Since Yao Ming’s NBA retirement in 2011, and Yi Jianlian’s departure from the Los Angeles Lakers in late 2016, China has been waiting for its next NBA star. No doubt, these are large shoes to fill: Yao was drafted n.1 overall in 2002, made the franchise player from his sophomore year on, as well as having been the only player outside the United States to lead the NBA in All-Star Voting. Yi was once praised by coach Del Harris as the “most athletic seven footer in the league.”
China’s estimated 300 million basketball fans have reason for both hope and despair. On June 30, China suffered a humiliating, 78-point margin against the USA in pool play of the FIBA U18 World Cup, a bad omen for the country’s basketball future. Since the start of the month, though, two of China’s best basketball players, Zhou Qi and Abudushalamu Abudurexiti (also known as “Abu”), stood their ground against the best American and overseas competition in this year’s Las Vegas NBA Summer League—and, naturally, became darlings of social media.
On July 9 the two actually played against each other, Zhou for the Houston Rockets, Abu for the reigning champions Golden State Warriors. Although there was no one-to-one battling between the two, Sina News was quick to liken this “duel” to the legendary “Chinese Superbowl” that took place on November 9 2007, when Yao and Yi played against each other in a regular season game that was broadcast by over 13 Chinese TV channels, recording an estimated 150 to 250 million Chinese viewers.
Though China’s two new stars share interesting similarities and differences—both were born in the same year and played in the same Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) team, the Xinjiang Flying Tigers, before declaring for the draft—Zhou has been much more in the limelight. In 2011, he started to be labeled the “next Yao Ming” after dominating an international u-16 basketball tournament. Between 2014-2017, Zhou won a CBA championship, earned the Defensive Player of the Year Award, and earned the nickname, Da Mo Wang (大魔王, “Big Demon King”), a reference to his terrifying shot-blocking domination of the CBA. Abu’s contribution to the Flying Tigers last season as a dynamic sixth man was important, but his CBA averages going into the NBA (6.9 points per game, 4.1 rebounds per game) fall way short of Zhou’s numbers two years ago (16.0 points per game, 10.0 rebounds per game).
Neither player, though, has come anywhere near the stratospheric fame that Yao had at their age. Zhou was drafted 43rd overall by the Houston Rockets in the 2017 NBA draft; Abu went undrafted in this year’s edition, being signed by the Golden State Warriors to play on their Summer League team. Given that Yao’s team was also the Rockets, this led many fans to speculate that Zhou would be bred into the next Chinese superstar of this NBA franchise, with some netizens hopeful that Zhou be allowed to wear Yao Ming’s retired n.11, a suggestion quickly shot down by skeptics who responded, “n.11 only belongs to one man”.
Indeed, after Zhou’s first season with the Rockets, the Zhou-Yao comparison no longer appeared on Chinese sports forums. Still too raw and skinny to play against NBA competition, Zhou was unable to secure a stable spot on the Rockets roster, being sent several times to Rocket’s G-League farm team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. By December of last year, when Zhou was even struggling to make an impact in the development league, one article titled “Disappointment in Zhou Qi, Expectation for Yao Ming” on Sohu noted how Yao’s first year in the NBA brought hope to millions of Chinese fans—unlike Zhou.
Zhou appears eager to improve on his weaknesses: his Facebook feed shows him hitting the iron in May and June, and by the start of the Summer League, he measured in 20lbs heavier than last year.
Abu, on the other hand, had no such pressure to live up to. Rather, the Summer League has been more about Abu dipping his feet wet in an environment far more competitive than the CBA—and of course, making history as the first Uyghur to play in an NBA game, even if it’s the Summer League.
Given these different expectations, the players had very different performances in this year’s Summer League. Averaging 12 points a game, 6.5 rebounds, 3 blocks a game on an incredible 73 percent shooting in this year’s NBA Summer League, Zhou was able to show off the fruits of his off-season grind, including flashes of guard-like agility and the ability protect the rim whilst also hitting shots from three-point range. One victory against Japan’s Yuta Watanabe, signed with the Brooklyn Nets Summer League team, was celebrated gleefully by Chinese basketball fans in particular The Rockets won, with Zhou recording 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocks, as WeChat basketball accounts rushed to write summaries of how the Japanese player was “crushed” or “blown to pieces” by Da Mo Wang.
Abu, on the far end of the Warriors bench, had averaged less than one in all categories except for minutes played, which still totaled under 10. However, he received a fair share of the spotlight, even if unrelated to basketball. Hupu, Chinese online sports forum, has been at the forefront of memes about Abu’s mouthful of a name.
It started when one netizen started a thread earlier this month entitled, “The first person to pronounce Abudushalamu’s full name correctly gets 10,000 USD!”
The thread received over 425,000 views, and picked up by international media.
Another thread, this time with almost 1 million views, seems to have been started by Abu himself, and invited basketball fans to ask him questions. Some of the 2,900 replies were related to his Summer League experience, but many more referred to Abu’s killer looks and celebrities that he resembles.
And sexism: “With those looks, no doubt there are many Warriors’ female fans now” (Hupu)
Zhou was also involved in name-related humor during the Summer League. Upon hearing commentators’ mispronounce his name, Zhou commented that he rather liked his new English name, “Joe Chees.”
China’s presence in this year’s Summer League bodes well for the future of basketball a country. While fans long for the second coming of Yao, it is important to note that both young stars have completely different styles to the 7ft 6in, 310lbs freak of nature that was able to lock down NBA heavyweights like Shaquille O’Neal. There is no denying that Zhou’s 7-foot 8-inches wingspan is just as rare as Yao’s bulk, while Abu’s participation in the Summer League, in spite of currently underwhelming production on the court, is a sign that Chinese basketball can breed players who don’t have to rely on size to impress.
Cover image by Markus Spiske temporausch.com from Pexels