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Watch: NBA hopeful Zhou Qi not yet a match for Yi

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A meeting of the old guard and the new generation is a once-in-a-decade experience in any sport, but for Chinese basketball, such encounters have an extra special meaning. Obsessed with seeing their countrymen in the NBA, each rising hopeful is the next chance to make that happen. But at the same time, there are also those who made it to America but never quite managed to stick around. Invariably they return to the CBA as gatekeepers, waiting for the next young mainlander to travel down the road to the NBA.

It has been almost ten years since the last true match-up took place, and both of the names will be familiar. In 2006, Wang Zhizhi, once the jewel in the Chinese basketball youth system, had returned to China after a disappointing tenure in the NBA. It hadn’t worked out and amid pressure from Beijing, Wang returned home to try and reclaim a place in the national team.

Dutifully, Wang suited up once again with the ultra-successful Bayi Rockets, whose home arena in Ningbo was nicknamed “The Graveyard of Hope.” But facing them for supremacy were the young Guangdong Tigers, led by a gangly big man that could seemingly do anything. Still a teenager, Yi Jianlian was a massive talent and one the NBA couldn’t wait to get their hands one. So every time the two met, China watched on with curiosity as Wang, the man who once was, faced off against Yi, the boy who might be.

The league even tapped into this passion and made Bayi vs. Guangdong the opening game to the 2006-07 season, but ultimately those games came down to Yi versus Wang. In their first ever league encounter, Guangdong won 104-98 with Yi scoring 26 points and hauling in 15 rebounds. The Tigers would face Bayi seven times that year and eventually beat them in the CBA Finals for the championship. Yi, meanwhile, had proven his worth against the last Chinese player to handle himself in the NBA. A year later, the Guangdong big man was drafted seventh by the Milwaukee Bucks.

Yet time spares no one, and after a disappointing five-year stint of his own, Yi returned from America to reign as a big fish in a small pond. Having come back to Guangdong, Yi has been outstanding and won multiple CBA MVPs, but the reality is still this; having once been an up-and-comer, now he is an NBA marker for the next generation.

For Zhou Qi, Xinjiang’s graceful but impactful big man, Yi is now the man he needs to beat as he prepares for his own NBA destiny. Yesterday, the two men faced off against one another for the second time this season and China, predictably, was excited. Guangdong vs. Xinjiang was easily the game of the month, let alone the night.

So it went without saying that Zhou enjoyed a strong start to the game. Three minutes in, Xinjiang came around a screen, cut to the basket and dumped a shovel pass off for Zhou to jam emphatically onto the head of Yi. It was a big basket, but considering the symbolism, it was also a telling one.

Yi, though, was unimpressed and came storming back on the very next play of the game. With Will Bynum driving to the hoop, Xinjiang’s defense shifted towards the American point guard, only for Bynum to throw up an alley-oop pass. Yi caught it in midair and hammered it down, hanging on the rim long enough to swing in and make contact with Zhou, who had moved away from the basket as soon as he realized the dunk was on. It wasn’t taunting according to the rules, but it still kinda was. Yi, pumped up by the build-up to the game, was screaming and chest thumping constantly, so any little message to the young gun must have been intentional.

As the game passed, Xinjiang began to fade as Yi only grew in confidence. By the game’s end, he had scored 26 points and ground down the opponents with his pick-and-roll work alongside Bynum (who had 20 points and 11 assists). Xinjiang, by contrast, had to rely on Andray Blatche to get them going and his haul of 24 points was not good enough to keep the game close. Guangdong went in at halftime up 53-40 and never looked back, and by the midpoint of fourth quarter, Xinjiang’s coach was already beginning to pull in some of the starters. Guangdong won 101-84 but the result as far as the press was concerned: Yi 1, Zhou 0.

‘The NBA door is getting closer and Zhou wants to open it,” wrote Sina Sports in their match report. But the media outlet also noted that Yi is standing in his way and right now, the past still trumps the future. “Facts have shown, at least so far, [that] Zhou still has a lot to learn from big brother,” the match reported added, almost with disappointment.

Going into the game, Zhou, who had an underwhelming 14 points and 8 rebounds, was a little injured and not at 100 percent. Thus the young rim protector has an excuse for a disappointing night– which the Chinese media, to their credit, have mostly noted. But there is also the acknowledgement that there are still things Zhou needs to improve on. His defense is good, but playing against Guangdong, his offensive game still looked somewhat clumsy.

Yi, though, will not care, and for now at least, he still remains top dog in Chinese basketball. After the game, a journalist implied that the Guangdong player had spoiled a good storyline for the CBA, what with all the press Zhou had been getting of late. In response, all Yi did was to smile to himself.