Amid top high schoolers from around the world, Kevin Zhang displayed impressive range and an explosive first step. The lanky 6-foot-9 swingman warmed up before scrimmaging on the New Orleans Pelicans’ practice floor during NBA All-Star Weekend this year and did not look out of place.
Zhang, 18, would occasionally tease on-site Chinese scouts with a quick steal or behind-the-back dribble. Those moves were so exciting to the international crowd because Zhang is one of the best Chinese-born high school players in America in a while, according to ESPN recruiting expert Paul Biancardi. Zhang has garnered interest from about 10 colleges, including New Mexico, LSU and Stanford.
More than a month later, Zhang became one of the first Chinese players to win a high-level high school hoops tournament — the Dick’s Nationals — as a member of top-ranked La Lumiere School from La Porte, Indiana.
At last year’s Dick’s final, La Lumiere lost at the buzzer in overtime to Virginia basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy. So for the Lakers, the April 1 victory over Montverde concluded a yearlong road to redemption. For Zhang, who scored two points off a turnaround jumper in the final game, it was another chance to appreciate his roots and journey to America.
Born in Shenyang, a megacity in northeastern China with a rich sports tradition, Zhang has three generations of basketball flowing in his blood. His mother, Wang Fang, was a star player for the Chinese national team, winning silver medals at the 1992 Olympics and 1994 World Championships. After retirement, Wang began her coaching career with her hometown team in Liaoning province, leading to a title run. As a coach she also had stints with the 2008 Chinese Olympic squad.
Wang is now the top basketball management official in her province, overseeing all activities and operations related to the sport, including men’s and women’s professional teams and youth development.
“When I was little, my mom would take me to the court and have me watch practice,” said Zhang, one of several participants from China at this year’s Basketball Without Borders Global Camp. “She would ask me to shoot the ball, even though my shots couldn’t even reach the rim. She and my father were both very influential to my game.”
Zhang’s ballhandling skills partly came from his early training as a guard in elementary school. He also watched the NBA closely.
“I started watching Kobe Bryant and LeBron James since I was little,” said Zhang, now a loyal Kevin Durant fan who wears a No. 35 jersey for La Lumiere. “I dreamed of playing here in America one day as well.”
Zhang’s dream finally came true in 2013. At the age of 14, he came to Oregon to attend a program run by the United States Basketball Academy, which for years has been training top young Chinese players such as Yao Ming and helping them to learn English. Bruce O’Neil, a friend of Zhang’s mother with deep ties in Chinese basketball, recommended that Kevin attend the program.
“When Kevin arrived three years ago, he spoke no English except for [calling me] ‘Uncle Bruce,'” said O’Neil, a long-time coach who runs the academy. “He is now part of our family and occasionally returns to visit during school breaks.”
Later, at the recommendation of O’Neil, Zhang chose to attend La Lumiere, playing for coach Shane Heirman, a former University of Tulsa guard.
“There was definitely a transition period. It was tough for him,” Heirman said of Zhang, the first Chinese player he has coached at La Lumiere. “In terms of basketball plays, the language barrier caught him for sure, but he is working very hard in that regard and has made incredible strides.”
From growing up in a bustling metropolis with a population of more than eight million to living in a serene small town of some 20,000 people, Zhang is embracing what he has right now, adding a cultural dynamic to the team, as Heirman put it. He joins teammates who hail from all over the world like Australia, Greece and Nigeria. Outside school and practice, his friends either take him out or invite him over for dinners. Zhang has also earned a reputation for being a bit of a jokester.
“Honestly, he is probably the most leveled person on this team,” said teammate Brian Bowen. “I love him to death.”
As part of his routine, Zhang gets up at 5 a.m. and works out by himself, shooting jumpers and lifting weights. He also enjoys running on sand dunes until he can’t feel his legs.
At La Lumiere, Zhang’s versatility allows him to float between the paint and the perimeter, spacing out around two McDonald’s All-America teammates, Bowen and Jaren Jackson.
“He can pass, handle and shoot, but the sneaky part of his game is his athleticism,” Heirman said. “He can really move and get up.”
Playing alongside the best has also ignited Zhang’s competitive spark.
“Usually when we play 5-on-5, I will guard him and he will guard me,” Jackson said. “He’s got me a couple of times, and I’ve got him a couple of times. He plays me to my limit every time we play each other.”
“The biggest takeaway for me is that there are many good competitors here, and many who are better than me,” Zhang said. “I have improved my skills as well as my passion for the game.”
Zhang was at a loss for words when he was handed the Dick’s title trophy. He started hugging every coach and teammate.
“It’s been a long year for him. He had his moment in the year where he went through ups and downs,” said Jaren Jackson Sr., a former NBA player who is an assistant coach at La Lumiere. “He is going to be great when he moves to college. The time will come.”
Still a year from graduating, Zhang will play AAU this year, hoping to test the waters for Division I basketball. If he continues to improve, he could do well in a mid-major program, according to Biancardi.
“The speed of the game and its physicality right now is a bit much for him,” said Biancardi, who was at the Dick’s tournament. “He needs to be stronger and rebound more.”
“He needs to get tougher,” Heirman agreed. “The more he can expand his game the more he can grow.”
To O’Neil, Zhang has already succeeded as one of a few young basketball pioneers from China in an unfamiliar territory.
“Kevin is a model for the future of China basketball,” O’Neil said. “As more and more top young players follow in his footsteps, the quality will improve. As the many thousands of players have matriculated from Europe into the American school system and basketball competition and training methods over the past 40 years, the quality of the sport throughout Europe rivals the USA. China can do the same.”