-double. It is difficult to evaluate Yi in light of his injury; if he was healthy throughout, perhaps the dominance he showed offensively early on would have continued. Though Yi Jianlian’s effort in the face of injury is commendable (14 rebounds against Great Britain), what China needed was points. Yi could not create enough offense by himself, and though that is a tall task with the support cast he has, we have to dock him a few points for his average finish to the Games.

良+ (Very good) — Wang Zhizhi

Key Statistic: 1 point (0/8 FG), 12 rebounds vs Australia

Photo: Getty Images

The longest-tenured member of the national team started his last   Olympics off strong, scoring an efficient 15 points against Spain. But, his minutes were limited against more athletic teams as his defense, never a strong point even when he was young, was too much of a liability. Against Australia, he had 12 rebounds, a career high, but fatigue and strong defensive pressure obviously had gotten to him, as he missed all eight of his shots and his rhythm was noticeably off. It is disappointing that China still has to rely on Wang to create offense, but when facing weaker defenses, the veteran was still able to put up big numbers. Wang averaged 6 points and 5.2 rebounds, showing he can still stroke the mid-range shot and rebound in short amounts of time. A great example for younger players, he suited up for the game against Brazil despite having five stitches on his face. Fatigue, age, and physicality caught up to him, though, and he was unable to sustain his quality production.

良+ (Very good) — Wang Shipeng

Key Statistic: 13/21 (61.9%) 3PT, highest in tournament

China eclipsed 60 points only two times in these Olympics, a testament to its anemic offense. Wang, though, wasn’t shabby on the offensive end, with very efficient games when he was given time on the court. Perhaps he could have been a little less turnover-prone, but on a team that frequently failed to get off shot attempts, the confident gunner was a much-needed shot creator. His unconscious shooting night against Australia will be one to remember; Wang hit 7 of 10 three pointers, and his 21 points kept China in the game for a while. He averaged 9.6 points, the second highest total on the team by quite a margin, which goes to show the dearth of a supporting cast behind Yi.

中- (Below average) — Liu Wei

Key Statistic: 1.3 assist to turnover ratio

When a team struggles as much as it does on offense as China did, a certain degree of blame must be put on the floor general of the team. Never known as an extraordinary playmaker, Liu Wei still could have done better than the two assists and 1.5 turnovers a game he averaged in the Olympics. Much of the time, it seemed that the only play the team had was to hand the ball to Yi, back off, and watch him from the perimeter, resulting in many 24 second violations, contested jumpers, and the lowest team assist average in all of the Olympics. Liu averaged 5.2 points a game on less than efficient shooting, the majority of which were mid-range jumpers. The point guard position has always been a headache for China, though Liu getting into foul trouble against Spain created playing time and much hope for…

良+ (Very good) — Chen Jianghua

Key Statistic: 12 points, 5 assists, 0 turnovers vs Spain

Perhaps Chen has become a step slower after his knee injury, but even with his reduced speed, he is still able to penetrate defenseseasily, and has developed a better feel for the game as well as nice passing instincts. Chen recorded an impressive performance against Spain with 12 points and five assists, then scored 10 points apiece against both Australia and Brazil. What is even more significant than those numbers is that China’s point guard position finally seems to be in decent hands. Chen is still blessed with much of the talent that made him such a prized prospect, and with experience, he can only improve as a playmaker.

差 (Bad) — Zhu Fangyu

Key Statistic: 8 points in 4 of 5 games, 4 total rebounds

Apart from netting 13 points on 6 shots against Brazil in garbage time, Zhu had a forgettable Olympics. Averaging a paltry 4.2 points and 0.8 rebounds (which China ranked last among all teams in), he was unable to contribute much in the areas that the team needed the most help. The leading scorer in CBA history didn’t get many minutes in London, and oftentimes he wasn’t able to stop his matchup on the defensive side. His performance is a glaring sign that China’s old rotation of players desperately needs some newcomers to step up.

差 (Bad) — Sun Yue

Key Statistic: 3/16 FG in 3 games

Many had high hopes for Sun Yue, one of the only NBA-caliber talents on the team, but London represented a far tougher competition than the guard was used to after yet another season playing against inferior competition with Beijing Aoshen. He was inefficient from the field, blowing layups and jumpers alike. Sun did showcase his physical toughness on defense, stopping multiple fast breaks against Russia that otherwise would have been easy points. Sun was sidelined for the last two games with an injury, a brutal end to a disappointing tournament.

中 (Average) — Zhou Peng, Yi Li

中- (Below average) — Ding Jinhui Guo Ailun, Zhang Zhaoxu

Key Statistic: First Olympics

Zhou played significant minutes in 3 games, and was a great energy guy off the bench, gathering rebounds and playing tough defense. He protected the post with Ding, who provided his trademark brand of aggression. Both are undersized and raw on defense, and could not make much impact on the offensive end (Ding was 2-9 from the field). Yi Li provided a remarkable first half against Russia, where he nailed a couple of important jumpers for 9 points, and in subsequent games flashed his confidence in his shot. Guo Ailun, often paired with Chen in a combo guard position, started for China against Brazil, logging 8 points, while Zhang Zhaoxu filled his role of a 12th man big body, and set a couple of nice screens. The two were prone to making mistakes, and Zhang found it hard to stay on the floor with fouls and turnovers. All in all, Coach Donewald played his youngsters sparingly. They gained much experience from these Games, but in a perfect world, these players would have been capable of playing big minutes in place of the veterans presently. Not many expected them to, though, and this group didn’t really prove the doubters wrong; other than Zhou and perhaps Yi, the youth movement was not able to contribute much.

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Road to the Olympics: Yi Jianlian

July 29, 2012

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As the Chinese men’s basketball team enters the last stage of preparation for the 2012 London Olympics, it is a sad fact that there are not many definitive profiles of these players, let alone ones in the English language. In this light, let us present you a series dedicated to giving a backstory to the players that will no doubt shine on the world’s biggest stage. After profiling Liu Wei, Wang Zhizhi and Wang Shipeng, we profile Yi Jianlian, the centerpiece of the current National Team setup.

Name: Yi Jianlian (易建联)
Height: 7’0’’ (2.13 m)
Weight: 250 pounds (113 kg)
Position: Power Forward/Center
Team: Free Agent

Yi Jianlian is our last entry in this series of previews, and if you’ve been following Chinese sports at all recently, you’ll notice that he is quite important. Other than “tall, handsome, and famous” though, what else makes him a great choice to represent his nation?

Yi was born in 1987 (or 1984, we’ll get to that) to two former professional handball players who transitioned into working as postal workers, moving to Shenzhen when he was two years old. Though at first his parents objected to him attending a sports school, a chance tournament that Yi and his friends entered brought the young athlete into the focus of a coach in Shenzhen. He struggled to adjust to his new surroundings (a well told anecdote relates that he was unable to finish a 400-meter run), but after a while Yi displayed extraordinary speed, flexibility, and raw talent, and at 13 years of age having already surpassed two meters in height, he was promoted to the Guangdong Youth Team. Many call-ups for both club and country followed, including some time for the country’s youth team and at the age of 18, he suited up for the CBA club Guangdong Hongyuan.

Yi would play five seasons in total in the CBA, working his way up from averaging only five points to a 25 point, 11.5 rebound effort each night. His swift ascent was marked by many accolades, including a CBA Rookie of the Year award, inclusion onto the All-Star team in 2004 (making Yi the youngest player to be honored), and a regular season MVP in 2005.

The big man became a focal point on offense, leading his team to three straight CBA championships and in 2006, was named CBA Finals MVP. Yi was simply dominant in the domestic league despite being under 20 years old, overwhelming interior defenses with turn-around jumpers and pure length, height, and athleticism. Joining the National Team in 2004, his playing time was limited to just over 10 minutes per game, but he showed promise at the World Championships in 2006, attracting the eyes of scouts worldwide. Soon, the NBA would come knocking for this young power forward who both drew comparisons to Kevin Garnett and was dubbed “The Next Yao Ming”.

Though the Guangzhou native first declared for the draft in early 2006, he withdrew his name and opted instead to enter the NBA in 2007, citing a need for more experience. Guangdong couldn’t match the success from the previous year, however, and the team lost to the Bayi Rockets in the Finals. Before the ’07 draft, accusations of age-fixing came up after Yi was listed in a previous tournament as being born in 1984 instead of 1987. Later, reporters found similar documents, though Chinese officials have blamed the discrepancy on a typographical error.

Then, an interesting twist occurred when the Milwaukee Bucks selected Yi with the sixth overall pick. The Bucks had not been invited to Yi’s pre-draft workouts and were in fact warned to not pick him on the basis of Milwaukee’s weak Asian community. Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl, owner of the Bucks, went as far as travelling to Hong Kong to recruit this new talent. Chinese officials continued to demand a trade to a locality with a larger Asian presence, but in the end, with the Bucks’ promise that Yi would have enough playing time to develop for the 2008 Olympics, the former Southern Tiger started his NBA career with the blessing of his caretakers and the anticipation of many fans.

Neither the Bucks nor Yi would disappoint. Sticking to his organization’s promise, head coach Larry Krystkowiak handed the starting power forward position to the Chinese 7-footer in place of incumbent Charlie Villanueva. Yi delivered, recording 19 points and nine rebounds against Yao Ming’s Houston Rockets, a game that was watched by 200 million Chinese. Averaging 12.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game in December, he was named the Rookie of the Month, and drew praise from coaches like Del Harris, who anointed Yi “the most athletic 7-footer in the NBA”. Injuries would derail his promising rookie campaign, though, as a season ending knee injury sidelined him after April 2 as he was hitting his stride. He ended up averaging 8.6 points and 5.2 rebounds on the year, though he showed flashes of enormous potential. As assistant coach Brian James related, “the injuries he had bothered him more than people realized”, and Yi was unable to cope.

Yi and Bobby Simmons were traded the very next season to the New Jersey Nets for Richard Jefferson. This came as a rather large surprise for everyone involved, including Yi, who adjusted well and came away averaging 10.5 points and 6.2 rebounds before breaking his little finger. Back after the All-Star Game (where, incidentally, he finished third in voting for forwards), the Net never really found his form, and was removed from the starting lineup. He had a solid 2009-2010 season, averaging 12 points and 7.2 rebounds, but was held to only 52 games after another series of injuries. Traded soon after the end of the 2010 season to the Washington Wizards, Yi was not given a qualifying offer. Faced with the NBA lockout, he found himself turning home to to the CBA and Guangdong. Unfortunately, he was felled with yet another injury just three games in. Returning to the NBA after the lockout, Yi found a home in Dallas, spending much of the season at the Mavericks’ D-League affiliate before playing in the first playoff game of his career against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Through his struggles as an NBA player though, the talented forward cemented his place as the unmistakable centerpiece of the post-Yao Chinese National Team. In the 2010 World Championships, he logged over 20 points per game and was also the top rebounder tournament-wide. Yi further cemented his place as one of Asia’s best, earning MVP honors in the 2011 Asian Games while leading China to a championship. The national team will certainly need his soft touch and interior presence this summer. Just as Yi Jianlian will carry the flag for the Chinese Olympic delegation, as the star of the team, he will symbolize all that the Wu Xing Hong Qi represents on the court.

Fun Facts: Yi has his own logo; he likes Range Rovers and hip-hop; he was ranked fourth on Forbes’ Chinese celebrities list; known for a relatively bland personality, reporter Wang Meng relates that when asking Yi a question, “you’ll know what kind of answers he’ll give. You don’t even have to ask the question. You can just write it down.”

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Road to the Olympics: Wang Shipeng

July 29, 2012

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As the Chinese men’s basketball team enters the last stage of preparation for the 2012 London Olympics, it is a sad fact that there are not many definitive profiles of these players, let alone ones in the English language. In this light, let us present you a series dedicated to giving a backstory to the players that will no doubt shine on the world’s biggest stage. After profiling Liu Wei and Wang Zhizhi, we go to the player who knows no concept of shot selection, the ever-confident and proven clutch shooter, Wang Shipeng.

Name: Wang Shipeng (王仕鹏)
Height: 6’6’’ (1.97 meters)
Weight: 210 pounds (95 kg)
Position: Shooting Guard
Team: Guangdong Hongyuan

From a youth team reject to a national hero on one of basketball’s biggest stages, Wang Shipeng has certainly come far. Across all his exploits, whether at Guangdong where he fought tooth and nail for playing time, or the inconceivable buzzer-beating shot against Slovenia at the 2006 FIBA World Championship, the shooting guard with the deadly long-rage shot has made a habit of beating the odds through hard work and a never-say-die attitude.

Wang had a rather unorthodox upbringing. Raised as a swimmer in Liaoning, a sudden growth spurt in his teens put basketball in his life. He was brought to a sports school but ultimately was not offered admission. At this point, he faced a crossroads: go to traditional school, or try to enter another youth team. Supported by his father, who Wang credits his success to, the teenager took a gamble and applied to Guangdong, which was recruiting in his home province of Liaoning.

Luckily, he was picked up by the new Guangdong team in 1997, a group that was populated by castaways like himself. Though at first this resulted in a rather lax attitude towards practice, the newcomers implemented harsh and ambitious training programs, including a focus on full court defense and three-a-day practices, a plan that is still in place today at the Hongyuan club. Through all this work, though, Wang was unable to stand out. One memory that stuck out to him was when the team had travelled away to a game, but he had not been chosen. Alone in an empty dormitory, he chose to hit the gym.

His resilience resulted in promotion to Guangdong’s first team in 2002, where he was able to cement his position as a solid contributor, slashing and shooting his team into the CBA Finals in 2003, 2007, and 2011, as well as several league championships between the years 2004-2006 and 2008-2011. This unprecedented run, as well as his stranglehold on the starting shooting guard position, brought him to the attention of the National Team. In 2005, he entered training camp in competition with Bian Qiang for a spot on the team, and for the most part was kept on the bench. At the Stankovic Cup, though, with pressure abating, Wang played his best ball, and with the team needing someone who could penetrate and open the floor with accurate shooting, he not only made the team, but also ascended to the starting position. Thinking back on his experience, he recalls that after seeing first-rate guards at the international level, the realization came that players without overwhelming talent and physical attributes like himself had to increase their off-ball movement.

Wang’s time came sooner than anyone could have thought. Down two to Slovenia with less than five seconds to go and needing a win to advance to the knockout stages in the 2006 World Championship, the sharpshooter received the pass behind the three-point line and made the shot, beating the buzzer and putting China in the final 16. His reputation as a cold-blooded marksman was bolstered by the fact that he had not a single point to his name in the game before that shot. He helped the team to an 8th place finish in the 2008 Olympics, and his last-second field goal again proved to be crucial against Iran in the Asian Games semi-finals.

Though he had always been humble and low-key off the court, Wang’s assertion that he was the best domestic shooting guard was rather unexpected. He backed this claim up, though, bringing his career scoring total to over 6000 points, good for 11th all-time in the CBA, while making over half his shots and averaging over 15 points in his prime between 2007-2011. What is more remarkable is that only recently has Wang been hitting his stride, leading China when much of the team was not in their best form, especially at the World Championship in 2010 where he logged 25 points against Cote D’voire.

Staying relatively healthy in 2011, he led a banged up Guangdong team to the championship behind 23.8 points per game, earning him the Finals MVP. Already a veteran of many contests, Wang will have to struggle through a fracture on his right hand. Though we hope China won’t be put into a do-or-die situation, you can be sure that if they are down with little time to go, Wang Shipeng will be there, spotting up for his magical jumper.

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Road to the Olympics: Wang Zhizhi

July 25, 2012

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As the Chinese men’s basketball team enters the last stage of preparation for the 2012 London Olympics, it is a sad fact that there are not many definitive profiles of these players, let alone ones in the English language. In this light, let us present you a series dedicated to giving a backstory to the players that will no doubt shine on the world’s biggest stage. After profiling Liu Wei last week, we go to the ageless seven foot lefty with the killer footwork and sweet stroke from downtown, Wang Zhizhi.

Name: Wang Zhizhi (王治郅)
Height: 7’1’’ (214 cm)
Weight:  275 pounds (125 kg)
Position: Center
Team: Bayi Rockets

The first Chinese athlete to play in the NBA, the cornerstone of a Bayi Rockets dynasty, a star for the national team since before this century started, and the one whose ban from the team and subsequent reconciliation with officials sparked a great deal of controversy. Suffice to say, Wang Zhizhi has been around for quite a while. A living legend of Chinese basketball, Da Zhi’s legend will grow this July and August as the seven footer will continue to play a great role for Team China in the 2012 London Olympics.

Wang’s journey started all the way back in 1977, when he was born in Beijing to two basketball athlete parents. Standing 6’9 at the age of 14, Wang was recruited by the People’s Liberation Army into the Bayi Rockets. Subject to harsh training, with practice hours sometimes extending to eight hours, Wang was forced to undergo massive lifestyle changes, with even his birthdate moved up to 1979 to allow him to dominate youth competitions. He was awarded places on several Chinese select teams, including the awkwardly named and roughly translated Youth Special Height Team, Chinese Youth National Team, and then the senior Bayi team.

No matter where in the world he went, the crafty center impressed with his nimble footwork, often confusing opponents with a spin and finish with his left hand. He was named the best center in Greece’s Youth Basketball Championships, then went on to deliver a solid performance, including a memorable block on David Robinson, in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics that earned him six scholarship offers from US schools and a Nike endorsement. Though Wang garnered interest from such high profile schools as Georgetown and LSU, Wang ultimately stayed in China due to the sensitivities involved in letting a PLA soldier and key basketball player go the States for four years. Instead, he returned to Bayi for the inaugural CBA season, catalyzing a dynasty that would run to six CBA championships and a league MVP. He seemed destined for a run of unrivaled dominance, entering the start of his prime by averaging 26.3 points and 11.7 rebounds in the 2000-01 season.

Dallas Mavericks owner H. Ross Perot Jr., though, had a different plan in mind.

Notoriously stingy about giving up their players to foreign organizations, Wang’s materials had to be smuggled to the Mavericks and Perot, who wished to draft the first Chinese player ever and thus make history. With the 36th pick of the 1999 NBA draft, and to the surprise of all involved, Wang Zhizhi was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks. The People’s Liberation Army would loath to let go of its prized center, and only when its hand was forced as China’s bid to host the Beijing Olympics was put to a final vote did it allow Wang to play in the NBA. With just ten games left in the season, Wang was able to fit in quickly as a role player, recording 4.8 points and 1.4 rebounds. Wang made the playoff roster; then, duty called, and Wang returned to China, Bayi and the National Team. China won gold at the Asian Championship, Bayi was crowned the champion of the National Games, and Wang played an unmistakable leading role on both teams.

But as his contract in the NBA expired, he began making a series of decisions that would endanger his position in China.

Wang, hoping to participate in the NBA Summer League to work on his game, moved to Los Angeles, leaving little behind in China. Chinese officials urged him to return to the country to practice, as various national team tournaments were on the horizon. But his constant refusals followed by rumors that he was planning on defecting to the US gave the team — and army officials — much to worry about.

PLA officers met him one month later in America, with Wang laying down an ultimatum: he would play in the World Championship, but would not disrupt his season for the the third-tier Asian Games, a relatively unimportant continental tournament. This did not go over well, and Wang was banned from the National Team on October 9th. Shortly after, he served short stints with the Los Angeles Clippers and the Miami Heat, but was unable to find consistent playing time. By the end of 2005, the center did not have a team to play for, and after an expulsion of four years, finally returned to his homeland, attempting to make amends for what amounted to betrayal in the Army’s eyes.

The good soldier was forced to attend “self-criticism” meetings, becoming politically “reeducated”, and published a three-page letter of apology. Returning to the army, he remarked, “It feels sacred to be in an army uniform again”. With the 2008 Beijing Olympics fast approaching, the Chinese government took a more lenient stance towards Wang, and “Dodger,” his American nickname, came full circle when he led China to first place in the Asian Championships with the other side of “The Walking Great Wall,” Yao Ming, out of the lineup. Wang found himself as the undoubted leader and mentor of a suddenly youthful and inexperienced Bayi team, yet found a way to win another CBA title and a Finals MVP in 2007.

Wang’s strong play still holds up today, and in 2012 was a CBA All-Star team starter. He is very much still a major contributor to the national team, winning yet another Asia Games in 2010 with critical plays against Iran, Korea and Qatar. After the game, his 11 teammates draped their medals around his neck, bowing in respect; Wang returned the favor by splitting his championship purse with them.

Fun Facts: the talented lefty started a camp to develop lefties like himself; his favorite car is the Lincoln Navigator; he loves to eat large Texas steaks and enjoys listening to Britney Spears; he enjoys watching movies and tried his hand at film himself, hosting a tourism show on Beijing; former CBA slam dunk champion; and he loves collecting rare china, jade, and metals.

Here’s hoping Wang comes home from London with what will amount to the most valuable metal of them all.

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Road to the Olympics: Liu Wei

July 17, 2012

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Recently, NiuBBall put up an open call for new writers with a passion for Chinese hoops. Fortunately for us and everyone else, someone answered that call. World, meet Leon Zhang. Originally from the Bay Area, Leon moved to Shanghai almost seven years ago where he’s been studying and living ever since. He’s a self-professed hoops addict who’s been devoutly playing since he first learned how to dribble as a wee lad and will be teaming up with Sharks enthusiast and NiuBBall contributor, Andrew Crawford, to give us the what’s what down in Shanghai. Which means we need to find someone up here in Beijing so we can get a game of two-on-two…

Leon’s first piece will be one of several in a series that profiles China’s key players as the team gets ready for the 2012 London Olympics.

As the Chinese men’s basketball team enters the last stage of preparation for the 2012 London Olympics, it is a sad fact that there are not many definitive profiles of these players, let alone ones in the English language. In this light, let us present you a series dedicated to giving a backstory to the players that will no doubt shine on the world’s biggest stage. We’ll start with Liu Wei, the captain of the team and veteran starting point guard.

Name: Liu Wei (刘伟)
Height:
 6’3” (190 cm)
Weight: 198 pounds (90 kg)
Position: Point guard
Team: Shanghai Sharks

Liu Wei was a relative latecomer to the game of basketball. As a young child in Shanghai, he was perceived as fat, but his height was too much for the youth coaches to ignore, entering the Luwan District sports school at the age of 12. Training alongside his best friend, a fellow by the name of Yao Ming, he quickly shot up the ranks, playing for the Shanghai Sharks and Chinese junior team in 1996. Liu was a highly valued prospect, expanding his game with various experiences like a visit to the US to attend a Nike summer camp and play for an AAU team. The future national team guard went through tough times in America, recalling that he “couldn’t get enough to eat. Our expenses were limited and there were three days when we ate lunch and dinner combined.”

All this paid off when, at the age of 22, Liu was selected to play for the National Team, undoubtedly a great honor. He became a cornerstone of the Shanghai Sharks professional team, and with Yao broke the years-long hegemony that Bayi had had on the CBA playoffs with a championship in 2002. The year 2004 was an exciting time for him, as he earned the starting point guard position on the national team, and was able to play for the Sacaramento Kings in the preseason. Liu and Yao together brought pride to many of their countrymen as the “NBA China Games,” which pitted Liu’s Kings against Yao’s Rockets, a first in the NBA for any two Chinese players. Though Liu generated some hype (assistant coach Elston Turner called him an “our best passer in training camp”), he was unable to make much of an impact, recording just two points and four rebounds in three games.

Though his role continued to expand for both club and country, recording 8.5 points and 1.6 assists in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, things went south as the Sharks’ decline, which started with the departure of Yao Ming, became more and more evident before the team — and Liu — eventually the team hit rock bottom in 2008.

On the verge of bankruptcy, Shanghai stripped its roster and became committed to rebuilding. In turn, the Sharks’ record took a huge dive and Liu’s apparent frustration with losing boiled over when, on November 28th, he attacked American Gabe Muoneke of the Yunnan Running Bulls outside the locker room inside Yuanshen Stadium. Along with several of his teammates, Liu chased, cornered and hit Muoneke. The incident as caught on stadium security cameras, and Liu paid a hefty fine and served a 10-game suspension. Shanghai finished the season in last place with a 6-44 record.

But in the off-season, the Sharks got the assist they needed when Yao Ming reentered the Shanghai Sharks, this time as an owner. With the team having been saved from going bankrupt, the team went forward with a number of changes designed to bring the Sharks back to respectability. Bob Donewald Jr., hired in the summer of 2009, brought an entertaining run-and-gun style to the Sharks, and along with a revitalized Liu in combination with American import John Lucas III, the trio brought Shanghai an unexpected fourth-place regular finish and a semi-finals berth.

These days, Liu plays in the triangle system of Coach Dan Panaggio, serving a key role as a facilitator and scorer, and also remains as an indispensable cog under Donewald in the National Team. The combo guard brings to Team China unquestioned leadership and extensive experience, and his importance to the team is evident by the fact that he logged the most minutes of any player on the Chinese team in the 2010 FIBA World Championship. In 2012, Liu may need for more time on the bench to rest, as he is too often run into the ground due to a lack of point guard depth. When healthy and rested, though, he is still one of the best guards in Asia, and as the only guard to score over 7000 points in CBA history, his resume is unquestioned. Liu’s strengths include his size, which allows him to play stifling defense, and his steady hand at the point guard position, which will be needed if China is to go far in London this year.

At age 32, this will very likely be the last time Liu suits up for Olympic basketball. As one of the key players of his generation, you can bet he’ll leave it all on the line in London this July and August as he tries to get China into the knockout stages for the third straight time.

Some fun facts about Liu: his favorite Korean drama is Full House, starring the Korean pop star Rain; his favorite drink is tea; he is married to Wang Weiting, a fellow basketball player; his biggest dream is to spend time with friends and family; and when asked of the country he wants to go to most, he emphasizes that he would want to visit all of the beautiful sights in China.

Spoken like a true patriot.

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