Before we get to three of the heavyweight contenders in our 12-team Olympic Basketball Preview, let’s take a look at a team that would be happy just to come away with at least one victory: China.
China is the lone Asian nation in the Rio Games and will have a tough gauntlet to get through. We’ll go over the history, the road to Rio, and the roster of the Chinese Men’s National Team, also known as “the Dragons” by their fans.
Basketball was brought to China in the 1890’s shortly after the game was invented. By the 1920’s, the game gained popularity among urban students.
Under the Mao Era, which began in the 1940’s, basketball was one of the few Western activities that was not condemned.
The FIBA Asia Championship would begin in 1975, right around the same time of the fall of the dictatorship.
China would win Gold in the first five tournaments, earning their first Olympic-berth in 1984. China would finish tenth out of 12 teams.
The Dragons have dominated Asian basketball ever since, appearing in all 8 Olympic tournaments since 1984.
China has won the FIBA Asia Championship Gold Medal 14 of 16 times since the tournament began in 1975.
Despite dominating in Asia, the team has struggled against the rest of the world. In 1996, China made it to the knockout stage of the Olympics for the first time, going 2-3 in group play.
They would end up being eliminated by Serbia, who would go on to win the Silver Medal. China finished in eighth place.
2004 and 2008 were the best back-to-back performances by China in the Olympics, as the Dragons finished eighth in both tournaments.
Yao Ming, China’s basketball hero, averaged 20.7 points per game and 9 rebounds per game in 2004, leading the team. In 2008, he averaged 19 points and 8 rebounds per game, leading the team to advance past the preliminary stage both times.
The 2008 games in Beijing were perhaps the highlight of Chinese basketball history, as the host nation went 2-3 in group play, defeating Angola and Germany, but losing to the United States, Greece, and Spain.
One of the most impressive aspects of the 2008 Games was that China took Spain to overtime, losing by eight points. Spain would go on to win the Silver Medal.
In 2012, China had arguably its worst Olympic showing, losing all five games and finishing in 12th place. The only other time China finished 12th was in 1992.
China looks to at least avoid a last place finish in Rio, as they make their ninth Olympic appearance.
The Road to Rio
Since 2012, several new faces have joined the Dragons. A fresh crop of young players is filling in the shoes of Yao and although they aren’t near the level of his stardom, perhaps the team is on the rebound.
China finished in fifth place in the FIBA Asia Championship in 2013, which was their second-worst outing in the history of the tournament. Two years later, they bounced back and were on top again, winning the Gold Medal to secure a spot in Rio.
This summer, China has been playing tune up games against the likes of Nigeria, USA, Serbia and other Rio-bound teams.
To put it mildly, China has not looked good. We’re not going to go through the scores, but if China plays like they have up to this point in the tune up games, they’re going to have a rough couple weeks in Brazil.
It doesn’t help that the field is full of talented teams and Group A is arguably just as competitive as Group B.
We’ll take a closer look at China’s competition, but first let’s meet some of the faces that will be relied upon heavily for the Chinese side.
Zhou Qi, a 7’2″ center was drafted 43rd overall by the Houston Rockets in the 2016 NBA Draft. It’s no coincidence that he will be filling the shoes of Yao, who put Chinese basketball on the map during his career in Houston. Zhou is listed as 20 years old, but his age has been disputed by various reports.
What’s most important is that the guy can flat out play. In 2011, Zhou made headlines in the FIBA U-16 World Championship in Turkey, where he posted a ridiculous triple-double with 41 points, 28 rebounds, and 15 blocks in a 94-90 semifinals victory against Germany.
From then on, Zhou was a star of the U-16 Chinese National Team, leading China to FIBA U-16 World Championship and Asia U-16 Championship victories.
In 2014, Zhou signed a three-year deal to play with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association. He would make his mark quickly, leading the league in blocks as a rookie, averaging 3.29 per game.
Zhou led the league in blocks again in 2015-2016, putting up 16 points, ten rebounds, and 3.5 blocks per game. It was just after the 2016 season that he declared for the NBA Draft. Zhou reached a buyout agreement that would allow him to enter the NBA in 2017 after the conclusion of the next CBA season.
The 2016 Rio Olympics will give basketball fans the first chance to see Zhou on the global stage since being drafted. Houston Rockets fans in particular should be interested to see the young seven-footer play.
Wang Zhelin, 22, another seven-footer was selected 57th overall in the 2016 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. It was just the second time in NBA history that two players from China were selected in the same draft.
Wang was selected to the Chinese National Preliminary Squad in 2012 at the age of 18, but failed to make the cut for the London Olympics. He signed with the Fujian Sturgeons of the CBA in 2012 and would go on to average 20 points and 13 rebounds per game as a rookie.
His production remained steady over the next two seasons, but he was hampered by injuries in 2015-2016, playing just 21 minutes per game and averaging just ten points and six rebounds per game. Wang’s injury history caused his draft stock to plummet, but he still is viewed as a player with upside, hence the reason why the Grizzlies decided to select him near the end of the draft.
The young duo of Wang and Zhou towering over opponents should be interesting to watch in international play.
Zhai Xiaochuan, a 6’8″ small forward is another player to watch for the rising Chinese National Team. Zhai, 23, was the CBA Rookie of the Year in 2012, averaging 11.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game with the Beijing Ducks. He regressed somewhat over his next three seasons, but had a strong 2015-2016 campaign, averaging a career-high 15 points per game.
The young “Big Three” of Wang, Zhou, and Zhai should be fun to watch, as this trio makes up the core of the future of Chinese Basketball for years to come.
Yi Jianlian, the veteran leader, the elder statesman of the Chinese National Team is only 28, but is experienced beyond his years after playing five seasons in the NBA from age 20 to 24, and returning to his homeland to become a star player once again in the CBA.
Yi was a four-time CBA All-Star before he was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks with the sixth overall pick in 2007 and has been named to the CBA All-Star Team four straight times since 2013.
Yi has been named the Domestic MVP (Chinese-born MVP) of the league every year since 2013. He has averaged 23 points or more in four straight seasons, most recently averaging 26 points and nine rebounds per game in 2015-2016 as a member of the Guangdong Southern Tigers.
Although the three aforementioned young players are certainly a big part of the future of Team China, Yi still has plenty of great basketball ahead of him and will be viewed as the star and leader of the team in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Those four players will play a big part in determining how China fares against its tough five opponents.
Let’s take a look at who they’ll be facing.
What to Expect in Rio
The first game is against USA, who outscored China by 99 points in two exhibition games in July. Let’s just say China will be happy to get that game over with and the competition won’t get any harder after that.
The other four teams that China will face are Serbia, France, Australia, and Venezuela.
If China were to beat Serbia, France, or Australia, any one of those games would be considered a major upset.
The most realistic chance to get a win is against Venezuela.
Venezuela will have zero NBA players on the court. China will have a distinct size advantage with all of its seven footers.
China would still be an underdog, but that will be the most competitive game on their schedule.
For China, going 1-4 would be a positive outcome.
My prediction for China is that they will go 0-5. As mentioned above, they have a shot against Venezuela, but I’d be surprised if they pull it off.
If they even keep any of the other four games close, it would be a victory of sorts.
If I were a fan of the Dragons, I would be hoping to see good play out of Zhou, Wang, and Zhai, who make up the future of Chinese basketball. If those three can put together some good games and put forth respectable showings, it will be a step in the right direction for the team.
This will be the first chance that much of the world gets to see the two new NBA prospects, Zhou and Wang, and they have the chance to become China’s biggest basketball stars since Yao.
It may not be an ideal scenario for Chinese basketball fans, but at least there will be some interesting storylines to watch for, mostly how the young players perform on the big stage and if they can pull off at least one win.
The other story to watch for is if Yi can have a game or two where he fills up the stat sheet and puts up big numbers. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the veteran has a 20-point performance and there’s actually a chance that he could be among the leading scorers in the tournament.