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4 Players Who Will Define the Future of Basketball in China

Wang Zhelin

The People’s Republic has lacked a true basketball star since Yao retired in 2011. This quartet of young stars is determined to change that.

Yao turned the basketball word’s focus toward China in 2002, the year he was selected first overall in the NBA draft. He spent ten years as a dominant force in the NBA before retiring early due to chronic leg and foot problems. Yao did wonders in promoting basketball’s popularity with fans and bettors. Before being shut down earlier this year, Bet365 Singapore specialized in offering basketball lines to Chinese bettors.

Despite the game’s popularity, fans are still smarting from the disappointment of Yi Jialian, the heir apparent whose NBA career fizzled out after only five seasons. Since Yao’s retirement in 2011 the world has waited patiently for the next Chinese basketball star.

It isn’t yet known if that star is on the horizon, but the state of basketball in the Middle Kingdom is on a continuous upswing. Every year the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) features a new crop of exciting homegrown players, and fans hold their collective breath in the hope that one or more of those prospects will blossom into an NBA star.

Here are the Chinese players with the best chances of one day reaching the NBA:

#1: Wang Zhelin, Fujian Sturgeons

The 20-year old seven-footer has carried the weight of the world on his shoulders since Yao’s retirement, when he was anointed as Chinese basketball’s greatest hope. National media outlet Sina added to that pressure by writing: “This is an era that needs a hero [now that Yao is retired]…And today, this task will fall on Wang Zhelin’s shoulders…Wang Zhelin will very likely become the next hero of Chinese basketball.”

Three years later, Wang hasn’t disappointed. His game combines massive size with an impressive degree of athleticism and technical ability, the latter being something that Chinese big men spend more time on than their American counterparts do. Now in his third season as a starter for the Fujian Sturgeons, he has made major strides in terms of physical strength and fundamentals.

When will we see Wang Zhelin in an NBA uniform? It remains possible that he could declare for the 2015 NBA Draft, but more likely he’ll remain in China until 2016. By then he’ll be a physically mature 22-year old ready to tussle with more muscular American post players.

#2: Zhou Qi, Xinjiang Flying Tigers

Qi is one of Chinese basketball’s best young players, an 18-year old with freakish height (7’1) and length. But but at only 220 pounds, he needs to put on a serious amount of weight in order to compete on the NBA level. He is marketed as a big man with above-average athleticism and solid fundamentals.

• 20-year old Wang Zhelin is China’s top prospect
• Zhou Qi is an 18-year old seven-footer
• Zhang Bo is China’s best guard

In his first full season in the CBA, Qi has put up solid but unspectacular numbers: 14.5 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. He needs at least two more seasons in China before warranting consideration as a real NBA prospect, but could be a high draft pick in 2017 or 2018 if his game continues to develop.

#3: Yi Jianlian, Dongguan Southern Tigers

If this sounds like a familiar name, that’s because it is. Yi was taken sixth overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2007 draft. A seven-footer with top-notch athleticism and a sweet shooting stroke, he was expected to be the next Chinese star after Yao.

A long story short, his five year NBA career was a colossal disappointment, and he came home to China in 2011 with his tail between his legs. Signing a CBA contract has done wonders for his game however, and he is now the consensus best homegrown player in the league, currently averaging 27 points and 8.5 rebounds for the Tigers.

Yi could still get a second chance at the NBA at only 27 years old. Even if that doesn’t happen, he will lead the Chinese national team during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

#4: Zhang Bo, BayiFubang Rockets

Chinese basketball is known for its big men—notice how the first three entries on this list were all seven-footers. Zhang bucks that trend, however. He is a 6’6 200-pound scoring guard with a silky-smooth three-point stroke. This season he has averaged 14.5 points for the Rockets while making nearly two threes per game.

Zhang declared for the NBA draft in 2012 but didn’t hear his name called. However, at only 24-years old and with a game that has shown continuous improvement, he may just get a second chance. He would be only the second Chinese guard to appear in the NBA, following former Lakers guard Sun Yue.

An eye to the future

The CBA is largely dominated by American imports, but better player development and coaching means that more homegrown players should rise up in the ranks. Wang Zhelin is China’s brightest young star, and we expect to see him in an NBA uniform within the next two years.

If you’re looking to bet on sports in China, be aware that Chinese gambling laws prohibit sports betting, including wagering on basketball games. However, numerous offshore internet sportsbooks accept wagers on CBA games and even make their sites accessible in Mandarin. Bet365 and BetVictor are two recommended options.

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