He Tianju and the others: who is (or might be) NBA-ready in the Chinese Basketball Association?

I was, in all honesty, a bit shocked to hear that He Tianju will play Summer League basketball with the Pelicans. Nonetheless, this gives us CBA fans a good opportunity to discuss some young prospects’ chances to make it overseas, and meanwhile NBA fans will get to know a bit more about what’s cooking in the Middle Kingdom. Let’s start, donc, with the man who’s making the news: who is He Tianju?

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He Tianju (Liaoning, ’90): 6’9″ SF, 11,8 ppg, 40,7% 3pt.

What might intrigue scouts: shooting, size at SF, consistency.

What might turn them off: never really plays PF, little defensive potential, role player at best.

What we’re dealing with here is, first and foremost, a shooter: He is at home spotting up and waiting for a kick out, after which he can also attack pretty decently some closeouts and exhibit a solid mid-range touch and some flashes of in-between game. Don’t get fooled by his low numbers, either, as he’s averaged more than 15 points per game in his past two seasons. Given his reliability as a fireaway tipe of combo-forward, in the NBA he’ll hardly have to show much more than that, as clearly his ceiling is that of a role-player. What makes NBA scouts happy, on the other hand, is also his size: at 6’9″ he has strength and length to bother more than a few opponents. However, like most Chinese perimeter players he’s only an average defender who rarely ventures for a steal or whatever you’d refer to as “being aggressive” and “making plays”. Of course, I’d recommend to trust his defensive numbers only so much, as playing in the CBA doesn’t certainly stimulate your defensive instincts (that is pretty much the real weakness this league has). Will a different setting help him channel his inner Shawn Marion – or, at least, Mike Dunleavy – and discover his aggressiveness on the court? There’s no reason not to try, especially in a SL setup. If the experiment succeeds the Pelicans might find themselves a very good shooter off the bench with small-ball PF potential due to his body. On the other hand, He might score his lifetime chance: making it to the League is one thing, ending up sharing a locker room with Anthony Davis is another. As I noted at the beginning of this piece, however, He Tianju’s call is a bit surprising. Partly that’s because this season has by no means been the best or most promising of his career, partly because you’d have guessed other CBA players might have gotten a call for a Summer League roster spot before him. But how do exactly some of China’s most promising youngins stack up in their own, personal fight for NBA consideration?


1 – Li Gen (Beijing, ’88): 6’5″ SG, 16,6 ppg, 58,8 FG%

What might intrigue scouts: fearless, NBA-relatable attitude, slashing, strength, capable shooter.

What might turn them off: already 27 yo, concentration cramps, defense.

Beijing’s sixth man (to whom we’ve already awarded a trophy last week) should honestly be the front-runner for any NBA talk in China right now. An incredible season established the former Eagle as a physically imposing 2-guard who can shoot the three-ball, get to the line or post up weaker guards. His true strength, nonetheless, remains his slashing. An aggressive attacker of the rim who fights through contact and has no fear at all facing the big men. This kind of player usually draws some NBA attention even when he doesn’t shoot 44% from deep (although I don’t expect him to keep those numbers that high, looking at his career), so if he gets some overseas love don’t be surprised. On the other hand, it has to be noted that his defense is only CBA-average (given, of course, that all the exceptions recollected above when discussing He’s defensive abilities are just as applicable here) and he doesn’t impact the game much with his passing and rebounding. Yet again, don’t mistake that as Li being a non-rebounder or an unwilling passer, as his role has never involved any of those tasks in his CBA career. Li’s a solid player who vaguely resembles Liu Wei (who has taken part in a Summer League with the Kings) and given the opportunity might go even farther than He and make it way past the preseason.


2 – Wang Zhelin (Fujian, ’94): 7’0″ C, 22,1 ppg, 11,8 rpg.

What might intrigue scouts: mobility for size, fundamentals, touch around the rim.

What might turn them off: only an average defender, lack of lift/superior athleticism.

The former Nike Hoop Summit attendee is as steady a prospect as they come: a methodic, creative post player with little defensive and athletic potential who has never averaged less than 20 points and 11 rebounds per game in his first 3 seasons as a pro. Many see him as a fringe NBA prospect who likely will hear his name called at the 2016 NBA Draft. What many might have missed, however, is that Wang is a player who could feel much more at home in an NBA setting: not forced to be the only go-to-guy without any movement around him, not seen as a sheer post-up guy but as a finisher around the rim in a drive and dish style, the 21-year-old center will have much more room to show his fundamentals. On the other side of the floor, by no means his defense is worse than, say, Pekovic’s, as he is strong enough to hold his own and smart enough to be in the right place. Does that mean he’s a starter? No, but there’s no reason to think he might not become one if he ends up making the right choices (and possessing a better entourage than Yi, might I add).


3 – Yi Jianlian (Guangdong, ’87): 7’0″ C, 27,1 ppg, 9,7 rpg.

What might intrigue scouts: athleticism, variety of options as ball screener, trustworthy defender and rebounder even by NBA standards.

What might turn them off: already tried and failed in the League.

The former lottery pick has established himself as the premier local player in the game, and it’s not even close. The rebounding numbers are regular season stats: in the playoffs he’s averaged 15,9 rebounds per game to go along with 29,4 ppg. That’s just about the player Yi is: a dominating big man who looks nothing like all his predecessors, from Yao (the prototypical 90s post-up star) to big Wang (one of the premier shooting big men in the Middle Kingdom), from Mengke Bateer (the in-and-out rock-hard power player) to Tang Zhengdong (the monolithic tower in the middle). Yi is the athletic rim attacker with a good (not great) shooting touch, the ball screener par excellence. Problem is, he was mistaken for a wholly different type of guy altogether in his NBA stint. Often playing the stretch power forward, Yi has obviously struggled in Mĕiguó. It’s not an inexcusable error, as he legitimately could have seemed that kind of player looking at his first CBA seasons, but it is an error nonetheless. However, Yi has entered free agency. While everybody seems thrilled to know if he’ll suit up for a different team in China, it seems to me quite obvious that him not signing with Guangdong (as of now) beckons for a possible return overseas, or at least hints to the fact that he wants to keep the door open to that kind of solution. Is he trying to sort out the options?


4 – Zhou Qi (Xinjiang, ’96): 7’2″ C, 14,1 ppg, 69,6% FG, 3,3 bpg.

What might intrigue scouts: size, immense defensive potential, capable attacker and shooter (74% FT)

What might turn them off: lack of strength, really wiry body.

I could have just said “what turns scouts off: not much”, as the rail-thin big man has gone from relative unknown outside of China to probable lottery pick in 2016. It’s all about length: he’s so long and tall that even if you do push him out of the way you’re not guaranteed a good look at the basket. While on the other side of the floor he may not turn into a lethal post player or a vicious roller to the rim, his length and touch guarantee him points even without coaches having to call plays for him, and the mid-range touch is already respectable, making sure that he’ll find a niche in pretty much any NBA offense. Of all the local guys in the CBA, he is the only one to be NBA-bound without any debate.

Now, however, is where things get tricky. Because we can all be pretty positive the aforementioned guys are worth an NBA look, but it’s not gonna end here. There’s a few more guys who may belie their NBA potential and might look surprisingly adequate under the appropriate circumstances. Who? Let’s find out:


5 – Zou Yuchen (Bayi, ’96): 6’9″ PF, 14 ppg, 9,6 rpg, 2,1 bpg.

What might intrigue scouts: rebounding and defensive potential, age, effort.

What might turn them off: largely unproven, not a next level athlete, average size.

This is the best looking photo I could find on the internet, where by “best looking” I mean “the only one where he doesn’t make ridiculous facial expressions or dramatic grimaces”. But then, hey, that’s the reason why he’s good. His effort is unquestionable, he crashes the boards and most of all he’s active defensively (add to the 2 blocks per game a steal per game, too). Zou hasn’t attracted many scouts, but at 18 years of age he shows a level of physical and mental maturity most CBA players don’t have. Literally burned every opponent at the stake in the Rookie game (Zhou Qi didn’t play due to injuries) with superior understanding of the game, Zou might be much more than a young sensation if he keeps getting better next year. Problem is: will Bayi help him on his way to the top?


6 – Zhu Yanxi (Beijing, ’90): 6’10” PF, 10,1 ppg, 42,6 3pt%, 90,9 FT%.

What might intrigue scouts: consistently improved shooter and true stretch player, proven role player, has an impressive winning history.

What might turn them off: not an interior presence on both ends, rebounding, age.

Might sound like a risky choice, but Marbury’s favorite pick ‘n’ pop target, at 25, is proven at what he does best: shoot the ball. With all the craze for stretch big men, here’s the one Chinese player who actually does that on a daily basis. A very good shooter who can hold his own defending the post, Zhu has very underwhelming rebounding numbers. Funnily enough, Beijing’s gotten to the Finals thanks to his last second tip-in of a Marbury miss in Game 6 vs Guangdong, which is a testament to how much of a smart, winning player Zhu is. The key here is to understand whether his low numbers on the boards are a byproduct of playing with other good rebounders. On the other hand, his interior offensive percentages reflect his role as an outside shooter, although he does shoot around that 50% mark inside the arc in the regular season.


7 – Wang Zheng (Guangsha, ’90): 7’1″ C, 20,1 mpg, 13,5 ppg, 75,0 FT%

What might intrigue scouts: size, efficiency, touch.

What might turn them off: age, never played meaningful minutes, subpar athlete.

China has already gained notoriety for its big men: Yao, Wang Zhizhi, Mengke Bateer, Yi, Zhou Qi and so on. Wang never really got on the floor too much, but when he has he’s been an incredibly efficient player. 2nd local player in the league in scoring per-36 behind Yi, Wang hasn’t been trusted enough with minutes and it’s unclear why: does he perhaps lack chemistry with Holman? It wouldn’t seem so looking from the outside. However, even at 25, Wang is a complete unknown outside of China and a daring team looking for size and good percentages at a very cheap price may want to give him a try, as Guangsha probably won’t mind letting the big fella go. And it might cost them.
The obvious question, clearly, would be how mobile he actually is. Before you ask: no, him playing only 20 minutes per game isn’t due to foul trouble, as he averaged 1,3 per game. He looks mobile enough not to get in trouble, at least, so there’s seriously a chance that he might just be overlooked by his own team.

That’s pretty much it, gentlemen. As usual, take care!

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