BEJING -- Yao Ming was big. Still is. But five years after his retirement, the 7-foot-6 Hall of Fame center is still waiting for the growth spurt that will make his native China a significant player in the NBA and the entire basketball world.
“I am a little bit surprised, a little bit disappointed,” Yao said. “I have to show patience. But I think we must look at it like building a car. You do not just open the factory and drive the car away. You must gather the proper pieces and assemble them in the right way.”
That it is taking the most populous nation on the planet -- 1.4 billion and counting -- so long to figure out which pieces go where before driving down the road is both a conundrum and a simple case of overbearing politics.
“There are too many parties with their fingers in the pie,” said one NBA agent who has never represented a player from Asia. “I don’t have a dog in the hunt, but it’s pretty clear to see that different groups are working against the overall interest of Chinese basketball. In a word, the problem is protectionism.”
Officials within the Chinese Basketball Association inhibiting the growth of individual players in China to protect their monied investments in the domestic league. Officials in the ruling governmental party and the sports bureau inhibiting the overall growth of the Chinese national team in order to maintain their own slices of power and control.
First came Yao ... and then, not much
When the Houston Rockets made Yao the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft, the simplistic expectation was that it would open the pipeline for a gusher of talent from China. After all, in a country that has a long history of playing and watching the game -- there are more NBA fans China than there are people in the United States -- it only stood to reason that the sheer numbers would bring more players to the best league in the world.
However, until the Rockets chose Zhou Qi and the Memphis Grizzlies Wang Zhelin in the second round in 2016, not a single Chinese player had been drafted by an NBA team since 2007 (Yi Jianlian, No. 6 overall to Milwaukee Bucks).
“(Zhou) has as high an upside as anyone in this Draft,” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said on Draft night. “He’s a skilled, high basketball IQ player. Can shoot the ball, rebound the ball, block shots. Very mobile for his size. He is a thin, thin player right now. But a lot of guys come in thin and develop over time. It’s not uncommon.”
What is uncommon is for young Chinese talent -- Zhou is officially listed as 20 -- to take the next step and develop into an NBA-level player. In a league that had 100 international players on opening night rosters a year ago, not one was Chinese. It is likely that Yi will be the only player from China on an NBA roster to start the 2016-17 season.
Yi was another high-profile prospect when the Bucks chose him, and his first NBA meeting against Yao drew a live TV audience of more than 200 million viewers in China. While nobody ever questioned Yi’s talent and skills, he had an entitled air about him, a lack of work ethic and bounced to four different clubs before he had to return to the CBA before now getting a second chance with the lowly Los Angeles Lakers.
“No one in the CBA to push him, coach him properly, make him understand what it takes to succeed in the NBA,” said Meng Wang, a veteran reporter for China’s largest Internet portal, Tencent.
China fails to gain international ground
"The Chinese sports officials know a lot about developing and training world class athletes and in some sports they are the best at it,” said David Shoemaker, CEO of NBA China. “When you think of diving, table tennis, badminton, the women’s volleyball team, which is a really important accomplishment because traditionally team sports haven’t been as successful.
“In the sport of basketball we believe some of the techniques they use in the individual sports get overused in basketball. They could use more international competition. They could use more of the idea that just go and play against more people and as a result and get better. We’ve been talking to them about that and we’re going to work closely with them to make that happen.”
The Chinese national team has won numerous Asian championships, but has topped out at eighth-place finishes in the Olympics and World Cup. China finished dead last (12th place overall) at the Rio Olympics. Team China hired veteran NBA coach Del Harris for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Jonas Kazlauskas from '05 through the Beijing Olympics in '08 and American Bob Donewald, Jr. from 2010-12. But there has been no long-lasting relationship, no consistency, no ongoing willingness to take outside advice.
One observer close to the situation shook his head, chuckled and said China’s long range plan for the national team is naively simple: “They’re waiting for Yao Ming’s son.”
For the record, Yao and wife Ye Li have a 6-year-old daughter.
There were similar great expectations for a talent boom when the first wave of African talent washed up on American shores with Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1980s. Overall development of programs on that continent is still stifled by what has been described as a “smokestack philosophy,” where each African nation looks out only for itself and doesn’t freely trade ideas and programs. But young African players have been competing at American college programs for decades and many play in Europe to improve.
Most observers believe China must allow -- and, in fact, encourage -- young talent to take play in Europe against better competition.
“You cannot climb a ladder by going from the bottom step to the top step,” Meng said. “You must climb the steps. Europe is that step. It is too difficult for so many Chinese players to go from the CBA to the NBA. The players from China would struggle in Europe to start, but they would learn and grow.”
It is the approach that FIBA used in welcoming NBA players into the Olympics. Take your lumps from the original Dream Team in 1992 and its successors. But a dozen years later, the world benefited from the raised level of competition and Argentina won the Olympic gold medal in 2004.
“You talk to the Chinese basketball officials and they’ll scratch their heads and say, ‘We don’t quite understand why Lithuania is a basketball powerhouse and we’re not,’ ” Shoemaker said. “So they have a real desire and drive to get better. They have a basic openness to listen to international ideas.”
Hope remains China will 'get it right'
The problem is protectionism. CBA teams do not want to give up their young talent. Instead the owners from the CBA sign American players to fill their rosters as point-scoring stars. Stephon Marbury has become an icon in China. Gilbert Arenas, Tracy McGrady, Steve Francis and Al Harrington have taken their turns. Others such as Michael Beasley, Aaron Brooks, Lester Hudson, Kenyon Martin, Shavlik Randolph and J.R. Smith became CBA All-Stars. Emmanuel Mudiay went from high school in the U.S. to China for a year and became the first non-Chinese player to be drafted into NBA directly from CBA.
The trouble is that the Chinese players tend to become spectators in their own game, standing and watching the Americans take control and dominate.
“Part of it may be the Chinese character to treat basketball as more of a participation sport for the masses and not as a career to pursue,” Meng said. “Most parents still view a career as a government worker for their children as better to pursue than an NBA player.”
The veteran agent insists the CBA missed the boat when it did not move heaven and earth to sign Jeremy Lin, no matter the cost of a contract. The American-born guard with Chinese roots, he says, could have been the perfect star to fill seats and to demonstrate that a player doesn’t have to be 7-foot-6 like Yao to be star. He could have inspired a generation to follow in his footsteps.
There is now talk in some circles that Chinese officials may be open to hiring not only a new American coach for the national team, but perhaps an entire staff to implement a full American-style program. The sheer number of Chinese basketball players across the vast nation says it’s a gusher waiting to be tapped.
“When China puts its mind to most things, they get it right,” said Shoemaker. “In time they’ll get it right in basketball. We’re willing to help accelerate that in whatever way they want us to be involved.”
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