When the Houston Rockets signed Zhou Qi and the Dallas Mavericks brought in Ding Yanyuhang to play on their summer league teams, there was some cynicism the moves were purely financially motivated for teams to tap more directly into the lucrative Chinese market.
One blocked shot and one dunk at a time, Zhou and Ding are starting to win over the skeptics.
The 7’1” Zhou has been an impressive defensive presence in three summer league games and Ding has played with a fearlessness that belies his new surroundings. It may only be summer league, but it’s an important first step as they try to earn spots in the NBA.
“The first game we came out here, I didn’t know he could play like that,” Rockets swingman Troy Williams said of Zhou, who is just 21-years-old. “Of course we played a lot before we got out here to summer league, but to actually see him in action and doing it, it’s amazing to watch.”
Zhou is shooting just 32 percent and is 2-for-17 from three-point range, but his seven blocks and overall defensive instincts have allowed him to make an impact. In a game against Phoenix on Monday (Tuesday, PHL time), Zhou scored just three points but was still a plus-24 in 22 minutes.
“Sometimes when you’re watching it, you don’t realize all the little plays that he makes on the court, contesting a shot, getting a rebound, in the right position defensively,” Rockets coach Roy Rogers said. “He’s progressed really well in this first week of summer league. We just have to keep him going in the right direction.”
Ding, 6’7”, has been playing a new position — power forward — in a league that has trended toward smaller, more athletic players. He is only averaging 5.0 points per game, but has a fan in coach Rick Carlisle.
“I’m getting used to it, step by step,” the 23-year-old Ding said through an interpreter. “I feel like I’m just about there. I’m getting a lot more used to the contact, the speed and the pace that the game is played at.”
Stephon Marbury, the American point guard who became an icon and ambassador for basketball in China, has been at the arena this week working with ESPN International. He has delighted in seeing the two players hold their own against American competition and believes both have bright futures.
“I think they should give those two guys a shot,” Marbury said. “Zhou Qi can play. Ding from Dallas, he’s a real go-getter. He can really, really be something special in the NBA. He has a lot of game inside him. When he scores, he scores in bunches: 3s, and-ones, dunks, free throws. … If he had the opportunity to actually play, to develop, he could be really special.”
That is exactly what NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wants to hear.
The league has devoted vast resources to developing the game in China and tapping into a basketball-mad country that boasts 300 million players. The NBA says 750 million people in China watched NBA basketball last season and the league has 10 media partners and 22 marketing and promotions partners there.
The NBA has also invested heavily in academies to help grow the game in hopes that a talent pipeline can develop between China and the United States. Former Houston Rockets star Yao Ming was immensely popular in China and helped the league’s popularity reach a new level there. But Yao has not played since 2011 and Silver is eager to see another Chinese star assert himself in the league.
“It frustrates me that there are no Chinese players in the NBA right now,” Silver said before game one of the NBA Finals in June. “There’s probably more basketball being played in China than anywhere else in the world. And more NBA basketball is being watched in China than anywhere else in the world.”
Rockets GM Daryl Morey has said he believes Zhou can be the best player since Yao and he has done nothing to dull those expectations in Las Vegas.
“He’s a special kid,” Rogers said. “You coach him, you get on him. You tell him what to do. He goes back out and does it as hard as he can. He’s been a pleasure to be around. His teammates, he gets along great with them. I’m fortunate to get a chance to coach him. I really am excited about his future.”
Ding was the domestic MVP of Chinese Basketball Association last season, averaging 24.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists for Shandong. But he knows that doesn’t mean anything as he tries to get a foothold in the best basketball league in the world.
“I’m always going to play as if I’m a rookie,” Ding said. “I’m going to do my best to try to earn myself a contract and stay. This has always been my goal and always been my dream.”