Dwelling on what’s wrong with Chinese basketball is a pastime enjoyed by many, both within China’s borders and outside – one that’s accumulated more participants since the National Team’s summer 0-5 debacle at the 2012 London Olympics. It’s a problem with education system… It’s too political… Chinese bodies aren’t suited for a power sport like basketball… If you’ve got some time to burn, ask somebody what’s wrong with basketball in China and listen.
But what’s right with Chinese hoops? That’s a conversation rarely had, at least in the circles that NiuBBall runs with in Beijing. Which is really too bad. Because constantly dwelling on the wrong – something we have been guilty of ourselves — is pretty unfair when there’s so much right going on with Brian Goorjian down in DongGuan, Guangdong province.
Stressing comprehensive, long-term Chinese player development, Goorjian and the DongGuan New Century Leopard youth movement have become arguably the best story in Chinese basketball over the last three years; a story that can be better appreciated when you understand some of its background.
Starting with their inception in 2003 and entrance into the Chinese Basketball Association in 2005, the Leopards were mostly known throughout the 2000s as the middling neighbor that happened to share the same town as Chinese Basketball Association powerhouse, the Guangdong Hongyuan Southern Tigers. By no means a bad team, the Leopards went through an average first five years in the league, finishing with back-to-back fourth place finishes in 2007-08 and 2008-09 sandwiched in between three seasons of no playoffs.
Like most CBA teams, DongGuan’s wins and losses generally correlated in part to the success in the selection of their foreign players; hit your mark, like they did with Mike Harris in 07-08 and 08-09, and its a winning season. Miss, and you’re out of the playoffs.
Apparently fed up of that model, DongGuan ownership made a change in philosophy when they hired Goorjian as a consultant in 2009. Known as the most successful coach in Australian professional basketball history (six NBL championships, over 400 wins and .700+ winning percentage), Goorjian has built himself an unquestioned reputation in winning and developing players, the latter of which appealed greatly to a forward-thinking club that is focused on structuring a team that will rely not on its foreigners, but rather on its Chinese players.
Goorjian, who also served as the Australian Men’s National Team head coach from 2001-08, a time in which he oversaw two trips to the Olympics and one to the FIBA World Championship, has not disappointed in spearheading that change. Coming in first as a consultant in 2009 while he was serving as an assistant on the China National Team bench under then-head coach, Guo Shiqiang, the Pepperdine alumni ended up leading DongGuan’s youth team to a championship at the end of the summer. Impressed with the work he was doing with their young players, management elected to hire him as head coach of the senior team in 2010-11. In his debut year, the Leopards — relying on heavy contributions from a mix of veteran and young Chinese players in addition to solid play from their two foreign players – finished in third place at 25-7 before going down to Guangdong in the CBA semi-finals. Using the same formula this past year, they went 19-13, eventually losing to Xinjiang in the first round of the playoffs.
But heading into his third season at the reigns, Goorjian and his Leopards are looking to make a big leap due largely in part because his vision of building a Chinese-centric roster is coming to fruition. Backed by an owner who is committed to the concept of player development, investing large amounts of money in coaching, youth teams and infrastructure — including a state-of-the-art training facility that is partnered with the NBA, the only one of its kind in the world — the 59 year-old has been able to carry his success from Down Under to southern China, getting wins, improving players and building a club capable of sustaining long-term success. And with an average team age of around 24 years-old, the sky seems to be the limit — so much so that Goorjian has on record as saying the team’s goal is to win a championship in three years.
Which brings us back to that whole post-Olympics, how-to-fix-Chinese-basketball-debate. Sure, there’s no simple solution and opinions differ. But, one thing remains certain — if every team was being run the same as DongGuan, we likely wouldn’t be having that conversation as much, or at all.
This year in that spot we went with Haislip because we’ve got Sun Zhe, we’ve got Li Muhao and we’ve got Sun Tonglin, all three of them are fives and all three of them are Chinese. And we’ve made a commitment this year to play Li Muhao. So with that being the case, the import now is a four instead of a five. And if we were going to go with a four, we wanted to be more athletic. More four than Jackson, more four than Shavlik and more athletic than either of them. And second, we wanted a guy who could stretch the floor and hit the three with those three big Chinese that we got.
NiuBBall: You mentioned Li Muhao and how he’s going to become more featured in the rotation this season. You’ve brought him along pretty slowly since you arrived in DongGuan and yet, DraftExpress recently placed him in the late second round of the 2014 NBA Draft. First, how would you rate his development since you’ve arrived with the team and second, is the NBA a realistic destination for him in your mind?
BG: His development has been a very, very, very slow process. And a big part of the development I think has been one, the pressure put on him in China, and all the eyes on him and every move that he makes. “When’s it going to happen, why didn’t he do this, why isn’t he doing that…” there’s just been pressure there and he’s a kid who I say is wound tight. He puts a lot of pressure on himself. So that’s been a big issue for him.
Number two, he’s unbelievably athletic and he’s 7’1. Basketball-wise, he’s all over the place, so the process has been a slow work in progress. But, I think this summer him leaving China and going to New Jersey and just being Li Muhao by himself with workout guys, he came back with a totally different mindset than from what I’ve seen. He’s much more coachable, he’s much more excited about the game, he seems to be at peace with himself and he seems to be enjoying basketball. He’s taken a big step in the last four or five months.
Last year, my plan, like what’s going on this year – and to be truthful, this happens with the Chinese setup – and again, I’m learning, but I come back [at the beginning of the off-season] and we start practicing… and there’s no Li Muhao. Where’s Li Muhao? Well, he’s off in Beijing somewhere and he’s there for four months! And our whole pre-season, our whole weight program, our development scheme, all of that is left in the hands of someone else. And then they’re brought back [to the team]. Li Muhao came back and just mentally he was burned out. He needed to be rested, he needed to be fed, needed to have a strength program put in place. So we pulled him off the court and brought him along slowly. And this is less than six weeks before the season is going to start.
As we started to get into the season, I would have had to cut out a major piece in our rotation to bring him, so I waited and then he rolled his ankle real bad. He was on the sideline for about a month. So really as you said, this is what was happening in his development last year and it was a real rough one for everyone involved, including Li.
This year, he went to New Jersey, he came with us for the whole pre-season, he’s playing with our group and right now, he is a guy that is going to be playing 25 or 20 minutes minimum in our system this year. So that’s a big piece that we didn’t have last year. It’s our most talented young player and he’ll burst onto the scene next year and I think it’ll give this youth movement a stronger and more noticeable look. When I say “youth movement,” that’s a piece nobody has seen before. So that’s big for him and it’s big for our club.
Second thing on the NBA, he’s got that on target his forehead right now and everybody who we play, any team who has an American, they all go after him and make things as difficult as they possibly can for him, which one, has been helpful in his development, but two also can let you see that he’s a long way from [the NBA] yet.
But as far as a talent, somebody you would draft and bring along? Yes. In my 30 years in this, he’s in the top four talents I’ve dealt with as far as, you come onto the court, you start throwing the ball to a guy and do a workout and you look and you say “Wow, I haven’t had much of these in my life.” He’s an NBA talent and I’m real excited where his head’s at, I just think he’s taken a huge step emotionally.
It’s a similar process to what Andrew Bogut went through when we were involved in Australia. He had similar issues mentally, just accepting coaching, accepting criticism, he was high strung, he was highly emotional and Li is very, very similar. And I’m saying this because I think in the long run, it’s a good thing. You gotta get a rope and pull him back, as opposed to some of these guys where you have to kick to get them to compete. Li doesn’t mind the physical stuff and he’s somebody you have to pull back. That’s a good quality.