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Tag Archives: “Max” Zhang Zhaoxu

Shanghai Sharks announce Wang Qun has head coach; re-sign Max Zhang

May 16, 2013

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Things are going to be a lot different in Shanghai next season.

Last Friday, the Sharks held a press conference to announce a combination of decisions that will have a huge impact on the club’s short-term and long-term direction: the appointment of Wang Qun as head coach, and the re-signing of “Max” Zhang Zhaoxu.

Wang, who has had a long history with the Sharks and owner Yao Ming, will become the first official Chinese head coach since Yao took control over the club in 2009. He had been serving in an interim role after American Dan Pannagio was fired mid-season last year.

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Panagiotis Giannakis hired as head coach of Chinese National Team; initial 24-man roster released

April 28, 2013

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In a country where the dragon holds significant cultural importance, perhaps its fitting that one will be the next head coach of the national team.

Ending a long search, the CBA announced the appointment of Panagiotis Giannakis as head coach of the Chinese men’s national team. Nicknamed “The Dragon” for his long reign of dominance over European and international basketball, the 56 year-old will become the fourth foreign head coach in Chinese basketball history.

According to reports, the contract is a four-year agreement that will take Giannakis all the way through the 2016 Rio Olympics.

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Zhang Zhaoxu… CBA’s highest paid Chinese player?

April 22, 2013

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How many Subway footlongs could 8 million RMB buy? Depends on if you’re eating the Sub of the Day, but the answer is a lot.

Is “Max” Zhang Zhaoxu on his way to becoming Chinese basketball’s first eight million RMB man?

Could be, according to several recent reports. The Shanghai Sharks 7’3 center is reportedly being offered big money from both the Beijing Ducks and the Xinjiang Flying Tigers.

Last Thursday, Sina Sports, citing an unnamed source, reported that the Ducks are poised to offer a multi-year deal worth CNY 5 million anually (US $808,767) plus a Beijing hukou, while the Tigers will go as high as 8 million ($1,294,027) to get Zhang’s signature.

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The definitive NiuBBall.com CBA preview

November 22, 2012

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Stephon Marbury and the Beijing Ducks won the title last year… But will they have enough to repeat in 2012-13? (Photo: Osports)

Moreso than ever, the Chinese Basketball Association has become quite difficult to predict pre-season.

It’s hard to predict first of all because we generally stink at predictions, but more importantly that the league is as deep as its ever been top-to-bottom. There’s a more than a few reasons for that — more off-season player movement, more players going abroad to train in the summer, better coaching in-country, a commitment to strength and conditioning programs and better foreign players all round out the top of our list. But the end result of all that should be a very watchable and exciting league this season. Which is a good thing for us fans, of course.

Bad thing for NiuBBall’s annual predictions, however.

By our count, there’s 11 and possibly 12 teams (depending on how well you think Tracy McGrady is going to do in Qingdao) who have a shot at the playoffs. That’s well over half the league. If you think DongGuan is ready to make a jump (we do), then there are now four teams who could sport legitimate Finals cases. Building on Beijing’s buck-the-trend run to a championship last year, there appears to be a level of parody in the league. Pencilling in the top two, top four and top eight is no longer easy.

So as always, take what is about to come with a grain of salt and know that most likely this will all be very wrong.

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The Legacy of Bob Donewald

August 16, 2012

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Among other accomplishments during his two years as Team China head coach, Bob Donewald Jr. brought home the country’s first Asia Championship since 2005. (Photo: FIBAasia.net)

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Bob Donewald Jr., whose contract in Beijing has now expired, will not be returning to coach Chinese National Team. In a highly eventful three years, the last two of which have been spent as Team China head coach, there’s been suspensions, championships, a documentary, brawls, more suspensions, sideline yelling matches, and a you-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up crazy half-season in Xinjiang among other notable events. Whatever your opinion of his tenure is, we’re fairly confident that all would agree that his stay in China has been anything but boring.

Of course, the Donewald era is much more than that. The question is: What? What exactly has happened over the last three years? What impact has he made on Chinese basketball? And what is his lasting legacy?

Talking to the Associated Press last week, Donewald offered up his own thoughts on the latter two questions:

“It’s not the way we wanted to end it. But I think we laid the groundwork in the right way,” Donewald said. “We’ve changed some things, we’ve changed some training, we’ve brought ideas, we’ve changed the way we play a little bit. And hopefully they can take it and go from here. … I hope 10 years from now I look back and China’s back on the map and we helped bridge something, we helped do something.”

The full article is well worth the read, not just because Donewald has a lot more interesting things to say, but also because Wang Zhizhi steals the show with a couple of priceless quotes, the best being his initial response in 2010 to Donewald’s defense-first mindset: “This is China. We don’t play defense.”

Critics will obviously point to the recent failure at the Olympics as their perceived reflection of Donewald’s failure to put together and lead a Chinese team capable of winning on the world’s biggest stage. Our views on what went down in London are already well known. But whereas some will want to rate the overall Donewald purely based on an 0-5 record, we’re going to take a few steps back and improve our court vision to assess what’s really gone down the last three years.

1. The turnaround in Shanghai

Known virtually by everyone around the world as the franchise who produced Yao Ming, the Shanghai Sharks were once one of the proudest and most winningest franchise in the Chinese Basketball Association. But, in 2009 — seven years removed from their first and only championship under Yao — the team’s gradual descent into the depths of the league standings hit its lowest point. In last place with 6-44 record and a financial situation that bordered on bankruptcy, the Sharks weren’t just the dregs of the league, they were on the verge of complete extinction.

A savior came from a familiar face, Big Yao himself, who bought his old team in the summer of 2009 to ensure the franchise’s financial future while simultaneously injecting a much needed dose of optimism into the City on the Sea. Shunning the bureaucratic  state-run-styled ownership that nearly put the franchise out of the CBA, Yao vowed to change the entire structure and culture in Shanghai.

That first wave of change came in the form of a new head coach, Donewald. A former NBA assistant in the early 2000s with Cleveland and New Orleans and a successful coach in England in the late 1990s, Donewald had been in Brazil and Ukraine prior to his arrival at the Yuanshen stadium. Unknown virtually by all in Chinese circles, Donewald proved to be the perfect catalyst in Shanghai. With a no compromise attitude, Donewald uprooted practically everything in Sharks-land and brought accountability, professionalism and intensity into a team that was sorely lacking in all three of those departments the previous season.

Under the first year head coach, a reinvigorated Chinese roster teamed up with three excellent imports, John Lucas III, Garet Siler and Zaid Abbas, to finish with the league’s fourth best record before nearly upsetting eventual league champion, Guangdong, in the semi-finals. Impressed by Donewald’s success, the powers that be at the CBA appointed him as head coach of the National Team in April 2010.

That magical season went beyond just himself, though. Lucas and Siler, both of whom were passed over by NBA teams when they came out of college, signed on to play in The League in 2010 with Chicago and Phoenix respectively. Both played this last season for the same teams. Abbas has gone on to star for the Jordanian National Team during the summers and during winters, he’s been busy leading Beijing and Fujian to the playoffs. “Max” Zhang Zhaoxu, who left Cal-Berkeley early to join Donewald in Shanghai in 2010, is now part of the National Team setup.

And though Donewald left in the summer of 2011 for Urumqi, the changes he made in Shanghai can still be felt today as Dan Panaggio continues to build on top of the foundation he first set in 2009.

Yet, perhaps Donewald’s biggest impact on a player was not on an American, but on a Chinese player with deep ties not only to Chinese basketball, but to Yao Ming as well…

2. The resurrection of Liu Wei

The 2008-09 season was long for everyone in Shanghai. But it was their star player, Liu Wei, who perhaps endured the longest and most nightmarish season of them all. Known for his ultra-competitiveness, the raging fire that burned under the longtime National Team point guard smoldered into mere ambers as Liu was forced to deal with not only the worst finish in Shanghai history, but also several nagging injuries, an ugly post-game incident with Yunnan import, Gabe Muoneke, and the 10-game suspension that followed it. His play suffered, and his 15.6 points per game was the worst statistical output since 2001-02. Once a CBA champion and NBA training camp invitee, things got so bad for Liu that he was rumored to be off to Bayi in the following off-season.

Enter Yao, Donewald, and his American staff, all of whom made it a focus to get their point guard back on track for 2009-10. Brought back to health through the dedication of strength and conditioning coach, James Scott, formerly of the Houston Rockets, Liu found his old self again as Shanghai ripped off a regular season 25-7 record. His 21.3 points per game was the third highest output of his career, and individual success carried through to the next season where he averaged 18.6 a game.

Liu’s resurgence has had implications far beyond just Shanghai, however. If you think prolonging the career of the only point guard in China who is consistently capable of playing on an international level, we ask: Have you seen any alternatives at that position?

Neither have we.

3. The transformation of Yi Jianlian

Once appointed head coach of the NT, the job presented to Donewald was to oversee a changing-in-the-guard from the old Yao Ming era to a new decade of Chinese basketball. Not exactly an easy task.

Without an all-world center who could dominate at both ends, Donewald trashed the rely-on-one-player philosophy in favor of a more balanced defensive-oriented, blue-collar approach. But all teams need a guy to dump the ball into on offense and get buckets… and that’s where Yi Jianlian comes into the story.

Under the shadow of the Yao in the 2000s, a then-young Yi played tentatively and inconsistently for China. But since Donewald arrived in 2010, Yi has been a completely different player. Given the task of being The Guy for the Chinese, the seven footer has responded beautifully over the last two international seasons. At the 2010 FIBA World Championship, Yi was the only player in the tournament to average 20 points and 10 rebounds. The following summer at the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship, he won tournament MVP (16.6-10.2) as he led China to a championship over Jordan. And though China flopped miserably in London, Yi managed to lead all players in rebounds (10.2 a game), while putting up strong individual performances against Spain and Russia before an injury suffered against Australia hampered him for the rest of the Games.

No, he’s not Yao. But in the post-Yao era, Yi is unquestionably the best and most important player to the Chinese. He has consistently been at the top of his game when China has need him the most. The player deserves much credit for accepting that challenge, but he — and the CBA — will have to thank Donewald, first for believing in him, then for giving him the support to make the Yao-to-Yi transition a success.

4. The modernization of the National Team

What the CBA chooses to do in light of these Olympics (changing the import rules in their domstic league, increasing the amount of games, hiring a new coach, implementing a new  national daily regimen of three-man weave drills) is anybody’s guess.

Our two cents: They’d be wise to continue in the direction that Donewald and his staff has pointed them in.

Whether it’s been compiling thick tomes detailing every in-and-out of their opponents, meticulously breaking down film, implementing individualized strength and conditioning programs for each player or successfully appealing to the CBA to allow the coaching staff to pick their own players, Donewald has managed to do away with the old days of mindless 6-8 hour-a-day practices and two-hour team meetings. All of which are very positive for Chinese basketball, by the way. The days of 30 exhibition games in the summer? Maybe not. But, one step at a time.

If Chinese basketball is going to catch up to the rest of the world one day, they’ll have to eventually run their program accordingly. Again, whether the CBA decides to take a knee-jerk reaction to what’s gone down in London is anybody’s guess. Yet what Donewald’s been able to do — and teach — to people inside Chinese hoops about the modern requirements for developing a National Team should certainly be beneficial in the long-term for both the country and the next coach who replaces him. You know, if the CBA allows it…

5. The trophies

Lost in all of the Deng Hua de bu xing (Donewald sucks), Deng Hua De de zhan shu bu hao (Donewald’s X’s and O’s aren’t good) and Deng Hua De bu dong Zhongguo (Donewald doesn’t understand China) arguments that I’ve heard from Chinese over the last couple of weeks, is the simple fact that no matter what you think of the guy, he’s won when he was supposed to win. Every time.

And if you don’t think that getting cheng ji – results — in Chinese sports are important, you haven’t seen this yet.

Make no mistake: Donewald’s gotten results. First came a championship at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, beating Iran in a thrilling semi-finals before dispatching South Korea in the finals. Not exactly a huge deal, since China had one five out of the last six gold medals at the Asian Games, but still a championship nonetheless in a competition that demanded no other result.

The following year in Wuhan, however, was something totally different. Despite playing without two key players, Zhou Peng and Wang Shipeng, both of whom were injury casualties of an endless summer of warm-up games, Donewald and the squad managed to come back in the second half against Jordan in the finals to eek out a win and an automatic berth in the 2012 London Olympics.

Whereas Guangzhou was pretty much always in the cards, triumphing in Wuhan was anything but guaranteed. Some people, including this very space, doubted China’s chances of getting to London because of prior history and a less-than-full-strength roster. On top of proving people wrong, Wuhan represented something far greater: China’s first Asian title since 2005 and more importantly, the first in the post-Yao era, an accomplishment Donewald’s predecessor, Guo Shiqiang, could not get done in 2009.

Was Donewald’s China journey always a smooth ride? Hardly. But at the end of everything, Donewald can go out with a title that nobody in China can take away from him: A winner. We’ll see in 10 years if we can call him a pioneer, too.

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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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China – Spain Recap

July 31, 2012

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Yi Jianlian’s game-high 30 points were the highlight of a very respectful performance from the Chinese against Spain. Photo: Sina Sports

China was always a longshot (if a shot at all) in their 2012 Olympics-opening match-up against Spain — also known as the rematch of the 2008 Beijing Olympics preliminary round game that China should have won, but coughed up at the end of regulation before eventually losing in overtime — so it’s tough to feel too down about the 97-81 loss that went down on Sunday night. In fact, people should feel quite the opposite. China played well throughout and kept the game competitive, never once looking overmatched or out of place. Just too much size and skill for Spain, who played tiki-taka in the half-court (an incredible 27 assists on 36 makes) en route to 57% shooting from the field and 11-19 from three.

But there were some positives for Big Red and if they continue to play at this level, they very may well come away with a win (or even two) in the group.  Yi Jianlian was sensational offensively with 30 points and 12 boards, and Chen Jianghua played 30 excellent minutes at the point guard spot. As a team, they only turned the ball over eight times and shot well from the field at nearly 52%.

China plays Russia next at 4:00pm local Beijing time today. If you’re going to miss it, this is your go-to tomorrow and everyday after that.
Here’s eight bullet points, because you know… eight is lucky and all.
  • Is there a guy in this tournament with more irrational confidence than Wang Shipeng? Dude hasn’t played a good stretch of basketball in about eight months, including the entire summer, and then he goes out guns blazing last night and drains every shot he takes in the first quarter (the best of which was a rediculous fadeaway on the left side over Rudy Fernandez that was just…  ridiculous). Good to see Wang back. They’ll need some more performances from him because…
  • Sun Yue did not enjoy one of his better nights. 1-9 from the field, three points and one rebound. He was active on D and came up with four steals, but China needs more from him. Starting with some made lay-ups.
  • If you’re wondering why, based on his performances internationally, why Yi Jianlian hasn’t carved out a niche for himself in the NBA yet, his closeout on Pau Gasol on the three-point line in the first quarter — and the ensuing blow-by that quickly followed it — should provide enough answers for now.
  • That being said though, Yi was great offensively: Perfect from the field in the first half and pretty much unguardable in isolations throughout. We would have liked to see him get to the line more when it mattered (there were a couple of times when he got his man up in the air on a pump fake and chose to fade away instead of drawing contact), but other than that it was pretty tough to come up with anything he could have done better on that end. 
  • How about five assists and zero turnovers for Chen Jianghua, who was thrust into big minutes because of Liu Wei’s foul trouble? We said it in the CBA Finals and during the summer, but it bears repeating now: This guy is the best pure point guard playing in China at the moment. Which is crazy to think about, considering he was once a lightning quick combo guard who couldn’t have played in the half-court at a China KFC 3-on-3 tournament. I don’t think massive knee injuries are ever a good thing, but I do strongly feel that the effects of Chen’s injuries and the quickness that they’ve deprived him of have been a big reason in his evolution from a guy with limited ability in running in an offense to a guy that’s making some really nice reads and decisions (his diagonal pass to Yi in the first half was something he couldn’t do a couple years ago). If he can stay healthy, the bridge from Liu Wei to whoever is next at that position might be sturdier than we once thought.
  • HoopsHype on “Max” Zhang Zhaoxu: “The tallest player of the tournament won’t make any difference. Slow and totally unskilled.” Tell us how you really feel, guys! NiuBBall vets know how we feel about the ever-improving Max, but as Serge Ibaka demonstrated with an emphatic block last night, that turnaround fadeaway needs to stay in Shanghai. He was also posterized by Pau Gasol in the first half off of a baseline reverse dunk.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

  • The Wang Zhizhi-Yi Jianlian front line is nice on offense; not only because of all of the high-low opportunities it can present, but also because it stretches the floor out and keeps the middle open for backcuts — a staple in the Donewald motion offense. Defensively, much different story. Still, I like it and I thought it was a key reason why China was able to play well in this game. But the other effect the lineup has is that it severely weakens China’s bench. When Wang starts, Zhang Zhaoxu is the first big off the bench (and we just saw how that ended up). It’s more necessity than anything when you’re playing against a team as big and as skilled as Spain. But with only three guys capable of playing center, I think Wang needs to stay on the bench against smaller teams.
  • Random thoughts… Always worth noting at the start of these tournaments that FIBA balls are abnormally bouncy… One of the worst non-calls you’ll ever see happened in the fourth quarter… Spain’s uniforms are made by Chinese company, Li-Ning… Yao Ming did a nice job alongside play-by-play guy, Yu Jia, on the CCTV broadcast… 
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China announces final 12-man roster for Olympics, wins gold at Stankovic

July 11, 2012

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Team China celebrates their first ever Stankovic Cup gold medal last night in Guangzhou. (Photo: Osports)

China finalized its 12-man roster for the 2012 London Olympics yesterday, then they proceeded to win the finals at the 2012 Stankovic Cup in Guangzhou.

The Chinese capped off their undefeated run to gold with a 70-51 win over Australia last night. It’s China’s first and only gold medal since the competition was first established in 2005. Yi Jianlian finished as the game’s top performer with 14 points and nine rebounds, while Yi Li pitched in with 12.

Although the level of competition at this year’s even wasn’t as strong as it has been in years past — Russia and Australia both sent younger teams — the achievement is still notable for China. Clearly better and more experienced, the Chinese suffered no letdowns and played well throughout the tournament. The win should give the team some momentum heading into their next set of pre-Olympic exhibition games, which start on July 20 in Poland against the Polish National Team.

But while the historic result was highly noteworthy, the real news came a few hours before tip-off when the 12-man roster was announced on Chinese media outlets. Five players will be making their Olympic debut in London: Center Zhang Zhaoxu, forwards Ding Jinhui, Yi Li and Zhou Peng, and point guard Guo Ailun.

Joining them will be the familiar faces of Chinese basketball over the last several years, Yi Jianlian, Wang Zhizhi, Zhu Fangyu, Wang Shipeng, Sun Yue, Liu Wei and Chen Jianghua.

CBA officials said the roster can change in the event of injuries.

Bob Donewald’s decision to carry only three centers on the roster speaks to the emphasis on versatility and defense that has been placed within the Chinese National Team since he took over the reigns in the spring of 2010. Whereas Chinese teams in the past relied on a slower pace that was designed to punish teams down low — i.e. get the ball into Yao Ming by any means necessary — China is now likely to go with rangier and more athletic lineups that will be better equipped to handle what is an extremely talented Group B.

So the exclusion of what is already being seen as China’s two biggest snubs, centers Su Wei and Wang Zhelin, shouldn’t really be considered as such. Though Su picked it up recent weeks, his confidence and overall play has taken a major hit since his disastrous showing in the CBA Finals last April against Beijing. Limited on offense even on a good day, Su’s ability to finish the simplest of plays around the hoop made him into a major liability on that end of the floor. And with Donewald’s commitment to fielding a more athletic lineup, there was no room in the end for the plodding former rower-turned-hoopster. After having played under Donewald in 2010 at the FIBA World Championship, missing out on the chance to play in his first Olympics will have to sting for Su because with a wealth of talented young Chinese centers primed to make the team in 2016, this may have been his last.

For Wang Zhelin, however, this will very likely be the last time he’s cut for any major international competition at the senior level. Though the 18 year-old performed very well in spots this summer, his inexperience and poor defensive play ultimately sealed his fate.  Though he was eligible to play for Fujian SBS last year in the top division in the CBA, Wang was held back and placed on the youth team to allow his body and game to develop. Not only does Wang not have any experience with the Senior China National Team, he’s never suited up against the top level domestically either. Added to that, Wang’s inability to either guard anybody on the ball or help off of it put him in a bad spot with the defensive-minded Donewald.

Another notable development is the inclusion of Guo Ailun. Guo, who played in Turkey two years ago, fell out of favor with the National Team setup last year after he lead a “blood letter” demanding the removal of China Olympic Team head coach, Fan Bin. Then he found himself off the roster for the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship. And this season, it looked like he’d be left in the cold once again when he was left off the preliminary roster in March. However, with limited options at the back-up point guard spit, he was called back up on April 14th. With injuries to Yang Ming and Zhang Bo, Guo will go to London. As the odds-on eventual short-term heir to Liu Wei, a trip to London bodes well for the future of Chinese basketball.

China plays its opening game in the Olympics against Spain on July 29.

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University of San Francisco signs former China Junior NT center, Xu Tao

June 8, 2012

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Former Chinese Junior National Team center, Xu Tao, will attend the University of San Francisco next season. (Photo: Delco Times staff / JULIA WILKINSON)

“On to victory, we’re out to win today here’s why.. For the Green and Gold, the Dons are going in to do or die — ”

I’ll spare everybody from singing the rest of NiuBBall.com’s beloved University of San Francisco fight song, but please understand: Since my freshman year at USF in 2004, there’s been little reason to sing it as the Dons have teetered between varying levels between really bad and mediocre. So excuse my unabashed giddiness over the latest, and possibly greatest, news to hit the Hilltop in the last few seasons:

The Dons have a Chinese basketball player on their roster. Green and Gold Nation, meet Xu Tao.

San Francisco made the news official yesterday, announcing the 6-11 260 center as part of their incoming 2012 class. Xu, who played prep school ball in the States last season for The Haverford School in Haverford, Pennsylvania, will become the first Chinese player to suit up for the Dons since Hong Kong-born Sung Fong in 1995.

Xu has had an interesting and unique road that has ultimately lead him to the Bay Area. Born in Qingdao, Shandong province, Xu was originally a promising piece of of the Shandong youth team and went on to play for China internationally as part of the National Team youth setup. At the first ever FIBA Asia U16 Championship in 2009, he averaged 6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1 block per game as China went on to win the gold easily. He continued to represent China at the inagural FIBA U17 World Championship (5.6 ppg, 2.0 rpg) and the FIBA Asia U18 Championship (2.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg), both of which were in 2010, and finally and the U19 World Championship in 2011 (1.0 ppg, 1.0 rpg).

Out of his youth contract with Shandong, Xu decided to go to school in the States. But shortly after the U19s, Xu broke three vertebrae in his lower back, which delayed his arrival at Haverford due to doctors’ concerns over the 13-hour plane ride. Xu arrived in October and played in the Fords’ opener on November 21.

He went on to average seven points, five rebounds and a block for the school, who went 15-11 on the season. An academic standout, Xu earned 2011-12 All-Inter-Academic Honorable Mention accolades in addition to a mention on the ESPNHS Pennsylvania All-State team.

Beyond his obvious size, Xu fills an immediate need on the roster as six players, including two starters, have transferred out of the Dons program this off-season. Though he’s still adjusting to the American game, Xu’s “footwork and ability to shoot the basketball make him very difficult to defend,” according to his coach at Haverford, Henry Fairfax.

The Dons went 20-14 overall last year and 8-8 in the West Coast Conference.

Xu joins “Max” Zhang Zhaoxu, Ji Xiang and Shang Ping on the list of Chinese hoopsters who have signed to play NCAA Division I basketball in the last few years. Zhang played two years at Cal Berkeley before signing a professional contract in the Chinese Basketball Association in 2010 with Shanghai, while Shang played one year at Nebraska in 2007-08. He signed back in the CBA with Beijing in 2009. Ji played two years at Hawaii from 2008-10 and signed with Shanghai for the 2010-11 season.

So many things are going through my mind now: The surge in USF attention from the Chinese/Chinese-American community in the Bay Area, a potential China-to-San Francisco pipeline, a center with high-major size protecting the basket in a mid-major conference, a valid excuse to write about my Dons next year…

But before all of that, we have to get one thing straight: This kid’s name. Contrary to what almost everything has been written about him in America, his name is not Tao Xu. Just like Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian and every other person with a Chinese name on the planet, his family name — the Western equivalent of a last name — is Xu, and it goes before his given name, which is Tao. So it’s Xu Tao, not Tao Xu. And while we’re on his name, Xu is pronounced shoo, not zoo. So if the student section has ideas of starting up Tao’s Zoo, just know while its potentially funny and creative, the play on his name is wrong.

But a Chinese basketball player suiting up for NiuBBall’s alma matter? Now that’s just right.

More on Xu Tao:

 

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Yang Ming, Zhu Yanxi cut from National Team roster

May 23, 2012

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Yang Ming and Zhu Yanxi have been cut from the National Team roster. (Photo: Sina)

True to their word, Bob Donewald and the Chinese Basketball Association have announced two cuts on the heels of the first three exhibition games of the Chinese National Team’s summer London warm-up schedule: Yang Ming and Zhu Yanxi.

They are the fourth and fifth players to be released from National Team duty this year. They join Xirelijiang, Duan Jiangpeng and Li Xiaoxu, all of whom were casualties from the team’s first round of cuts on May 8th.

Whereas Donewald’s cut downs earlier this month were met with a relatively high degree of controversy inside China, the decision to release Yang and Zhu will give critics little to complain about. Yang, a point guard who plays for Liaoning Hengye, was in serious contention to land a spot on the team as a back-up to longtime National Team point guard, Liu Wei. Hailed by some as the best Chinese point guard in the CBA this past season, Yang averaged  12.2 points and 6.5 assists for the Jaguars.

But Yang had been battling injury throughout training camp and did not play in any of Team China’s three exhibition games in Qingdao against an American All-Star team last week. Already behind the curve with the injury reportedly serious enough to keep him out for a further period of time, the decision to release Yang was a relatively easy as Donewald looks to clear up the team’s biggest position battle. The fact that Yang has never represented China on the senior level internationally also contributed to his dismissal.

Zhu, a power forward who played his first season for CBA champion Beijing Shougang last year, was never considered to have a realistic shot at London this summer. Known as a knockdown stretch-four shooter, Zhu failed to score a single point in any of the three games, going a combined 0-7 from the field in 15 total minutes.

China went 2-1 against the Americans, winning the first two games before losing the finale on May 20th.

The current roster stands at 17 players. The remaining players are as follows:

Center: Yi Jianlian, Han Dejun, Zhang Zhaoxu, Wang Zhelin, Wang Zhizhi, Su Wei

Forward: Yi Li, Sun Yue, Zhu Fangyu, Zhou Peng, Ding Jinhui, Zhai Xiaochuan, Zhang Bo

Guard: Guo Ailun, Wang Shipeng, Chen Jianghua, Liu Wei

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Change in plans: Donewald cuts three from Olympic roster

May 8, 2012

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Together for over a month, Bob Donewald Jr. has seen enough to know which players he can do without this August in London. So much in fact, that he doesn’t even need to watch them play a single warm-up game.

In a surprise move, Donewald announced three cuts from the National Team team today: Guards Xirelijiang and Duan Jiangpeng, and forward Li Xiaoxu.

At present, 19 players remain on the roster.

Originally, Donewald planned to make his first cuts after Team China’s set of three exhibition games against a United States All-Star team in mid-May. But talking to media today, Donewald said that it had become clear in recent practices which players were having trouble keeping up with the increased intensity and that a change in plan was needed.

The one player who’s dismissal comes as somewhat unexpected is Xirelijiang. The 6’0 guard from Xinjiang played under Donewald in the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship and was expected to battle for a spot backing up long-time National Team stalwart, Liu Wei. Though far from a lock to make the final 12-man roster, many thought he’d last into the summer.

Instead, he won’t even last until China plays its first warm-up game. According to quotes from Donewald (translated by Chinese media into Chinese), Xirelijiang lacks the requisite point guard skills to be effective at the one, and is too short to play at the two. In the eyes of Donewald, those deficiencies were enough to overshadow his on-ball defense, which ranks among the best in China.

In three years with Team China, Donewald has overseen a 9th 16th place finish in the 2010 FIBA World Championship, a gold medal in the 2010 Asia Games and a gold medal at the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship, which automatically qualified China for the 2012 London Olympics.

In 38 games for Xinjiang this year, Xirelijiang averaged 33.7 minutes, 11.5 points, 2.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game on 39% shooting.

The remaining 19 players are as follows:

Centers:

Wang Zhizhi (Bayi), Yi Jianlian (Dallas Mavericks), Zhang Zhaoxu (Shanghai), Su Wei (Guangdong), Han Dejun (Liaoning), Wang Zhelin (Fujian)

Forwards:

Zhou Peng (Guangdong), Yi Li (Jiangsu), Zhang Bo (Bayi), Zhu Fangyu (Guangdong), Ding Jinhui (Zhejiang), Zhu Yanxi (Beijing), Zhai Xiaochuan (Beijing)

Guards:

Liu Wei (Shanghai), Wang Shipeng (Guangdong), Chen Jianghua (Guangdong), Sun Yue (Beijing Aoshen), Guo Ailun (Liaoning), Yang Ming (Liaoning)

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Assessing China’s Olympic roster

May 8, 2012

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Confident, versatile and aggressive, Yi Jianlian is the unquestioned centerpiece of the post-Yao Ming Team China. (Photo: Xinhua)

Two.

That’s the amount of years its been since Team China improbably got out of the group stages in Turkey at the 2010 FIBA World Championship, thanks to, of all things, a last second three-point fling from Puerto Rico’s David Huertas against Cote d’Voire.

As China fans know, Huertas’ three caused Group C’s last game to end in a 88-79 win for Cote d’Voire, a score that proved to be significant for two reasons: First, it kept Puerto Rico from getting their second win of the group stage, which would have surpassed one-win China and qualified themselves for the knockout round. But second — and most memorable of all — the scoreline gave China the tie-break on point differential they needed to get past Cote d’Voire. Before the game, China needed the West Africans to win by less than 12 points, and up 88-76 with only seconds remaining, it looked as if the Chinese weren’t going to get their wish. Until, of course, the Huertas swish with just seconds left on the clock.

Unfortunately for China this summer in the 2012 Olympics in London, Cote d’Voire will not be in attendance and Puerto Rico, though still eligible as part of the 12-team Olympic Qualifiers Tournament, may not be there either. And with only two groups and 12 teams, compared to the four groups and 24 teams in the World Championship, the number two has a much greater — and more challenging — meaning.

It’s the number of wins China will require to get out of their group.

Since the Olympics expanded their basketball tournament to 12 teams in 1984, no team has ever made it out with less wins. And no team ever will; mathematically, its impossible. Which means, even if Puerto Rico does qualify for London at the FIBA World Qualifying Tournament, they’ll need more than just one win for a random buzzer-beating three to help push them through.

The good thing is, they’re very capable of that. China played Greece, Puerto Rico and Russia extremely tough in the group stages two years ago in Turkey. Much of that had to do with American head coach, Bob Donewald Jr., and his emphasis on defense. Now in 2012, China is even better on that end, arguably the best they’ve ever been. Whereas China once relied almost solely on Yao Ming to do everything, China now prides itself on helping the helper and quick rotations from all five guys. The belief is that though China doesn’t have the talent it did before, they can stay in games if they’re able to consistently limit opponents’ points. It’s worked both in Turkey and in Wuhan, and it’s something that Donewald has gotten the entire National Team roster to completely believe in heading into London.

Who that roster will be comprised of, however, isn’t exactly clear at this point. As it stands, 22 players are training with the National Team in Beijing, a number that is much smaller than the 37 players that were put on the roster in April 2011 in preparation for the FIBA Asia Championship. Zero play in Europe and only one, Yi Jianlian, plays in the NBA. Everyone else plays for teams in China.

Sounds like a good excuse to go on a 2,800 word tear. We go over every player’s chance at playing in London.

The Locks:

Sun Yue

Yi Jianlian (PF/C, Dallas Mavericks): Now two years past the Yao Ming era, Yi is the unquestioned centerpiece of Team China and will be depended on as their primary option on offense for London and beyond. He played extremely well in the 2010 FIBA World Championship and in the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship, where he helped China secure an automatic bid in this summer’s Olympics. He’ll probably have to play even better if China is to achieve their goal of making the quarter-finals.

Sun Yue (G/F, Beijing Aoshen Olympians): If Yi is the most important piece of the current National Team setup, then Sun comes in as the squad’s second most indispensable cog. The 6’8 lefty isn’t really a point guard, but he’s good enough with the ball in his hands to alleviate some of the pressure from Liu Wei and he’s skilled enough to create some offense for himself and others. He’s also becoming more reliable from the three-point line with every passing summer, making him arguably China’s second most dangerous offensive player. The problem with Sun, however, remains the same as it always has: Getting him some good reps against good competition so that he can hit his top gear by August. Wasting away with Beijing Aoshen for yet another season, Sun has been playing against fourth and fifth-rate competition in various invitational tournaments that result in nothing more than easy, meaningless wins. The good news is that Donewald has experience in getting Sun’s game where it needs to be, but we — like many others — only can shake our head as to why one of China’s best players is unable to play in China’s best league.

Wang Zhizhi (C, Bayi Fubang Rockets): Although old and creaky, Wang is China’s most experienced player. And he can still ball, too. The lefty may be past his prime, but at 7’1 with killer footwork and cash-money stroke from three, he’s still somebody that has to be accounted for on the offensive end. His minutes won’t be crazy, but like always, he’ll figure out a way to make his mark on at least one game, which may also double as his last.

Liu Wei (PG, Shanghai Dongfang Sharks): Like Da Zhi, Liu Wei is up there in age, but with nobody else even remotely capable of  taking the reigns at point guard, the longtime Team China vet will be playing a significant role for the third straight Olympics. Like Wang, this could very well be Liu’s last go around for the National Team.

Zhou Peng (SF, Guangdong Hongyuan Southern Tigers): Long, versatile and young, Zhou has developed into China’s best perimeter defender and will be a key guy in August for Donewald. His offense is slowly improving and if he can ever consistently knock down an open jumper, watch out.

Not Locks, But Almost:

Ding Jinhui

Yi Li (F, Jiangsu Nangang Dragons): Even if he was a bit disappointing during the domestic season (then again, who on Jiangsu wasn’t?), he was fantastic for China off the bench during the FIBA Asia Championship, a fact that will be very fresh on Donewald’s mind. Like Zhou Peng, he’s young, long, athletic and can defend multiple positions. He won’t start, but I think he’ll get some very meaningful minutes in London.

Ding Jinhui (PF, Zhejiang Chouzhou Golden Bulls): There’s a reason why nobody in the CBA looks forward to playing this guy. “The Bulldog,” as he’s known around National Team parts, is a favorite of Donewald for his unmatched energy, physicality, toughness and intensity. He doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional Chinese four because he’s undersized, but he more than makes up for it with his non-stop motor and a decent spot up jumper. He should and will be on the final roster.

Wang Shipeng (SG, Guangdong): At one time considered a lock in the not so distant past, Wang has slipped due to his notable post-season struggles this year, especially in the Finals. In five games against Beijing, Wang averaged 4.4 points per game and looked like a completely different player than the cold-blooded assassin that tormented Xinjiang in the 2011 en route to a CBA Finals MVP. Is his spot in London at risk? We don’t think so. Though an unapologetic chucker on offense, he’s one of the only guys on the team who can get his own shot off the dribble. He has also shown on a number of occasions that he is unafraid to take and make big shots (just ask Slovenia and Iran). Unless he has a complete meltdown, 2012 will mark his third straight Olympics.

In The Hunt:

Zhang Bo (G/F, Bayi): He doesn’t do anything noticeably really well, but he also doesn’t do anything noticeably really bad either. Donewald likes him because of his versatility and his high IQ off the ball. He can also be a spot ball handler if the need ever arises. Most helpful to his cause is that he’s played on both the 2010 and 2011 editions of the National Team.

Su Wei (C, Guangdong): Beijing fans will be calling on Donewald to huan Su Wei, but in all likeliness he’ll be included in the final 12-man roster. Increasingly inept offensively, Su is part in the Team Setup for one reason: The man is freaking huge and he plays with a mean streak. With Spain and their huge front line placed with China in Group B, Su could be called on to repeatedly smash his chest into one of the Gasol brothers. Unless Donewald goes with the even more massive Han Dejun (and we doubt he will, more on that later), Su is the guy to fill the defensive enforcer role China needs on the interior — assuming Donewald wants a defensive enforcer, that is.

Zhang Zhaoxu (C, Shanghai): Since signing professionally with Shanghai in 2010, “Max” has gotten noticeably better over the last 18 months and its in no small part to Donewald and the patient work he’s put in with the 7’3 center during his time with the Sharks and the National Team. A walking foul machine in the early stages of his professional career, Zhang has improved his defensive footwork and timing, the latter of which has helped him become an effective rebounder and shot blocker. He’s gaining more confidence with his offense as well, flashing a nice turnaround jumper and jump hook, moves that are both on their way to becoming at least somewhat dependable. Zhang will be with the National Team for a long time this summer, but whether he makes the final cut will depend on how Donewald wants to the shape the roster (i.e. small or big) in response to his group’s opponents.

Zhu Fangyu (SF, Guangdong): The CBA’s all-time leading scorer is a beast during the domestic season, but in international competition Zhu’s game doesn’t translate so well. He’s heavy and slow, which makes him a defensive liability and on the other side of the ball he can’t create his own shot. He can, however, shoot the heck out of the ball, which is always a useful skill. And depending on the match-up, he can occasionally go on the block to outmuscle smaller players. With Sun Yue, Zhou Peng, Yi Li and very possibly Wang Shipeng as well, China is pretty set on the wing so it’s tough to say whether Zhu will be there in London.

Guo Ailun

Guo Ailun (PG, Liaoning Hengye Jaguars): Included on the World Championship roster in 2010, Guo was universally considered China’s most promising prospect at the point guardposition and the virtual heir apparent to Liu Wei. Then, he organized a blood letter against his U-23 head coach, Fan Bin and set his development back a year after he was banned from the senior team for a year. Originally left off the initial 19-man roster in March, Guo got on in April. He didn’t go down with the team on their recent trip to Sanya, instead staying in Beijing to work individually with assistant coach, Li Nan. What all of that means is anyone’s guess, but obviously there is definitely more than just basketball in Guo’s summer equation. He still struggles with his decision making and his shot is a mess, but he’s good at getting into the paint off the bounce and is a solid finisher around the basket. Adding to his cause is his enthusiasm for on-ball defense and occasional ability to pressure guards full court depending on the matchup. He’s got the talent, but with his well-known disciplinary issues, his fate for London might be out of his hands.

Yang Ming (PG, Liaoning): Donewald has gone on the record saying that he’ll take two from the Guo Ailun-Xirelijiang-Yang Ming-Chen Jianghua quartet of guards to backup Liu Wei, but which ones? If we had to predict, we’d say Guo should be one of them. Nobody among the four is the sure-handed, sure-headed point guard that China needs, but Guo is probably the closest guy available.Finishing with averages of 6.4 assists and just 1.5 turnovers this year in Liaoning, the 26 year-old Yang is one of the best playmakers in National Team camp and because of that, is also likely the front runner to spell Liu.

Xirelijiang (G, Xinjiang Guanghui Flying Tigers): The Xinjiang born-and-bred guard made his debut on Team China last summer in Wuhan because he is the best defender at the guard position in all of China and one of few domestic players who can effectively guard imports. But will that be enough this time around in London? Though he lead the league this season in awkward-footed three-point makes, he’s still not a knockdown shooter from the outside (37.5% from three) and as one of the few players in the world who prefers to use his right hand when driving left, he is going to struggle mightily against pressure from longer and more athletic defenders. Of the four previously mentioned guards, Xire has the best singular skill of anyone, but at the same time he also probably has the weakest all-around game. A definite guy to follow this summer and someone who is definitely on the selection fence.

The Longshots:

Han Dejun (C, Liaoning): Han is surprisingly light on his feet, surprisingly athletic and surprisingly pretty consistent with his face-up jumper. Not surprisingly, he’s still fat and poorly conditioned, none of which will sit too well with the defensive-minded Donewald. If the selection process was based on skill alone, Han would be the pick. But given his weight problems and his absence from the National Team last year and in 2010, Han is not going to surpass Su Wei or Zhang Zhaoxu, both of whom are guys Donewald knows and trusts.

Zhu Yanxi (PF/C Beijing Shougang Ducks): The 2012 NiuBBall CBA Rookie of the Year, Zhu endeared himself in these parts due to his out-of-nowhere Chongqing-to-Beijing-to-NBL-to-CBA champion story and his Euro-styled game at the center position — even if he did lose serious points for being stretchered into an ambulance for what amounted to be nothing more than bruised ribs, an injury that didn’t even prevent him from missing practice the next day. Although he’s one of our favorite CBA players, we’ll have to wait labeling him as one of our favorite Chinese National Team players until another year as he’s too young and too inexperienced to be called upon for Olympic service.

Li Xiaoxu (PF, Liaoning): Li rebounds and has a decent spot-up jumper, but he’s not going to London unless there are injuries. He didn’t play in the World Championship or Asia Championship, which hurts his cause.

The No Shots:

Wang Zhelin (C, Fujian SBS Sturgeons): He’s going to be dominant in the CBA and he’s going to be a big part of the National Team, but just not this year. For all the hype surrounding the kid, he’s just 18 years-old and has yet to play a single minute professionally. With China gunning for the best result possible in August, there’s no room for developing young guys, so Wang will have no choice but get up super early and watch Big Red on television like everyone else in China.

Zhai Xiaochuan (F, Beijing): Can’t shoot, can’t play in the half court, can’t play in London. If Stephon Marbury was running point for China, he could reprise his role this season for the Ducks running the wings and finishing in transition. By FIBA rule, Steph can’t, so he won’t. He shouldn’t fret too much, though. He’ll get a major look in 2016 when his skills are more refined.

Duan Jiangpeng (SG, Shanxi Zhongyu Brave Dragons): Duan is a specialist who’s speciality — shooting — shouldn’t really be considered that special. Adding to things, he can’t get by anybody off the bounce and he can’t defend. He got cooking a few times this year for Shanxi, but more often than not he disappeared from games. Likely to be among the first cuts in May.

Chen Jianghua (PG, Guangdong): Before we go on further, allow us to say this: Chen should have played more in the Finals against Beijing. He was consistently Guangdong’s best player at the point, and caused problems for Beijing with his ability to set his team’s offense and get good looks for everyone. Instead, Li Chunjiang made it a zero-sum game between Chen and Aaron Brooks, and refused to put the two of them on the floor together for any meaningful period of time. So when Chen gets cut (which he will, he’s been ravaged by injuries over the years and is just not a very good international player with his super slight frame), that’s what we’ll be thinking about.

Prediction: Yi Jianlian, Sun Yue, Wang Zhizhi, Liu Wei, Zhou Peng, Ding Jinhui, Yi Li, Wang Shipeng, Zhang Bo, Su Wei, Yang Ming, Guo Ailun

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NiuBBall Water Cooler/Heater: End Of Season Review

April 9, 2012

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The NiuBBall water cooler/heater: Where you can chat with friends about hoops while sipping either hot or cold water.

This chat originally appeared on Shark Fin Hoops.

The end of the 2011-12 CBA season is here, which means its time to switch our NiuBBall coverage to other things. But before we do, our guy Andrew Crawford over at Shark Fin Hoops has organized a final Pastuszek-Bothfeld-Crawford three-man gathering around the water cooler/heater to recap the year that was. As always, feel free to fill your cups with whatever temperature water your body desires.

Andrew Crawford: First things first, Beijing Ducks are the CBA champions. They led the league, then they had that slump, they needed five games to beat Shanxi- how surprised are you guys with the Ducks being the CBA champions?

Edward Bothfeld: After getting off to such a hot start, you had to expect there would be a mid-season letdown but with the way they started the season, it showed that they were going to be one of the best teams all year long. With Shanxi, I feel like they could have taken any team to the brink of defeat because Williams and Gaines can really score the ball. The first few games against Guangdong surprised me because I expected Guangdong to win but after their Game 2 victory, it seemed that Beijing might actually be better than Guangdong.

Jon Pastuszek: Regardless of how they started the season, I always thought it was going to be Guangdong again. Remember when Xinjiang went 31-1 last season in the regular season and people thought they were finally going to get a championship? Guangdong always plays below their level in the regular season because they know their final goal is a championship, so I never took much stock in Beijing’s hot start.

Plus, with Beijing only going seven deep, I also thought there’d be fatigue issues so to see Beijing lift the trophy was a huge surprise to me. That said, I wonder — and this to me is the big “what if” that doesn’t get raised enough — if a motivated Wilson Chandler had been playing in the playoffs, would Beijing have even made it past the first round?

EB: Jim Cleamons firmly believed, without a doubt, that if they had Wilson they would have won that series. A motivated Wilson that is. Cleamons also said that the Beijing team knew that too.

AC: That’s an interesting point which I was going to ask later but we might as well talk about now- Chandler, J. R. Smith and Kenyon Martin were the big names coming over this summer. Wilson walked out, Smith couldn’t get his team into the playoffs and K-Martin bought his contract out after half the season. When we look back at this season, did these three guys justify the hype?

EB: Wilson and J.R. were good when they wanted to be but once the lockout ended, all bets were off. Wilson really struggled once the lockout ended and he saw Kenyon board that plane back to the States so I think if the lockout had lasted a lot longer, the hype would have been justified, but the fact that Kenyon and Wilson didn’t even finish the season, I don’t think you can say they justified the hype. And J.R. Smith put up impressive numbers but when I saw him live it looked like he was goofing around the majority of the time – attempting impossible passes, etc.

JP: I think Ned is right about the impact of the NBA season resuming. All of those guys signed in China with the expectation that the NBA wouldn’t be playing, so for the lockout to end suddenly was huge. You can come out and say that it doesn’t bother you, but when you’re a free-agent who has the comforts of home and a big money contract waiting for you, of course it’s going to impact your performance. When K-Mart first got bought out, and then got his FIBA clearance, that just took things to a new level, but I think it also depends on how you interpret “hype”- even though none of those guys played in the playoffs, they helped to attract more attention to the league than ever before. Ratings and attendance were higher than ever before, so if you’re looking it at from that standpoint, I think they did live up to the hype. I’m sure their teams feel otherwise, however…

AC: Indeed. What have you guys made of less heralded names from this season? Before he got injured, I thought Ryan Forehan-Kelly was amongst the best imports in the CBA. Besides Marcus Williams (obviously), who stood out to you as an overseas guy really making a difference in the league?

JP: I’m with you on RFK; his numbers may not have jumped off the page, but he was a huge reason for Shanghai’s success before he got hurt. Having played under Panaggio and his triangle offense, in the D-League, he was a big part of their success in integrating that offense in Shanghai. Not only that, he was their best clutch performer and was their most versatile perimeter defender. Just from a fan standpoint, it was sad to see him get hurt. Other guys who stood out: I’ve always been a big James Singleton guy, I just like his unselfishness and how he’s commited to winning. Will McDonald in Fujian was also great to watch, he’s one of the most skilled bigs to come into this league in a while and I hope he’ll be back next year.

AC: I am a big Zaid Abbas fan. After watching him live, I really have an appreciation for all the little things he does; his hustle, his determination, his shit talking- I want him on my team, and as we’ve seen, every team he goes to starts doing really well. He’s a winner.

JP: Would either of you sign him as a regular, non-Asian import though?

AC: Personally speaking, I would- either him or Singleton would be perfect for Coach Panaggio’s setup. I know they are talking about scrapping the Asian import but regardless, he’s a proven player. I’d be delighted to see him pitch up Shanghai- the Yuanshen would go nuts for him.

EB: Another guy I liked besides Abbas was Lester Hudson. I realize he hoisted a ton of shots but he was all over the place, getting steals, rebounds, etc- and after talking with him after his game against Guangsha, it seemed like his head was really in the right place and that he was dedicated to winning as a team and becoming a better player personally.

AC: Okay then, lets move on- which Chinese player(s) really stood out for you? I know he flew under the radar because he plays for a terrible team in Tianjin but Zhang Nan looked like a tidy player in the forward posistion. Han Dejun looks like he could be a monster with the right coaching and conditioning and I’ve got to show some love for Zhang Zhaoxu who is getting better and better every game. The Sharks coaches really like him and he could well be an every night double-double guy next season.

JP: Beijing’s Zhu Yanxi was a guy who really caught my eye this season. A big part of the Ducks’ championship was their ability to spread the floor and let Marbury do his thing. Without Zhu drawing out opposing bigs, there’s no way they would have been as successful as they were. I’ve always thought China should look to produce more Euro-type big guys who can stretch the floor and shoot it from the perimeter; maybe Zhu will convince coaches of the same. I’m looking forward towards seeing him develop both on Beijing and the National Team in the years ahead. Other guys I liked this year- Han and Zhang both looked good and I also really liked Xinjiang’s Xirelijiang.

EB: For Guangsha, I felt like Wang Zirui made a lot of progress in terms of developing. At just 18 years old, he was the youngest player in the CBA. He started the season on Jim Cleamons’ bench but was the starting PG by the time the playoffs rolled around. If he continues to develop, he will be a starting caliber PG for years to come.

AC: What about coaches? I know I’m writing from a Shanghai perspective but I have to say that the turn-around sparked by Coach Panaggio here has been impressive. What are your thoughts on guys who’ve made a big impact from the touchline?

JP: I agree about Panaggio, and I think Brian Goorjian in Dongguan also has done really well. Both overcame slow starts to make the playoffs and both made it a priority to develop their Chinese players, which is ultimately what this league should be about. Yang Xuezeng was the first coach ever to lead Shanxi to a post-season berth, so I think that has to be commended as well.

EB: Yeah, I also thought Daniel Panaggio did an excellent job with Shanghai. He preached defense and it showed. He also managed to incorporate Marcus Landry into the team’s system after Ryan Forehan-Kelly went down with the Achilles injury. Shanghai finished the 2011 season 12-20 and was ranked all the way down at fifteen on NiuBBall’s season preview. Coaching had a lot to do with their turnaround.

AC: What teams did well this season? There have been a few surprises this season but which teams really caught your eye?

EB: Qingdao and Fujian were nice surprises. I can’t say it enough- Lester Hudson is a hell of a player, although he does shoot the air out of the ball. Qingdao were fun to watch and it was good to see them have some success. As we anticipated, Fujian would get a boost due to the addition of Abbas, who was their Asian import. But I don’t think anyone saw them making the playoffs. Besides Abbas, McDonald really came on strong and played well — and if Roberson was shooting well, they really had a three headed monster. I thought they could make some noise in the playoffs, but with Roberson and Abbas battling injuries, they had no chance.

JP: You have to start with Beijing. I think a lot of people expected them to be a playoff team, but hardly anybody thought they’d be serious championship contenders. For a team to go from a periphery playoff squad to CBA champion is unheard of in this league, even more so when you consider that Beijing was among the younger teams this season. Shanghai was another team that surprised me; a new coach, a new offense, lots of young players and relatively unknown imports- I thought it was going to be a long season in Yuanshen.

AC: You’ve mentioned the improbable success of Beijing but we should also talk about the poor seasons endured by Jiangsu and Bayi- what were the critical factors in their seasons being so bad? Do you think this will be a blip or could you see these teams starting to stagnate?

JP: We all know Bayi doesn’t have any imports. Back in the late 1990s and early and mid-2000s, when the league was attracting mid to lower-level imports, that wasn’t an issue because they could contend every year knowing they had the best Chinese players. Things are a lot different now, though: First, their star player, Wang Zhizhi, is old and not nearly the player he once was. Second, the CBA is attracting better imports with every passing year, with this season’s NBA-to-China exodus clearly standing out as the best crop of foreign players in league history. So with every team around them getting better while Bayi themselves decline, it wasn’t a huge shock to see them take a dive this year. For Jiangsu, I think they missed having Tang Zhengdong in the middle. They also did a terrible job selecting their imports. Mardy Collins and Dan Gadzuric were both gone shortly after the beginning of the season. Jackson Vroman was a good pick-up, but Marcus Williams (the UConn one) was without a doubt the worst foreigner in the league this season.

EB: With Jiangsu, I thought the problem was with Williams. He looked really out of shape and only averaged 11.34. That’s not going to cut it for an import. Vroman was a nice surprise, but they need an imported upgrade in their back court. As for Bayi, maybe it’s time for them to change the system. Their demise was seen eight months ago, when Jon predicted they would miss the playoffs. Wang Zhizhi is really old — they need a new face to the franchise. When I saw them live, they played without any hint of passion.

AC: Let’s return to the players for one last time. Who have been your favorite guys to watch? For me, Osama Daghlas was a masterful point guard- he crushed Shanghai when they went away to Jilin and he’ll be another ‘Asian’ player that teams should look to sign this time next year, regardless of what the status is with imports. Mike Harris could really put on a show and should expect several suitors if he comes back to China. J.R. was also unbelievable in person and was absolutely worth the price of admission.

EB: Marcus Williams was just so efficient. I loved his game. Whether his team needed him to slow the game down by getting to the line or hit a big three, he was there for them. At times, it seemed like he would never miss! Abbas is also a blast to watch. His hustle and passion were infectious and he’s so annoying. I would hate to play against him. I was sitting first row behind the Guangsha bench and he would not stop talking shit, “Alright guys- one on five, one on five!” (in the fourth quarter when Chandler was attempting to take over”. I really hope he’s back in the CBA next season.

JP: I’ll give you three: I enjoyed watching Marbury for obvious reasons. He was able to perfectly balance his point-guard duties with his import ones, running the offense and distributing effectively for the first three quarters before taking over himself in the fourth. Shanxi’s Marcus Williams was fun to watch, he’s pretty much able to get whatever he wants on offense and looks very smooth while getting it. And last, Liaoning’s Guo Ailun. I’ve always been a fan of Guo, he doesn’t play the point guard position like a typical Chinese, he’s very vocal, energetic and enthusiastic. Plus he can be a beast out of pick-and-roll. All of that is fun to watch, even if he’s bricking jumpers and turning the ball over.

AC: Final question then- what has been the highlight and lowlight to your CBA season? I’ll take any of the big results Shanghai got against Guangsha, Xinjiang, Beijing, or Zhejiang for the former and the latter will probably be losing both home games in that Shanxi playoff.

JP: The highlight of the season was being a part of the 18,000 fans who filled up Wukesong Arena to watch Games 1, 4 and 5 of Beijing – Guangdong. As for the low point of the year, I think it’s a tie between Shanxi fans’ behavior during and after Game 4 of the semi-finals and Li Chunjiang ordering his players to sweep the leg and injure someone.

EB: The highlight of the season was watching Jin Lipeng hit the buzzer beater against Shanxi. It was a game that the Lions should have won, but gave away their lead at the end of the game…. until Jin came up huge. The lowlight has to be watching Wilson Chandler and the rest of the Lions team mailing it in during some games. It was so frustrating to watch. Against Bayi, with the playoffs on the line, they showed no sense of urgency. Just thinking about what could have been if Chandler and the Lions had remained motivated. I think that once Chandler had checked out, so did his teammates.

AC: Lovely stuff. Well, we finally made it happen and the much-vaunted three-man weave was well worth the wait. Thanks for your various contributions over the season, gentlemen. Enjoy the offseason!

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Senior and Olympic National Team Rosters announced

March 16, 2012

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After starring at the youth international level, Wang Zhelin has been selected for the Senior National Team, despite never playing at the top level in the CBA.

The CBA Playoffs are approaching its end and spring is coming to Beijing, which means soon we’ll be able to sit outside and engage in our favorite warm-weather pastime, beer and chuanr. Oh, and it also means that the National Team season is about to kick off.

Yesterday, the official rosters for both the Men’s Senior National Team and the Men’s Olympic National Team were announced. 21 players were selected for the Senior Team, while 19 were picked for the Olympic Team.

To answer some people’s question: No, the Olympic Team doesn’t actually play in the Olympics. I know, it’s strange. Just roll with it. According to the CBA, the goal of the Olympic Team is to ”prepare for the 2012 Asia Stankovic Cup, to be played this September in Japan, and the 2013 East Asia Games in Tianjin. To select the best players for the 2016 Olympics and develop high level backup players.”

The Senior Team, however, does play in the Olympics. And with the Olympics coming up in August, this is a huge summer for Chinese basketball. The CBA considers the Olympics as the most important international competition, and views the tournament as the best way for China to showcase themselves to the rest of the world.

In order to space everything out and give players some rest, the Senior team roster has been split up into three groups, with players whose season ended at the end of the regular season to report first, while players who are in the midst of deep playoff runs to report last.

The usual suspects are all on there, but the big story are the three players making their National Team debut, including one who doesn’t even play in the CBA yet. If you’ve been paying attention, you shouldn’t be shocked by the inclusion of Beijing’s young duo of Zhai Xiaochuan and Zhu Yanxi, who’s selection into Bob Donewald’s roster was basically assured by midseason.

The real shocker is Wang Zhelin, Fujian’s long hyped 18 year-old seven-foot center. One of the brightest prospects in China, Wang nabbed tournament MVP in China’s gold medal run FIBA Asia U-18 Championship in 2010 and was a key member in the FIBA World U-19 Championship last year where China finished 13th. Wang did not play top level CBA ball this year, as the team opted to keep him with the second team in order to improve his body and conditioning. One of the key long-term pieces for China, his entrance onto the team says a lot about the expectations the CBA has for him going forward.

He is widely expected to make his CBA debut next season.

Notable omissions from the Senior squad include 2010 FIBA World Championship and 2011 FIBA Asia Championship backup guard, Yu Shulong, who plays domestically for Jilin and Qingdao’s Li Gen. With Osama Dahglas getting most of the minutes at point guard in Jilin this year, the 22 year-old Yu averaged a career low 15.5 minutes per game. Li Gen, who played under Donewald in Shanghai in 2008-09, missed the cut despite averaging 17.5 points per game, the most of any Chinese player in the CBA this season.

For the Olympic squad, Guo Ailun and Fan Bin come back together for the first time since Guo reportedly lead a U-19 player rebellion against their head coach last year, demanding that he be removed due to his repeated physical and verbal abuse. Guo and most of the team signed a ”blood letter” to show the seriousness of the situation. Fan was suspended in April before finally being reinstated in May, promising to be more sensitive to his players emotions.

The entire rosters are listed below. The Senior team will eventually be cut down to 12, the timeline of which has yet to be publicly announced.

Men’s Senior National Team

Head Coach: Bob Donewald Jr. (USA)
Assistant Coaches: Li Nan (China), Selcuk Ernak (Turkey)

Group 1 (to report on March 20th)

Yang Ming, Han Dejun, Li Xiaoxu (Liaoning Hengye); Wang Zhizhi, Zhang Bo (Bayi Fubang); Zhang Zhaoxu (Shanghai Dongfang); Ding Jinhui (Zhejiang Chouzhou); Yi Li (Jiangsu Nangang); Wang Zhelin (Fujian SBS)

Group 2 (to report on April 8th)

Liu Wei (Shanghai Dongfang); Xirelijiang (Xinjiang Guanghui)

Group 3 (to report 15 days after each player’s respective season)

Wang Shipeng, Chen Jianghua, Zhou Peng, Zhu Fangyu, Su Wei (Guangdong Hongyuan); Sun Yue (Beijing Aoshen); Zhai Xiaochuan, Zhu Yanxi (Beijing Shougang); Duan Jiangpeng (Shanxi Zhongyu); Yi Jianlian (Dallas Mavericks)

Men’s Olympic National Team

Head Coach: Fan Bin (China)
Assistant Coaches: Du Feng, Wu Naiqun (China)

Li Muhao, He Zhongmian (DongGuan New Century); He Tianju, Guo Ailun (Liaoning Hengye); Wang Zirui (Zhejiang Guangsha); Dong Hanlin (Guangdong Hongyuan); Xu Zhonghao, Cao Yan, Tian Yuxiang (Bayi Fubang); Ge Zhaobao, Yan Pengfei, Xing Zhiqiang (Shanxi Zhongyu); Ding Yanyuhan, Sui Ran (Shandong Kingston); Yu Changdong (Xinjiang Guanghui); Zhang Zhihan (Tianjin Ronggang); Zhao Tailong (Fujian SBS) Yu Shulong (Jilin SBT); Li Gen (Qingdao Double Star)

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2011-12 NiuBBall Awards

March 7, 2012

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Stephon Marbury is understandably fired up upon being awarded as the 2011-12 NiuBBall CBA Most Valuable Player. (Photo: Osports)

It’s a most wonderful time to be a basketball fan in China: While the NBA season continues post-All Star break and the NCAA’s big boys are starting up their conference tournaments, we China folk are three weeks into our own Chinese Basketball Association’s post-season. With two excellent semi-finals match-ups getting ready for Game 2 tonight, we here have plenty to look forward to in the immediate while also knowing that our TVs will be flickering with March Madness (if you don’t mind staying out or getting up at insane hours) and the NBA Playoffs very shortly.

Call it an embarrassment of riches if you want — with Slingbox DVR coming soon to the NiuBBall residence, we’re just going to call it Niu Bi.

Since we’re always in the giving mood, we’re going to share the Niu Bi feeling with the release of our second annual NiuBBall CBA Awards. Please, do comment. But know that all selections were based solely on the regular season; whatever’s already happened in the post-season had nothing to do with anything written below.

Enjoy.

Most Valuable Player: Stephon Marbury, Beijing Shougang

It was close. As in really, really close. So close in fact, that we even debated calling it a tie.

There are, of course, no ties when declaring the highly prestigious NiuBBall Most Valuable Player award, so that inner-debate didn’t last too long.  But that we even considered calling it a split speaks to how painfully difficult the decision ultimately came.

More importantly, it speaks to the consistent excellence that Marcus Williams and Stephon Marbury displayed over the course of this season.

For a while, it was easy to put the two already been-there-done-that established Chinese Basketball Association stars out of mind — after all, the entire world’s eyes were completely fixed on the league’s shiny new box of locked-out NBA players who opted to seek refuge in cash-rich China. And though you won’t get us to deny that the NBA-to-CBA exodus was the hands-down story of the year, you will hear us say this:In the year that saw Wilson Chandler, J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, Aaron Brooks, Josh Powell, Rodney Carney, Dan Gadzuric, Cartier Martin and Mardy Collins all start the season in the Middle Kingdom, perhaps the just as big story that emerged was that Marbury and Williams have more than enough talent to follow them back to the League.

Yes, they’re that good.

Virtually everyone already knew that about Marbury, who after all spent 13 seasons in the NBA before making his trans-continental journey to China in 2010. (Likewise, virtually everyone knows that he has no desire to return.) Yet, there is something to be said about the now 35 year-old guard who just completed Beijing’s transformation from a fringe playoff squad into the second best team in the league.

Though he came up just short in his bid for NiuBBall MVP, Marcus Williams had a dominant season in Shanxi. (Photo: Osports)

At that age, most players would be allowed to take a more secondary role and allow their younger teammates to do most of the heavy-lifting. Not in China though, where foreigners, both young and old, are depended to put up big numbers with a win every game. He’s done just that, averaging 24.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 6.4 assists. The well-rounded numbers and the 21 wins add up to his finest season in China.

After spending his debut half-season in Shanxi followed by a full one in talent-bereft Foshan without any taste of the post-season, Steph came to the capital city this season with the all-around expectations that the Ducks were going to be a top-tier team. And as we all know, he didn’t disappoint in delivering. Finding the perfect balance between calling his teammates’ number and calling his own, Marbury has reinvigorated a perennially mediocre franchise while simultaneously embedding himself and every Beijing game into the city’s culture. Already a favorite for his well-documented affinity for China and its people, he’s endeared himself even more to fans by playing with pedal-to-the-medal maximum effort in every game — which in this league, isn’t always a given when it comes to foreigners.

His adeptness at balancing the two responsibilities have had positive effects on more than just his own personal popularity, however. Steph gets love from just about everyone in Beijing, but the two guys who should be showing the most are Zhu Yanxi and Zhai Xiaochuan, who before teaming up with their Coney Island point guard were two relatively unknown and unproven first year CBA players. Now, after a season running the floor and spotting up for open shots alongside him, both are very likely to be invited to National Team camp this spring.

Couple that with Ma Bu Li’s counseling of J.R. Smith, keeping up with a weekly China Daily column, running a shoe business and coping with injuries to key players Lee Hsueh-lin and Chen Lei, and you can really understand that he pretty much did it all and then some the Ducks this season.

To Williams’ credit, he’s done more than his fair share in Taiyuan as well. In his junior season in China, the silky point-forward had an even better campaign in Shanxi than he did with Zhejiang Chouzhou last year when he was throwing up triple-doubles on the regular. Showing almost no weaknesses in his offensive game, Williams put up 32-5-4 while shooting a staggering 60% from inside the three-point line and somewhere between 40-100% from outside it. Previously famous for their eccentric owner and object-throwing fans, the 6-7 former Arizona product now has people talking about the Brave Dragons’ first ever post-season berth. After scoring 40 points to pace Shanxi’s Game One semi-finals win over Marbury and the Ducks, he has them only two games away from an even bigger first — a trip to the Finals.

In the end, it’s Marbury with the slight edge. Even if the Ducks’ 13 game win streak to start the season — the best start in franchise history, we add — was somewhat soured by their late season swoon, we’ll push it aside for all of the things Marbury has sweetened in Beijing this season.

Defensive Player of the Year: Zaid Abbas, Fujian SBS

On Sina and hoopCHINA, Zaid Abbas is the league’s leading rebounder. On NetEase and Sohu, he’s second behind Donnell Harvey. The lesson: No matter how mundane the question, there is hardly an easy answer in China.

The CBA’s best defensive player, though? An exception to the rule.

You can say xie xie to Abbas for that, who either averaged 14.5 or 14.9 rebounds per game this season in Fujian, the highest of his three year career. Relentless, tireless and tough on the defensive end of the floor, Abbas is a perpetually in-motion nightmare that opponents have to live with for close to 41 minutes per game. His teammates and coaches on the other hand can’t live without him — he does the defensive dirty work (actually guarding opposing imports, sprinting back on D, diving for loose balls) that nobody else wants to get close to.

Sure, maybe he gambles a bit too much for some people’s tastes. For us though, even if he misses a wild steal or falls for a pump fake, his always running motor means he’s getting right back into the play. And in a league where good defense is still pretty hard to find, that’s more than good enough for us.

Coach of the Year: Dan Panaggio, Shanghai Dongfang

No matter who thought what about the triangle offense coming to Shanghai this season (or Guangsha and Fujian for that matter), one thing was always going to be certain: Dan Pannagio was going to teach it and he was going to stick with it, no matter how bumpy the initial process was going to be.

And oh, were there bumps. Seven of them in the Sharks’ first nine games, to be exact. Not deterred by a slow start, however, Panaggio remained patient and maintained his faith in his players and his three-sided offense. The long-term approach paid off. By season’s end, Shanghai had an 18-14 record and was in the playoffs as a No. 6 seed after missing out the year prior.

Despite a number of obstacles, Dan Panaggio successfully installed the triangle in Shanghai. (Photo: Osports)

Though people point to their big away win at Bayi as the turning point in the season, the improvement within the team didn’t happen overnight. Pannagio’s hard work in establishing an offense that demands high-IQ spacing and reads started well before the season in the long months of September and October, when he went to work teaching the basic principles of the offense. To assist in the process, he brought in Phil Jackson disciple, Kurt Rambis, in pre-season to help lay the groundwork. As the record indicated, it wasn’t pretty in the beginning, but as anyone who watched Shanghai-Shanxi last week can attest to, the Sharks can and do run the triangle effectively as their primary offense.

Getting his players comfortable and successful enough in the offense was just one part of the challenge this season, however. Arguably just as tough was convincing his very much set-in-his-ways team captain/National Team starting point guard, Liu Wei, to buy into an equal opportunity offense that basically takes the ball out of his hands for most of the shot clock. On top of that, a season ending injury to Ryan Forehan-Kelly in January, whose leadership, knowledge of the triangle and fourth quarter clutchness were all major factors in Shanghai’s progression, had the potential to totally ruin the Sharks’ year.

Though some adjusting on both parts, Liu Wei was eventually brought around. Due to some solid homework on RFK’s replacement, Marcus Landry, Shanghai never missed a beat after the injury. And thanks to Panaggio’s other main point, Shanghai’s lead leading defense, the team was able to build an identity that they’ll continue to develop next season when he comes back to take the reigns for a second year. With the already noticeable improvement in Shanghai’s Chinese players from Year One, it’s tough not to feel good abou what may come in Year Two.

Panaggio’s not the only coach with a long-term vision on our mind, though. Brian Goorjian deserves serious props for the job he did this in DonGuan. Picked by some idiot to finish out of the playoffs before the season started, Goorjian righted a potentially disastrous 0-4 start to the season to steer the Leopards to a 19-13 record. A coach who is completely committed to developing Chinese players, he’s doing wonders down in Guangdong province with an improving young core that will likely comprise a good chunk of the Senior National Team later this decade.

For a country that likes to talk about developing its own players, but still hasn’t found a way to successfully find a way to do it yet, the Shanghai-Panaggio and DongGuan-Goorjian combos are two examples that the CBA should look to if they are indeed truly serious about improving Chinese basketball.

Most Improved Player: Zhang Zhaoxu, Shanghai Dongfang

This award didn’t exist last year, simply because in our first season of really following the league, we didn’t really know the players well enough to confidently declare someone “most improved.” Upon completing our second season, however, our feeling on that matter has changed quite drastically. As has our opinion of the guy who’s taking away this award, Zhang Zhaoxu.

Known to many by his English name “Max,” the 7-3 center’s biggest claim to fame where the three years he spent in the Bay Area playing for Cal. Last season, with his eye on a National Team spot for the 2012 London Olympics, he decided to forego his senior season and sign in the CBA with the Sharks, who at the time were coached up by Team China’s head coach, Bob Donewald. Expected to come in and be a presence in the paint, Max was slow to adjust from college to the pros.

Based on what we saw from last season and this summer, it was tough to really be excited about him this year.In his second season though, Max has improved in every facet of the game to become one of the best domestic big men in the PRC. Defensively, he was good at protecting the basket and discouraging easy looks around the basket — one of the reasons behind Shanghai’s league leading defense. Now a nightly double-double threat, he’s improved his numbers almost across the board, including his free throw percentage which jumped up from 60% to 72%. And though his hands are still a major work in progress in addition to his offense which remains a bit rough around the edges, he’s developing a solid jump hook to go along with a useful turnaround jumper that is practically unblockable.

And if he can continue his development this summer, his dream of playing in London will become a reality.

Rookie of the Year: Zhu Yanxi, Beijing Shougang

It was a long, strange road to the CBA for Zhu Yanxi, but his rookie season for the Ducks was well worth the wait. (Photo: Osports)

If you like Jeremy Lin’s overnight sensation story in New York, then we’ve got a feeling you’re going to like Zhu Yanxi’s very similar tale here in Beijing.

Originally a soccer player as a youngster growing up in Chongqing, Zhu Yanxi was pushed towards basketball by his mother at the age of seven after she realized he was growing faster than his classmates. After showing a lot of promise at youth summer and winter camps, Zhu pulled out of school at 13 to board a train to Beijing with the intention of signing professionally. His first tryout was with Bayi, but due to the team’s already fulfilled quota for youth players, they declined to put him on their youth team and told him to come back next year. Already in Beijing, Zhu went to go see the Ducks who quickly snapped him up after seeing him and his sharp shooting from the perimeter.

By the time he was eligible for Beijing’s senior team, though, management felt that he was too raw and sent him down to China’s second-tier professional league, the NBL, to hone his skills. Known and liked by Jiangsu Tongxi head coach, Cui Wanjun, who had coached him during a national training camp earlier that year, Cui rented him out for the season as his ideal stretch big man. Cui’s scouting was on point — playing for Tongxi last season, Zhu lead the team to a championship and also earned himself an NBL All-Star selection.

Satisfied with his performance with Jiangsu, the 6-10 power forward got the call up this year and simply exploded onto the CBA scene, putting up 23 points, three rebounds and four assists on 4-5 from three in his debut game against Jilin. He’d go on to score double-figures in Beijing’s next seven, including 18 against Guangdong and 15 against Xinjiang, both wins.

Zhu ended the regular season with averages of 13.1 points and 5.8 rebounds on 36% from three, all of which were good enough to earn him another All-Star selection, this one being the CBA variety. And here’s another honor for his troubles: NiuBBall Rookie of the Year.

All-CBA First Team:

Guard: Stephon Marbury, Beijing Shougang
Guard: Aaron Brooks, Guangdong Hongyuan
Forward: Marcus Williams, Shanxi Zhongyu
Forward: Charles Gaines, Shanxi Zhongyu
Center: Will McDonald, Fujian SBS

All-CBA Second Team:

Guard: Lester Hudson, Qingdao Double Star
Guard: J.R. Smith, Zhejiang Chouzhou
Forward: Mike Harris, Shanghai Dongfang
Forward: Zaid Abbas, Fujian SBS
Center: P.J. Ramos, Zhejiang Guangsha

If Steph and Marcus’ MVP race was a struggle, the First Team selection was a cool breeze. Like almost every high scoring guard that comes into Guangdong, Brooks initially had trouble meshing with his high scoring Chinese teammates before figuring it out by January. By far the most talented player they’ve ever had, this year’s Guangdong team is hands down the best Guangdong team ever and will win yet another title at the end of this month. Williams’ foreign teammate in Shanxi, Gaines, was just as dominant statistically — no surprise to anyone who’s kept up with the league over the past three seasons. McDonald, in his first year in China, took his highly skilled, highly versatile inside-outside game from Spain and pretty much abused everyone who was thrown his way. If he opts to come back next year, he’ll be in high demand.

From start to finish, Aaron Brooks was the best NBA-to-CBA import in 2011-12. (Photo: Osports)

On the Second Team, Smith and Hudson, the league’s number one and two leading scorers, round out the backcourt while Abbas and Harris comprise the two forward spots. Initially on the bubble, Harris nudged out a couple of competitors he after tore it up with some huge performances during Shanghai’s regular season stretch run. One of those guys who was bumped out, Donnell Harvey, another player who runs through brick walls every game, deserves special mention for the 24-14 he threw down in Tianjin.

The most noticeable name left off these two teams is Wilson Chandler, who couldn’t get his name up above despite averaging 26.6 points and 11.5 rebounds. Why, you ask? Once the NBA resumed and it became clear that he potentially had a potential $30-40 million contract waiting for him when he got back, Chandler pretty much shut it down in order to prevent an injury. Once in second place at 13-4, Guangsha went 2-9 over their next 11 before squeaking into the playoffs as a No. 7 seed at 18-14. His overall unwillingness to get into the paint during that stretch wasn’t the only reason why the Lions slipped down the standings, but it certainly played a role. And to be honest, we don’t really blame him. If we had that much loot back in the States, we’d probably have done the same.

NiuBBall adheres to the laws of Sir Issac Newton, however: Actions have reactions. So while his conservative on-court approach may have guaranteed him a big payday, it did cost him a NiuBBall All-CBA selection.

All-CBA Chinese Team:

Guard: Lu Xiaoming, Shanxi Zhongyu
Guard: Wang Shipeng, Guangdong Hongyuan
Forward: Zhu Fangyu, Guangdong Hongyuan
Forward: Li Gen, Qingdao Double Star
Center: Wang Zhizhi, Bayi Fubang

Williams and Gaines have had a lot to do with Shanxi’s great season, but Lu Xiaoming’s steadiness at a position that has plagued the team in years past has been another key element to their historic season. Thought to be too old after a few lackluster seasons in Fujian, Lu was released by the team he spent the last five years with in the off-season. At the invitation of Shanxi’s infamous owner, Boss Wang, he ended up in Taiyuan as the squad’s starting point guard. Responsible for pushing the ball out after both makes and misses, the 33 year-old Lu had a resurrection this season averaging 8.4 points, 5.9 assists and only 1.9 turnovers. Without his frenetic pace, Shanxi wouldn’t have averaged a league leading 110.3 points per game, nor would they have won 20 games.

Li Gen, who lead all Chinese players with 17.5 ppg, gets on here too, as do Wang Zhizhi, Wang Shipeng and Zhu Fangyu who despite their advancing years are still among the CBA’s best domestic players. We’ll see how long that lasts, especially for Da Zhi, who has Liaoning’s Han Dejun breathing down his neck for best center in the country.

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