Love is not a reasonable thing. And so it is that, even as hulking seven-foot centers approach extinction in the NBA, the love affair between Chinese hoops and towering centers remains unapologetically strong. These dinosaurs plod and clog lanes and flip up dorky baby hooks in China in a number that hasn’t been seen in the NBA in years; almost every Chinese organization stocks its roster with a couple of old-style big men. The game has moved on in North America, and to a lesser degree in Europe. In China, love is stronger than basketball progress.
Part of this obsession is a result of the harsh realities of China’s professional basketball leagues and a certain broad failure in coaching. Local coaching and recruitment of players remains simplistic in many places, and undersized prospects are still all too often overlooked in place of taller, stronger kids. Homegrown guards also often fail to make that next step into the Chinese Basketball Association, the country’s biggest league, because of the exceedingly conventional ways in which CBA teams tend to be built.
The CBA has a strict policy on foreigners, and it tends to squeeze Chinese guards disproportionately. The rule is two imports per team, and at least one of them tends to be a gunning wing player whose only job is to keep the scoreboard moving along. Chinese guards, on balance, lack the athleticism and individuality of their American counterparts and thus often become bench guys or complimentary pieces behind the hired guns brought in to do their best J.R. Smith imitations.
However, there’s nothing negotiable about standing seven feet tall. That particular genetic quirk is a great equalizer in any basketball culture, and all the crossovers in the world won’t rescue a slasher when his drive to the rim is rudely interrupted by the forceful presence of a 7’1″ monster. In a league that’s often dominated by trigger-happy foreign scorers, Chinese bigs are seen—and generally used—as brawny counterpoints.
There is also the fact that many of China’s best players have happened to be of the Extra-Large Human variety. For Chinese basketball fans, this belief in the power of size became reality during the 2000 Olympics, as China unveiled their celebrated trio of big men, nicknamed “The Walking Great Wall.” All three of these seven-footers—Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer—played in the NBA with varying degrees of success, and together, they made the rest of global basketball realize that China was going to handle its business on the global stage.
Not only did they dismantle the patronizing Asian stereotypes for being weedy and soft, but the three bigs’ physicality and commitment resonated neatly within a culture that values togetherness over flashy individualism. Chinese basketball had long wanted respect and its trio of giants became the keys to acquiring it.
Among the Chinese players that have gone on to play in the NBA, only one was shorter than seven feet. Wang and Bateer moved to the NBA in 2001, Yao followed a year later and Yi Jianlian, another seven-footer, made the move in 2007. Only Sun Yue, who signed with the Lakers in 2008, was not a center. Still, at 6’9″, Sun remains one of the tallest point guards to have played in the league.
Though only Yao was successful in America, it seemed to reinforce the idea that Chinese basketball’s best route for success lay in nurturing players whose dominance of the paint could compensate for a traditional lack of flair. In American culture, the most hallowed and romanticized position in sports is the quarterback; in China, that role is arguably now reserved for the traditional center.
November 22, 2012, should have all been about Yi Jianlian. He had just returned to the CBA after a humiliating last year in the NBA that was split between the Dallas bench and its’ D-League affiliate. Now the sixth pick in the 2007 draft was back playing for his hometown team, the Guangdong Tigers, after a five-year absence.
Yi’s 26 points and 11 rebounds would have normally been the main sports story on Chinese television. But, far further east, the Fujian Sturgeons were taking on the Qingdao Eagles, led by a new import and old beloved teammate of Yao, Tracy McGrady. Yi was upstaged, again.
The Sturgeons won the game 95-92 on a buzzer beater from Sundiata Gaines, but the score was nearly irrelevant; Fujian’s Zuchang Gymnasium cared more about the people on the court than the score on scoreboard. Mai Difinally playing basketball in China was a big deal but fans were also eager for a first look at Fujian’s vaunted 18-year-old center, Wang Zhelin. The local kid played 36 minutes in his first pro game, scratching his way to 11 points and 6 rebounds. He went 1-for-10 from the field, and at times looked bewildered by the knowledge that the crowd had come to see him as much as they had McGrady.
The hype surrounding Wang had been building for a while. In 2011, the year of Yao’s retirement, an article ran on Sina Sports, one of the country’s largest media outlets. “This is an era that needs a hero [now that Yao is retired],” it thundered. “And today, this task will fall on Wang Zhelin’s shoulders.” After citing coaches, doctors and other league insiders, the article finished on a firm note: “Wang Zhelin will very likely become the next hero of Chinese basketball.” The then-17 year old had not yet played a professional game.
Twelve months later, after starring in a variety of youth team tournaments, Wang made headlines in June 2012 when he was invited to Olympic team trials before he’d so much as played a CBA game. Given the limited number of spots available, the teenager’s inclusion underlined what many had been saying for a while, generally without ever having seen proof for themselves—Wang was for real.
After that awkward CBA debut, Fujian coach Tab Baldwin brought Wang off the bench in the next game, a tricky road trip to Xinjiang. Though the Sturgeons were comprehensively beaten 105-87, Wang acquitted himself well, picking up a 21-point, 15-rebound double-double. Restored to the starting five the following game, Wang coolly hung 28 and 15 on the Shanxi Dragons. He then started the next five games, churning out eye-catching numbers night after night.
Baldwin, a no-nonsense Floridian who had been a successful coach in five continents, did his best to keep his young star from being overwhelmed by the hype. A month into the season, Wang would return to the bench for the second time in his career when Fujian faced the Bayi Rockets in Ningbo. The Rockets, who boast historic ties to the People’s Liberation Army, have long been seen as China’s resident masters of bar-fight basketball. Ten games into his pro career, Wang was already important enough to get some of Bayi’s ‘special attention’ and Baldwin had no intention of feeding his teenage prospect to such a goon squad. The head coach made the right call, but the press pack, already smitten with Wang, was less than impressed.
Indeed, no matter how hard Baldwin tried, the media circus that had quickly began to follow Fujian would not go away. After a 91-85 road loss to Shanghai, Baldwin glared furiously at local journalists during his postgame press conference. Pinning the hopes of a team on a teenager was not the answer, he growled. Everyone needed to back off and let the kid grow. No one listened.
As difficult as the media’s obsession with Wang was to manage, Baldwin’s greater challenge proved to be pulling a competent starting five from a weak Fujian roster. Other than Wang and Will McDonald, a former UCF big man who had been playing in Europe for almost a decade, Baldwin had little to work with, and it showed. Midway through the season, the coach became the sacrificial lamb for the front office’s failings and suddenly there was no one to shield Wang from the spotlight.
Well aware that the team was sinking without a trace, Fujian’s front office knew that giving Wang the keys to the team would keep the turnstiles in motion, and set to it. To the surprise of some, the teenager took the promotion in stride and quickly adapted to life without training wheels. With McDonald able to shoot the three and do some work down low, opposing defenses were too stretched out to stop Wang from getting buckets. The Sturgeons weren’t winning, but Wang was learning on the job with dizzying speed.
At year’s end, Fujian were 11-21 but Wang had averaged 20.3 points a game and 12.9 rebounds. Easily the league’s top rookie, Wang won an invite to CBA All-Star weekend where he won MVP in the Rising Stars game and made his All-Star debut. His coach during the Rising Stars game was Wang Zhizhi, a third of the national team’s beloved ‘Great Wall’ from a decade past. As poetic metaphors went, it was a neat reminder that the baton was being passed to the new generation, and was in Wang’s hands, now.
A year on, and Wang’s sophomore season has been just as impressive as his first year with the big boys. He made his second All-Star game and finished the season with 22.8 points on 59% shooting, and grabbing 11.4 rebounds per game on average. Wang is now a problem almost every time he gets into the paint—increasingly confident and aggressive, strong as an ox, and blessed with both a soft touch around the rim and the ability to finish with both hands. He has also begun to unveil an array of pump fakes, hook shots and spin moves. The rebounding is still good, the work rate relentless and Wang is now a 74% shooter from the charity stripe. His game averages are already better than Yi Jianlian and Wang Zhizhi’s at the same age, and he is still getting better. You know where this is going.
The question that Chinese basketball circles are increasingly concerned with is when Wang will think about making the move to the NBA. Websites such as Draft Express have already begun profiling Wang for the upcoming 2014 draft, much to the delight of local media, who gleefully relay any US-based reporting about Wang back to their Chinese audience. Though it’s likely impossible that Wang will move this year, there is still a real belief he will soon become too big for the CBA, and for any stage but the world’s biggest.
Putting his name into the 2015 draft pool is a possibility, but 2016—when Wang will be 22 and will have four seasons as a starter under his belt—seems most likely. The move is coming, though, and the right people are already being assembled to give Wang the best chance at a high draft pick. Lu Hao, who has previously represented Yi Jianlian and Yao Ming, is managing Wang’s affairs. Lu, incidentally, also retains close links to NBA super-agent Dan Fagan.
In the meantime, Wang still has some work to do. Fujian missed out on the CBA play-offs by two games as the team’s threadbare bench cost the Sturgeons dearly down the stretch. To continue to justify the hype, Wang will need a postseason run sooner rather than later. McDonald, Wang’s security blanket for the past two years, is now 32 and probably won’t be back next season; Wang will have to step up and become the unquestioned leader of Fujian’s frontcourt. The big man will also need to camp out in the weight room and probably use a code from proteinpromo for supplement purchases if he is to keep his weight close to 240 pounds. His jump shot could do with some work, as could his grasp of floor spacing and passing. Film sessions, protein shakes and the weight rack beckon.
Two years have passed since the last Chinese player touched a ball in the NBA, and an entire country is hoping that the young center from Fuzhou will be the one to change that. It might be awhile before NBA audiences will see him regularly but Wang has already convinced more than a billion people that he’ll be worth the wait.