There are a lot of stories dominating the landscape at the FIBA Asia championship from September 23-October 3, especially with an Olympics berth on the line.
As the FIBA Asia enters the second round, I am writing a two-piece post examining two squads that I find the most interesting in this tournament: China and the Philippines. These two teams in my mind have the most at stake this tournament, especially considering they have gone through some ups and downs the past few years in terms of International success.
In this post, I am going to take a look at China and their two stars: Yi Jianlian and Zhou Qi.
China is ranked no. 14 in the FIBA World Rankings and has a long-standing history as one of the more dominant nations in Asian basketball as they won 14 out 16 FIBA Asia championships from 1975 to 2005. However, they haven’t been on the Global radar the past few years, especially following the retirement of Yao Ming. After winning the 2011 FIBA Asia championship, the Chinese team finished a disappointing 12th in the 2012 Olympics, and then under-delivered in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship finishing 5th, their second worst finish in their history of participating in the tournament (they finished 10th in 2007). Because of their lackluster finish, China missed out in last year’s FIBA World Cup, only the 2nd time they did so since they started participating in the FIBA World Championship (now World Cup) with the other being 1998 in Greece.
China has struggled against other global powers in the past, as the highest they have ever finished in Olympic or FIBA World competition was 8th. That being said, their grasp over Asia has never been questioned until lately, especially with the rise of programs such as Iran (17), South Korea (28), Jordan (29) and the Philippines (31). To the Chinese’s benefit, they will be hosting this year’s FIBA Asia championship, and the home court advantage has seemed to benefit the home country teams, as the Philippines used the raucous crowds to earn a silver medal finish in 2013 (helping them qualify for their first FIBA World Championship since 1978), and the Chinese finished first in 2011 when the Asia Championship was in Wuhan, China. Iran may be a more accomplished team right now considering they are the reigning Asia Championship winners, and Korea may be one of the trendier teams to pick, as they did win the Asia Cup last year. However, one has to believe, with an Olympics berth on the line, that China will see this tournament as a “must-win” and thus, be considered the favorites.
If China is going to win this year’s Asia championship, they are going to need strong performances from their post players, specifically long-time, but controversial star Yi Jianlian and 19-year-old phenom Zhou Qi. The Chinese team has some athletes, speed and can surprise people with their shooting, especially thanks to young guards like Guo Ailun and Zhou Peng, who have demonstrated a strong ability to create offense and shoot beyond the arc early in this tournament. But China’s real strength is in their length, as they sport four 7-footers on their roster. If China wants to get back to the Olympics and reclaim their dominance in the Asian basketball scene, they will have to own the post and glass offensively and defensively.
The most crucial 7-footer of the bunch has to be Yi Jianlian. Now 27-years-old, Yi is the vet of this Chinese squad that’s average age is 24 years old. Considering Yi played with some of the best Chinese players in the past like Yao and Wang ZhiZhi, guys who played and succeeded in the NBA, it is time Yi exerts an Alpha Dog status on this Chinese team and carry them to success. Yi has a bit of a controversial status with mainstream fans, as he was the No. 6 pick overall in the NBA draft, but didn’t have much of an impact on the Milwaukee Bucks, New Jersey Nets, Washington Wizards or Dallas Mavericks in his 5 year NBA career. Despite his disappointing American tenure, he has bounced back as a superstar-type player in the Chinese Basketball Association, as he averaged 27.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg on 57.5 percent shooting in 45 games in 2014-2015 for the Guangdong Tigers, and he averaged 23.5 ppg and 12.5 rpg during Guangdong’s championship season in 2012-2013. Yes, he may not have been the transcendent international superstar that Yao was, but Yi has proven that he can be a highly-productive talent, especially in China.
And that is most important right now to Chinese basketball fans. Sure, he doesn’t have the global attraction of Yao, but he certainly has the potential to be the leader this young Chinese team needs in this Asia Championship and hopefully, the Olympics in 2016. Yi’s game has blossomed a bit, as he has become more physical on the glass, something he struggled to do in the NBA (he was routinely pushed out by more physical posts). However, where he excels the most is in the mid-range. While it may not be the most “efficient” way to play, it is obvious that Yi proves to be an exception to that rule. Yi sports a great and accurate jumper that he uses with regularity, which makes him a dangerous offensive threat. Bigger posts who sag will be victim to his mid-range jumper, while smaller posts and switches will get posted up and dominated around the rack.
Yi does show a tendency to struggle and be inconsistent against bigger posts (his match up with Iran’s Hamed Haddadi and the Philippines’ Andray Blatche will be interesting to follow), and sometimes he can be taken out of games when he’s doubled (as was this case in the first-half of the China-Korea game where the Koreans put up an early lead and neutralized the Chinese by throwing frequent double teams at Yi and keeping him away from the block). That being said, not many Asian squads have been able to have much lasting impact defensively against Yi’s offensive arsenal so far in this tournament, as he is averaging 19.3 ppg, 11.0 rpg on 55% shooting in 25.8 MPG through China’s first three games (which they are 3-0). If China wants to continue to do well in this tournament, and make their run to a championship, Yi has to continue his dominance and efficiency (he’s the leader in efficiency rating for China at 23) throughout the second round and beyond.
If people are looking for the next great Chinese “superstar” in the Yao mold, then simply look at the clip above. While Yi certainly was critical to China’s 76-73 comeback win over Korea, it was 19-year-old Zhou Qi’s 21 point, 8 rebound performance that proved to be the X-factor in the comeback win, which the Chinese were down as much as 18 late in the 3rd quarter.
While Yi tends to focus more offensively on the mid-range, Qi is more active around the rim, as he is known for high energy on the offensive and defensive end. As a 19-year-old rookie in the CBA with the Xinjiang Tigers, Qi led the CBA in blocks, and in one under-16 game in 2011, he recorded a triple double that involved a stat line of 41 points, 28 rebounds and 13 blocks. If Yi’s game can be compared to LeMarcus Aldridge’s, then Qi’s can be compared to Rudy Gobert, in which Qi is a more traditional post player skills and impact-wise.
Qi is already bit of a global sensation, as he made his ways in the FIBA developmental division as a teenager, and participated in the Nike Hoop Summit last year, making him a well-known quantity in basketball circles beyond China and Asia. Andrew Crawford wrote a fantastic piece for Vice Sports (which is an underrated site for sports reporting, as well as general journalism) and talked about the pressure Qi faces in his homeland being China’s “next big thing,” as evidenced in this quote below:
But perhaps the biggest hurdle for Zhou will be how he copes with being China’s consensus Next Big Thing. Zhou’s countrymen passionately consume the NBA, and in the void that followed Yao Ming’s retirement, there remains a nationwide obsession with seeing a Chinese player back at the highest level of basketball. For the next couple of years, Zhou is going to have to live with every good performance being proof that he belongs in the NBA, and every off night becoming a cause for widespread concern. The pressure to be as good as a billion people want him to be will weigh on Zhou, as of course it would.
While this is certainly pointing to Qi’s progression in the CBA and perhaps making the NBA, it is also a microcosm of what is expected from Qi in this FIBA Asia championship: if he is supposed to be the star everyone expects him to be, this Asia championship needs to be his coming out party, especially in his home country and an Olympic-berth on the line.
So far, Qi is living up to the expectations despite the pressures from the media and his home country fans. Though he hasn’t had the kind of impact on the glass as one would want or expect from a critical post player (he is only averaging 4 rebounds per game), he is second on the team in efficiency rating (14.7) and scoring (13.3) and he does lead the team in blocks with 1.3 per game.
I don’t think anybody is saying that Qi is the center piece of this team (that falls on Yi). But, Qi cannot underwhelm if the Chinese want to win the Asia Championship. So far, he’s overwhelmed. Let’s see though if he can continue that in the second round.