Friday, August 11, 2006

Fists of Fury: State of the Chinese National Team

Chen Jianghua is the answer.

Not just because some of the more delusional of international scouts compare him to Allen Iverson, but because he, along with a small crew of young Chinese nationals, represent two qualities that Chinese basketball has always been left wanting... athleticism and fearlessness. The first is obvious. The Chinese National backcourt has never boasted any exceptional quickness, agility, speed and for that matter, slashing, consistent perimeter scoring, ball-handling or semblance of basketball fluidity or instinct. Chen has this in bunches, minus the perimeter scoring, and all at the ripe age of 17*.

The second quality is less tangible, but evident in the often timid play of many Chinese nats. Chen is anything but timid, and in fact, his devil may care attitude, which makes him special among his teammates, has also alienated him from his many critics and past coaches. Which is evident in that Chen, has never played in a CBA game--compared to say, Tony Parker, who was playing professionally in France at 16--and that CBA officials resisted giving him a shot at the National team until Chinese coach Jonas Kazlauskaz insisted.

We'd heard stories of Chen throughout the last couple of years. Message boards and scouts described him as a young phenom who could be the "savior" of Chinese basketball--a backcourt player who could dominate with his athleticism. And though we were excited to cover his exploits, he seemed to disappear after an impressive appearance at the Adidas ABCD camp last summer. The highlight film in the link shows you a little of his vaunted athleticism, along with some beaming testimonials from his teammates, who are among the best preps America has to offer. But as with all athletes, the true test is onstage with the best comp possible. In basketball, there's only one... National. Basketball. Association.

But how many preps get to play against pros? Very few. And how many get to play against the US National team? Chen had no better opportunity to test his mettle than in his own national team premiere against Team USA on August 7th. One with the the kind of implications that make a career--perhaps like Earl Boykins made his by dropping 30 on Team USA when he was collegian. In the end, Chen's was not a particularly strong performance by the numbers (6 pts. on 2 of 7 shooting, 3 asts), but he displayed impressive abilities. Most notably his fearlessness, facing the best young players in the US, who aren't that much older, but a hell of a lot bigger, he repeatedly challenged them, displaying an ability to easily get to the rim and challenge US forwards and centers. Of course, there's a thin line between fearlessness and recklessness. Chen finished the game with 5 turnovers in 16 minutes. Not to mention that China lost the game 110-73.

Nevertheless, Chen's statistically unremarkable outing seems to have bolstered an already profound optimism for the future of Chinese basketball. (Add to that his performance against powerhouse Germany). We'll put it out there... expect that the Chinese nationals will surprise some teams at this year's Worlds in Japan.

As for the Iverson comparisons, Chen actually looks much more like a young Tony Parker--able to get to the rim with relative ease (even against NBA athletes), suspect jumpshot with funny release and at times questionable decision-making. But you can see for yourself with the magic of Youtube.

If Chen Jianghua is the future, Yi Jianlian is the next.

Featured in Time Asia last year as the successor to Yao Ming, Yi also showed flashes (14 pts, 9 rebs) in China's blowout loss to the Team USA and his overall friendly and tournament play has been solid in the absence of Chinese stalwarts, Yao Ming and Wang Zhizhi, proving to many that he may ready to make the jump to the NBA. At 19* years old, this "readiness" may be based strictly on his potential. Yi's offense is at best raw. His agility and athleticism, however, is impressive for a seven-footer, and likely to make at least a few NBA GMs rub their hands salaciously should he put together some viable offensive skills.

Yi is the complement in the low post to Chen's athleticism at the guard position phsically and symbolically: both agile, explosive ...and rare. Which should highlight what seems to be an illogical pursuit for the Chinese for the athletic sublime. Are athletes, in the extraordinary physcality sense of the word, what Chinese basketball fans should be fixating on? Here, in the US... hell, just in Brooklyn, I could step out on my fire escape and point in any general direction and find an athletic combo guard with a handle and no jumpshot. Of course, my fire escape is facing Coney Island, but nevertheless, the US has athleticism to spare. So, of course, US teams are built around the fact, it's natural to the US style of play.

The Serbs and Lithuanians continually field competitive teams without. Theirs is of a national identity that showcases finesse, shooting, fundamentally sound, team-oriented basketball, without the extraordinary athletes. Would suddenly fixating on athletes disrupt these programs? For their part, Chen and Yi have meshed well with Yao and the older, slower Chinese nats, which seems to counter the idea that they might disrupt a national basketball identity--not that China's is particularly definitive or effective. In fact, disruption might just be what they need. Arguable is the nature of comparing countries like Serbia and Lithuania to larger ones such as the US or China when pertaining to whether the latter are capable of maintaining a definitive basketball identity among massive populations. But is that beside the point? You can't mine what's not there, right?

Well, maybe it is there. Out of 1.3 billion, there's gotta be ten with some real hops. So far, they have two. But a recent ad starring Yi Jianlian, as well as some Chinese streetball videos seem to represent not just the country's desire for a new look, but perhaps, a new wave.

Not to be easily overshadowed, our boy, Sun Yue is making his own impressive debut with the Chinese nats, leading the team in assists since China's starting PG, Liu Wei, sat out with injury. He's also given China it's highlight of international play so far, swatting a Carmelo Anthony two-hander (follow the instructions in the link, it's free, it's legit, it's worth it).

Yue and Chen Jianghua have split time at the point. Yue (at 6' 9") playing the setup man to Chen's slasher. In Yue, the Chinese nats finally have height and versatility at the guard, in Yi and Chen, real athleticism. Together with Yao Ming, Chinese basketball may just get a little more interesting to those of us outiside of the People's Republic by 2008... and not just for the novelty of seeing giant Chinese people.

For more speculation, visit the Yao Ming Mania! fan forum. For Golden State of Mind's "The Yi Movement" campaign to take Yi Jianlian with the Warriors' 2007 (highly likely) lottery pick, visit Golden State of Mind.

*Discrepencies between listed ages and actual ages have been a source of controversy in China.

1 comment:

atma brother #1 said...

Nice piece man.

Here's a related one from GSoM: RECAP: Team USA 119, China 73

Plus The Yi Movement