March 23, 2018, 7:40 pm
Welcome back Hoop Ballers to our International Spotlight weekly feature where we will be taking a look into Zhou Qi, the Chinese mystery man who took the big step to the majors this year by joining the Rockets.
Qi began his basketball career in 2005 playing with the Liaoning youth team even though at that time he was only 5’6″. By 2009 his height had reached 6’9″ and he became an overnight sensation in China after registering 41 points, 28 rebounds and 15 blocks against Germany in the TBF International Under-16 Tournament (an international boys youth-age basketball tournament that takes place every year in Turkey. Since FIBA World does not currently organize an Under-16 boys world championship, this tournament serves as the de facto official Under-16 World Cup). He carried on in the tournament by scoring another 26 against Bulgaria, 28 in a close game against France and 30 points, along with 17 rebounds and eight blocks, against Turkey in the final in leading his country to an unlikely youth team title and earning MVP honors at just fifteen years of age. A year later, at the 2012 Albert Schweitzer Tournament, a traditional testing ground for the best teenage players in international basketball, Zhou reinforced his reputation as one to watch by averaging 16.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.2 blocks in 28.2 minutes per game.
Although there were rumors that several U.S. college teams were courting him, the teenager decided to stay in China, moving to Xinjiang Flying Tigers in 2014 on a lucrative deal. He led the CBA in blocked shots in each of his first two seasons at 3.3 and 3.2 per contest, while shooting 65 percent from two-point range in 73 total games. In 2016, in his most mature season to date, Zhou averaged 16.0 points and 10.0 rebounds while shooting 58.6 percent from the floor. He ranked second in the CBA in blocks (2.3 per contest) and was named Defensive Player of the Year while hitting 20 3-pointers after making just 10 in his first two seasons combined, leading his team to its first championship.
As expected, he declared for the 2016 NBA draft where he only worked out for four teams (Celtics, Grizzlies, Suns, Clippers) before returning to China to prepare for the Olympics. He registered the longest wingspan ever during the NBA Draft Combine at 7’7¾” and he was selected with the No. 43 overall pick by the Rockets, even though his representatives thought he had a chance to go in the first round.
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The Rockets already had the Chinese connection in place (due to Yao Ming) but they were very smart to take a gamble on a very interesting prospect. Zhou is an intriguing player due to his incredible size and fluidity, not to mention his solid touch and feel for the game. He is not much of an athlete like Yi Jianlian, who was the No. 6 selection in the NBA Draft back in 2007, and the team knew that it would probably take a couple years before he could actually contribute on a regular basis.
NBA Transition a Work In Progress
NBA commissioner Adam Silver had repeatedly spoken of his frustration at not having a player from the world’s most populous nation in the league. Zhou’s arrival in Texas this past summer triggered a tidal wave of expectations to fly China’s flag high once again on basketball’s biggest stage and the kid was seen as a successor to the now-retired Yao. That might be too much of a pressure – coming to the US alone, learning the language and adapting to a much different culture is by itself a big time adjustment. But even though there are definitely some huge obstacles that have made it difficult for his fellow countrymen to make it in the NBA in the past (currently there are no Chinese born players in the league), some feel that Qi may have the necessary package to be successful.
Traditionally, the biggest stumbling block for international players, other than the culture shock and the lack of body strength, is simply not having the quickness and reflexes to react to the speed of the NBA game. This has been pretty evident since the first day Qi stepped on an NBA court, as veterans will attack him relentlessly. Here is a great example of the lack of adjustment to the game’s speed with Marquese Chriss simply blowing past him for the easy layup and the foul.
Zhou didn’t finish last season off in China very well and hasn’t gotten to the level where he is impacting games the way Yao and Yi did before coming to the NBA. What’s special about him though is that his basketball IQ is good enough to compensate for the lack of English when communicating on the court. A close look at the tape also reveals that he is already making a progress from a basketball point of view. All coaches have been said to enjoy working with him and he shows the desire to get better in Mike D’Antoni’s system. After a successful defensive sequence look at how he operates like a pseudo-guard, pushing the ball and finding the open James Harden instead of stopping the pace and looking for his point guard.
More Wing Than Center
Qi is a rather unique basketball talent as he plays more like a wing yet he possesses the defensive skills of a big man. The kid stands at 7’1” and has great length which helps him block shots without the need to jump, while he is also a really good shooter and moves well for his size. It appears that, unlike Yao and Yi, he is not going to be a scoring superstar as he wasn’t even one in China and he already had a lot of experience functioning as a secondary option. His variety of skills seems pretty well set up for him to be a perfectly useful role player on offense, one who can spread the floor and move in space.
Because of Zhou’s underdeveloped frame, Houston has been using him almost exclusively as a power forward and in Mike D’Antoni’s offense, the power forward serves primarily as a floor spacer. D’Antoni is credited with bringing an action called “21” (or “Pistol”) to the NBA when he was coaching the Suns with much of the league’s teams running it today, a decade later. One of the wrinkles he added to it is called “Chicago” and it’s a play where a wing comes out of a double screen and drives to the basket where he has the option to either finish to the rim or pass to the slot where the rest of the players (that can all shoot) are patiently awaiting. Here is Troy Williams running the play and finding Zhou Qi for the open three that he converts after Trey Lyles’ late close out.
His stroke looks fluid and natural but it’s certain he has been working on the fundamentals of it as, looking at the tape from a couple years ago, he used to bring the ball from way below, making his shot very easy to defend. It’s a little bit alarming that he hasn’t been consistent from the free throw line yet, shooting an ugly 56 percent in the G-League, but hopefully he will be able to correct that in the next couple years.
The Rockets are smart to use him as a shooter given where his game and body is at this point and since his advantage (a reliable jump shot) actually fits with the current NBA trend. In 21 games in the G-League this year he is shooting a respectable 36 percent from deep while the volume has absolutely been there (36-of-72). Qi can put it on the floor and create his own shot or spot up for a three point shot but he also has the rare ability to get his own shot up on anyone because of his size and length, similar to how Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki play. I haven’t seen much of it yet but I anticipate seeing him deploy this kind of move after he is able to gain some muscle since he currently pretty much avoids contact on the offensive side of the ball.
Body Frame Affects Defensive Potential
Zhou is hands down too thin which really puts him at a big disadvantage in the NBA. His weight is at a meager 218 pounds, which is a huge concern for grabbing rebounds, post defense, and future injuries. Last year, Houston sent a trainer to China to help Zhou develop but unlike Giannis, who was able to successfully beef up after a couple years working with the league’s best, that might never happen for him. Chinese players, depending on the region they are from, generally grow up predominantly on a rice diet, which produces a skinnier body and makes competing with athletes raised on wheat diets more difficult. They are also routinely listed at 2-3 years younger than their actual age, so there is reason to believe that the 20 year old (listed) Qi is actually closer to 22-23. If that is the case, the odds of him putting on significant weight and strength aren’t nearly as good.
Zhou has been working hard and claims that the trainer has helped him a great deal but he has only added eight pounds since last year and he is still learning how to be physical. The kid obviously understands the need to gain weight and body strength so that he can deal with physical battles in the league, since he really has a high ceiling as a game-changing defender. On the other hand, he also has the significant possibility of being unplayable on defense. He covers a lot of ground defensively and has natural rim protection instincts, making him an elite help defender and rim protector with great timing, quick feet, mobility, and length. Yogi Ferrell thinks he has an open lane to the basket after getting past Clint Capela but he quickly realizes that he has no chance at scoring after Qi closes out from the weak side.
As expected, Zhou will contest shots not only at the rim but even at the perimeter where his length makes things easy. And while the lack of strength doesn’t help him to successfully box out opponents, he is also able to just grab rebounds over people even when he finds himself out of position. Unfortunately, he still doesn’t get off the ground enough to utilize verticality and he can be overpowered when a player drives directly at him. His rebounding numbers are alright (1.8 offensive and 4.5 defensive) but when he isn’t diligent about doing his work early and boxing out, Zhou can be pushed out of rebound position and becomes a nonfactor on the glass. Look at how rookie John Collins, a sensational offensive rebounder, is able to establish position early enough to force Qi to foul him.
A Long Road But Positive Signs
It should not come as a surprise that Zhou has been compared to other Chinese big men, like Yao Ming and Yi, who have made the leap to the NBA. Unlike those two, however, Zhou hasn’t been an outright dominant force in China. He’s an outstanding talent but he still hasn’t reached the level where he can carry his team throughout an entire game. Like a lot of guys in this draft, it really depends on if the team that drafted him can competently develop and play him to his strengths instead of forcing him to be something he’s not. The Rockets “get it” and it’s very fortunate that he is on a good team that doesn’t need him right away since those are often the teams that actually know what they’re doing developing players. It’s almost certain that he won’t be transforming into a traditional center, but he might be a surprisingly fit with where the NBA is going today with the positional ambiguity. Owners in dynasty leagues could very well take a flier into him but you shouldn’t be expecting results anytime soon as he has a lot of homework to do both on and off the court.
Hope you enjoyed reading this article and don’t forget to check us back again next week. Good luck to your fantasy playoffs and make sure you stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors by visiting our website and by following our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy .
Stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of March 23rd.