For a country that is crazy about basketball, it is strange there hasn't been a Chinese player drafted into the NBA since Yi Jianlian almost a decade ago. Back then, even Yao Ming was buying into the hype of Yi by suggesting he resembled a ‘taller Amar'e Stoudemire' (no, really...) and the Milwaukee Bucks took him with the fourth pick of the 2007 draft. Yi's stock was so high, he initially refused to move to Wisconsin and then-Bucks owner and standing Democratic senator Herb Kohl was forced to fly to Hong Kong and persuade their pick to change his mind.
Nine years later, it seems laughable that a senior politician took time off from his constituents to placate one of the bigger busts in recent draft history. It is also possible that the hold-out debacle and the subsequent disaster that was Yi's NBA career made it harder for future Chinese prospects to be taken seriously. Either way, there hasn't been a mainland player to receive draft consideration since then.
However, that streak might soon be at an end. Ladies and gentlemen, feast your eyes on Zhou Qi, the twenty year old rejection specialist from the Xinjiang Flying Tigers.
Although only in his second season as a professional, Zhou Qi has been a known name within Chinese basketball circles since 2011, when the big man-- who was already 7"1-- had himself a 28 point, 27 rebound, 15 block triple-double in a U-16 tournament in Turkey. The demand for Zhou was so high that four years later, the Xinjiang Tigers made him the third highest paid player in China before Zhou had even played a pro game. As a rookie, he led the CBA in blocks (the first time a local player did so since Yao in 2002) and quickly became a fixture within the Chinese national team.
Now into his sophomore season, Zhou has continued to impress. Not only did he lead the league in stuffs for a second consecutive season, he finished with a solid statline of 15.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game, and helped guide his team to the CBA semi-finals.
At his best, Zhou moves like a deer and can obviously swat shots into the next timezone. But his development has also been helped by the presence of Liu Qiupeng as head coach. A widely respected coaching mind, Liu is nicknamed ‘Little Zhuge Liang' after a military strategist from Chinese antiquity and was Yao's coach at both the youth and pro levels during the late 1990's. Though Liu's arrival in Xinjiang was more about helping the team make the play-offs, the veteran tactician was inevitably going to develop Zhou. Unsurprisingly, the latter has already started to showcase an improved mid-range game, suggesting he can be more than a straight-up rim-protector.
For the Sixers, who may well be saying goodbye to at least one or perhaps two big men in the summer, there will be a hole in the rotation needing to be filled. Quick for his size, a decent pick-and-roll player and an improving passer, Zhou would be a natural fit for Brett Brown's high tempo offense. Given that his draft position continues to fluctuate, his likely availability in the late first or early second round also represents good value. Although he has a year left to go on his deal, Xinjiang have said they are willing to let him leave early so depending on what the Sixers front office needs, he could come over now or potentially be stashed for another twelve months.
There are, however, some obvious issues that might hinder Zhou. For one, he is painfully slender and this lack of bulk continues to haunt him. As noted by learned man of basketball letters, Rafael Uehara, the Xinjiang player needs to improve as a rebounder and struggles with holding his ground in the low post. His issues with defending the pick-and-roll will also give Zhou some trouble at the NBA level.
Another potential red flag is Zhou's real age. As I have reported on my own website, Shark Fin Hoops, (shameless plug ahoy), the true age of the young center remains a little contentious. It is important to stress that unlike Yi, whose real birth date was discovered after being drafted, Zhou has never been been directly linked to age shaving. But at the same time, there is enough concern that some NBA scouts are privately questioning Zhou's reported age-- and this will obviously affect how high he will go in the draft. Again, as I noted in my own piece, it's hard to be seen as a project when some front offices suspect you are in your mid-twenties as opposed to having just left your teenage years.
All of this leaves Zhou as the draft's mystery man. He has tantalizing potential as a rim protector and his agility and 7-8 wingspan invite easy yet justifiable comparisons with Rudy Gobert. Equally, his weak body frame and defensive limitations are going to be a concern-- although those areas could improve with time and he still represents a tantalizing project under the right circumstances. Whether the Sixers are in the mood for any more experiments under the Colangelo administration remains to be seen but it would be hard to find a more low risk, high reward use of a late first or early second round pick.
Andrew Crawford (@ShouldersGalore) is a Chinese Basketball Association fanatic. You can read more ofhis work at SharkFinHoops.com