Three Title Candidates, Three Dominant Bigs
Yi is already the favorite for the season MVP, while his Guangdong Tigers team has topped the standings with only four losses (26-4), becoming the frontrunner candidates for the CBA title. Following them closely are Bayi Rockets with five losses (25-5) and Jiangsu Dragons with seven (23-7). Both teams will sure give the Tigers a run for their money. Three of the four losses Guangdong suffered this season were against these squads: Bayi beat them once while Jiangsu swept them.
Its no coincidence that these three teams feature dominant Chinese bigs, all legit seven footers.
Bayi is the most dominant team in the CBA history, with seven titles and ten final appearances (they only missed the final once). Wang Zhizhi was the cornerstone of that dominance for several years, and after his American adventure, which ultimately meant a nasty divorce from the Chinese Federation, he made up with the CBA last year and came back to Bayi. Hes averaged 26.6 points and 9.5 rebounds this season, combining his sweet stroke (43.8% behind the arc) with his skilled post moves. Its still impressive the smoothness and fundamentals he displays on court. And of course, life is a lot easier in the CBA for a soft guy like him.
Jiangsus emergence comes hand in hand with the growing level of center Tang Zhengdong. Indeed the Dragons reached the final in the 2004/05 season, following Tangs impressive display. Last year he disappointed by looking rather out of shape, but he has come back strong this season, with averages of 28 points and 11 rebounds. Conditioning is rather important for a player like Tang, as hes not a great athlete by any stretch. On the contrary, hes quite a slow guy who makes a living in the low post as a banger, taking advantage of his great strength. There, not only does he produce for himself, but he also generates advantages for all his teammates, while defensively hes not an easy player to beat in the paint. Born in 1984, he was a marginal draft candidate last year, and as expected he didnt hear his name called on draft night. Being a strong and skilled 7-1 low post player will obviously always draws attention, but his athleticism paints a bleak picture in terms of having a shot to ever make it to the NBA.
Guangdong, winner of the last three championships, enjoys the play of the aforementioned Yi Jianlian. Lets take a look at how he has fared in the regular season.
Yi Jianlian, Wanna Play the Chinese Lottery?
Last year we stated that Yi Jianlian wouldnt likely become the next international superstar in the NBA. We still feel the same about him, although hes a very intriguing guy who should emerge into a valuable player in the worlds strongest league. As always, his terrific combination of size and athleticism sets him apart from your common prospect. But he probably misses enough go-to firepower to get that far, although despite the lack of competitiveness he faces day in and day out in the CBA, he has managed to keep improving, not spectacularly, but still at a solid rate.
Its not easy to picture the areas in which Yi has developed his game. Actually, theres not any dramatic change in any of his strengths or flaws. His averages, for example, have evolved pretty steadily from the past season, going from 20.5 to 24.8 points and 9.7 to 11.4 rebounds.
Perhaps his shooting stroke has emerged as his best weapon when thinking about a NBA future. It could become both a way to take advantage of the open looks generated by his teammates, as well as the easiest resource to create his own shot. Yi shows growing consistency knocking down jumpers from the mid-range area. He enjoys nice mechanics and elevation releasing his shot, which makes it quite difficult to stop, and even you can eventually see him stepping back and shooting off the dribble while creating separation from his defender. Still the foundation of his ability to create his own shot mainly rests in his turnaround jumper and with an occasional fade-away move. He becomes almost unstoppable in this fashion, particularly when you consider his size and athleticism. Actually, this is a rather usual way of finishing low post situations for him. His free-throw percentages reflect his increased accuracy pretty well, as hes hitting close to the 80% mark, which is pretty remarkable for a 7-footer. This shooting stroke will likely be translated easily to the NBA and could become quite helpful in order to play the power forward position there.
If we talk about the center position, Yi enjoys a nice frame and hes relatively strong for his age, but still suffers noticeably against more physical rivals. Indeed, perhaps the main reason why Guangdong lost both games versus Jiangsu was Yis inability to properly challenge Tang Zhendongs dominance in the paint-- even if he made Tang pay for his lack of quickness with perimeter shots and some slashing moves-- as he was regularly outmuscled by the strong center on both ends of the court. In the low post on the offensive end, Yi offers little else than the aforementioned turnaround jumper whenever he faces serious competition. His low-post moves are very simple and his semi-hook shots still a work in progress. When he faces inferior competition, he usually just turns around, easily gets off his feet, and puts the ball in the net over his rival. Meanwhile, he often fails to get a high enough arch on his hook shots when he needs to, particularly if the rival is being physical with him, so it becomes a difficult task to release the ball over bigger defenders. However, he displays a decent soft touch with his right hand, although he struggles quite a bit with his left.
Still in the low post, Yi can put the ball on the floor trying to take the baseline and look for a reverse layup, although he often gets out of control in the process. To be more productive off the dribble, Yi needs to take his matchup further from the basket and enjoy spaces to attack him without drawing defensive rotations, as his ball-handling skills are not anything more than average at this point. On defense, its all a matter of strength. He has the physical-athletic gifts to dominate most of the CBA competition, but he can be pushed around by guys like Zhendong. Besides, we still dont see a proper team-oriented defense, as he persists in going after blocks instead of focusing on stopping his rival, which he would easily be able to do on a regular basis thanks to his mobility and lateral quickness. On the other hand, he looks a bit more physical than last season in his match-ups.
Whenever Yi makes it to the NBA, we will likely see him much more active playing without the ball than he looks now. As the centerpiece of the Tigers, hes often the first offensive option, asking for the ball to start the offense through him. Actually, his most usual move is to gain position in the low post. But Yi enjoys terrific potential as a pick-and-roll finisher. With his length and athleticism, he would be really difficult to stop once he received in motion after setting the pick and heading towards the basket.
With the CBA allowing Yi to enter the NBA draft and the Chinese big showing improvement even reaching the 40-point mark twice in January-- he will have a legit chance of making the lottery in June. The CBA playoffs, and especially the hypothetical Finals against Tangs Jiangsu, will help to clarify his stock. Even more important could be the private workout process, but were yet to know which strategy him and his American agent Dan Fegan will take, although lets remember that a different caliber of player, Yao Ming, settled for a lone workout shared by all NBA teams. Anyway, weighing Yis characteristics, it wont be easy to see him falling out of the top half of the first round. After all, its not every day you find big guys with his athleticism and skills. At this point, chances are some NBA team will indeed play the Chinese lottery.
Whats Next: Chen Jianghua
Besides Yi Jianlian, there doesnt seem to be a better NBA prospect currently playing in the CBA than his teammate Chen Jianghua. Right now, he seems to be the only guy who displays the necessary goods to enjoy a fair shot to achieve that goal. His terrific quickness and natural talent, properly used, should take him far.
Before even making his debut in the CBA, Chen was already a sort of junior celebrity in China, and was even capable of making the National Team roster for the last World Championship before playing even a single minute in the Chinese League. Chen was often criticized because of his selfish playing style (true, up to a certain extent), while some reports indicated that he was a bit of a head case, having troubles with coaches and things of that nature.
Thrown into the CBA, enjoying starting status for the most part of the regular season, Chen has showed a certain inconsistency, particularly early in the season, but has eventually emerged as a relatively solid point guard for Guangdong, although he still combines flashes of brilliance with some forgettable moments. Obviously, for a rookie playing on a champion caliber squad next to some of the best national players (like Yi Jianlian, Wang Shipeng or Zhu Fangyu), the logical choice is not to force things, and actually Chen has looked good whenever he has stuck to the basics, letting the vets assume the main offensive responsibilities.
And what does stick to the basics mean?
It means to take the ball up-court and start moving it fluidly. It means to share the ball in the best possible conditions. It means to drive and dish if theres a very clear option or if the shot clock is running down. It means to hit the open shot. It means to take care of the ball. It means to play serious defense.
Chen has been able to provide those ingredients as the season advanced. He only averages 7.5 points per game, which is a moderate amount for a well-known scorer like him that has played over 22 minutes per game, but he also credits an excellent 53% from the field, which well reflects his good shot selection. Actually, he surprises with the relative consistency of his long-range stroke. Despite suffering a couple of bad streaks, he achieves a nice 40.3% average from behind the arc. Now, its very rare to see him delivering those complicated contested shots off the dribble while hanging in the air that he used to perform at the junior category.
Still, the most intriguing part of his game is related, naturally, to his quickness, particularly which concerns his ability to create offense while beating his match-ups off the dribble. The weak CBA defenses grant many spaces that help Chens purposes, but he clearly displays the potential to become a serious threat against much tougher opponents. Right now hes happy enough penetrating to attract defensive rotations in order to feed the open man (he averages a respectful 3.2 assists per game), while he can eventually finish himself, displaying nice ability to drop his layups in off the glass. Anyway, Chen is not a selfish player, which means that hes not obsessively looking for his slashing options; usually letting those options come to him. Besides, hes willing to free the ball up whenever he sees a nice passing option. Take the fastbreak for example: his quickness enables him to become an extremely dangerous player in these situations, and still he loves to pass the ball ahead as soon as possible, encouraging other players to run the court. All this doesnt mean that he never commits mistakes, like forcing plays, rushing the offense too much, taking too many risks in punctual situations or turning the ball over from time to time, but considering the position he plays and his youth, its all quite natural.
On defense, Chen is again benefited by his remarkable quickness, being able to stay in front of his man and exercise good pressure on the ball, while hes aware of the passing lanes and eventually tries to come up with steals in defensive rotations, looking for the ball as it bounces off the floor. However, from time to time his effort seems to get a bit diluted, something he will have to work on. Gaining physical strength will surely help him in this department. Hes still a skinny kid, although he rarely suffers from that circumstance in the CBA.
Anyway, were not talking about a top prospect like his teammate Yi Jianlian. Chen is a bit of a small point guard who, among other things, needs to make strides with his distributing game. But with maturity, hard work and as he slowly but steadily gains importance in his teams offense, his talent should provide the rest for him to become a very intriguing playmaker.
Marginal Prospects at One Glance
Yi Li is disappointing this season. He was one of the CBA players who seemed to enjoy the most potential, but even his stats have regressed from the previous season. He currently averages 11.1 points and 3.9 rebounds.
Born in 1987, hes an athletic 6-9 forward with a nice shooting stroke out to the 3-point line (he averages 36.1% from there) and some solid ball-handling skills to display his slashing game. However, we might have overvalued his basketball IQ in the little piece we wrote on him a year ago. Hes a decent passer, but he doesnt seem to know how to make the most out of his excellent tools. The guy is skinny as a rail, but given his length and excellent athleticism, while the fact that he plays in the CBA, he should be able to display more consistency in his game. However, its true that his level of activity on court doesnt remain stable. For some stretches, he might look like a sort of Chinese Andrei Kirilenko (of course not forgetting the huge differences between both guys), only to disappear afterwards.
Next to Chen Jianghua, a couple of kids who shined in the past Asian Junior Championships have been enjoying sparing minutes this season in the CBA. Zhou Peng is another rookie in Guangdong, where he usually now plays as a small forward. He is a big 1989 kid at 6-9, also rather mobile, but with limited athleticism. Despite being talented and enjoying a nice shot and decent ball-handling, he looks strictly like a CBA player for the future.
The other kid, Han Shuo, also born in 1989, already had experience with Jiangsu last season. He plays point guard despite standing 6-6, and basically has shown the same strengths and weaknesses we pointed out in the Asian Junior Championship report. It can be summarized by his nice ability to beat his match-ups off the dribble, being able to find his open teammates, and his very poor shooting stroke, which is a rather alarming sign when considering his future potential.
A New Kid on the Block
Theres a new Chinese kid making some noise lately, answering by the name of Ding Jinghui. Hes a quite skilled combo-forward who plays for Zhejiang Wanma Cyclones. According to his teams web site, he was born in October of 1990, but thats hard to believe. Standing 6-9, hes a skinny (although showing a decent frame and strength for his age) and very mobile kid who primarily displays a face-up game, even if he can eventually produce in the low post with decent moves. He feels quite comfortable putting the ball on the floor with either hand to beat his match-up and look for the lay-up, showing nice ball-handling skills and good quickness in the process; he might eventually stop at some point of his slashing move to create separation and deliver a mid-range jumper. Indeed he seems to display a nice stroke with fluid mechanics that go out to the 3-point line, where he has been able to keep his accuracy over the 40% mark. Still not getting consistent production every game, he has managed to average 14.6 points and 6 rebounds in this season, which is a nice amount. Quite an active player on both ends of the court, he tries to play serious defense, although he easily gets in foul trouble.
However, besides the concerns about his real age (nothing new when talking about Chinese players), his potential doesnt look off the charts. After all, hes not super athletic for a perimeter player, and neither extremely tall for a post man. In the end, with a kid supposedly as young as him, its a matter of sitting and waiting as he develops.